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Understanding Self-serving Bias With Practical Examples

Understanding Self-serving Bias With Examples
Having a tough time trying to understand what self-serving bias is, or how it works? Going through a couple of examples will make it easier for you to get well-versed with this concept.
Abhijit Naik
Last Updated: Feb 24, 2018
Are cognitive biases harmful?
Cognitive biases are systematic deviations in the way we think, that can lead to errors in decision making and judgment.
We may like to think that we are rational, but the whole lot of irrational things we do defy this belief. In the considerably lengthy list of irrational things we do ... or rather end up doing, a large part is reserved for cognitive biases. One such cognitive bias is self-serving bias.
What is Self-serving Bias?
In social psychology, self-serving bias is defined as our tendency to attribute our success to personal characteristics, and attribute our failure to factors beyond our control. Simply put, it is our tendency to take the credit for positive events of our lives, but blame external factors when it comes to negative events. Self-serving bias is closely related to the attribution theory, which revolves around our tendency to attribute a cause to behavior.
The human tendency to blame others for negative events is far from surprising, considering that nobody likes to associate negative characteristic traits with oneself.
We prefer telling people how smart we are. We don't like telling them how―keeping it mild―unintelligent we are. So when it comes to negative outcomes, which are most likely to shed light on our negative traits, we take the cognitive bias route and go for the blame game. In contrast, when it comes to positive events, we readily grab the opportunity to highlight our positive traits.
Two factors leading to self-serving bias have been identified: (i) self-enhancement, wherein we attempt to uphold our own self-worth, and (ii) self-presentation, wherein we intend to project a desired image to others.
Self-serving Bias Examples
In what can be considered a textbook example of self-serving bias in the classroom, those students who get an 'A' grade consider themselves smart, while those who get an 'F' grade blame the teacher, even accusing her of giving them such a grade because she doesn't like them.
Similarly, when a student passes in all but one subject, he takes the credit for his overall good performance, but tries to find an external factor, like not feeling well on that particular day or the examiner being strict, to justify the fact that he failed in one subject.
A sales representative takes the credit for completing his targets for five months in a row, but when he fails in the sixth month, he blames external factors like market trends, recession, change in company's policy, etc.
In sports, when a team wins, the captain is all praise for the team's efforts. However, when the team loses, he simply states that it was just not their day, or worse, blames the conditions or referee for their loss.
An individual's meeting with a client turns out to be a disaster because of an ineffective sales pitch. Instead of acknowledging the fact that he was not fully prepared, the individual either question's the client's credibility, or blames his competitor for his own failure to bag the contract.
Self-serving bias no doubt helps us protect our self-esteem. In the long run, however, it causes more harm than good, as we lose the opportunity to improve. We get so used to it, that instead of addressing our problems, we are always on the lookout for external factors to blame. Also, it goes without saying that, if you take credit for something that you don't deserve, it can affect your credibility.
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