Exploring the Self-Serving Bias: A Guide

Self-Serving Bias

The most common type of cognitive bias is self-serving bias, where people attribute positive events to their character but negative events to external factors. When things go wrong, it is always easiest to blame everything happening around you before you blame yourself for the outcome, even if your actions directly contributed to the result. We humans love to take credit for the things we do well and avoid credit for the things that go sideways.

This is often a protection mechanism for our self-esteem and helps us explain away situations that make us feel uncomfortable. However, when we live in a world where we never take responsibility for the consequences of our actions, we can create false realities and harm ourselves and others.

This practice is known as the self-serving bias, and this article will focus on this cognitive bias and how it affects us and those around us. We will begin by defining the term and examining some areas where it may appear in our lives, looking at specific examples. We will also discuss the factors that may lead someone to adopt a self-serving bias and examine how this affects our interpersonal relationships and individual and group performance. Finally, the article will wrap up with tips to avoid defaulting to the self-serving bias and look for a healthy attitude toward yourself and the events surrounding you.

Defining Self-Serving Attributional Bias

Self-serving bias refers to an attribution bias, in which a person will attribute negative events to external factors and positive events to internal factors. In other words, a person is only responsible for the positive outcomes and plays no role in negative outcomes. This may show up as someone ignoring their role in a failed project and not taking personal responsibility for the negative feedback received, or it could present as one taking personal credit for a team effort that excelled. The key to recognizing this bias is to observe a person blaming external factors for the negative outcomes and taking credit for the positive ones.

We all see the world through an attribution bias, meaning that we view outcomes through a lens affected by internal or external factors or a combination of both with other factors. We attribute outcomes and consequences we experience to certain factors. Internal factors are things like personal characteristics and tendencies. It is the person’s inner life and the choices that they make. External factors are the way the world around them affects them. This could be where they live, their families, or the commotion around us. These reactions and attributions have been most commonly observed through human communication research examining how self-serving attributions manage self-presentation and self-enhancement.

Self-serving biases are best observed compared to other common cognitive biases and attribution errors, such as the fundamental attribution error. While the fundamental attribution error is similar to the self-serving bias, it differs in its approach. For a person operating under the fundamental attribution error, they will overemphasize internal factors and ignore the role of external factors. A person could use the fundamental attribution error under a self-serving bias when attributing positive events to their work. However, they will do the opposite of this error when they experience a negative event.

Areas Where Self-Serving Bias Occurs

To better understand how the self-serving bias may appear and how to understand and spot it, it can be helpful to consider some examples of self-serving biases from everyday life. These examples will be simple situations where the desire to blame external factors is easily identifiable. Yet spotting the bias in the wild can be more difficult and require careful consideration, even of your actions.


One of the most common places to observe a self-serving bias is in educational settings. If you think of your favorite class in which you also excelled, you will likely take credit for studying hard, paying attention, and putting in the work. This may happen even if you had an excellent teacher or participated in a group project that helped your grade progress.

Now consider a class that you did not like or did poorly in and the reasons you associate with the negative outcome. You may blame the teacher for teaching the subject poorly, having a bad classroom with too many distractions, or a bad group for a group project. Here, you may blame external factors for the results, even if you choose not to study well or skip too many classes.


Another typical example of this bias is in our careers. When we excel in our careers, many will attribute this to our hard work and dedication to the role. We often self-report our performance at a much higher status than our performance shows. However, we are often quick to blame our coworkers, boss, or competitors when things go poorly, or we receive constructive criticism. When we blame external factors for our mistakes or failures, we rely on self-serving attributions and do not see the whole picture for our performance at work.


Sport behavior is another area where we may observe the self-serving bias. When a person has a very good game, they will likely make statements attributing successes to their abilities rather than considering the external circumstances that helped them succeed. Many individual sports athletes will take full responsibility for their actions that made the game or match end in their favor. On the other hand, it can be rare to see professional athletes take responsibility for their mistakes when a game goes poorly, often blaming other factors, such as the referees or crowd.

Family Structures

Another way that many people experience self-serving bias is within their family dynamics and structures. In interpersonal relations, it is very common for us to protect our self-esteem and rely on more self-serving attributions rather than taking personal responsibility for our own actions. Social psychology has examined how each cognitive bias may affect individuals and development within the family, but it is incredibly common to experience self-serving bias in the family.

An example would be parents attempting to help their daughter finish her science project for the fair. One partner asks the other to stop at the store and get specific supplies. When that parent comes home, they have the wrong brand of glue stick that doesn’t dry as nicely. The next day, the partner who asked the other to get the supplies blamed the fact that they did not win the fair on the bad glue rather than waiting until the last minute. Partner blame is much easier to attribute than self-awareness, which requires taking responsibility.

Factors Influencing Self-Serving Biases

Now that we understand how the self-serving bias may present itself, it is crucial to understand why it may appear. Various factors may influence when and how a person uses this bias to accomplish a goal or explain an outcome. No one factor will be more important than another, but each may play a role in why a person chooses to blame internal or external attributions.

Cultural Influences

One of the biggest influences on whether a person may default to the self-serving bias is based on their culture, according to Social Psychology Quarterly. Individualistic and collectivistic cultures see the role of the individual very differently. Individualist cultures emphasize individual well-being, blaming external factors and making internal attributions for positive outcomes. Collectivist cultures value the group’s success more, meaning people tend to avoid attributing negative outcomes to the larger culture. These cross-cultural differences contribute to whether someone may use the self-serving bias and are further developed in areas like cross-cultural psychology.


A person’s age may also determine the likelihood of defaulting to the self-serving bias. Different age groups view personal responsibility differently. Older adults tend to seek more internal attributions, meaning they credit themselves for the good things around them. Younger people may shy away from this tendency and find more blame in themselves. Exploring social psychology may help develop these hypotheses further.


Gender is another of the personal factors that can influence cognitive bias. Men tend to be more self-assured and value self-focused attention more highly than women, who tend to be more self-critical. Men are often likelier to place external attribution on negative situations to preserve self-presentation. Women tend to take more responsibility for their actions and participate in self-criticism, which usually means they blame themselves for negative results. These are massive generalizations, but social psychology tends to find that men are more self-assured and attribute more of their success to their actions while ignoring their shortcomings.

Motivations in the Moment

The result that a person would like may also factor into the need to use the self-serving bias because it may benefit the outcome. For example, if you are hoping to impress the new boss, you may speak about recent situations where you did well that you can attribute to your actions while ignoring the action of your team that also helped you get there. You may also be more keen to blame your team for any negative consequences in front of your boss. These motivations can drive how and when you use this bias.

View of Control

The last factor influencing the bias is how a person views control. This is one of the cognitive factors that may affect how a person treats causal attributions. Control may be viewed as either internally or externally influenced. Those who believe control is internally influenced assume that they have the most control over the situations and outcomes around them. They will take both credit and blame for the outcomes around them. On the other hand, those who believe control is externally influenced assume that they have no control over the outcome than the situations surrounding them. These people are more likely to fall into the self-serving bias because it will continue to protect their self-esteem.

The Effects of Self-Serving Bias

With the motivations and factors that influence the self-serving bias outlined, it is also important to consider how it may affect the individual using it, the people and systems around them, and the production.

Personal Effects

The bias will have various effects on the individual. If they often use it to protect themselves from responsibility for their actions, it can cause high self-esteem, frequently inflated. When someone views their output as perfect and the rewards they receive as further evidence that they are the best, it will likely affect their self-worth and contribute to a larger issue of inflated self-esteem. This can lead to other problems, such as impulsively taking on more work and poor decision-making.

However, some people may use the bias to protect their psyche in times of distress, either external or internal. In these situations, choosing external attributions may be a form of self-compassion and protection. It can shield people from self-criticism and blame and give them a fuller picture of their self-worth.

Systemic Effects

Self-serving bias impacts people on an individual level and can also have societal impacts. When someone consistently takes credit for good work and blames others for the poor results, it can create a culture of dissent and frustration. It may also drive others to attempt to blame the original bias for anything else that goes wrong.

Additionally, whole systems and society may participate in the self-serving bias. It is easier to blame others for the problems we have collectively created than to acknowledge our role in the result. This can have lasting impacts as we fail to recognize our roles in the systemic issues faced worldwide.

Production Effects

Finally, self-serving bias may impact our production and product outcome. The teams being overlooked for success and blamed for failure will likely fall apart as they are not adequately acknowledged. This will eventually stop production and influence the culture. It will make entire teams resistant to feedback because they feel they have been improperly blamed for the result.

Tips for Avoiding Self-Serving Bias

With all this in mind, it is evident that self-serving bias may be harmful to our lives, both at work and in personal settings. While it may be a tool to protect self-esteem and practice self-compassion, it can also cause harm and should be avoided. This section will explore tips and tricks for noticing and avoiding the self-serving bias when it rears its head.

Spot It In Yourself

One of the best steps you can take is to spot the self-serving bias in yourself. You may not always notice it right when it starts, but you may acknowledge that you fell prey to it after the moment. When this happens, take stock of what factors influenced its use and how you felt leading up to the moment. You may notice that you have certain triggers or tells when you are about to use it. This can help you acknowledge it when it comes from yourself and avoid it.


One of the best ways to acknowledge and address the use of self-serving bias in your life is to practice self-compassion. This is the practice of taking personal responsibility for the outcomes of your actions. But do not lose sight of your character or worth. It is being gentle with yourself while accepting the consequences of your choices. This will develop and protect your self-esteem without blaming other factors. You can explore self-compassion by looking at your personality, psychology, compass or direction in life, and other personal factors that make up who you are and your choices. By learning about yourself, you will understand your decision-making and be more in control of your actions.


For many people, the self-serving bias is challenging to identify and master. We often need to protect our self-esteem, especially when we make mistakes in front of in-person or virtual groups. However, by increasing our confidence and decreasing our attacks on ourselves when we mess up, we can move through life, attributing both the good and the bad to our actions and learning from them. This is a healthier way to interact with and explore the world.

To learn more about self-serving bias, conflict resolution, and more, contact ADR Times!

Emily Holland
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