You’re probably familiar with self-serving bias, even if you don’t know it by name.

A self-serving bias is the common habit of a person taking credit for positive events or outcomes, but blaming outside factors for negative events. This can be affected by age, culture, clinical diagnosis, and more. It tends to occur widely across populations.

Locus of control

The concept of locus of control (LOC) refers to a person’s belief system about the causes of events, and the accompanying attributions. There are two categories of LOC: internal and external.

If a person has an internal LOC, they’ll assign their success to their own hard work, effort, and persistence. If they have an external LOC, they’ll credit any success to luck or something outside of themselves.

Individuals with an internal LOC might be more likely to display a self-serving bias, especially regarding achievements.

Self-serving bias occurs in all different types of situations, across genders, ages, cultures, and more. For example:

  • A student gets a good grade on a test and tells herself that she studied hard or is good at the material. She gets a bad grade on another test and says the teacher doesn’t like her or the test was unfair.
  • Athletes win a game and attribute their win to hard work and practice. When they lose the following week, they blame the loss on bad calls by the referees.
  • A job applicant believes he’s been hired because of his achievements, qualifications, and excellent interview. For a previous opening he didn’t receive an offer for, he says the interviewer didn’t like him.

Someone with depression or low self-esteem might invert the self-serving bias: They attribute negative events to something they did, and positive events to luck or something someone else did.

A variety of experiments have been done to study self-serving bias. In one study in 2011, undergraduates filled out an online test, experienced an emotional induction, got test feedback, and then had to make an attribution regarding their performance. The researcher found that certain emotions influenced the self-serving bias.

Another older experiment from 2003 explored the neural basis of the self-serving bias using imaging studies, specifically an fMRI. It was found that the dorsal striatum — also found to function in motor activities that share cognitive aspects — controls the self-serving bias.

There are thought to be two motivations for using the self-serving bias: self-enhancement and self-presentation.

Self-enhancement

The concept of self-enhancement applies to the need to keep up one’s self-worth. If an individual uses the self-serving bias, attributing positive things to themselves and negative things to outside forces helps them maintain a positive self-image and self-worth.

For example, say you’re playing baseball and strike out. If you believe the umpire unfairly called strikes when you actually received bad pitches, you can maintain the idea that you’re a good hitter.

Self-presentation

Self-presentation is exactly what it sounds like — the self that one presents to other people. It’s the desire to appear a particular way to other people. In this way, the self-serving bias helps us maintain the image we present to others.

For example, if you want to appear as though you have good study habits, you might attribute a bad test score to poorly written questions rather than your inability to prepare correctly.

“I stayed up all night studying,” you might say, “but the questions weren’t based on the material we were given.” Note that self-presentation isn’t the same as lying. You may have indeed stayed up all night studying, but the thought that you could have studied inefficiently doesn’t come to mind.

Male vs. female

A 2004 meta-analysis found that while many studies have examined gender differences in the self-serving bias, this is hard to tease out.

This isn’t just because mixed results have been found with sex differences in attributions. It’s also because researchers have found in these studies that self-serving bias depends on the age of the individual and whether they’re looking at attributing successes or failures.

Old vs. young

Self-serving bias can change over time. It might be less prevalent in older adults. This may be due to experience or emotional factors.

Older adults might also have a reduced positivity bias (the tendency to judge positive traits as being more accurate).

Culture

Western culture tends to prize rugged individualism, so the individual self-serving bias comes in handy. In more collectivist cultures, successes and failures are seen as being influenced by the collective nature of the community. People in these communities recognize that individual behavior is interdependent with the larger whole.

There are several ways to test for self-serving bias:

  • laboratory testing
  • neural imaging
  • retrospective self-report

Testing done in a lab by researchers can give some insight into ways to reduce the self-serving bias, as well as situational instances of it. Neural imaging provides researchers with brain imagery to see what parts of the brain are involved in making decisions and attributions. Self-report helps to provide outcomes based on past behavior.

Self-serving bias my serve to bolster one’s self-esteem, but it isn’t universally advantageous. Constantly attributing negative outcomes to external factors and only taking credit for positive events can be related to narcissism, which has been linked to negative outcomes in the workplace and interpersonal relationships.

In the classroom, if students and teachers consistently attribute negative events to each other, this can lead to conflict and adverse relationships.

Self-serving bias is normal and serves a purpose. However, if an individual consistently ignores their responsibility in negative events, this can be detrimental to learning processes and relationships. So it’s definitely something to be aware of.

The self-serving bias can vary among demographic groups, as well as over time in an individual.