Self-Serving Bias


Verified by World Mental Healthcare Association

A self-serving bias is a condition wherein a person takes credit for positive events and blames others or external factors for negative events. This condition is usually affected by age, culture, clinical diagnosis and others.

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What Is Self-Serving Bias?

It is a distorted cognitive process that makes a person attribute success to their own knowledge, skills and abilities while ascribing failure to external factors, like luck or other people. It is a common tendency and habit that enables an individual to improve their self-esteem 1 and uphold their status, character, interpersonal orientation and self-focused attention. Mind Help defines self-serving bias as “a person’s tendency or habit of taking credit for successful or positive outcomes, while blaming external factors for failures or negative outcomes, denying any personal responsibility.”

People with this condition perceive themselves in an extremely favourable manner. It is perhaps one of the most common forms of cognitive bias which has been widely analyzed in social psychology. The phenomenon is often described as the inherent tendency of a person to shift blame to environmental factors for undesirable outcomes, such as failing a class or losing a game and credit their personality traits for desirable outcomes, such as getting good grades or winning a game. It is often considered as a defence mechanism for protecting a person’s ego, sense of self and self-esteem from threat or injury. However, this cognitive bias can lead to avoidance of personal responsibility for the consequences of one’s actions. 

This phenomenon was first noted in the 1960s, by an Austrian Psychologist, Fritz Heider. He found that in ambiguous situations, people tend to make attributions solely based on their needs to maintain higher self-esteem for themselves. The condition may be based on an independent model of the self. According to a 2012 research paper 2, if a person believes that “they are independent and separate from others, they may be strongly motivated to establish the positivity of this personal self by cognitively elaborating and emphasizing positive features of the self while, at the same time, dissociating the self from any potentially negative features.

Understanding Self-Serving Bias

Self-serving bias is influenced by both cognitive processes, such as self-esteem and locus of control, and motivational processes, such as self-presentation and self-enhancement. People with this condition may be focused on talent, appearance, past accomplishments, or future prospects. This condition can be beneficial for a person to boost one’s self-esteem. However, constantly assigning negative outcomes to external factors and only taking credit for positive outcomes can be related to narcissism. 

It can affect almost every aspect of one’s life and can occur in different situations. This includes performance in school, career, sports, and relationships with other people. It is important to be aware of what causes our successes and failures in our personal and professional lives since these provide learning opportunities for self-improvement. Constantly avoiding failures in life can make a person narcissistic. Hence understanding this condition and how it appears can help make better decisions for the future.

Studies have found that the advantageous aspect of this condition is that it often makes a person immune to persevere even in difficult situations. A study 3 suggested that this condition was variously labelled as “ego defensive”, “ego protective”, or “ego biased”. Everyone is found to operate in some degree of bias and it can substantially affect how one perceives the world. However, this behaviour is typically found when an individual attributes their successes to their own abilities but any failures to external factors. 

Read More About Narcissism Here.

Why Self-Serving Bias Occurs?

Sometimes, in certain situations, cognitive bias allows the individual to protect their self-esteem. They often tend to attribute personality traits to positive events in order to boost their self-confidence. On the other hand, by blaming outside forces for their failures, they protect their self-esteem. There may be certain contributing factors to influence self-serving bias such as age and gender. Men are more susceptible to make external attributions than women, this means that they tend to blame outside factors for their failures. However, it is found that older adults tend to attribute internal factors and take credit for their successes.

Locus Of Control

The locus of control 4 is how a person’s belief system operates around the causes of events and its consequences. This area governs the belief system of the brain. It is responsible for maintaining the attribution style in a person. Locus of control refers to the feelings that govern the ratio of control over the events in an individual’s life. Sometimes the locus of control is influenced by self-serving bias. There are generally two categories for the locus of control. They are:

1. Internal locus of control

If a person has an internal locus of control, their success usually is owed to their own hard work, efforts, and dedication. Individuals with an internal locus of control tend to display a self-serving bias, especially in the case of achievements whether it is personal or professional. These people are more likely to take responsibility for their own actions and tend to be less influenced by other people. They have a strong sense of efficacy and feel confident while facing challenges or difficult situations.

2. External locus of control

If a person has an external locus of control, they usually assign their success to luck or an external factor that is responsible for their success. On the other hand, in case of failures, they tend to blame external factors as well. People with an external locus of control tend to experience anxiety since they feel they are not in control of their lives. They don’t believe that they can alter or change their situation through hard work or effort. Their emotions are governed by feelings of hopelessness or powerlessness while facing difficult situations.

Read More About Locus Of Control Here.

Patterns Of Self-Serving Bias

Here are some examples of this condition which you may be able to relate to:

1. A student getting good grades in a particular subject tells themselves that they studied hard or that they are good at the subject. However, if they fail a subject they immediately go on to blaming the teacher for being partial or they are not good at that subject.

2. When an athlete wins a game, they attribute it to their hard work and dedication. When they lose the following week they blame the loss on bad calls by the referees.

3. A job seeker cracking an interview believes that they got through because of his achievements and qualifications. However, for a previous opening where they didn’t receive an offer, convinces themselves that the interviewer didn’t like them.

Types Of Self-Serving Bias

Types Of Self-Serving Bias

There are several types of this condition, some of which are listed below:

1. Confirmation Bias

This is when an individual has a tendency to seek information that supports what they believe in while ignoring information that they don’t. For instance, a researcher studying a topic on women’s strength may believe that women aren’t as strong as men and hence ignore all the research studies that might explain differently.

2. Political and religious Bias

This includes bias behaviour in favour of political or religious beliefs. For example, a person who believes that God has all the answers will continue to believe even when their prayers are not answered.

3. Heuristics

Heuristics are beliefs that govern how a person understands the world and these can create bias. For instance, a person that creates a vision for a stereotypical woman will tend to see all women in the same way even when some defy that stereotype.

Read More About Heuristics Here

Depression And Self-Serving Bias

When people experience depression 5 or low self-esteem, their attribution tends to be reversed. This means that in case of a positive event, they think it occurred due to some chance or external help, and in case of negative events, they blame themselves for it. If someone feels irritated, they may express blame on a combination of external as well as internal factors. For example, they may say “I suck and everybody sucks”.

For instance, a person experiencing problems in their relationships may think “I’m a defective person and other people are also not trustworthy”. Hence depression causes the self-serving bias to flip. But research suggests that it isn’t completely flipped in people with depression, but the prevalence of this kind of bias is less than the general population. However, one study 6 states “Two survey studies suggested that depressed people react to their acute distress by engaging in self-serving biases and striving to develop positive self-views.”

Experiments On Self-Serving Bias

Numerous experiments have been conducted to study self-serving bias. In a 2011 study 7, undergraduates filled an online test where they experienced an emotional induction and got test feedback. They had to make an attribution regarding their performance. The research found that there were certain emotions that influenced their behaviour. Another experiment conducted in 2003 8 explored the neural effects that affect this behaviour by using imaging studies, especially Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI). It was found that this behaviour was governed by the dorsal striatum that is responsible for function in motor activities that share cognitive aspects.

What Are The Causes Of Self-Serving Bias?

Self-serving bias is a common phenomenon but the exact causes 9 still are a work in progress. It usually occurs due to the following probable reasons:

1. Self Enhancement

This concept applies to the need to constantly maintain one’s self-worth. In this case, the individual usually attributes positive statements to themselves in a favorable situation. However, they tend to blame external factors when things don’t quite work out their way in order to maintain a positive self-image and self-worth. For example, in the case of a person striking out in a match, if the person convinces themselves that the umpire unfairly called strikes when they actually received bad pitches, it can help them maintain the idea that they are, in fact, a good hitter.

2. Self Presentation

This concept involves how one represents themselves to other people. It’s a desire to be presentable in a particular way to other people. This behavior helps them to maintain the self-image they want to present to others. For example, if a person wants to appear as though they are good in studies. They might resort to blaming other factors for an unfavorable situation such as a poorly written questionnaire as opposed to their inability to prepare themselves for the exam.

3. Natural Optimism

Another contributing cause of this condition is that humans are inherently optimistic. Negative consequences tend to surprise people and thus they tend to place blame on situational and external factors. According to psychologists, humans consistently tend to make fundamental attribution error due to this condition. A fundamental attribution error is commonly referred to as correspondence bias or the attribution effect. It defines how others around us make mistakes, and how we blame them for making the error. But when we make similar mistakes we tend to blame the circumstances or external factors for our failure.

4. Age And Culture

This condition is experienced by individuals throughout their lives. However, it varies with different age groups and cultures. Researchers have found that this condition is more prevalent in young children than in older adults. In the case of cultural prevalence, it is more likely to be found in western and non-western cultures. Western cultures tend to prize accomplishments and this is where self-serving bias comes into place. In collectivist cultures, successes and failures are seen as being influenced by the collective nature of the community. In this case, individual behaviour is largely dependent on the community.

Factors That Determine Self-Serving Bias

There may be certain factors involved in order to determine this condition. They are as follows: 

1. Male vs Female

A 2004 study found that while many studies have examined gender differences in self-serving bias, mixed results have been found with sex differences in attributions. However, it also depends on the age of the individual and whether they take their successes and failures into consideration.

2. Old vs Young

This condition can change over time. It might be less prevalent in older adults. This can occur due to different life experiences or emotional factors. Older adults may also have a reduced positivity bias.

What Is The Diagnosis For Self-Serving Bias?

There are several ways through which this condition can be diagnosed. They are as follows:

1. Laboratory Testing

The laboratory testing gives the doctor some insight into the condition as well as the situational circumstances. Participants are required to perform certain tasks that test intelligence, social sensitivity, teaching ability, or therapy skills. They may be asked to work alone, in pairs, or in a group. Finally, participants make attributions to the given outcomes. This helps the researchers to detect the condition.

2. Neural Imaging

Neural imaging gives insights into the neural images that show the parts of the brain that are responsible for making decisions and attribution. These investigations are mainly conducted with an Electroencephalography or EEG and Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging or fMRI. Studies 10 have shown how the procedures allow an insight into the area of the brain that exhibits self-serving bias and the mechanism to differentiate brain activity between healthy and clinical populations.

3. Natural Investigation

Self-reports can also help the doctor to arrive at a diagnosis. Self-report attributions are used to assess how successes and failures are viewed by the individual. This method can be used for several outcome variables to determine the presence of this condition.

Coping Strategies For Self-Serving Bias

Here are some self-help and coping strategies that can enable you to keep your behavior in check:

1. Practicing mindfulness can help you keep this behaviour at bay. When you start noticing the way you behave you can pause and correct yourself.

2. Mindfulness activities may include meditation, yoga, or reading spiritual books to make yourself aware of the present moment and allow life as it comes without giving it a “good” or “bad” title.

3. Being compassionate towards yourself can be useful because it will help you to stop judging yourself on the basis of external factors and its consequences. This will also help you to reduce your defensive behaviour when something is not working in your favour.

4. Learning to love yourself is a process that takes time and patience. You can do that by getting a mentor or practising a grateful attitude towards any circumstances or situations that come your way, whether it is good or bad.

5. When you constantly introspect yourself it causes you to overthink your problems without being able to move forward with your life. In such cases, it is important to adopt techniques that replace such thought patterns with positive ones. 

6. You can also seek professional help in order to better understand why you tend to behave in the way you do and to develop coping strategies with your doctor.

A Normal Aspect Of Life

Self-serving bias is normal and also serves a purpose in a person’s life. It is kind of a constant drive to be better. However, in extreme cases, one may be found to become narcissistic who doesn’t tend to display any logic or reason behind their beliefs. It can also become detrimental to some people since it interferes with the normal learning course of a person’s life. So it is important to be aware of this condition. 

Studies have found that this condition is largely motivated by the goal of making sense in the world. In many instances, these behaviours are not calculated, not deliberate, not intentional, and probably not conscious. Being self-aware and adopting self-help practices in your daily life can go a long way in curbing this behaviour and having a healthy attitude towards life.

Self-Serving Bias At A Glance

  1. It is a condition wherein a person takes credit for positive events and blames others or external factors for negative events.
  2. It is often considered as a defence mechanism for protecting a person’s ego, sense of self and self-esteem from threat or injury.
  3. This condition can be beneficial for a person to boost one’s self-esteem.
  4. This condition is usually affected by age, culture, clinical diagnosis and others.
  5. In extreme cases, one may be found to become narcissistic who doesn’t tend to display any logic or reason behind their beliefs.
👇 References:
  1. Campbell, W. K., & Sedikides, C. (1999). Self-threat magnifies the self-serving bias: A meta-analytic integration. Review of General Psychology, 3(1), 23-43. []
  2. []
  3. Miller, D. T., & Ross, M. (1975). Self-serving biases in the attribution of causality: Fact or fiction? Psychological Bulletin, 82(2), 213-225. []
  4. Wichman, H., & Ball, J. (1983). Locus of control, self-serving biases, and attitudes towards safety in general aviation pilots. Aviation, space, and environmental medicine54(6), 507–510. []
  5. Cohen, L., & van den Bout, J. (1994). A conceptual scheme for assessing evenhandedness and (counter) self-serving attributional biases in relation to depression. Psychological reports, 75(2), 899–904. []
  6. Pelham B. W. (1991). On the benefits of misery: self-serving biases in the depressive self-concept. Journal of personality and social psychology, 61(4), 670–681. []
  7. Coleman, M.D. Emotion and the Self-Serving Bias. Curr Psychol 30, 345–354 (2011). []
  8. Blackwood, N., Bentall, R., Ffytche, D., Simmons, A., Murray, R., & Howard, R. (2003). Self-responsibility and the self-serving bias: An fMRI investigation of causal attributions. NeuroImage, 20(2), 1076-1085. []
  9. Shepperd, J., Malone, W., & Sweeny, K. (2008). Exploring causes of the self-serving bias. Social and Personality Psychology Compass, 2(2), 895-908. []
  10. Seidel, E. M., Satterthwaite, T. D., Eickhoff, S. B., Schneider, F., Gur, R. C., Wolf, D. H., Habel, U., & Derntl, B. (2012). Neural correlates of depressive realism–an fMRI study on causal attribution in depression. Journal of affective disorders, 138(3), 268–276. []
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