Self-Serving Bias: Definition & Examples

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  • 0:00 Attribution Theory &…
  • 1:32 Self-Serving Bias &…
  • 3:23 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Manuela Heberle

Manuela has master's degree in counseling and has taught psychology, social psychology, and a tests and measurements course.

This lesson provides an overview of the self-serving bias, together with specific examples. The lesson also offers a short quiz to help you gauge your level of understanding.

Attribution Theory and the Self-Serving Bias

In an effort to understand the self-serving bias, or the tendency to attribute positive outcomes to our internal or personal factors, and negative outcomes to situational or external factors, it is useful to first become familiar with attribution theory. Attribution theory states that we have a tendency to explain behavior by attributing a cause to the behavior. We either explain the behavior in terms of personality and disposition (internal factors), or we explain behavior in terms of the situation (external factors).

We have a tendency to explain the behavior of others as being caused by internal factors. In other words, we typically explain the behavior of others as being a result of their personality. 'He or she is lazy' might be what we conclude when we see a homeless person. When it comes to our own behavior, we tend to do the opposite and assign blame to external factors. In other words, we typically explain our behavior in terms of the situation or external context. For example, we might think, 'If I'm homeless, it's not because I am lazy; it is because of the circumstances in my life.'

However, we take credit when the behavior or outcome is positive. We may think, 'If I'm wealthy, I will attribute it not to my circumstance, such as my being in the right place at the right time, but instead to my efforts and intelligence.' I have just reasoned using the self-serving bias.

Self-Serving Bias and Self-Concept

Why do people make attributions according to the self-serving bias? No one likes to see himself or herself as having negative character traits or dispositions. Have you ever met anyone who shared with you that they view themselves as unintelligent, ignorant, mean, selfish, or lazy? Probably not, because we strive to see ourselves in a favorable light. In other words, we explain away anything that threatens the positive picture we have created for ourselves about ourselves. This approach allows us to maintain a positive self-concept and keep our self-esteem at a tolerable level.

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