Self-Serving Bias

Most of us have a good reputation with ourselves. That's the gist of a sometimes amusing and frequently perilous phenomenon that social psychologists call self-serving bias. 

Accepting more responsibility for success than failure, for good deeds than bad.

In experiments, people readily accept credit when told they have succeeded (attributing such to their ability and effort). Yet they attribute failure to external factors such as bad luck or the problem's "impossibility." When we win at Scrabble it's because of our verbal dexterity. When we lose it's because "I was stuck with a Q but no U." 

Self-serving attributions have been observed with athletes (after victory or defeat), students (after high or low exam grades), drivers (after accidents), and managers (after profits and losses). The question, "What have I done to deserve this?" is one we ask of our troubles, not our successes.

The better-than-average phenomenon: How do I love me? Let me count the ways. 

It's not just in Lake Wobegon that all the children are above average. In one College Board survey of 829,000 high school seniors, zero percent rated themselves below average in "ability to get along with others," 60 percent rated themselves in the top 10 percent, and 25 percent rated themselves in the top 1 percent. Compared to our average peer, most of us fancy ourselves as more intelligent, better looking, less prejudiced, more ethical, healthier, and likely to live longer — a phenomenon recognized in Freud's joke about the man who told his wife, "If one of us should die, I shall move to Paris."

In everyday life, more than 9 in 10 drivers are above average drivers, or so they presume. In surveys of college faculty, 90 percent or more have rated themselves as superior to their average colleague (which naturally leads to some envy and disgruntlement when one's talents are underappreciated). When husbands and wives estimate what percent of the housework they contribute, or when work team members estimate their contributions, their self-estimates routinely sum to more than 100 percent.

Studies of self-serving bias and its cousins — illusory optimism, self-justification, and ingroup bias — remind us of what literature and religion have taught: pride often goes before a fall. Perceiving ourselves and our groups favorably protects us against depression, buffers stress, and sustains our hopes. But it does so at the cost of marital discord, bargaining impasses, condescending prejudice, national hubris, and war. Being mindful of self-serving bias beckons us not to false modesty, but to a humility that affirms our genuine talents and virtues, and likewise those of others.