By Mark Leary, Ph.D., Duke University
Self-serving biases are the reason people feel good about themselves even when they do not deserve to. A student who did not study well but was lucky and got a good score takes pride in their talent and perseverance, while another student with the same level of perseverance blames the teacher and bad luck for not getting a good score. Is it good for someone to overestimate their own positive traits and underestimate the negative ones?
People think that they, and everything associated with them, are better than others. They even like their initials are better than other letters and are more likely to move to a city with the same name as their own. At the same time, they try to show that their flaws are not really their fault. Hundreds of studies have shown that the attributions that people make tend to be biased in ways that portray them in a positive way. They tend to think about themselves under self-serving biases.
People try to take full responsibility for their success. Usually, they do not believe that the help of others, luck, or good conditions played a significant role in their success. However, they blame the same factor for their failures or shortcomings. The reason is that self-serving biases dominate people’s views.
For example, all school teachers experience the same thing after an exam: those who did well believe the test and grading were fair, but those who failed or got low scores, blame the picky teacher or the unfair test for it, not themselves. People do not usually realize these biases because they believe what they think of themselves is necessarily true.
This is a transcript from the video series Understanding the Mysteries of Human Behavior. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
Biases About Being Biased
People are not only biased about seeing themselves and things associated with themselves better than they really are. They are also biased about not being biased! They strongly believe that they are less biased than average when rating themselves.
Everyone is essentially egotistical in their views toward themselves, so, self-serving biases happen. Is it good to be biased, or does it make an egotistically delusional person who never accepts flaws and can never fix them?
The Positive View on Biases
Some believe that the self-serving biases are healthy and that it is helpful to maintain positive illusions about oneself. Thus, people feel better about themselves, create positive emotions, and stay motivated.
Does this mean a person who overestimates themselves leads a happier life? Those who believe the self-serving biases are essentially bad answer no and explain why.
Learn more about why so many people are so stressed out.
The Negative View on Biases
People can manage their life better when they see themselves as what they really are. True, seeing oneself better than the reality can create positive feelings, but what if it makes the person reach for goals beyond their reach?
Continuous failure cannot be ignored with positive views anymore, and someone might choose the wrong path. Also, they might never try to find their flaws and correct them, as they always believe it was somebody or something else that caused the failure. How do the biases work in the face of other biases?
Learn more about why we have emotions.
Biases in Groups
In a group of people with self-serving biases, everyone sees themselves better than the others. Consequently, they tend to take credit for all the group successes. One or two members might really have had a more significant role in the success, but everyone thinks it was them.
Similarly, when things go wrong, and the group fails in doing something, everyone blames the others for the failures, thinking that they certainly had no part in it because they are better than the average. This can easily lead to conflicts and damage relationships in a group.
Some argue that seeing oneself positively leads to self-esteem, which is essential. Nevertheless, there is not much evidence that humans need to feel good about themselves. In other words, self-esteem might not be as crucial as it was thought, but it sure feels as good as it always did.
There are conflicting views on self-serving biases, but the negative views have more reasons and explanations to be negative. Perhaps, a person should be aware of the biases and try to see themselves for what they really are, not what they think they are, even if it proves to be below average.
Common Questions about Self-Serving Biases
Self-serving biases make people think their role in success is greater than it really was, or their role in failure is weaker than it really was. For example, a student who fails a test believes the teacher did not score fairly, and the test conditions were not good.
The psychology behind self-serving biases is that people tend to overrate themselves and everything associated with them. Usually, they see themselves better than they really are and tend to blame others for mistakes and failures.
Self-serving biases help people think differently about themselves, feel better about themselves, and avoid stress and bad feelings. The feeling of happiness and being content with oneself lead people to overrate themselves.
Without self-serving biases, people could feel distressed about not being good enough. Some researchers argue that maintaining positive illusions about oneself, to some extent, can be psychologically healthy as it avoids the distress.