When something goes wrong, is your first thought to blame others or your circumstances? And when something goes right, are you the first person to take credit for the success? If your answer to these questions is yes, that’s totally okay. This response is caused by the self-serving bias, and it’s a natural human response.
Self-serving bias comes into play when we attribute success to our personal efforts but attribute negative outcomes to sources outside of ourselves. It’s an innate response designed to protect our self-esteem. But if we’re not careful, self-serving bias can stand in the way of our own growth and negatively impact our relationships.
This article will help you identify when you’re deploying the self-serving bias. We will also teach you how to avoid the self-serving bias so you can optimize your personal growth and engage in healthy relationships with others.
- Why do we use the self-serving bias?
- What are the long-term effects of the self-serving bias?
- 5 ways to avoid the self-serving bias
- Wrapping up
Why do we use the self-serving bias?
Research indicates that we tend to default to the self-serving bias for multiple reasons, but the most prominent reason is to protect our self-esteem.
When we succeed, we want that success to be a direct reflection of who we are. When we don’t succeed, we don’t want to take accountability because then we believe that reflects poorly on who we are as a person.
The research does indicate that other motivations like wanting to avoid punishment or receive a reward based on an outcome can also motivate us to use self-serving bias. For example, if you’re likely to get fired based on a negative outcome, it’s only logical that you would want to blame the mishap on something besides yourself.
In both cases, self-serving bias is a protective mechanism that avoids the truth of the situation. And in the end, this will only hurt us.
Learning to see outcomes and judge them for what they - not how we want them to be - is just not something we humans are naturally inclined to do.
What are the long-term effects of the self-serving bias?
It may sound appealing to live in a world where you feel your wins are yours and your losses are because of someone else. But in the long term, you and your relationships will not be able to thrive with this self-serving mindset.
Research demonstrates that in healthy relationships, both partners take responsibility for conflict and relational success. When one party blames the other for an unfavorable event, conflict is likely to ensue.
I see this in my own relationship with my husband. When we jointly take responsibility for the house being messy, we don’t fight. But if I come home and immediately complain about the dirty dishes or unfinished laundry while blaming him, you can bet we’re going to argue.
In other words, healthy relationships seem to be dependent on your ability to avoid the self-serving bias.
Self-serving bias may also impact your happiness in the workplace.
A study in 2015 found that teachers who attributed issues in the classroom to external sources and felt a low sense of self-efficacy about their teaching abilities were more likely to experience burnout. They were also more likely to consider quitting.
If we can learn to believe in ourselves in the workplace and not see all of our problems as an issue outside of our control, we’re more likely to enjoy work.
We all intuitively know these things, yet it’s still so easy to just give in to the self-serving bias. That’s why we need a well-defined toolbox to avoid it.
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5 ways to avoid the self-serving bias
Let’s dive into 5 ways you can start taking a mindful approach to how you view life’s events to avoid falling victim to the self-serving bias.
1. Consider all contributing factors
It is rare in life that you can take full credit for an event in your life. This is important to remember both when things are going your way and when things aren’t going the way you’d hoped.
A healthy approach to reflecting on outcomes is to consider all the reasons you either succeeded or failed. This isn’t always the easiest thing to do because it’s not our gut reaction.
I remember when I got rejected by one of the graduate programs I applied to. My first reaction was that the program must have made a mistake or that my professors didn’t write good enough letters or recommendations.
This reaction clearly was to protect myself from feeling insecure about not getting into that program.
In reality, my application or qualifications were probably lacking. And perhaps one of my letters of recommendation was not compelling. There wasn’t just one factor that contributed to this outcome.
Looking at events in life from another perspective helps you to take the pressure off of yourself and others to realize that life really is more complex than a+b=c.
2. See the opportunity in mistakes
When it comes to negative outcomes, it’s only natural to want to blame things outside of yourself. This helps you deny any responsibility and avoid addressing any potential areas of weakness you may have.
But living with this mindset is a guaranteed way to deny yourself the potential to grow and improve.
Learning to take responsibility for your mistakes and view them as learning opportunities will help you avoid the self-serving bias. And it will help you stop seeing failure itself as something to be avoided or as a representation of who you are as a person.
I remember in the clinic I made an incorrect diagnosis in relation to a musculoskeletal condition. As a provider who wants to be seen as a trustworthy source, everything in me wanted to blame external factors for the incorrect diagnosis.
Because I have some practice under my belt, I am able to recognize that it’s better to own up to the mistake and look for how it can help me be a better clinician next time. Taking this approach resulted in the patient trusting me more because they saw that I was invested in their care and willing to admit when I was wrong.
Now when I encounter similar patient presentations, I am able to avoid making the same mistake and am better able to develop a meaningful relationship with this patient as a consequence.
3. Practice self-compassion
No one likes to fail. And if you do, please teach me your ways.
It doesn’t feel good to fail, which is part of why we don’t like it. But as we just discussed, failure is a necessary ingredient for self-growth.
This is why you also have to practice self-compassion. When you practice self-compassion, you’re less likely to immediately blame external influences because you understand that failing is part of being human.
Self-compassion gives you room to fail without losing sight of how wonderful and valuable you are as an individual.
I’m not going to sit here and pretend I’m great at showing myself compassion. But I am becoming better at recognizing that if we so freely give others compassion when they make a mistake, it’s only logical that we ought to treat ourselves with the same form of kindness.
4. Make an effort to give others credit
This tip is particularly important when it comes to life’s successes. It’s very tempting to want to bask in the credit of a positive outcome and see ourselves as the main contributor.
However, as mentioned in tip number one, it’s rare that you are the only reason for success.
I use this tip often in the workplace because this is where I have noticed we all tend to struggle with self-serving bias.
When patients are satisfied and thrilled about their outcome with physical therapy, my ego wants to say it was all thanks to the physical therapy that I provided. However, it doesn’t take a genius to know that overcoming physical injuries or pain is never just because of your physical therapist.
The patient has to actively participate in their exercises. And patients are far more likely to heal well when their loved ones support them through the journey.
I make it a point to highlight these factors to my patients, so that we can all see that any success is a result of a team effort.
Make an intentional effort to give credit where credit is due. Others will appreciate it and it will assure that you’re eating your daily dose of humble pie.
5. Don’t make any quick judgments
If you experience an overly positive or negative event, try not to immediately judge why it happened.
When you react to either success or failure directly in the moment, it’s easy to default to either taking pride in yourself or tearing yourself into shreds.
Remember tip number one where we think about all the reasons why we succeed or fail? It’s hard to remember those right in the moment.
Because our emotions tend to jump in the driver’s seat when we experience both good and bad things in life, it’s helpful to press pause.
Let yourself feel your feelings for a moment. Once that moment has passed, then you can calmly look at the factors contributing to the outcome.
I remember when I passed my board licensure exam, it was literally one of the happiest moments of my life. I felt like screaming from the rooftop, “I did it!”.
Now there is nothing wrong with acknowledging that you’re proud of yourself and being excited about an outcome. However, as time passed, it’s easy to see that me physically taking the test was just one small stone on the pathway to that success.
My professors, my classmates, my clinical instructors, and my social support all played an integral role in me getting to that moment. To claim that I alone was responsible for that success in hindsight sounds ludicrous to me.
But I couldn’t see that in the moment. And that’s why you need to give yourself space and time before you brag about how you’re the best or before you drown yourself in a pint of ice cream when you think you’re the worst.
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No one is exempt from experiencing self-serving bias. But with the tips from this article, you can learn to avoid it so that nothing stands in the way of your personal growth and relationships. And when you learn to let go of the self-serving bias, you are more equipped to gracefully navigate all of life’s ups and downs to end up exactly where you want to be.
Were you aware of the negative impact of the self-serving bias? When did you last experience self-serving bias in someone else or yourself? I'd love to hear from you in the comments below!