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Water Cooler: The mental trickery of self-serving bias

UPDATED: Tue., Feb. 16, 2021

One 1979 study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology asked 37 married couples to estimate the percentage of their contribution to their shared chores and tasks, such as laundry. Almost every couple’s answers added up to more than 100%, meaning they both overestimated for themselves.  (Pixabay)
One 1979 study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology asked 37 married couples to estimate the percentage of their contribution to their shared chores and tasks, such as laundry. Almost every couple’s answers added up to more than 100%, meaning they both overestimated for themselves. (Pixabay)

If you’ve ever had a roommate, you likely have had thought to yourself that you do more chores than than they do. Sure, you might have neglected some dishes here and there, but you find yourself pitching in the most around the place. Or perhaps you like your co-workers just fine, but you personally feel like you deserve more credit for the success of the finished product than they do.

You might be right. Or you might be wrong. And that goes for anyone. This is because the human mind is susceptible to what psychologists call self-serving bias.

The theory of self-serving biases arose in the late 1960s. It is the idea that people tend to see themselves in a good light in order to maintain or enhance their self-esteem, causing them to sometimes have a distorted perception of the reality of themselves or a situation. This is seen as a somewhat natural occurrence for most people, especially in those that come from or live in an individualistic society where value is placed on the individual and their own goals.

One 1979 study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology asked 37 married couples to estimate the percentage of their contribution to their shared chores and tasks, such as cooking or laundry. Almost every couple’s answers added up to more than 100%, meaning they likely both overestimated for themselves and underestimated for their spouse. It is possible that one spouse could have answered accurately, but the general pattern of data showed a tendency for each party to assume more responsibility for the completion of chores than the other party gave them. Replications of this study have shown similar results.

Self-serving bias can vary dramatically between individuals. It can be expressed in a multitude of ways, such as harsh rejection of valid criticism or negative feedback, taking more credit and giving others less in collaborative efforts, or focus on one’s achievements and strengths while overlooking faults, mistakes or failures.

A very common expression of self-serving bias is the tendency for a person to attribute positive occurrences to their own inherent good qualities, but to attribute negative experiences to external circumstances that were out of their control. On the flip side, self-serving bias can also lead a person to assign positive events in another person’s life to external circumstances like luck or situation, and then reason negative experiences in that person’s life to their inherent negative qualities.

For example, self-serving bias could persuade a student that they earned a good test score solely because of their intelligence and their strong work ethic that drove them to study hard. When they received a poor score, they might feel defensive and think about how they were really stressed out that week because of an interpersonal issue and blame their test score on that. However, that same self-serving bias could lead them to assume a failing student is lazy or not intelligent enough to keep up with the material before considering the external factors that could contribute to their poor grades. This tendency is called the fundamental attribution error.

As terrible as that might sound, self-serving bias doesn’t inherently make someone an awful person. It’s natural for just about anyone to want to defend their integrity and account for all possible factors when they have to face a failure or a mistake. It is a way to feel safe and to preserve one’s ego and self-esteem. It can be problematic, but luckily awareness of oneself and learning about this potential bias can go a long way in preventing it from getting carried away.

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