Do You Often Succumb to Self-Serving Bias?

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Robin Higgins, Pixabay, Public Domain
Source: Robin Higgins, Pixabay, Public Domain

Self-serving bias occurs when you overestimate your role in your positive outcomes and overestimate the power of external factors in your negative outcomes.

For example, I’ve had clients who had been terminated. They tend to blame externals: the boss, coworkers, the employer, being of the wrong race or gender, or some other form of bad luck.

I’ve had clients who have divorced. They tend to mainly blame their spouse.

I’ve had clients whose life hasn’t, overall, been successful. They too tend to overemphasize the externals: their bad parents, a harsh teacher, a bad peer group or romantic partner. A few have said something like, “I’m just one of those people who generally has been unlucky.”

How about you?

Self-serving bias occurs automatically—it’s a heuristic, a brain shortcut, that makes you feel comfortable. But here, I invite you to slow down, breathe, and consider, in a statesmanlike way, the extent to which you have succumbed to self-serving bias.

  1. Think about your worklife successes, past and present. Would a fair-minded observer conclude that you deserve most of the credit? For example, you’ve been intelligent, hard-working, developed your skills, and shown emotional intelligence. Or would that observer say that your success was mostly a matter of externals: for example, lucking into good jobs?
  2. Think about your worklife failures. Would a fair-minded observer conclude that you deserve the most of the blame? For example, your performance and attitude on jobs have been sub-par? Or would that observer conclude that your failures have mostly been caused by externals: for example, a workplace or boss that you couldn’t have predicted would be bad?
  3. Think about your personal life’s successes. Would a fair-minded observer conclude that you deserve most of the credit? For example, you carefully curate friends and romantic partners, and cut losses on your bad decisions. You’ve tried out various recreational options and again, made the most of the good ones and cut your losses on the poor fits. Or would that observer say your success was mainly a matter of externals: for example, you tend to happen upon meeting good people and recreational activities that clicked?
  4. Think about your personal life’s failures. Would a fair-minded observer conclude that you deserve most of the blame? Or would that observer say that your failures were mostly caused by externals: for example, just not happening upon the right people or activities.
  5. Think about your overall life’s successes. Would a fair-minded observer conclude that you deserve most of the credit? For example, have you tended to make good things happen? Have you appropriately delayed gratification? Avoided major landmines? Learned from failures? Or would that observer say that your overall life success has mainly been caused by externals: for example, tending to be at the right place at the right time or happening to be a member of a desired demographic group,
  6. Think about your overall life failures. Would a fair-minded observer conclude that you deserve most of the blame? For example, you’ve tended to be lazy, have long had a substance abuse problem, or are unduly negative about most things. Or would that observer say that your life’s overall lack of success has mainly been caused by externals: for example, early trauma, being in an undesired demographic group, or the economic system?

The takeaway

Now review your answers with those clear eyes of yours. Does that make you want to do anything different regarding your worklife or personal life? Or does your review warrant a pat on the back—you’re quite realistic about your role in your accomplishments and failures?

I read this aloud on YouTube.