In Practice

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The Self-Serving Bias - Definition, Research, and Antidotes

Learn the definition of self-serving bias and how to overcome it.

self-serving bias
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Defintion of the Self-Serving Bias

The self-serving bias is people's tendency to attribute positive events to their own character but attribute negative events to external factors. It's a common type of cognitive bias that has been extensively studied in social psychology.

Example

Positive event - You get an A for an essay and you attribute it to your own awesomeness! (internal attribution)

Negative event - You get a C on an essay and you attribute it to your professor not having explained what they wanted well enough. (external attribution).

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Depression and the Self-Serving Bias

Sometimes when people are depressed or have low self-esteem, their attribution style is flipped.

They attribute positive events to chance or external help, and attribute negative events to their own character.

If someone is feeling irritable, they might attribute negative events to a combination of internal and external factors "I suck and everybody sucks."

For example, "I got a C because I'm useless and professors are unfair anyway." Or, another example, "I'm having problems in my relationship because I'm a defective person and because other people are generally untrustworthy." 

Overall, research on the self-serving bias and depression suggests that the bias isn't completely flipped in people with depression, but the magnitude of the bias is less than in the general population - it's smaller. 

Antitodes to the Self-Serving Bias?

Here are some tips for avoiding the self-serving attribution bias:

- Mindful awareness helps. When you learn about common cognitive biases you can start to notice yourself doing them, and self-correct. 

- Self-compassion is an extremely useful skill for reducing defensiveness and increasing your self-improvement motivation.

- Rumination causes people to think about the causes of problems over and over again, without moving forward. You can use these types of cognitive behavioral therapy techniques for reducing rumination.

Research on the Self-Serving Bias

- This 2004 meta-analysis examined the relationship between the self-serving bias and psychopathology (including depression and anxiety). The free fulltext of the article is here but is slow to load.

- This 2011 study uses a slightly different definition of the self-serving bias to relate it to climate change policy. The definition used here is a bias towards thinking "what benefits you is also fair." Free fulltext

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Alice Boyes, Ph.D. translates principles from Cognitive Behavioral Therapy and social psychology into tips people can use in their everyday lives.

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