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

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

The self-serving bias is defined as 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.


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).

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.e., "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.

Antidotes to the Self-Serving Bias?

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

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 full text of the article can be found here.

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 full text here.

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