How the Self-Serving Bias Protects Self-Esteem

Self Serving Bias

How the Self-Serving Bias Protects Self-Esteem

Self-Serving Bias is best explained as a tendency to give ourselves credit when good things happen and to blame external or situational forces when negative things happen.

Self-Serving can seem an evasion of responsibility for our actions. Researchers have called self-serving bias a defense mechanism that we formulate to protect our self-esteem.

Examples of Self Serving Bias

There are plenty of real-world examples for self-serving bias.

  • In a car accident, both parties involved blame the other driver.
  • If a student aces his finals, he attributes it to his hard work and dedication.
  • If a student fails the test, he attributes it to the questions being too difficult, the room being too hot, noisy classroom, and other external factors – whatever they may be.

All these examples indicate real-world scenarios we have all experienced first hand. One thing common in these examples is the tendency to always blame external factors in case of negative results and to attribute one’s individual traits in case of positive results.

Actor-Observer Bias is something similar to Self Serving Bias, however, they differ in principle. Check out our article Actor-Observer Bias to find out more.

We have a well-informative article on Attribution Theory, where it all starts. Make sure you check it out.

Why does Self-Serving Bias Occur?

Self-Serving bias can often act as a defense mechanism to protect your self-esteem. When you blame external factors for your failures, you are protecting your self-esteem by evading from your personal responsibility.

wise, when you attribute your internal factors such as personality or skill for positive outcomes, you get a boost in confidence.

A lot of research has shown that self-serving bias can be affected by age, gender, and psychological conditions. So, the degree of this cognitive bias cannot be generalized.

Older adults tend to credit themselves quite a lot. Your grandparents making internal attributions for their success can be considered to be a real-world example in this case.

Gender is another factor affecting self-serving bias. Researchers have revealed that men tend to blame external forces for their failures.

In certain situations, self-serving bias can also be reversed. A depressed person or someone with low self-esteem might blame themselves (make internal attributions) for their failures, and attribute positive outcomes to external forces or even luck.

How does Culture affect Self-Serving Bias?

Various studies have shown that self-serving bias is considerably higher in Western cultures that include countries the US and Canada, in comparison to Eastern cultures Japan and China.

Why is it so?

Western cultures are comparatively individualist cultures. Western cultures highly emphasize personal achievement and self-esteem. This leads to the defense mechanism of protecting the self from feelings of failure.

On the other hand, Eastern cultures are rather collectivist cultures. These cultures are less focused on individual accomplishments.

So, they are more ly to attribute their personal success to luck, god, and failures to internal traits lack of skill.

What are the exceptions for Self-Serving Bias?

Self-serving bias is less ly when the person is involved in close relationships. Friends and partners in life often help us to be honest with ourselves and encourage us to take responsibility for our actions.

Self-Serving bias Positive Effects

While deflecting one’s personal responsibility seems highly negative, self-serving bias also has its positive aspects.

One of the positive sides of self-serving bias is that it will always push the person towards progress.

For instance, if someone fails his test and attributes the failure to external factors, he isn’t disheartened by his lack of skill. So, he isn’t discouraged to study for the next test as his self-esteem remains intact.

wise, an athlete might train harder to overcome the failures that he/she believes was entirely due to someone else’s fault.

A word from Psychestudy

A healthy defense mechanism to protect self-esteem can go a long way in life. However, finding the perfect balance is key. One shouldn’t always blame themselves for their personal failures. On the other hand, people shouldn’t always evade their personal responsibilities either.

Being around close friends who encourage you to be honest and modest can help people from overcoming their tendency to be self-serving.


Self-serving Bias Explained

How the Self-Serving Bias Protects Self-Esteem

The self-serving bias describes the tendency that people have to ascribe their successes to their own efforts and abilities while blaming external factors for their failures. In the video below, you will learn what exactly this self-serving bias is, how and why this affects you as an investor, and of course, most importantly, what you can do to avoid it.

Self-serving Bias Definition

As I mentioned the self-serving bias, which is sometimes also known as the self-attribution bias, describes people’s tendency to attribute their successes to their own efforts and abilities while blaming external factors for their failures.

That means if we succeed at something, we assume that it’s because of what we did, whereas if we fail, we automatically look for external reasons to blame.

Simply put, we choose how to attribute the cause of an outcome, depending on what makes us look best. 

Why Self-serving Bias Occurs

The self-serving bias is a defense mechanism to protect our ego and self-esteem. To do that, it relies on two separate biases: a self-enhancing bias and a self-protecting bias.

The self-enhancing part refers to the tendency that people have to take more credit for their successes than objectively reasonable. And that actually makes sense from a psychological perspective.

Whenever we do something, we usually try to succeed, right? So when we do end up succeeding, is perfectly natural to assume that this has something to do with our actions. After all, we did what we thought was necessary to succeed and then we succeeded.

In hindsight, it looks our plan worked… even if it required an unreasonable amount of luck, to begin with. 

2. Self-protecting Bias

In addition to that, the self-protecting part refers to the tendency that people have to deny responsibility for failure by default.

And again, that makes perfect sense from an emotional perspective, because we have a strong need to maintain our self-esteem and self-worth. Something that seemingly doesn’t go well with failure.

Because we live in a society that teaches us that failure is bad and something to avoid. So naturally, we’ll do whatever we can to protect ourselves by attributing our failures to factors outside of our control.  

These two biases are closely linked, which makes it difficult to say for sure, which one is the dominant one in any given situation. The important thing to take away here is that we have a tendency to assume that our actions contribute to successful outcomes, whereas we protect our ego by attributing failures to anything but ourselves.

Self-serving Bias And Investing

This bias has two major implications for you as an investor. It can cause you to become overconfident, and, it can prevent you from learning from your mistakes. 

For example, you buy an asset and it goes up, chances are, you’ll attribute that to your investing skills. And the more money you make, the more you’ll start to think that you’re smarter than everyone else and a really good investor.

Or in other words, you become overconfident. Because the truth is, if the market is in a general upswing, making money is not that hard. Everyone is a good investor in a bull market.

What makes a good investor is to consistently make money across multiple cycles. 

By contrast, if you buy an asset and it goes down, you’ll probably attribute that to bad luck or some other random factor that was not your fault. And the problem with that is that it will prevent you from learning from your mistakes.

Even though it’s usually not your fault if one of your investments goes down, the effects this has on your portfolio are your responsibilities.

So to be successful in the long run it’s critical to realize when you’ve made a mistake so that you can learn from it.

How to Fix the Self-serving Bias

There are three ways to fix the self-serving bias.

1. Always stay humble

I know that’s easier said than done, but remember: “Everyone is a good investor in a bull market”. You don’t have to be a genius to make money if everything is going up. The success of an investment depends on any number of factors that are for the most part completely your control.  So if you make a lot of money, you’re lucky… but not necessarily a genius.

2. Postanalyze your investments

That means when it’s all said and done. Look back at your decisions and see where you made money and where you didn’t.

Then separate the two categories and try to figure out what you did correctly when it comes to your winners, and where you messed up with your losers. Revisit your assumptions and see if they turned out to be true or not.

Asking these questions will allow you to learn from your past mistakes and make better mistakes the next time around. 

3. Set up rules for investing

That is, in addition to having a clear goal and strategy, you can set up rules ahead of time to protect yourself from your own bad habits or overconfidence. That can include things setting up stop-loss orders in advance or limiting your profit takings to a certain percentage and so on. The rules themselves are really up to you, depending on where your weaknesses are.


The self-serving bias is a defense mechanism we use to protect our ego and self-esteem by attributing our successes to our own actions and abilities while blaming external factors for our failures.

So to fix this as an investor, you have to always stay humble, learn from your mistakes as much as you can and set up rules and limits ahead of time.

This will allow you to significantly reduce its negative impacts. 


This is not investment advice. All content on this site (and the Quickonomics channel) are for entertainment purposes only. I am not a professional, so you shouldn’t listen to a word I say or write. Always do your own research before you invest in anything, and never invest more than you can afford to lose. That would not be smart… be smart.


Self-serving bias — Biases & Heuristics

How the Self-Serving Bias Protects Self-Esteem

Many individuals can remember their time during school, specifically their different experiences and reactions when receiving a good grade and a bad grade.

Particularly as younger students, many people can remember attributing success to their own skills when receiving a good grade on an assignment. In turn, when someone would receive a poor grade, they would perhaps initially attribute the poor result due to external factors.

These external factors could have ranged from things such as a professors’ inability to teach the subject, the difficulty of the topic matter, or group members’ faults.

This process is common amongst so many of us, as our initial reaction is to praise ourselves when we achieve success and attribute it to our abilities but blame external factors for failures. This seemingly harmless habit can have significant implications on our life as we age, hence the importance of identifying and curtailing behavior related to it.

Being aware of the self-serving bias and its potential impact on our lives is essential because it can change how we learn from our mistakes and it can affect our decision-making process.

The self-serving bias can be problematic: If we do not attribute our failures to our own mistakes, then we are less ly to learn from our mistakes and avoid making them in the future.

An essential component of becoming successful and achieving our goals and ambitions in life is done through failing, learning from those failures, and then improving upon them. If an individual is unable to attribute their own failures to mistakes they themselves made, then improvement is a difficult and unly process.

The self-serving biases can have larger impacts when looking at societies and nations as a whole. An example can be seen when looking at nations and climate change.

A study conducted by researchers at Carnegie Mellon University looked at climate change policy and citizens’ perceptions on which country should lower its emissions.

By conducting surveys among both college students in China and the United States, the researchers noted that each group of students held nationalistic self-serving biases in regards to the economic burdens that would result from mitigating climate change and reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

Their research confirmed that self-serving biases do in fact play a major role in explaining why it is so difficult to obtain an agreement on how nations should implement emission reduction strategies.

Researchers noted that interventions that aim to mitigate self-serving biases may eventually facilitate agreement in environmental policy discussions, both at the national and international levels. The self-serving bias can additionally influence other policy decisions at all levels of government.

Reducing cognitive biases in policymakers and government officials is necessary to ensure policy decisions are fact, and better improve populations they serve.

The Self-Serving bias is extremely common and is described as a human perceptual process that is distorted.3 Researchers have identified several different reasons for why the self-serving bias occurs so frequently among individuals.


The self-serving bias is common in relation to our need to either maintain or enhance our own self-esteem.

3 By attributing our successes to our own characteristics, and our failures to external circumstances, we spare ourselves of any real opportunity for criticism.

The self-serving bias skews our perception of ourselves and of our reality, in order to improve and preserve our own self-esteem in the process.


Self-presentation describes how an individual conveys information about themselves to others. Self-presentation is either used to present information to match an individual’s self-image to others or present information to match audience expectations and preferences.4

Self-presentation aids individuals in maintaining their self-esteem, as they are affected by other’s perceptions of themselves. To continue to enhance their self-esteem, an individual actively portrays favorable impressions of themselves to others.5

Natural Optimism

Another reason that this cognitive bias is particularly common, is due to the fact that humans are inherently optimistic. Negative outcomes tend to surprise people, and thus we are more ly to attribute negative results or outcomes to situational and external factors, rather than to personal reasons.

Along with our lihood to be optimistic, humans consistently make what is referred to by psychologists as a fundamental attribution error due to our self-serving bias.

A fundamental attribution error, also commonly referred to as correspondence bias or the attribution effect, describes how when others around us make mistakes, we blame the individual who makes the error, but when we make mistakes ourselves, we blame circumstances for our failures.6

Age & Culture

Self-serving bias is a bias that many individuals will experience throughout their lives. That being said, self-serving bias does vary when looking at different age groups and cultures. Researchers have confirmed that self-serving bias is most prevalent among young children and older adults.

From a cultural perspective, there is no official consensus regarding self-serving biases and cross-culture influences.

However, researchers globally are now further investigating the cultural implications of self-serving bias, specifically in regards to differences in self-serving bias demonstrated in Western and non-Western cultures.7

The self-serving bias can affect many important aspects of our life. Commonly, self-serving bias can affect our performance throughout school, our careers, our performance in sports, and our relationships with other people.

Being aware of what causes the successes and failures in our lives, both personal and professional can provide us with learning opportunities to improve on our shortcomings.

Understanding the self-serving bias, how it appears in our life, and how we can avoid it to make better choices and decisions is essential to continue to better ourselves and our situations.

Though self-serving bias is common, there are many ways to avoid it and prevent it from impairing our day-to-day decisions.

To begin, mindful awareness helps in first recognizing our susceptibility to self-serving bias when it occurs.

When an individual learns about common cognitive biases, they can then begin to notice them, specifically in their lives, and provide themselves an opportunity to self-correct.

Our ability to be self-compassionate is another way to help mitigate self-serving bias. When one is self-compassionate, they are able to reduce their defensiveness and better take criticism when looking to self-improve. Self-compassion is an individual’s ability to recognize distress and commit to alleviating that distress. Self-compassion involves the following components:8

  1. An individual’s ability to demonstrate self-kindness, especially when experiencing a sort of personal failure.
  2. An individual’s ability to understand their common humanity, or rather, that they are human, and that other humans experience the same sort of experiences and failures.
  3. And finally, an individual’s mindfulness, and being able to identify uncomfortable thoughts without judging them.

Being less critical, and more open to improvement through self-compassion is especially helpful for athletes. In sports, self-compassion has correlated with having fewer negative thoughts and feelings9 and aiding athletes in reducing self-criticism and negative thoughts after making mistakes.10

Additionally, athletes who are self-compassionate can better improve and take constructive criticism, as self-compassion provides them with the ability to create realistic self-evaluations about their performance without the fear of recognizing their weaknesses, and lowering their self-esteem.8

Self-serving bias first became a notable phenomenon by the end of the 1960s.

The theory was first developed through research conducted in parallel to the attribution bias, a cognitive bias that refers to the many systematic errors that people make when evaluating reasons for others and their own behavior.

11 During this research, an Austrian psychologist named Fritz Heider found that in ambiguous scenarios, people tend to make attributions their own needs in order to maintain a higher level of self-esteem for themselves, defining it as the self-serving bias.

Today, self-serving bias is researched in several different capacities. Laboratory testing, neural experimentation, and naturalistic investigation are all used to further investigate this cognitive bias, its relation to different fields, and ways to mitigate it.

Self-serving bias research is common in the workplace, interpersonal relationships, sports and athletic performance, consumer decisions, and computer technology.

Modern research regarding the self-serving bias has begun focusing on physiological manipulations, in order to better understand the biological mechanism that contributes to the self-serving bias.12,13

Additionally, substantial research has been conducted to study depression and self-serving bias. Clinically depressed individuals show less self-serving bias than the average person.

People diagnosed with depression are more ly to attribute negative outcomes to their internal faults and characteristics while attributing successes to external factors and luck.

4 Research in self-serving bias has aided in identifying negative emotions in clinically depressed individuals alongside their self-focused attention leads to their lack in exhibiting self-serving bias.14

The workplace provides many examples of the self-serving bias at play. Specifically, research in the subject of work-related self-serving bias identified that self-serving bias was most present in relation to negative outcomes and that the more distant the relationship between employees and their colleagues were, the more coworkers actually blamed each other for failure in the workplace.16

Self-serving bias is also commonly found in relation to explaining both employment and termination of one’s job. People were found to typically attribute their personal characteristics to the reasons that they were hired and blamed external factors for their own termination from their job.17

Examples of self-serving bias are also particularly common in regards to sports, such as when individuals address their own outcomes in sporting events.

Individual sports especially tend to showcase self-serving bias in people, probably because one on one sports have clearly defined winners, and results of a match can be more easily attributed to one’s action than a team sport, with more ambiguous outcomes.18

A study conducted on Division I collegiate wrestlers tested the self-serving bias. The wrestlers were asked to self-report on their performance from their preseason matches and the results of these matches. It was found that wrestlers who won were more ly to attribute their success to internal and personal causes than those who lost.18

Another study completed in 1987 looked to compare self-serving biases between individual sport athletes and team sports athletes.

The study gathered 549 statements from athletes who played tennis, golf, baseball, football and basketball, and concluded that individual sport athletes made more self-serving attributions than sports team athletes.

19 This research concludes that individual sport athletes and their performance during sporting games had a more significant effect on their self-esteem, thus using the self-serving bias to increase their confidence.19

The self-serving bias refers to an individual’s tendency to attribute positive events to their character, but attribute negative results or events to external factors unrelated to themselves and their faults.

Why it happens

The self-serving bias is a distorted cognitive process and is typical for a multitude of reasons. Several reasons that one may be susceptible to the self-serving bias include an individual’s need to improve their self-esteem, the natural optimism humans possess, or an individual’s age or cultural background.

Example #1 – Self-serving bias in the workplace

Examples of the self-serving bias are commonly found in the workforce, with instances of self-serving biases being seen in one’s perception of why they were hired, fired, received a bonus, or performed poorly. People were found to typically attribute their personal characteristics to reasons that they were hired and blamed external factors for their own termination from their job.

Example #2 – Self-serving bias in sports

Sports players are commonly cited when looking at examples of self-serving biases, especially those who compete in individual sports. Studies conducted on high-level wrestlers found that those who won attributed their wins to internal characteristics, while those who lost typically attributed their wins to external factors.

How to avoid it

The best way to avoid the self-serving bias is to firstly be aware of what the self-serving bias is, and identify how you could possibly be using it in your own life. Mindfulness provides an opportunity to find solutions to overcome this bias.

Additionally, being open to criticism and being self-compassionate is a potential way to avoid the self-serving bias. By being self-compassionate and working on accepting criticisms as an opportunity for improvement rather than an attack, you will be able to better accept your own mistakes.

When an individual learns about common cognitive biases, they can then begin to notice their existence, times in which they occur in daily life, and opportunities to improve upon them.


The Dangers of Self-Serving Bias at the Workplace

How the Self-Serving Bias Protects Self-Esteem

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Most of us to paint ourselves in a positive light. It can be hard to admit to a mistake, especially at work where our professional reputation (and salary) is on the line. But if you start to notice that you or one of your coworkers always seems to be taking credit, seeking praise and avoiding blame, then it’s ly that self-serving bias has reared its ugly head.

Self-serving bias can quickly infect your workplace, leading to a bevy of treacherous problems. If it gets especially bad, it can distort the perception of self, impair one’s ability to evaluate problems and generate hostility towards others—leading to conflict and worse.

But you don’t have to be delusional to suffer from self-serving bias. It can strike at anytime, given the intensity of the situation and what parties are involved. So, to help you and your team, we’re going to talk about self-serving bias, some typical examples and how it can be expunged from your workplace.

What Is Self-Serving Bias?

Self-serving bias is a way of thinking that tends to make a person see themselves in an overly favorable manner in order to maintain a high self-esteem. It’s the type of person who is always saying that whatever success they have is due entirely to their own abilities and efforts.

A person who has a self-serving bias is not going to respond well to criticism, even constructive criticism. They reject negative feedback and only see their strengths; they are willfully ignorant of any shortcomings or failures. They are often the leader who takes full credit for the success of a project without recognizing the efforts of their team.

In Psychological Terms

What it is, not to get overly psychological, is a perception bias that exists to protect one’s ego. It usually can be attributed to people who have a low self-esteem, as it’s a way to mask insecurities with almost a chest-puffing bravado. Clearly, it’s not behavior that any reputable leadership theory would recommend.

But then, those with a self-serving bias are ly not even aware that they’re acting this way. It can be difficult to point it out and try to help them see things through a more realistic lens, as the very act of criticizing feeds into the cognitive or perceptual process being criticized.

The theory of self-serving bias has been around since the late 1960s. Austrian psychologist Fritz Heider’s research showed that people make attributions their own needs in order to have a higher self-esteem.

Another study in 1975, argues that people with self-serving bias are not driven by self-esteem but merely seek that reality be consistent with their expectations.

However, if the outcome doesn’t match their expectations, then they’ll blame others or their surroundings over themselves.

Self-Serving Bias in the Workplace

Everyone can probably mention an experience on the job where they came across someone with self-serving bias, even if they didn’t know it was called that. It’s common enough as to be a trope on sitcoms and an often complained about watercooler subject.

Examples of Self-Serving Bias

Self-serving bias is exhibited at work in such examples as when someone says they were hired for a position because of personal factors, their exceptional resume or other sterling qualities.

But if they don’t get the job, then it’s because of some external factor besides their own shortcomings, an incompetent organization or a short-sighted hiring manager.

In the eyes of someone suffering from self-serving bias, it’s never their fault.

Experiments and research into workplace self-serving bias posit that, in the case of a workplace accident, the victim is ly to blame external factors, while the coworkers and management are more ly to see the accident as a result of the victim’s own actions. So you don’t have to be a chronic sufferer of self-serving bias to be influenced by its distortion; it could manifest only occasionally in key instances to normally level-headed parties.

It becomes clear that self-serving bias in the workplace is an obstacle to productivity, simply by blocking the ability to recognize real problems.

Self-serving bias can cloud a person’s judgement and put the entire project in jeopardy because someone is unable to take responsibility or evaluate a situation fairly.

Therefore, it can impact someone’s ability to read data and make smart decisions at critical business junctures.

Self-Serving Bias in Leaders

As troublesome as self-serving bias can be in the workplace, it’s exponentially more destructive when such behavior is exhibited by a team leader or manager. Imagine if the person tasked to lead a project was unwilling to see reality and was only interested in grabbing all the glory for themselves?

Problems Posed by Self-Serving Bias

The problems inherent in such behavior, whether intentional or not, are myriad. A leader who is more interested in taking credit for success and avoiding responsibility for failure is a corrupting influence on the team. This type of leadership erodes trust and will have a hard time retaining talent in such an environment.

Any projects is subject to change and a leader must identify the risks and have a plan in place to resolve any problems that might show up. If the leader is part of that problem, they’re adding fuel to an already volatile situation. Such leadership is going to bring down morale, and team members will be reluctant to speak honestly, all of which chips away at the effectiveness of the work.

Leaders also need to communicate, but clear and effective communications is honesty and listening. If a leader is more interested in laurels and praise, then the words they speak are ly going to be used to advance that agenda. The only mandate for a leader is to get the project done, on time and within budget, meeting the expectations of their stakeholders, not get a medal for doing it.

The Silver Lining

However, a leader with a self-serving bias can be surprisingly effective in certain circumstances. For instance, it can help a leader preserve in the face of adversity. They might be more motivated to push forward, thinking that the issues they’re facing are not related to themselves personally but the environment at large.

Related: Crisis Management: How to Lead During a Crisis

But this is a small advantage to a behavior that is overwhelmingly a disaster for a leader. People with this cognitive bias are always blame someone or something else for whatever problem or failure there is. This is the opposite of the famous quote by President Harry Truman, “The buck stops here.” Rather, a leader with self-serving bias passes the buck.

How to Avoid Self-Serving Bias

The first step to changing your behavior in knowing how you’re behaving. This can be problematic if you’re trying to tell someone who is managing you that they are acting with self-serving bias. However, often we are exhibiting these behaviors, so before you start accusing others, be contemplative and see if you’re guilty of self-serving bias.

If you are, then read up on it. There has been a great deal of research, articles and books on it. The more informed you are, the more you’ll be able to be aware when you’re acting in a self-serving bias way and develop tools and techniques to help you stop.

Accept That You’re Not Perfect

Another thing to learn is that there is value in failure and being accountable for one’s actions. Failure is an inevitable part of life. It means you’re taking risks, stretching beyond your comfort zone and other clichés.

But clichés are old truths and failure is a way to learn and grow. Being accountable for your actions is a sign of maturity and one that will earn a leader respect.

When a team respects their leader, they will work harder and better for them.

Related: 5 Notorious Failed Projects & What We Can Learn From Them

Also, find ways to give others credit; this will help you adjust your behavior. It allows other people to succeed and share the success, which is again a way to bond with teams and motivates them to do their best. Helping others get recognition can be a boost to your self-esteem and make you feel better about yourself, too.

Whether you or someone you work with has a self-serving bias, the need to have a tool to help you manage your work is always important. is a cloud-based project management software that gives you a real-time dashboard with the most up-to-date and accurate data possible to help remove bias from the equation. Try it out today with this free 30-day trial.

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