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The self-serving bias refers to people’s tendency to attribute positive outcomes or successes to internal or personal factors (such as effort or ability) and to attribute negative outcomes or failures to external or situational factors (such as task difficulty or luck).
Variously labeled as “defensive,” “egocentric,” or “egotistic” attribution, the bias accounts for people’s greater tendency to take credit for success than failure (e.g., having a perfect score on the SAT because of innate intelligence or hard work as opposed to having a low score on the test because of unfavorable test conditions; doing well in a boxing match because of exceptional strength and skills as opposed to doing poorly because of unfair rules). It is also evident in people’s tendency to assess morally ambiguous situations in ways concordant with their interests; or in perceptions of fairness – arriving at judgments of what is fair or right that are biased in favor of self.
A more “systematic” form of the bias shows in the “above average effect” – people’s tendency to rate themselves as above average in domains that are self-relevant (important to their self-esteem).
The phenomenon may also manifest itself at the group level. Known as the ultimate “attribution error,” group-serving bias is the tendency for in-group members to attribute positive outcomes to causes internal to the group and negative ones to factors external to the group. Members of a football team, for example, might attribute a winning game to athletic prowess, while attributing a losing one to “bad refereeing.”
- Miller, D. T., & Ross, M. (1975) Self-serving biases in the attribution of causality: fact or fiction? Psychological Bulletin 82: 213-25.