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The Self-Serving Bias: 3 Steps to Total Eradication!

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I love the word eradication.  I don’t know why.

Self-serving bias in action… by actors

As a part of an overall approach to personal growth, it’s important to know when your mind – which is far more complex than many of us give it credit – is working on your behalf and when it isn’t.  Or, to put it more specifically, when it thinks it’s working on your behalf… when in reality it’s doing the equivalent of tying your hands behind your back so you can’t hurt yourself… but can’t eat or drink either!

In so many ways, our minds have adapted almost too well over millennia.  In an effort to protect us in the short-term, we can frequently be hurting ourselves over the long haul.

The self-serving bias is like that.  It’s the tendency to see ourselves as responsible for our successes, but to see others – or the circumstances – as responsible for our failures

This is so clearly a coping strategy – we do this to protect our self-image, improve our confidence, and keep ourselves from dwelling on the negative.  We also do it to (at least seemingly) protect the image of ourselves in the eyes of others by playing up the good stuff and deferring blame for the bad stuff.

But is it healthy?  Is that really who we strive to be?  Someone who takes the credit and assigns blame?

I doubt it.  Most of us would probably say that this doesn’t describe us at all.  That we’re great about giving credit where it’s due and taking blame when things don’t go well.  And of course, most of us would be kidding ourselves (there’s that damn bias again).  Because who you think you are and who you actually are are rarely the same.  That’s one of the core tenets of psychology.

Not a day goes by that you don’t witness the self-serving bias in action if you’re actively looking for it.  In sports, you typically want to win.  So of course you’re going to believe that the umpires or referees have it out for you if you don’t.  At work, you want to be seen as someone who makes things happen.  So when they don’t, it can’t possibly be your fault, right?  And in politics, you want to be right.  So everything your candidate or party says can be seen through that lens.

Is this inevitable?  Are we doomed to demonstrate the self-serving bias whether we like it or not?  Of course not ;)  Where would the fun in life be if we couldn’t change ourselves and become better people?

Step 1: Learn about the self-serving bias

Naturally, like many things in personal growth, the most important thing you can do is to learn about the self-serving bias.  Watch the video above, read a little bit on the web, and think about how you exhibit this in your own life. Knowing that the self-serving bias exists and that we can all be lured into its trap can help you avoid it in the future.

PsychWiki as usual has a good write-up and a list of references you can refer to.  The relationship to self-handicapping is especially interesting to me.

Step 2: Value failure and take accountability

The best way to succeed is to double your failure rate. – Bill Gates

It sounds cliché but failing is the only way to grow.  If you don’t take pride in your failures and use them as opportunities to learn and adapt, you’re handicapping your progress.  Failing is all part of the process.  Start accepting the fact that failure isn’t always someone else’s fault and start owning up to it.  The people around you will respect you more and you’ll all be able to learn from your mistakes moving forward.  Yes, it’s hard to admit you’re to blame – even partially.  But it’s critical to overcoming the self-serving bias.

Step 3: Find ways to give others credit

Taking credit for everything is something children do when they don’t know any better.  It’s far more fun to help others succeed provided you do it genuinely.  Give others an opportunity to shine even in situations that don’t seem “important”. 

Helping others grow and get recognition can have such a profound effect on you that it can outweigh any perceived benefits of taking all the credit to begin with.

Bottom line: Be aware that you probably have a tendency towards the self-serving bias.  If you find yourself exhibiting it, refer back to this post and straighten yourself out!

Written by Mike Torres

April 25th, 2010 at 3:25 pm

Posted in Leadership,Positivity

Tagged with

  • cjp0605

    Very interesting concept, but I am a bit confused by the video. It shows the lady explaining how she helped her team achieve success but you can not tell if what she is saying is true or not. If she was being factual it only means she is guilty of immodesty. Seems like self serving bias would imply a bit of delusion, not just immodesty. A self serving bias person would be taking credit or placing blame where it is not supported by the facts and an objective or reasonable person would see it differently.

    • Thanks. It's a fair criticism of the video. It's hard to tell what actually went down behind the scenes here. The woman (whether factual or not) was still taking credit for the work in a way that presumably promotes her standing with a co-worker. If not factual, then a bit of delusion might be to blame (or at the least, an elevation of her impact and a downplaying of the team's). Hard to say since there's two sides to the story!

  • That's the great article! I just pass 'n read it, two thumbs up! 😉

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