Self Serving Bias: Definitions and Examples

What is Self Serving Bias - definition, synonym. What, How, and Why of Self-Serving (Bias)

Are you familiar with the habit of someone taking credit for positive outcomes or achievement, but they’re quick to blame external factors for any adverse events? Or maybe you find yourself doing this too, and only realizing it when someone points it out to you?

Many of us are likely already familiar with self-serving bias events even though we may not know it by its formal term. This phenomenon can occur at any age, regardless of backgrounds and cultures. It can also happen with or without any official clinical diagnosis.

What is Self-Serving Bias?

Self-serving bias is a common habit among many people. In simpler terms, it’s a habit where a person commits bias towards anything that serves their purpose, personal or professional. It’s a tendency to credit positive outcomes to their behavior or character but choose to attribute negative effects to external factors.

People with self-serving bias often only see the good things in themselves but fail to acknowledge their weaknesses. They will not admit their flaws even though their weaknesses caused negative outcome.

Self-serving bias is a common cognitive bias and it’s extensively studied in the field of social psychology. This bias occurs when people who refuse to accept negative outcomes caused by their flaws want to protect their ego from injury. This phenomenon perpetuates illusions of grandeur, but it functions more in serving the person’s personal need for high esteem.

The locus of control (LOC) is the basic concept for a person’s belief system of self-serving bias. There are two types of LOC, which is internal and external. This concept differentiates the type of self-serving bias a person commits.

A person with internal LOC will attribute positive events to their effort or intelligence etc. An external LOC person will attribute success to outer factors such as luck or anything beyond themselves. A person with an internal LOC is more likely to exhibit self-serving bias.

Causes and motivations for Self Serving Bias

Many researchers have pitted cognitive process and motivational process against each other to explain self-serving bias before. However, recent researches are proving otherwise. Instead, these processes are found to work together in causing a person’s tendency to take accountability when it comes to desirable outcomes and externalize responsibility when it comes to negative outcome.

Determining the causes of self-serving bias is a common debate among many researchers. The most common argument is whether this phenomenon reflects a specific motivated process or it’s merely a reflection of how people process the information they receive.

In the last twenty years, researchers have concluded that cognitive vs. motivation is a false contrast. They have agreed that motivation and cognition are intertwined and pose a much bigger inextricable process. Therefore, self-serving bias is not caused by one competing process, but rather a phenomenon caused by various factors.

However, to further understand the cause of self-serving bias, it’s good to take each process under individual consideration. A much clearer concept can then be obtained when explaining the causes of self-serving bias.

Motivation-driven argument

The explanation of self-serving bias through a motivation-driven process is separated into two groups i.e. enhancement and presentation. These aspects serve to either enhance a person’s self-worth or convey (present) certain desired images to others.

People who gravitate towards self-enhancement display self-serving bias only when the positive outcomes relate to uplifting their perceived self-worth. Self-presentation, on the other hand, commonly manifests in socially anxious people. This group of people is eager to project an absolute illusion of themselves to others when in a social environment.

The need to feel or appear important is the basis of motivation-driven self-serving bias. This phenomenon is highly common and almost everyone has at least displayed this behavior once in their lives.

Cognitive-driven argument

Contrary to motivation-driven self-serving bias, cognitive-driven bias stemmed from the objective evaluation of information or evidence at hand. People who display cognitive-driven self-serving bias often argue how they objectively evaluate the (external) factors causing the failure.

They will weigh the evidence and explore the reasons for this evidence in order to explain the negative outcomes. However, they often don’t thoroughly explore all possibilities. Instead, they choose to attribute the failure to external causes because this takes less effort than to introspect for reasons.

Researchers stated that the process of examining the evidence to find reasons only causes an illusion of objectivity. A person with cognitive-driven self-serving bias will fail at identifying the real cause of failure, internal or external, due to the stronger need to find reasons outside themselves.

Self serving Bias Example

There are many examples of self-serving bias. Chances are, we have encountered these biases in almost any kind of situation. For instance, a student may attribute his high grades to his study habits, his intelligence, or determination. When he fails, he will attribute this failure to his teacher’s ineffective teaching, lack of time, and/or the syllabus module.

Another classic example of self serving bias is when a person is quick to take credit for successful outcomes at the workplace. Even though a project is assigned to a team, a self-serving biased person will make sure everyone knows how it was his effort that made the project successful.

It’s not uncommon for this type of person to blame other team members when the project fails. They will find various reasons to blame the team. For example, they will accuse the team of not adhering to instructions, for not working together well enough, or failing to submit on time.

When we engage in self-serving bias

It’s important to understand and realize how self-serving bias is not always bad. It can affect positive changes in important aspects of our life. Being aware of what causes our success and failures is a valuable cognitive process that allows us to learn and improve continuously.

However, when self-serving bias interferes with our relations with others, it can be highly damaging and self-destructive. It can also impact our view and ways to diversity and inclusion, and creating a diverse workplace. Constantly blaming others and external factors for our failures will inhibit our chance for growth. It limits our potential as well as can distance others from us.


Knowing when self-serving bias can positively serve us is a healthy cognitive process. We can’t always be successful at doing something, and we will always make mistakes. Acknowledging this will allow us to live a more fulfilled life where we accept all ups and downs without having to blame others or other factors. A lot of this has to do with your mind model level such as consciousness, unconscious, and subconscious.

Self-Serving Bias is the habit where a person commits bias towards anything that serves their purpose, personal or professional. Learn more about self-serving bias definition at diversity Social.

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About the author

Susanne Ricee

Susanne Ricee is the Diversity and Inclusion Specialist and Researcher at Diversity for Social Impact. Sue brings over 15 years of HR and Diversity, Equity, Inclusion consultation experience.
Sue's previous experience includes Microsoft, Target, and Kraft. Sue is also the manager of Diversity Leadership Directory