A self serving bias is a cognitive bias that tends to enhance the ego and self confidence of an individual, through a variety of processes. Many people demonstrate this bias on some level or another, since most people have a desire to be successful, strong individuals. Being aware of the processes behind it can help a person to evaluate his or her performance and progress more critically, and it will allow the person to use things like failures as learning experiences.
The classic example of a self serving bias is the tendency of people to attribute success to their personalities and failure to external factors. In this way, people credit themselves for doing well, which enhances their self esteem, and they plead out of responsibility for failures. For example, if a person passes her driving test on the first try, she might say that this was due to the fact that she studied hard and is a good driver. If she fails the test, however, she might blame the examiner, the car, or the weather, rather than admitting that she did not demonstrate safe and effective driving skills.
Another aspect of this bias is the tendency to interpret unclear information in a way that is favorable. For example, if an instructor for a course says that “only two people got As on the final,” a student may assume that one of these persons was himself. Many people also exhibit systemic bias as well; systemic bias involves a personal belief that people perform better in areas that are important to their self esteem. For example, someone who wants to become a doctor might believe that his or her biology skills are better than those of the average person.
The tendency to emphasize success and minimize failure can be very dangerous. By focusing on success only, people cannot learn from their failures. In the driving test example above, for example, the student could admit that she failed because of imperfect driving skills. This admission would allow her to ask the examiner for suggestions in areas that need improvement, so that she could study these weak spots and pass the test on the second try.
The self serving bias can also lead to a situation called self handicapping. Taking the driving test example one step further, if someone is routinely told that she will probably fail on the first time, the student might study and practice less, so that she could blame situational factors like lack of practice for her failure. When someone engages in self handicapping, he or she may seek out safe situations in which success is guaranteed, rather than pushing to do better and risking failure on occasion.