Cognitive Bias of the Week: Self-Serving Bias

Cognitive Bias of the Week: Self-Serving Bias

In my first “Cognitive Bias of the Week” (CBotW) post I discussed the “liking bias” in some detail and how this bias can play a role in shaping politics and business. In this second CBotW post I will be taking on the “self-serving bias” and, in particular, its effects on business.

First, let’s start with a simple definition for the self-serving bias: Basically, it’s the tendency of a person to attribute their perceived successes and/or positive outcomes to their own innate abilities while at the same time attributing their perceived failures/negative outcomes to external forces. The typical example given is of a college student who gets an “A” on a test and says to himself “damn, I’m good”; then a week later gets a “C” on another test and says to himself (and probably others) “that professor’s an idiot!”

We are all guilty of this behavior on occasion…that’s normal. Indeed, our initial reaction to a negative outcome may be something along the lines of “the world is conspiring against me” but upon a bit of reflection and introspection most people will realize that their actions likely played some non-trivial part in that negative outcome and, ideally, these people learn something from the incident. And with that learning comes personal growth.

Sadly, though, there are some who will more frequently believe that the world really is “conspiring against” them when things are not going their way while continuing to believe that it’s their sheer greatness that is coming into play when things DO go their way.

What affect does the self-serving bias have on a person?

Well, someone with an unchecked self-serving bias will likely engage in self-deception as well. Now we are in the territory of a person who will deny rationality and/or evidence in favor of maintaining some internal “truth”. Self-deception may, in turn, lead to still more extreme pathological behavior such as megalomania or what is contemporarily referred to as Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD).

What affect do these types of behaviors have within the context of business?

  • At the individual contributor level these types of people can have the effect of “poisoning the well” and generally make life difficult for their coworkers and/or management.
  • At the management level these types of people invariably become someone’s “boss from hell” as they find ways to take credit for their team’s successes while at the same time blaming others – or worse, blaming their team members – for their team’s failures.
  • At the upper-management/leadership level there are, of course, many examples of megalomaniacs making it to the top echelons of a company and driving wild financial success while at the same time literally driving their “underlings” to illicit activities or just plain crazy.

How can you avoid becoming a victim of the self-serving bias (both your own and that of others)?

  • First, recognize the behavior in yourself and question it. For example, did your competitor really “steal” that piece of business from you or did you actually lose it? Is the world really conspiring to see you fail or are you a party to those failures? Be honest with yourself and try to learn/grow from the situation.
  • Second, when you see this behavior in others and it is directed at you, then decide whether you should ignore this behavior (in gaming culture I’m reminded of the saying “don’t feed the trolls”) or defend yourself against it but in either instance you should distance yourself from it as much as possible…this is a toxic environment that you do not want to be a part of.

The bottom line here is that it’s our ignorance of these cognitive biases that give them the most power over us…and in business ignorance is definitely NOT “bliss”.


When Danny is NOT busy “fighting ignorance”, he’s also leading a technology consulting company. Hit him on Twitter or Facebook.

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