Self-serving Bias

The self-serving bias causes us to see things in ways that support our best interests and our pre-existing points of view.

Discussion Questions

1. Have you ever thought that a candidate you supported won a political debate you watched, while friends who supported the opposing candidate thought their candidate won?  Why might that have happened?

2. Do you remember your grades from high school?  If you wrote them all down and are like most people, you would have remembered doing better than you actually did.  As time passes, the average memory becomes even less accurate and almost always in the same direction of remembering that you did better (rather than worse) than you actually did.  What phenomenon is at work here?

3. Can you think of an ethical situation you have been in where the self-serving bias may have played a role in how you thought or acted?

4. Can you think of ways in which the self-serving bias may negatively impact a company’s performance?  Explain.

5. How can you guard against the self-serving bias in your ethical decision-making?

6. How can a firm protect itself from the potential bad side effects of the self-serving bias as it affects employees’ decision making?

Case Studies

A Million Little Pieces

In 2003, publisher Doubleday released James Frey’s book A Million Little Pieces, marketing it as a memoir about Frey’s struggles with alcohol and drug addiction. In 2005, the book was selected for Oprah’s Book Club, in part for the inspiring and supposedly true story of Frey’s overcoming addiction. The publicity from The Oprah Winfrey Show sparked strong sales for the book, which topped bestseller lists in the following weeks.

On January 8, 2006, investigative website The Smoking Gun published an exposé describing numerous exaggerations and fabrications in Frey’s account of his life story as written, creating controversy regarding the truthfulness of the book as a “memoir.” When Frey first appeared on The Oprah Winfrey Show in 2005, he emphasized his honesty: “If I was going to write a book that was true, and I was going to write a book that was honest, then I was going to have to write about myself in very negative ways.” As he did so, he expanded on falsehoods that appeared in the book.

Frey and his publisher, Nan Talese, were unable to effectively refute The Smoking Gun allegations. When Winfrey invited Frey back on her show, she harangued him for lying, saying that she felt “duped” and that Frey had “betrayed millions of readers.” Talese described Winfrey’s rebuke of Frey as “mean and self-serving,” while critics of Frey saw him as opportunistic.

Frey defended the right of authors and memoirists to draw upon their memories, not only upon documented facts: “I wanted the stories in the book to ebb and flow, to have dramatic arcs, to have the tension that all great stories require.” Authors and literary critics have echoed this sentiment, noting that memoirs are not necessarily the same genre as biographies or autobiographies. When asked about this controversy, author Joyce Carol Oates stated, “the tradition of personal memoir has always been highly ‘fictionalized’ — colored with an individual’s own ‘emotional truth’ … This is an ethical issue…with convincing arguments on both sides. In the end, [Winfrey] had to defend her own ethical standards of truth on her television program, which was courageous of her; and [Talese] had to defend her standards as a longtime revered editor, which was courageous of her.”

Discussion Questions

1. In what ways is self-serving bias apparent in this case regarding James Frey? Regarding Oprah Winfrey? Do you think one’s position is more ethically defensible than the other’s? Why or why not?

2. Do you believe authors should adhere only to fact in memoirs? Why or why not? Do you think authors have a responsibility to tell the truth to their audiences? Explain.

3. Cultural critic Laura Kipnis writes, “If Frey, an aspiring novelist, harnessed himself to the engine of the recovery narrative to get his story into print, his readers compromised themselves too, swallowing his writerly affectations like pills mashed up in applesauce, so eager for a fix of recovery lit that the eye-blinking grandiosities [of the book] barely registered.” Do you agree with this statement? Why or why not?

4. Do you know people who seem to remember past events in their lives in ways that put themselves in a very favorable light? Do you have this tendency? Explain with examples.

5. Can you think of other examples in politics, newspapers, business, or your everyday life that seem to illustrate the impact of the self-serving bias? Explain with examples.


Teaching Notes

This video introduces the behavioral ethics bias known as the self-serving bias. The self-serving bias causes us to see things in ways that support our best interests and our pre-existing points of view. The self-serving bias can affect our judgments and decisions in a number of ways. For example, the way we judge the actions of others may not consider the situational factors affecting others’ decisions. Or, we may “frame” a political issue in a particular way that fits our own interests or point of view.

To learn about related behavioral ethics concepts, watch Fundamental Attribution Error and Framing. For a closer look at how self-serving bias affected the behavior of former lobbyist Jack Abramoff, watch In It to Win: Jack & Self-serving Bias.

The case study on this page, “A Million Little Pieces,” explores the role of the self-serving bias in the controversy caused by author James Frey’s popular memoir after it was revealed to contain numerous fabrications. For a case study that illustrates the self-serving bias in radio talk show host Rush Limbaugh’s assessment of drug abuse in the United States, read “Limbaugh on Drug Addiction.”

Terms defined in our ethics glossary that are related to the video and case studies include: framing, fundamental attribution error, and self-serving bias.

Behavioral ethics draws upon behavioral psychology, cognitive science, evolutionary biology, and related disciplines to determine how and why people make the ethical and unethical decisions that they do. Much behavioral ethics research addresses the question of why good people do bad things. Many behavioral ethics concepts are explored in detail in Concepts Unwrapped, as well as in the video case study In It to Win: The Jack Abramoff Story. Anyone who watches all (or even a good part) of these videos will have a solid introduction to behavioral ethics.

Additional Resources

Hastork, Albert H., and Hadley Cantril. 1954. “They Saw a Game: A Case Study.” Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology 49 (1): 129-134.

Koehler, Jonathan J. 1993. “The Influence of Prior Beliefs on Scientific Judgments of Evidence.” Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes 56 (1): 28-55.

Pronin, Emily, and Kathleen Schmidt. 2013. “Claims and Denials of Bias and Their Implications for Policy.” In The Behavioral Foundations of Public Policy, edited by Eldar Shafir, 195-216. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

For resources on teaching behavioral ethics, an article written by Ethics Unwrapped authors Minette Drumwright, Robert Prentice, and Cara Biasucci introduces key concepts in behavioral ethics and approaches to effective ethics instruction—including sample classroom assignments. The article, published in the Decision Sciences Journal of Innovative Education, may be downloaded here: “Behavioral Ethics and Teaching Ethical Decision Making.”

A detailed article by Robert Prentice with extensive resources for teaching behavioral ethics, published in Journal of Legal Studies Education, may be downloaded here: “Teaching Behavioral Ethics.”

An article by Robert Prentice discussing how behavioral ethics can improve the ethicality of human decision-making, published in the Notre Dame Journal of Law, Ethics & Public Policy, may be downloaded here: “Behavioral Ethics: Can It Help Lawyers (And Others) Be their Best Selves?

A dated but still serviceable introductory article about teaching behavioral ethics can be accessed through Google Scholar by searching: Prentice, Robert A. 2004. “Teaching Ethics, Heuristics, and Biases.” Journal of Business Ethics Education 1 (1): 57-74.

Transcript of Narration

Written and Narrated by

Robert Prentice, J.D.
Business, Government & Society Department 
McCombs School of Business
The University of Texas at Austin

“Psychological pressures – especially ones we’re not conscious of – often make it difficult for us to be as good as we would like to be. One of the most significant is the self-serving bias–the tendency we have to gather information, process information, and even remember information in such a manner as to advance our self-interest and support our pre-existing views.  Because of this bias, even when people try their hardest to be fair and impartial, their judgments are inevitably shaded by their own self-interest, often in ways that seem indefensible to others.

The pleasure centers in our brains light up when we are told that our beliefs are correct or that a conclusion that advances our self-interest is accurate.  Therefore it’s not surprising that people with conservative political beliefs are more likely to watch Fox News while liberals are more likely to watch MSNBC.

Not only does the self-serving bias affect the information that we seek out, it also affects how we process that information.  Thus, supporters of competing political candidates who watch the same debate each tend to conclude that “their guy” won.

The self-serving bias even affects how we remember information.  Studies show we are more likely to recall evidence that supports our point of view than evidence that opposes it.

Because of the self-serving bias, studies show that when scientists review articles, they will tend to conclude that those supporting their preexisting point of view are of higher quality than those opposing their point of view.

In 2000, an accounting industry official testified before the SEC, saying “We are professionals that follow our code of ethics and practice by the highest moral standards.  We would never be influenced by our own personal financial well being.”  This testimony reflects an embarrassing ignorance of the impact of self-interest upon all humans’ decision making.

The more subjective the judgment, the less certain the facts; and the more that’s at stake, the more influential the self-serving bias is likely to be. 

Inevitably, our self-interest clouds our ethical judgments, even in the most well-intentioned people. Don’t make the same mistake!  Guard against the self-serving bias.”