Ethics Unwrapped Blog

Self-Serving Bias

The self-serving bias is the tendency people have to seek out information and use it in ways that advance their self-interest. In other words, people often unconsciously make decisions that serve themselves in ways that other people might view as indefensible or unethical.

Studies show that we can easily see how the self-serving bias affects others’ actions, but we have difficulty realizing how it affects our own.

For example, doctors tend to believe that they are immune from the influence of gifts they receive from pharmaceutical companies. But studies show those gifts have a significant effect on what medications doctors prescribe. One study found that 64% of doctors believed that the freebies they received from pharmaceutical companies influenced other doctors. However, only 16% of doctors thought it affected their own actions.

So, the self-serving bias often blinds us to the ways in which we are prejudice in favor of ourselves. Indeed, it can cause even the most well-intentioned of us to completely overlook our own bad actions.

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Fundamental Attribution Error

The fundamental attribution error is the tendency people have to overemphasize personal characteristics and ignore situational factors in judging others’ behavior. Because of the fundamental attribution error, we tend to believe that others do bad things because they are bad people. We’re inclined to ignore situational factors that might have played a role.

For example, if someone cuts us off while driving, our first thought might be “What a jerk!” instead of considering the possibility that the driver is rushing someone to the airport. On the flip side, when we cut someone off in traffic, we tend to convince ourselves that we had to do so.  We focus on situational factors, like being late to a meeting, and ignore what our behavior might say about our own character.

For example, in one study when something bad happened to someone else, subjects blamed that person’s behavior or personality 65% of the time. But, when something bad happened to the subjects, they blamed themselves only 44% of the time, blaming the situation they were in much more often.

So, the fundamental attribution error explains why we often judge others harshly while letting ourselves off the hook at the same time by rationalizing our own unethical behavior.

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