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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?

A Million Little Pieces

A Million Little Pieces

James Frey’s popular memoir stirred controversy and media attention after it was revealed to contain numerous exaggerations and fabrications.


Myanmar Amber

Myanmar Amber

Buying amber could potentially fund an ethnic civil war, but refraining allows collectors to acquire important specimens that could be used for research.


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

The latest resource from Ethics Unwrapped is a book, Behavioral Ethics in Practice: Why We Sometimes Make the Wrong Decisions, written by Cara Biasucci and Robert Prentice. This accessible book is amply footnoted with behavioral ethics studies and associated research. It also includes suggestions at the end of each chapter for related Ethics Unwrapped videos and case studies. Some instructors use this resource to educate themselves, while others use it in lieu of (or in addition to) a textbook.

Cara Biasucci also recently wrote a chapter on integrating Ethics Unwrapped in higher education, which can be found in the latest edition of Teaching Ethics: Instructional Models, Methods and Modalities for University Studies. The chapter includes examples of how Ethics Unwrapped is used at various universities.

The most recent article written by Cara Biasucci and Robert Prentice describes the basics of behavioral ethics and introduces Ethics Unwrapped videos and supporting materials along with teaching examples. It also includes data on the efficacy of Ethics Unwrapped for improving ethics pedagogy across disciplines. Published in Journal of Business Law and Ethics Pedagogy (Vol. 1, August 2018), it can be downloaded here: “Teaching Behavioral Ethics (Using “Ethics Unwrapped” Videos and Educational Materials).”

An article written by Ethics Unwrapped authors Minette Drumwright, Robert Prentice, and Cara Biasucci introduce key concepts in behavioral ethics and approaches to effective ethics instruction—including sample classroom assignments. Published in the Decision Sciences Journal of Innovative Education, it can be downloaded here: “Behavioral Ethics and Teaching Ethical Decision Making.”

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

Another article by Robert Prentice, discussing how behavioral ethics can improve the ethicality of human decision-making, was published in the Notre Dame Journal of Law, Ethics & Public Policy. It can 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 are 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 is 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 that 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 pre-existing point of view are of higher quality than those opposing their point of view.

An accountant 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 reflected an embarrassing ignorance of the impact of self-interest upon all humans’ decision-making.

Inevitably, our self-interest clouds our ethical judgement, even in the most well-intentioned people. The more subjective the judgement, the less certain the facts; and the more that is at stake, the more influential the self-serving bias is likely to be. Don’t make the same mistake! Guard against the self-serving bias!”


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.