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!”