Written and Narrated by
Robert Prentice, J.D.
Business, Government & Society Department
McCombs School of Business
The University of Texas at Austin
The self-serving bias is the psychological tendency people have to gather information, process information, and even remember information in a way that advances their own self-interest. The self-serving bias influences every kind of decision we make, including moral ones.
Because of the self-serving bias, even when we try our hardest to be fair and impartial, our judgments are inevitably – and often unconsciously – shaded by our own self-interest, usually in ways that seem indefensible to those who see the situation objectively.
The self-serving bias influences how we see and interpret the world around us. For example, research shows that when a film of a rough football game was shown to fans of the two universities involved — Princeton and Dartmouth — the fans processed this information differently. Dartmouth fans mostly concluded that the Princeton players started the rough play. And Princeton fans concluded exactly the opposite.
Studies also show that basketball players who’ve had a good game tend to credit it to their own hard work and ability. But players who’ve had a bad game tend to attribute it to poor refereeing, or to coaches who didn’t call plays for them, or to bad plays by their teammates.
The self-serving bias can negatively impact our ethical decisions and actions. For example, research shows that people who cheated in a game or contest are much more likely to forget the rules they broke while remembering the rules they followed. Their selective memory allows them to still think of themselves as good people even though they’ve cheated.
As David Solomon, a scholar of behavioral finance, explains, “[n]obody is ever the villain in their own narrative. So, if someone takes actions that threaten to paint them as a bad person, they are more likely to change their opinion of what’s right and wrong, rather than change their opinion of themselves.”
No matter how well-intentioned we are, self-interest will inevitably cloud our ethical judgment. For example, a key player in the Houston Astros’ illegal sign-stealing scheme said: “We felt in our hearts that we were being more efficient and smarter than any team out there. That’s how we felt.” Everyone else saw their cheating for what it was.
It’s absolutely critical to guard against the self-serving bias. And it’s important to remember that the more that is at stake for us, the more likely we are to be swayed by the self-serving bias. Also, the less certain the facts are, and the more subjective the decision is, the more likely it is that we’ll be influenced by the self-serving bias. So, before we act, we’d be wise to view our decision through the eyes of others.