Self-Serving Bias

A self-serving bias is a cognitive bias that causes a person to view their own actions favorably or interpret events in a way that is beneficial to themselves. It typically occurs when a person attributes his or her successes to his or her own abilities but any failures to external causes.

Example of Self-Serving Bias

An example of self-serving bias can be found in a student who attributes a good grade on a test to his or her intelligence, but attributes a bad grade to an unfair test, to illness, or to insufficient preparation. In doing so, he or she is able to take credit for his or her successes while evading blame for his or her failures.

What Causes a Self-Serving Bias?

At its extreme, a self-serving bias can make it nearly impossible for a person to take responsibility for his or her actions. The constant presence of a self-serving bias might indicate a personality pattern such as narcissism.

However, this bias is also a normal part of human thinking, and most people engage in a self-serving bias at one time or another. The self-serving bias serves several useful functions, including:

  • Preserving self-esteem and helping people maintain a sense of competence, independence, and efficacy
  • Enabling people to take career, educational, and interpersonal risks without bearing the entire brunt of failure

Self-Serving Bias and Gender Differences

Researchers have long puzzled over apparent differences in mathematical ability between girls and boys. Despite outperforming boys for most of their school years, girls take fewer math classes and are less likely to believe they are good at math. An inversion of the self-serving bias may be to blame. Some studies have found that girls tend to attribute mathematical successes to hard work and mathematical failures to incompetence. Boys, conversely, engage in a self-serving bias and attribute successes to intelligence and failures to external factors. Boys also tend to overestimate their mathematical competence. This real-life example of a self-serving bias demonstrates how the bias can actually improve performance by encouraging boys to remain in challenging math classes.


  1. Colman, A. M. (2006). Oxford dictionary of psychology. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.
  2. Fine, C. (2010). Delusions of gender: How our minds, society, and neurosexism create difference. New York, NY: W. W. Norton.

Last Updated: 08-24-2015

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  • cristalexi

    January 13th, 2014 at 5:22 AM

    I’ve noticed a lot of professionals do this, especially in areas where it is difficult to establish performance, such as mental health. They tend to take credit when a client is doing well but it’s the client’s fault when they don’t do so well.

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