“The true means of being misled is to believe oneself finer than the others.” – Francois de La Rochefoucauld
The vast majority of us have a general sense of being smarter, funnier, or better-looking than your run of the mill “average” person. But how is this possible? We can’t all be above average … right? Self-serving bias is the tendency to perceive ourselves favorably.
This also happens when we attribute our successes to internal qualities (e.g., “I did well because I’m smart” or “I won because I worked really hard”) while we tend to attribute our failures to external events or bad luck (e.g., “I didn’t do well because that professor is unfair” or “I got fired because my boss is a jerk”).
It is painful to reflect upon the possibility that our failures in life are actually our own doing and that perhaps one or two of those great successes was due entirely to chance. We all have the need to believe that when things go well in our lives, it’s because we had something to do with it, and when things go poorly, it’s not our “fault.”
According to Myers, “on most subjective and socially desirable dimensions, most people see themselves as better than the average person” (2005, p. 69). Of course, it’s not possible that we are all above average. The concept of “average” would quickly lose its meaning if this were the case.
Areas in Life to Notice Self-Serving Bias
There are a multitude of areas in life where a self-serving bias can be readily found (Myers, 2005):
- Ethics: Most business people tend to rate themselves as “more ethical” than others in business. In fact, in a 1997 national survey asking people how they would rate their own morals and values on a scale from 1 to 100 (100 = perfect), 50% of those people rated themselves 90 or above. A scant 11% rated themselves as 74 or less.
- Professional Competence: The vast majority of business managers (90%) rate their performance as superior to their peers and most surgeons believe the mortality rate of their patients is lower than average.
- Virtues: Most high school students in the Netherlands rate themselves as more friendly, honest, and reliable than the average high school student.
- Driving: The majority of drivers (including those who have been hospitalized for car accidents) perceive themselves to be safer drivers than the average driver.
- Intelligence: Most people consider themselves to be more intelligent, more attractive, and less prejudiced than most people. Almost comically, when outperformed, most people consider the other person to be a “genius.”
- Tolerance: According to a 1997 Gallup poll, 14% of white Americans rated their prejudice against Blacks as a 5 (on a scale of 1 – 10), although they rated 44% of other Whites as being more prejudiced (5 or above).
- Parental Support: The majority of adults perceive themselves as giving more support to their aging parents than their siblings.
- Health: Most college students believe that they will outlive their predicted age of death by 10 years.
- Insight: Most of us tend to believe that we understand others better than they understand us. We also tend to believe than we understand ourselves better than other people understand themselves.
- Freedom from Bias: People tend to see themselves as freer from the effects of bias than most other people.
I‘m feeling quite relieved to know that most of us are so stunningly amazing! It seems that many of us are feeling quite pleased with ourselves. However, before we start feeling bad about ourselves or getting irritated with others for feeling so darned wonderful, consider the multitude of adaptive purposes than a self-serving bias, well – serves.
When we see ourselves in a favorable light, we feel more inspired and optimistic. We are more motivated to better ourselves and those around us. If we saw our every flaw or shortcoming, it would be easy to get bogged down in the negative details and lose sight of our positive traits.
Just because most of us tend to see ourselves as “better” than others in a multitude of ways, that does not necessarily mean that one is narcissistic or overly self-involved. We must rely on ourselves to take positive actions that will move us closer to our chosen goals, dreams, and aspirations. If that involves giving ourselves the occasional pat on the back, so be it. It works.
As long as we don’t completely lose sight of the ability and willingness to be open to honest feedback about our behaviors from others and to be honest with ourselves when we make mistakes, there is usually no harm in feeling good about yourself. This allows us to build up a healthy sense of self-esteem and cultivate a sense of self-efficacy.
Life is guaranteed to give us all enough “reality checks” that a bit of self-serving bias usually has the effect of giving us the willpower and positive feelings necessary to thrive. How to realistically perceive yourself and your abilities? Try cultivating a balance between a completely harsh view of the self and an overly rosy view. The truth is usually somewhere in between.
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Myers, D. (2005). The self in a social world. In Social psychology (8th edition) (pp. 39-81). New York, NY: McGraw-Hill.
Featured image: Arms crossed by Forest Runner / CC BY 2.0