Self-Serving Bias: “I’m Above Average”

“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


  1. James on July 16, 2011 at 12:48 pm

    It seems to me that this bias is encouraged by society as well.

    Perhaps most notably in the schools, where the “above average” grade of a “B” is so often given for work that is truly barely above satisfactory. Even in the elite universities, it can be difficult to get a grade lower than a “B”, as these institutions have their retention rates and future donations to worry about.

    The societal encouragement of this bias does not end with ones formal education however. In current events, one need only take a cursory glance at the financial sector to see a whole set of institutions that mismanaged their business so poorly that they would have caused a complete collapse of the world-wide economy if the public at large had not bailed them out (or so the story goes).

    Yet, individuals in these institutions were still rewarded with big bonuses, and, often times, promotions, because (theoretically) their “expertise” was needed to fix the problems that that same “expertise” caused. Many of the financial institutions that survived “the crisis” are now more profitable than ever… profits that would have been impossible if not for the crisis (and subsequent bailouts). These individuals and institutions are being treated like the “cream of the crop” (never-mind “above average”) despite the fact that they are miserable failures.

    I also wonder how “intentions” play into this bias. It seems to me so often that, after an individual or an institution has performed poorly (and potentially caused pain to others), they excuse and console themselves with their “good intentions”. Whether your looking at Chairman Mao (who did “Heaven’s work”) or Goldman Sachs (who does “God’s work”), the past and present is littered with individuals and institutions who have caused untold suffering despite their “good intentions”.

    “Good intentions” clearly do not translate directly into “good actions”. I wonder if, when you have failed miserably, excusing yourself based on your good intentions is perhaps the easiest way to maintain your self-serving bias?

    • Laura on July 25, 2011 at 10:42 am

      James – I agree that our society encourages people to feel “special” in many ways that often instills unrealistic self-concepts in people. I don’t think that having an overly distorted view of one’s abilities/strengths is in the individual’s best interest at all. In many ways, a self-serving bias can be adaptive and provide people with the “boost” of self-confidence that they may need in order to reach their goals. It can easily go too far though, and when a person has an unrealistically high view on himself, then the sting of reality can hit hard.

      It amazes me how the grading system in schools seems to operate these days as well. In graduate school, I have often heard professors say that “getting a C is basically the same thing as getting an F.” The whole concept of B meaning “above average” seems to have flown right out the window.

      I think that for someone to reflect upon poor choices by justifying them with their “good intentions” is a common scenario. The truth may very well be that they had “good intentions” but this doesn’t affect the reality of the consequences. I think that there is a whole range of behaviors that people believe to be grounded in “good intentions.” I think there is an important difference between someone who is genuinely misguided/misinformed and acts based upon what they do know/believe (with their “good intentions”) and someone else who has more information/is well informed and acts in their own self-interest, only later justifying it with their “good intentions.”

      Of course, in either scenario, the results can look identical and can be equally disastrous. With that in mind, I don’t think it really “matters” at the end of the day whether someone has good intentions or not … except to the individual himself perhaps. I agree with you that falling back on the idea of acting out of good intentions after a miserable failure can be a wonderful way to maintain one’s self-serving bias. There may also be the thought that “Well, I acted with good intentions, but someone else in the same situation probably didn’t ‘mean well.'”

      Self-serving biases certainly have adaptive functions as well as potentially disastrous consequences. I think that an important determining factor in how those consequences play out has to do with the individual’s self-awareness. If one is able to honestly reflect on their actions, yet still maintain a healthy self-serving bias, it seems that those disastrous consequences would be less likely.

      Thanks for your comment!

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