Your brain protects you by shielding you from distressing realizations. Humans have a tendency to blame external forces when bad things happen and give ourselves credit when things go well. Social psychologists label this phenomenon the ” self-serving bias”. A self-serving bias is a defence mechanism that protects your self-esteem.
Examples of self-serving bias
When your brain is functioning in a healthy manner it will attribute achievements to you you and deflect failure as something beyond your control. For instance, if you managed to get that job offer, you’re self-serving bias would lead you to believe that it’s because you were well prepared. However, if your application/interview was unsuccessful you might believe that it was because the interviewer did not fully appreciate your skills and talents.
More examples of how your brain protects you:
- You may see somebody drop litter and be annoyed by this behaviour and judge the other person. You may end up leaving a piece of litter behind and not see it in the same way – perhaps you say to yourself that there wasn’t adequate refuse facilities available. We regularly judge ourselves differently from the way we judge others.
- Following a car accident, parties involved blame each other for causing the crash.
Why your brain protects you
Nobody wants to feel bad about themselves and resisting a bias towards ourselves allows us to believe the best in ourselves. There are many ways that we attempt to protect our self-esteem and confidence and cognitive bias is an effective mechanism. Interestingly, older adults tend to make more internal attributions – their credit themselves for their successes. Men are more likely to make external attribution, meaning that they blame outside forces for their failures.
How depression affects our self-serving bias
Depression reverses our self-serving bias. A depressed individual things to blame themselves for everything that is going wrong and when something does go right the attribute that two external influences. Depression distorts our perceptions and we become very negative about ourselves and our abilities.
Another interesting fact is that self-serving bias is frequently seen in western cultures but is not as prevalent in Eastern cultures like Japan or China. Western cultures place more importance on personal achievement and self-confidence thereby protecting the self from feelings of inadequacy. The Eastern cultures tend to be more Collective and I’m more likely to attribute personal success to luck and failures to lack of talent.
Relationships also reverse the self-serving bias because we tend to be more modest with our Partners and close friendships. Partners and friends tend to keep you grounded.
Positive Side of Self-Serving Bias
One advantage of this bias is that it leads people to persevere even in the face of adversity. An unemployed worker may feel more motivated to keep looking for work if he attributes his joblessness to a weak economy, for instance, rather than some personal failing. An athlete might feel more motivated to perform well if she believes that her failure during a previous event was the result of bad weather rather than a lack of skill.
Our brains are incredible, the plasticity, cognitive shortcuts, closure – we have an amazing ‘onboard’ intelligence system!