Imagine you’re trying to get your driver’s license.
If you pass your driving test on the first try, you’ll probably think it happened because of your excellent driving skills.
But if you fail, you’ll likely blame it on the incompetent examiner, the awful car, the bad weather or, well, pretty much anything else other than your own performance.
The Self-Serving Bias
“If it worked, it was because of me. If it didn’t, it was because of someone or something else.”
This kind of reasoning takes place all the time and, on a psychological level, it makes sense.
We all feel a need to protect and build our self-esteem, and a mental quirk called the self-serving bias helps us do that.
Studies on the self-serving bias have found that it shows up in a wide variety of situations, including:
- School — If a student gets a good grade, it’s because of his hard work and intelligence. But if he gets a bad grade, it’s because of the poor teacher or the unfair test.
- Work — If a job applicant gets hired, it’s because of her qualifications. But if she doesn’t, it’s because the interviewer didn’t like her.
- Sports — If a team wins a game, it’s because of practice and skill. But if they lose, it’s because of the referee.
Personality vs Circumstances
We also consistently make what psychologists refer to as the “fundamental attribution error.” When other people make mistakes, we blame the person. But when we make mistakes ourselves, we blame the circumstances.
Let’s say you’ve gotten your driver’s license (thanks to your excellent driving skills, of course), and you’re cruising down the highway when, suddenly, somebody passes you going well over the speed limit. In this scenario, you’ll likely conclude that the other driver is a reckless jerk.
But if the roles were reversed, and you’re the one driving too fast, you’d probably blame the circumstances instead. Unlike other drivers, you’re not some irresponsible maniac. If you’re speeding, it’s because the situation, perhaps an emergency, warranted it.
Better Than Most
With these tendencies in mind, it’s no surprise we also rate ourselves more positively than others. Research on what psychologists call “illusory superiority” shows that most of us consider ourselves better than average in school, at work, in social settings, and in many other situations.
Reasoning this way feels good. It helps us save face, hang on to our self-esteem, and avoid hurtful emotions like shame. But it also prevents our learning and growth.
If you blame your failures on the circumstances, there’s not much you can do about it. But if you accept responsibility for them, you can improve and do better next time.
Own Your Setbacks
Be mindful of your tendency to irrationally protect your self-esteem. When you experience setbacks, resist the urge to pass the blame, and take ownership instead.
Don’t ask “Whose fault is this?” but “What can I learn from this?”
That way, you can continually course-correct, make wiser decisions, and get better results.