When we fail this is not expected and therefore we are more likely to look for causes outside ourselves. However, this explanation is refuted by a the results of a study by Miller (1976) who gave Pps a test of social perceptiveness and then randomly told them that they had either passed or failed.

Half were told it was a well standardised and valid assessment and half were told it was a poor assessment. This meant that for those who thought they had failed in the latter category they had no need to show self protecting bias as they already had a reason as to why they may have received a poor score, (the test was poor and actually they are very good at this social perception).

The group who did badly but believed the test was a valid tool should be motivated to show self protecting bias and make external attributions about their failure. As the motivational account would suggest this group were more likely to use SPB than the other groups.

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The use of self serving

Having discussed the possible reasons for the use of self serving bias let us consider whether this is indeed a universal concept. Gross, (2006) says that "No-one wants to admit to being incompetent, so we're more likely to blame out failures on something external to ourselves" while we are "Quite happy to take credit for our successes" however it would appear that this is not strictly the case. As argued above the drive to maintain self esteem is the most plausible explanation for self serving bias yet a wealth of research suggests that there are "major cultural differences in the importance attached to high-self esteem" (Eysenck, 2009).

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Heine et al (1999) note that in some collectivist cultures "To say that an individual is self confident gets in the way of interdependence or it reveals ones failure to recognise higher standards of excellence and thus to continue to self improve or both" and since esteem is derived from group accomplishments and not from individual achievements, participants in cultures including China and Japan and Nepal have a tendency to demonstrate what has been termed the 'self-effacement' or modesty bias, (Chandler et al 19999, Watkins and Regmi, 1990). Here, successes are attributed to external factors such as luck and failures to internal factors such as lack of effort, (Kitayama and Markus 1995).

This concept is supported by many well controlled studies in a range if cultures. For example Kashima and Trriandis (1986) asked American and Japanese students to remember details from slides of landscapes of unknown countries. Interestingly, a universal 'actors observer bias' was supported here as the majority of participants from both cultures tended to explain their success in terms of luck and failure in terms of task difficulty (situational factors) however American participants were more inclined to explain their success in terms of high ability than their failures in terms of low ability (self-enhancing bias) whilst Japanese participants were more likely to show the opposite pattern; i.e. failure was more likely to be put down to low ability than success was put down to high ability.

A study by Bon, Leung, Wan

Furthermore, a study by Bon, Leung, Wan (1982) with Chinese students indicated that those who showed the modesty bias were more popular with their peers than those who showed the self serving bias and this study is useful as it shows how the modesty bias is reinforced by social interaction and the perception of others.

The research above demonstrates that self serving bias may not be a cultural universal and Nagayama Hall and Barongan (2002) argue that it may also be more common in males than females, as Western females are more allied to the values of collectivism (e.g. importance of relationships, the needs of others, connectedness) and therefore the modesty bias may be more likely to be used to gain acceptance and maintain esteem.

Finally it should also be noted, again against Gross' (2006) quote, that not every-one is happy to take credit for their successes. Many cognitive researchers in the field of clinical psychology have demonstrated that depression may be under-pinned by the 'depressive attributional style' (e.g. Abramson et al 1978) whereby personal failures are attributed to internal, stable and global causes. Cognitive therapists teach people with depression to re-assess these distorted attributions and encourage the use of self serving bias as an alternative way of thinking. These theories do not explain however, why certain individuals are more or less predisposed to a certain type of attributional style, be it self-serving or otherwise.


In this essay, it has been argued that self serving bias may be more common in Westerners and may serve to increase or maintain self esteem. It also been argued that self enhancing bias is better supported by the literature than self protecting bias, i.e. attributing failure to external circumstances. Research suggests that when people are aware that their achievements may be open to further scrutiny in the future, they may be less likely to use the self serving bias and may in fact use a related concept known as self-handicapping whereby possible future failure is covered by lowering expectations of success by focusing on situational factors.

This way success will seem even greater as it was achieved apparently against the odds, and failure is less likely to be seen as due to an enduring problem with the individual. This leads to an interesting final thought relating to whether attributions made are private or public; private attributions may still be shaped by over-riding social norms however, those attributions that are communicated to others publically are most likely to be determined by the values of the society in which we live and therefore research in this area is troublesome as we cannot be sure whether the attributions that we are accessing are indeed a full record of the inner rationalisations that the individuals makes to him or herself at an intra-personal level.

Updated: May 19, 2021
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Situational factors. (2020, Jun 02). Retrieved from

Situational factors essay
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