The Situationist

Self-Serving Biases

Posted by The Situationist Staff on May 24, 2007

Person Looking in MirrorKyung M. Song of the Seattle Times has an interesting article on how we tend to think that we are better than we are. We have excerpted portions of the article below.

* * *

David Dunning played the cello seriously as a teen — and he thought himself quite talented.

Then Dunning heard a recording by Jacqueline du Pre, the late English cellist who was renowned for playing with a brilliant ferocity. “So that’s what you do with that instrument,” a chastened Dunning, now professor of psychology at Cornell University, recalls thinking. “I had no clue that you could do that with the cello.”

Dunning’s epiphany was a classic example of a phenomenon familiar to social psychologists: flawed self-assessment. People — as researchers have documented again and again — systematically misjudge their competence, virtues, relevance and future actions. And those erroneous views can, researchers say, endanger health, ruin relationships, dent finances and cause other misery.

People generally consider themselves smarter, luckier, better-looking and more important than they really are. They regard themselves as exceptional and believe that they will avoid the divorces, premature deaths or weight gains that befall everyone else.

Self-serving biases permeate people’s perceptions. They claim credit for good deeds and successes but shift blame to others for their failures. A Toronto motorist captured this tendency on an insurance form: “A pedestrian hit me and went under my car.”

“Most of us have a good reputation with ourselves,” says David Myers, a professor at Hope College in Holland, Mich., who wrote the textbook Social Psychology.

* * *

People’s high self-regard tends to be unjustified, social psychologists say. The link between people’s personal estimations and the not-so-flattering reality is sometimes perilously weak.

In a 1977 study, 94 percent of college professors ranked themselves as above-average, even though by definition only 50 percent can be in the top half.

* * *

Some social psychologists argue that shortcomings in self-assessment in laboratories are inconsequential or artificial. But researchers amassed persuasive data showing that people — at least North Americans — commit systematic errors in perceptions that can jeopardize their health or sabotage careers.

People with unrealistic optimism are less likely to say they intend to get a flu shot. They are more likely to chance high-risk sex or disregard doctors’ orders. They also risk wasting money on gym memberships by overestimating how often they will work out, Dunning says, or by miscalculating how carefully they will monitor their cellphone minutes.

Employees with flawed self-views might reject their supervisor’s valid, but negative, reviews. Then they feel cheated with their “paltry” raises. Husbands and wives separately tallying how much each contributes to household chores produce estimates that add up to more than 100 percent.

* * *

External feedback is critical because recognizing your own biases is intrinsically difficult.

“It’s like trying to scratch an itch in the middle of your back,” says Chip Heath, professor of organizational behavior at Stanford University. “You can do it, but it’s easier for someone else to help you out.”

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To read the rest of the article, click here.


4 Responses to “Self-Serving Biases”

  1. Doug S. said

    This isn’t exactly news, but it still bears repeating.

  2. […] here. For related posts on how people understand themselves and the difference it makes, see “Self-Serving Biases,” “The Perils of ‘Being Smart’ (or Not So Much),” and […]

  3. […] a previous posts, we described “optimism bias” (see “Self-Serving Biases“) and some of its effects (see “Some Situational Sources of War” and “The […]

  4. […] a sample of related Situationist posts, see “Self-Serving Biases,” “The Motivated Situation of Inequality and Discrimination,” “Thanksgiving as […]

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