Back to Psychology: Self-Serving Bias

Alan Greenspan has been reflecting on the meaning behind Trump’s win and the Brexit vote:

The rise of “economic populism” around the world has come from years of low growth that have “seriously impaired” the global economy, former Fed Chairman Alan Greenspan said Thursday.

Once known as the “Maestro” of the American economy, the 90-year-old Greenspan said in a speech that the “surprise electoral wind of Donald Trump” in the U.S. and the Brexit vote in Britain are the two most glaring examples of a movement that is taking the world by storm.

“Populism is not a structured economic philosophy such as capitalism, socialism or communism,” he told an audience at the Economic Club of New York. “But it’s a cry of pain by the populace for some leaders to arise to take charge and lessen their pain.”

Psychology has other ideas about the “cry of pain”:

A self-serving bias is any cognitive or perceptual process that is distorted by the need to maintain and enhance self-esteem, or the tendency to perceive oneself in an overly favorable manner.[1] It is the belief that individuals tend to ascribe success to their own abilities and efforts, but ascribe failure to external factors.[2] When individuals reject the validity of negative feedback, focus on their strengths and achievements but overlook their faults and failures, or take more responsibility for their group’s work than they give to other members, they are protecting the ego from threat and injury. These cognitive and perceptual tendencies perpetuate illusions and error, but they also serve the self’s need for esteem.[3] For example, a student who attributes earning a good grade on an exam to their own intelligence and preparation but attributes earning a poor grade to the teacher’s poor teaching ability or unfair test questions is exhibiting the self-serving bias. Studies have shown that similar attributions are made in various situations, such as the workplace,[4] interpersonal relationships,[5] sports,[6] and consumer decisions.[7]

Here’s another take on the matter, courtesy of

A self-serving bias is a cognitive bias that causes a person to view their own actions favorably or interpret events in a way that is beneficial to themselves. It typically occurs when a person attributes his or her successes to his or her own abilities but any failures to external causes.

The site gives an excellent example:

Researchers have long puzzled over apparent differences in mathematical ability between girls and boys. Despite outperforming boys for most of their school years, girls take fewer math classes and are less likely to believe they are good at math. An inversion of the self-serving bias may be to blame. Some studies have found that girls tend to attribute mathematical successes to hard work and mathematical failures to incompetence. Boys, conversely, engage in a self-serving bias and attribute successes to intelligence and failures to external factors. Boys also tend to overestimate their mathematical competence. This real-life example of a self-serving bias demonstrates how the bias can actually improve performance by encouraging boys to remain in challenging math classes.

Trump has said a lot about the “pain” that he alone can heal:

While self-serving bias can be beneficial in addressing self-esteem issues, it can be disastrous in collective settings – especially within the democratic selection of governments. The only remedy that I saw in my admittedly short search came from an old article in Psychology Today by Heidi Halvorson:

From a motivational perspective, the best way to handle a failure is to look honestly at how your own actions contributed to the outcome, emphasizing what you can change so that your performance improves from now on. And even though, in his mid-80s, Alan Greenspan is unlikely to serve a second round as Fed Chairman, he would probably like to get an accurate handle on what went wrong — something he will never do unless he admits that he was actually driving.

Looking at yourself is good advice in general but in a political context the “self” is usually not much of a player. Better advice is to try to look at the facts, to do your own research. Trump’s repeated slogans, “make America great again,” “drain the swamp,” “the American dream is dead,” etc. shaped voters’ outlooks on current circumstances. A closer look at the facts, which are now available to us all, shows a very different picture from that which he painted (January 3, 2017). Among the large developed countries we are probably in the best shape; climate change, which is almost certainly human-inflicted, is a solid fact independent of today’s weather in New York City. This referral to the facts can start in schools with teachers discussing election issues in class and continue in libraries where the general public can arrange free fact-checking events while avoiding political bias. Such a change in education will take time. I don’t see an effective shortcut. We will have to do the best we can until any educational efforts bear fruits. In the meantime we should do the best we can to minimize the damage that a bad choice of government can inflict on our long-term opportunities.

About climatechangefork

Micha Tomkiewicz, Ph.D., is a professor of physics in the Department of Physics, Brooklyn College, the City University of New York. He is also a professor of physics and chemistry in the School for Graduate Studies of the City University of New York. In addition, he is the founding-director of the Environmental Studies Program at Brooklyn College as well as director of the Electrochemistry Institute at that same institution.
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One Response to Back to Psychology: Self-Serving Bias

  1. Kamila Shojaa says:

    Before I take this course I thought that self-serving does help a person to get what he or she wants but by negative but now a little bit view differently

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