You may recall that the process of making causal attributions is supposed to proceed in a careful, rational, and even scientific manner. But this assumption turns out to be, at least in part, untrue. Our attributions are sometimes biased by affect—particularly the desire to enhance the self that we talked about in Chapter 3. Although we would like to think that we are always rational and accurate in our attributions, we often tend to distort them to make us feel better. Self-serving attributions are attributions that help us meet our desire to see ourselves positively (Mezulis, Abramson, Hyde, & Hankin, 2004). A particularly common example is the self-serving bias, which is the tendency to attribute our successes to ourselves, and our failures to others and the situation.
We all make self-enhancing attributions from time to time. If a teacher’s students do well on an exam, he may make a personal attribution for their successes (“I am, after all, a great teacher!”). On the other hand, when they do poorly on an exam, the teacher may tend to make a situational attribution and blame them for their failure (“Why didn’t you all study harder?”). You can see that this process is clearly not the type of scientific, rational, and careful process that attribution theory suggests the teacher should be following. It’s unfair, although it does make him feel better about himself. If he were really acting like a scientist, however, he would determine ahead of time what causes good or poor exam scores and make the appropriate attribution, regardless of the outcome.
You might have noticed yourself making self-serving attributions too. Perhaps you have blamed another driver for an accident that you were in or blamed your partner rather than yourself for a breakup. Or perhaps you have taken credit (internal) for your successes but blamed your failures on external causes. If these judgments were somewhat less than accurate, but they did benefit you, then they were indeed self-serving.
Interestingly, we do not as often show this bias when making attributions about the successes and setbacks of others. This tendency to make more charitable attributions about ourselves than others about positive and negative outcomes often links to the actor-observer difference that we mentioned earlier in this section. It appears that the tendency to make external attributions about our own behavior and internal attributions about the conduct of others is particularly strong in situations where the behavior involves undesirable outcomes. This was dramatically illustrated in some fascinating research by Baumeister, Stillwell, and Wotman (1990). In this study, the researchers analyzed the accounts people gave of an experience they identified where they angered someone else (i.e., when they were the perpetrator of a behavior leading to an unpleasant outcome) and another one where someone else angered them (i.e., they were the victim).
The differences in attributions made in these two situations were considerable. When accounting for themselves as perpetrators, people tended to emphasize situational factors to describe their behavior as an isolated incident that was a meaningful, understandable response to the situation, and to assert that the action caused no lasting harm. When they were the victims, on the other hand, they explained the perpetrator’s behavior by focusing on the presumed character defects of the person and by describing the behavior as an arbitrary and senseless action, taking place in an ongoing context of abusive behavior that caused lasting harm to them as victims. These sobering findings have some profound implications for many important social issues, including reconciliation between individuals and groups who have been in conflict. In a more everyday way, they perhaps remind us of the need to try to extend the same understanding we give to ourselves in making sense of our behaviors to the people around us in our communities. Too many times in human history we have failed to understand and even demonized other people because of these types of attributional biases.
Why are these self-serving attributional biases so common? One answer, that we have already alluded to, is that they can help to maintain and enhance self-esteem. Consistent with this idea is that there are some cross-cultural differences, reflecting the different amounts of self-enhancement that were discussed in The Self. Specifically, self-serving bias is less apparent in members of collectivistic than individualistic cultures (Mezulis, Abramson, Hyde, & Hankin, 2004).
Another important reason is that when we make attributions, we are not only interested in causality, we are often interested in responsibility. Fincham and Jaspers (1980) argued that, as well as acting like lay scientists, hunting for the causes of behavior, we are also often akin to lay lawyers, seeking to assign responsibility. We want to know not just why something happened, but also who is to blame. Indeed, it is hard to make an attribution of cause without also making a claim about responsibility. When we attribute someone’s angry outburst to an internal factor, like an aggressive personality, as opposed to an external cause, such as a stressful situation, we are, implicitly or otherwise, also placing more blame on that person in the former case than in the latter. Seeing attribution as also being about responsibility sheds some interesting further light on the self-serving bias. Perhaps we make external attributions for failure partly because it is easier to blame others or the situation than it is ourselves. In the victim-perpetrator accounts outlined by Baumeister, Stillwell, and Wotman (1990), maybe they were partly about either absolving or assigning responsibility, respectively. Indeed, there are a number of other attributional biases that are also relevant to considerations of responsibility. It is to these that we will now turn.