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Self-serving bias: How we distort our beliefs about others to feel better

We all crave a little validation now and then. A sincere “great job” can boost our spirits and even motivate us to try harder. But what if those well-intentioned compliments are actually getting in the way of our growth? A new study from the University of Portsmouth suggests that sometimes a sprinkle of praise, part of self-serving bias, can lead to some serious self-deception.

Decoding self-serving bias

Let’s be honest – we all have a tendency to give ourselves a bit more credit than we might deserve. Psychologists call this “self-serving bias.” This means we instinctively emphasize our strengths and positive contributions, while minimizing our shortcomings.

When things go well, we’re likely to see it as proof of our own talents and efforts. On the flip side, when we stumble, it’s tempting to chalk it up to bad luck, unfair circumstances, or factors beyond our control. This tendency helps us maintain a positive self-image and protect our feelings of self-worth.

However, the Portsmouth study demonstrates the potential downside of self-serving bias: it can seriously cloud our judgment of others. We might overestimate the abilities of colleagues or teammates, making us overlook opportunities to work with people who could bring greater skills to the table.

Self-serving bias in robots and humans

The Portsmouth researchers designed an insightful experiment to explore this self-serving bias. Students first took an online quiz. Then, they were assigned a partner for subsequent tasks — either a fellow human student or a robot partner.

When participants were paired with a real person, a pattern of overconfidence emerged. They tended to inflate both their own abilities and their partner’s skills within their assessment.

This skewed perception led to less-than-ideal decision-making, with participants often choosing to continue working with underperforming teammates rather than potentially seeking a more skilled partner.

The fascinating twist lies in the trials where students were paired with a robot. Suddenly, their judgment became significantly more accurate.

They were better able to evaluate their own performance more objectively, minimizing the self-serving bias that had previously influenced their views of their human partners.

Why do we bend our beliefs?

“You might find yourself overestimating a colleague’s proficiency to justify delegating tasks, thereby avoiding the stress of extra work and the potential revelation of your own shortcomings,” explains Dr. Zahra Murad, co-author of the study.

Essentially, by overestimating the skills of those around us, we create an environment where our own shortcomings feel less significant by comparison. It’s a subtle, subconscious protective mechanism — we shield our egos from potential discomfort.

This might provide a temporary boost of confidence, but it ultimately leads to missed opportunities for growth and improvement. By settling for the illusion of being surrounded by competent individuals, we risk overlooking chances to learn from those who could truly challenge and elevate us.

Compliments gone wrong

“Overconfident employees are in a way too content with their teammates and have little inclination to change teams,” states co-author, Dr. Leonie Gerhards.

When a self-serving bias becomes widespread, it creates a stagnant environment for teams. The exaggerated perception of everyone’s abilities hinders the team’s willingness to change, adapt, and seek out fresh perspectives.

In this setting, individuals are likely to miss valuable opportunities to collaborate with people possessing different skills, new ideas, or a drive to push them beyond their comfort zones.

Without those challenges and external influences, we essentially relegate ourselves to a place of limited growth, even if the current situation feels comfortable and safe. Our true potential may never be realized due to a reluctance to venture beyond what is familiar.

The strangest takeaway from this study is that a robot, devoid of the need for self-esteem, might actually make us better judges of our own abilities. Since we know a machine won’t inflate its skills and can provide objective feedback, it seems to snap us out of our biased thinking.

Who knows, maybe AI could play a role in delivering fairer, more effective feedback in workplaces and training programs?

Tips to break free of the self-serving bias

So how do we make sure compliments boost us, not blind us? Here are a few strategies:

Develop critical self-awareness

While it may feel counterintuitive, it’s crucial to approach both praise and self-assessment with a healthy dose of skepticism. Before fully accepting a compliment, take a moment to consider if it aligns with your own evaluation. Were there external circumstances that contributed to the success, or was it truly down to your own individual effort?

Prioritize specific feedback

Don’t settle for generic praise or criticism. Actively seek detailed feedback that pinpoints your strengths and areas for improvement. Ask focused questions like, “Could you identify specific things I did well in this presentation?” or “What aspects of my proposal could be made stronger?”

Embrace mistakes as learning tools

It’s natural to want to avoid failure, but mistakes can be transformative if viewed with the right mindset. Instead of attributing failures to outside factors, take ownership and see them as opportunities to identify where you can improve and refine your approach.

Openness to change

Actively seek out new challenges and collaborations. New partners and teams bring different perspectives, which can challenge your assumptions and expose you to different ways of working. Breaking out of your comfort zone allows for continuous growth and prevents stagnation.

“Consider a scenario where you want to see yourself as the key player in a team project. The simple solution for ensuring success might seem to be monopolizing the workload,” notes Dr. Alexander Coutts from Schulich School of Business, York University.

“However, this approach comes with its risks — overburdening yourself or facing the uncomfortable truth that you might not be the infallible expert you thought. Instead, our minds seek a simpler solution by reevaluating our partner’s capabilities.”

“Our findings suggest that overconfident employees are in a way too content with their teammates and have little inclination to change teams,” added co-author, Dr. Leonie Gerhards from King’s Business School at King’s College London.

“That means, where possible, organizations should deliberately re-shuffle their work teams from time to time, thereby allowing their employees to learn about their true strengths and weaknesses.”

Let’s not let fear of inadequacy trick us into settling for less. By learning to accept constructive feedback, even when it stings a little, we unlock the door to real improvement.

The study is published in The Economic Journal.


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