Self-serving bias is the natural but erroneous tendency to perceive or believe that positive outcomes occur as a result of our internal factors or traits (intelligence, hard work, etc) and negative outcomes occur as a result of external factors (people out to harm us, bad luck, etc). Alternatively, for people who suffer from depression or low self-esteem, their tendency is to believe or perceive that a positive outcome is the result of external factors (luck, “they felt sorry for me”, etc) whereas negative outcomes are the result of internal factors (“I am useless”, “I am dumb”, etc).
Self-serving bias is related to locus of control. As the name suggests, locus of control refers to perceptions of control. People who believe that they have control over their lives, destiny, outcomes, etc, will have an internal locus of control. People who believe the opposite, that the external world is in control, to blame, etc, will have an external locus of control. Ideally, a ‘healthy’ person maintains the middle ground between the two. They recognise that in some situations they can take credit for their outcomes but at other times external factors may be responsible.
Self-serving bias and locus of control influences our mental health as both concepts are directly responsible for how we perceive and interpret events that occur within our lives. The manner in which we perceive and interpret life events, good/bad, positive/negative, etc, ultimately influences how we then respond to life – with enthusiasm and vigour or with fear and restraint. To understand self-serving bias and locus of control better, I will explore the two concepts within five key areas in life; Motivation, ego protection, depression & anxiety, stress & trauma and self-actualisation.
Motivation is the impetus for action or inaction. People who believe that they have control over their lives have a strong motivation to engage in life readily and willingly without being concerned with a hyperfocus on fear or restraint. Many faith-based religions encourage an external locus of control. People who follow faith-based religions are often content in life however they will not actively challenge life unless it is “God’s will”. These people can quickly stagnate and/or hyperfocus on the meaning of life to the point that they then suffer from an existential crisis. Similarly, people who rely solely upon an external locus of control will believe that life will always prevent them from succeeding so what is the point in even trying something new?
Many people will use self-serving bias and locus of control to soothe and protect a fragile or compromised ego. When one fails in life, the ego suffers a great embarrassment and so blaming outside factors can help the ego to regain its omnipotence and omniscience. Likewise, one can artificially inflate their ego by always attributing success to internal attributes. Think of someone who is playing a team sport. If a person attributes all of the team’s success to themselves only, by ignoring the contributions of external factors (team mates, coaches, doctors, etc), they will of course develop an ego which is not commensurate with reality.
Depression and anxiety:
Self-serving bias, locus of control and motivation can influence states of depression and anxiety. Some evolutionary perspectives of depression suggests that depression serves as a form of submission or temporary withdrawal from life in order to save finite physical and mental health resources. If one feels that no matter what they do in life, life and not them will always be in control, withdrawing from life can be seen as both necessary and advantageous in order to protect oneself from possible harm. Anxiety on the other hand is the result of future oriented thinking. A person is likely to feel more anxious about an upcoming event if they don’t perceive that they have control over what will occur or eventuate.
Stress and trauma:
Simply put, trauma is a severe form of stress. Both stress and trauma occur when one interprets life events as negative, distressing, etc and they don’t have the resources necessary to adequately to manage or cope with the resulting stress/trauma. If a person has an internal locus of control, they can view stress and trauma in one of two ways. They can attribute all blame to themselves or they can recognise that they have the power to change and overcome their stress/trauma. Likewise, if a person has an external locus of control, they can attribute all blame to another (which in some cases is wholly justifiable – rape, etc) or they may see the possibility of healing and recovering as being beyond themselves and beyond their control.
Self-actualisation is the idea that humans have an inherent ‘talent’ or ‘motivation’ to become all that they are capable of becoming. People who desire self-actualisation must recognise that they have an internal locus of control (they can control and influence their environment) and that the external world helps them to self-actualise as well (how can we learn tolerance and forgiveness if there is no one to frustrate and challenge us)? Self-serving bias and using locus of control to protect and soothe the ego can result in arrested development which of course prevents actualisation.
It is important to remember that not all mental health conditions and ‘disorders’ are the result of faulty or improper interpretations of the world or purely the result of our thoughts. It would be highly reckless and dangerous to ignore or exclude the neurobiological, genetic, social underpinnings of mental health. In saying this though, it is important to recognise that we do have a degree of control as to how we choose to interpret the world and the type of thoughts we allow to roam freely in our minds. In an ideal world, we would all be taught from birth how to interact with ourselves and our world in healthy and socially productive ways however it is often a task which is thrust upon us in our later years when the consequences of our learning experiences hold much greater weight than they did during our childhoods.