Favoring ourselves: Biased attribution

Intuition suggests and studies have repeatedly confirmed that most people, most of the time, overestimate themselves. They exaggerate the extent of their control over their lives. They blame personal misfortunes and failures on accident, circumstances, or other people, and give credit for success to their own enduring virtues. That is, they tend to attribute favorable outcomes to causes that are internal (themselves), stable (for example, personality or ability rather than circumstances), and global (reflecting their overall competence or value). They are more likely to suggest external, unstable, and local causes for unfavorable outcomes. Psychologists call it a self-serving attributional bias.

A meta-analysis of more than 250 studies including more than 40,000 participants confirms that the bias is pervasive and powerful, whether tested by hypothetical questions, psychological experiments, or real-life situations. In the studies covered, the average person was far more likely to give himself or herself credit for successful outcomes than to take the blame for unfavorable results.

But the bias was not the same in all people and in all circumstances. Age, sex, culture, and psychiatric disorders made a difference. The bias proved to be strongest in children, who may not always have a clear idea of personal failure, and more surprisingly, in people over 55. The increased bias in old age was mostly confined to women. It is sometimes said that women are more likely than men to blame themselves when things go wrong and men more likely to congratulate themselves when things go well. But the meta-analysis showed a significant difference between the sexes only at ages 25–55, which is, not coincidentally, the time of life when women have a higher rate of depression than men.

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