The Self-Serving Bias

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You undoubtedly know yourself better than anyone else knows you.  After all, you alone have unfettered access to your thoughts, feelings, and motivations.

At the same time, ironically, you probably know yourself less well than other people know you. 

That’s because you exist at the center of a bundle of self-protecting, self-justifying, impression-managing behaviors that you’ve practiced for so long you hardly notice them anymore – but which other people can spot a mile away.

Psychologists call it the self-serving bias.  It’s a blind spot with regard to our integrity – and an extraordinarily effective way of fooling ourselves.  In a nutshell, we commonly take credit for positive events or outcomes, but tend to blame outside factors whenever things go wrong. 

When athletes win the big game they attribute their success to talent.  If they lose they’re much quicker to complain about meteorological conditions or refs’ blown calls.  If a job interview goes well, we congratulate ourselves on being a remarkable candidate.  If we receive one of those “we regret to inform you” letters a few days later, we conclude that the interviewer had it in for us from the start. 

A majority of drivers who are hospitalized for accidents that they caused, when interviewed, profess to be better-than-average drivers.  When told that the self-serving bias tends to distort self-awareness, most people confidently report that they’re better at handling it than other people.

In fact, all things considered, a great majority of us are pretty sure we’re knocking it out of the park, while other people are living pretty messed-up lives.

Did you know that 25% of high school students believe that they belong in the top 1% of all students when it comes to social skills, and that in a poll a few years ago of 800,000 students, not one – and we mean not one single student – placed themselves in the lower half of students nationwide?  Did you know that 88% of college professors believe they should be ranked amongst the top educators?  And that 90% of pastors are convinced they are above average preachers? 

I sure am glad I’m not one of those self-deceived pastors.  It’s common knowledge that I really am an above average preacher. 

About two decades ago, U.S. News and World Report published the results of a survey in the issue that hit newsstands just before Easter.  They asked respondents, “Who do you think is most likely to go to heaven?”

That’s a provocative question for a general audience in a secular culture. 

It was not a surprise that Mother Teresa – who was alive at the time, and was the closest thing to a contemporary saint – came in first:  79% of respondents thought she was in pretty good spiritual shape.  It would be fascinating to find out why the other 21% gonged her. 

Who came in second?  Why, Oprah Winfrey, of course, at 66%. Then came Michael Jordan at 65% and General Colin Powell at 61%.  Hillary Clinton came in at 52%, with her husband Bill trailing at 46%. 

Farther down the scale were Newt Gingrich at 40% and Dennis Rodman at 28%, (who, you might recall, was revealed to be an extraterrestrial in the movie Men in Black).  Someone had to come in last.  That turned out to be O.J. Simpson at 19%. 

But here’s the real kicker.  The folks who filled out the survey were asked, “Do you think that you are on your way to heaven?”  A whopping 87% said yes, leaving Mother Teresa in the dust.  Americans are nothing if not spiritually confident.

But of course our spiritual confidence can hardly be said to be well-placed.  We all need a serious dose of reality.  We all need a serious refresher course in our ongoing need for God’s grace in every area of life – in our decisions, our words, our actions, our motives. 

What drives the self-serving bias? 

Psychologists agree that it’s fear – the fear that we’ll be found out and revealed to be phonies.  We desperately want to protect our self-image.  We don’t want to think of ourselves as negligent or incompetent or unspiritual.    

At the core of the Good News is the announcement that God has the antidote for such anxiety:  “Perfect love drives out fear” (I John 4:18). 

God’s love wins the day.  We don’t need to waste our lives struggling with impression management.  We cannot impress a God who already knows us from the inside out – better than we or anyone else can possibly know us – and still loves us.    

C.S. Lewis puts it more dramatically:

Give up yourself, and you will find your real self.  Lose your life and you will save it.  Submit to death, the death of your ambitions and favorite wishes every day and the death of your whole body in the end:  Submit with every fiber of your being, and you will find eternal life.  Keep back nothing.  Nothing that you have not given away will really be yours.  Nothing in you that has not died will ever be raised from the dead.  Look for yourself, and you will find in the long run only hatred, loneliness, despair, rage, ruin, and decay.  But look for Christ and you will find him, and with him everything else thrown in.

You can never be Mother Teresa. 

But of course you don’t need to be Mother Teresa, either.

It’s enough to be yourself, abandoned as best you can, to the God whose love will never let you down.