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HERO Skills Challenge: Breaking Bad Bias - Self-Serving Bias

It’s a sunny Saturday morning, the kind where the promise of adventure hangs palpably in the air, much like the scent of freshly cut grass. It was on such a morning that I, fueled by a potent mix of fatherly love and a somewhat misguided sense of DIY confidence, decided to embark on a quest of epic proportions. The mission? To construct a backyard playset for my four children, a magical fortress that would serve as the stage for countless adventures and, quite possibly, notch another victory securing my place in the Dad Hall of Fame.


The construction job before me wasn't born out of a simple desire to see my kids play outside more. Oh no, it was also subtly driven by a vision of neighborhood parents looking over with a blend of envy and admiration, whispering amongst themselves, "Now, there's a parent who's got it all figured out." Armed with nothing but this dream, a set of bewilderingly complex assembly instructions, and a toolbox that was, as I would discover, missing a few necessary ingredients, I set to work.


The project began without a hitch. All parts were accounted for. Boards and panels smoothly found their place as I built the main structure. It reminded of my childhood Lincoln Log days. But as the morning turned to afternoon, what began as a series of triumphant victories over inanimate beams and bolts slowly morphed into a consistent series of errors. Each piece of wood seemed less like a component of a playset and more like thorn in my flesh, stubbornly resisting any attempt to be joined with its counterparts. Despite the initial progress, where beams slid into slots as if guided by destiny itself, the complexity of the task morphed more apparent. Bolts played hide and seek, holes mysteriously misaligned, and instructions became a cipher with no available decryption code.


And as the structure took shape, so too did my narrative. The swift victories? Clearly a testament to my DIY talent, unmatched skill, and determination. The setbacks? Surely the result of flawed design and incomprehensible instructions. It is a scene that I recall with more whimsy and mirth than I had during the construction of what turned out to be a playset that stood the test of time and four active kids. And at the heart of this story lies what’s known as self-serving bias, that peculiar quirk of human psychology that allowed me to view my initial successes in the early stages of building the playset as a testament of innate talent and skills, while attributing every subsequent setback to external forces conspiring against me. It is a helpful reminder that we human beings, with a wonderful but buggy, biased brains, have a tendency to construct narratives that conveniently cast our successes as the results of our hard work and determination and our failures as the result of uncontrollable, even random forces.  Let’s learn more about Self-Serving Bias.


What is Self-Serving Bias?

Self-serving bias is a cognitive bias that leads us to attribute our successes to internal factors, like our skills or effort, and our failures to external factors, like luck or the environment. But let's break this down further:


  • Psychological Perspective: From this angle, self-serving bias is seen as a way our brain helps us to protect our self-esteem. It's easier to sleep at night believing that our failures are not our fault, isn't it? Psychologists argue that this bias helps maintain our mental well-being by cultivating and reinforcing a positive self-image.


  • Human Behavioral Science Perspective: Here, the self-serving bias is viewed in the context of social interaction and culture. It influences not just how we view ourselves but also how we are perceived by others. In a society that values success, this bias can lead to a culture of passing the buck during failures, impacting team dynamics and accountability. It can also allow us to blame others for our own limitations, missteps, and lack of achievement.


  • Neuroscience Perspective: Neuroscientific studies suggest that the self-serving bias has a neural basis. Certain areas of the brain, like the amygdala and prefrontal cortex, are involved in emotional regulation and self-reflection. In a social brain, such as ours, these areas light up differently when we process successes versus failures, indicating a neurobiological component to this bias.


Self-Serving Bias in Action

  • At the Workplace: When someone receives a promotion or special recognition, it's seen as a well-deserved reward for their exceptional performance and contribution. If someone else is promoted or recognized instead, the decision might be viewed as unfair, biased, or based on favoritism, rather than considering the possibility that the other person's achievements and skills warranted the recognition.


  • At Home: Success in achieving health and fitness goals might be proudly attributed to one's discipline, self-control, and hard work. Yet, when goals are not met, external factors such as busy schedules, family commitments, or even an injury are often cited as reasons for the setback, rather than a lack of personal, consistent commitment.


HERO Skills to the Rescue

Recalling our introduction, the self-serving bias can cloud our judgment and hinder personal growth. This is where our HERO Skills come into play:


  • Humility allows us to accept that we are not infallible and that our failures, just like our successes, are often the result of our own actions.


  • Empathy helps us understand the perspectives of others, recognizing that external factors affecting our failures might also impact their actions and abilities.


  • Reflection enables us to objectively analyze our successes and failures, learning from each experience without bias.


  • Open-mindedness encourages us to consider all factors, internal and external, in our successes and failures, promoting a balanced view of our actions and outcomes.


Sunsetting Our Story

As the sun sets on our story let’s reflect on my playset building journey. The saga of constructing a backyard playset for my children, with its highs and lows, was a testament to both my determination and the myriad challenges that had arisen along the way. In the grand scheme of this experience, the self-serving bias worked to subtly yet unmistakably, color my perceptions of success and failure.


This bias, as evident in my adventure, served as both a shield and a blindfold. It protected my ego, allowing me to celebrate the triumphs as products of my skill and resilience, while conveniently attributing every misstep to factors beyond my control. This learning journey illuminates more than just the quirks of human psychology. It highlights the profound power of humility, empathy, reflection, and open-mindedness—our HERO Skills—in navigating not only the challenges of DIY projects but the complexities of life itself.


Humility was the gentle reminder that, despite my best efforts, I am fallible. It allows me to laugh at myself, to accept the crooked angles and mismatched screws not as failures but as markers of a journey filled with genuine effort and intent. Humility opens the door to asking for help, whether from a neighbor or a YouTube tutorial, reminding me that learning and being teachable are integral to overcoming obstacles and growth.


Empathy connected me to the joy and excitement of my children, the true catalysts of this playset adventure. It was through their eyes that I could see the magic in every board and bolt, transforming a simple structure into an album of lasting memories. Empathy bridged the gap between the practical task at hand and the many smiles and laughs that would ensue, turning the experience from constructing a playset to building a family.


Reflection helped me to recognize my limitations more accurately. It has taught me to see beyond the immediate frustrations and victories, understanding each moment as part of a larger learning curve. It's in the moments of struggle, when the bolts wouldn't align or the instructions seemed written in a foreign language, that reflection allowed me to step back, reframe, and adapt. This skill helps turn potential points of frustration into stepping-stones toward eventual success.


Open-mindedness encouraged me to embrace new strategies and perspectives, to seek assistance, especially when the path forward seemed insurmountable. It was a lesson in flexibility, in acknowledging that there might be a multitude of ways to solve a problem, and that sometimes, the most unconventional methods lead to the greatest successes.


In the end, the construction of the playset, much like our journey through life, was a tapestry of triumphs and tribulations. Each screw turned and panel hoisted was a reminder of the mental dance between our perceptions of self-efficacy and the external forces at play. By employing something like the HERO Skills, we can navigate this dance with mindful curiosity, transforming challenges into opportunities for growth and windows of insight.


I leave you with a challenge this week: to reflect on your own experiences through the lens of the self-serving bias. Whether it's assembling a playset, navigating workplace dynamics, or engaging conversations in a politicized environment, be mindful of the stories you create about yourself and others. Consider how the HERO Skills might reshape not only your perceptions but your decision and actions. And how these skills can help you more accurately view and make attributions of others in the midst of their successes and failures.

Some of our greatest strengths as human beings, that set us apart from the rest of the animal kingdom, lie in our capacity for self-awareness, adaptation, and connection. Let us embrace these skills, turning the lens inward and outward, as we each continue to build this playset we call life.



To learn more about cognitive biases, the HERO Skills or talks and workshops by Dr. Steve Robbins, please contact Steve

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