Good Time to Review the Self-Serving Bias

Big smile for the camera

Perhaps rather than evaluate evidence, a better role for me to play following the appearance of Rupert and James Murdoch and Rebekah Brooks before the select parliamentary committee on culture, media and sports might be to discuss the ways in which the self-serving bias operates because I imagine we’ll be watching quite a bit of that in the days and weeks ahead.

The self-serving bias is the epitome of old-paradigm values and perspectives and has no place in Fifth-Dimensional life, which is probably why what is happening with the Murdochs is a timely matter for us because it gives us a very good opportunity to observe self-servingness at work.

Sometimes on discussion groups,  one or two people may be observed operating in this manner. It’s seldom fun to encounter and can lower the tone of the group.

In these days of googling, as a starting point, we can often find a good approximate definition of something on Wikipedia. That source says of the self-serving bias:

“The self-serving bias can be seen in the common human tendency to take credit for success but deny responsibility for failure. It may also manifest itself as a tendency for people to evaluate ambiguous information in a way that is beneficial to their interests.”

Unlike David Cameron who acknowledged that he was unwise and culpable in his relationship with the Murdochs, the Murdochs themselves and Rebekah Brooks deny all folly and culpability. What often happens in a situation like this is that a willingness to be honest and responsible at the earliest moment of a crisis raises one’s chances of emerging from it having salvaged something from the situation and perhaps even of being forgiven whereas avoiding responsibility and denying the truth, and obliging the legal machinery to ferret them out, incenses the public and increases the eventual demand for punishment, retribution, harsh treatment, etc.

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Conceived most generally, the self-serving bias is the tendency to interpret matters advantageously so as to maximize one’s own role in successes, wins, and gains, and minimize one’s role in failures, defeats, and losses.

I’d like to restate that view a few different ways in the hopes that the more angles it’s seen from, the deeper we get a sense of it.

  • The self-serving bias involves taking credit for successes and denying responsibility for failures.
  • It involves attributing success to internal and personal factors within one’s control and failures to external and situational factors beyond one’s control.
  • It attributes to oneself all honorable intentions and aims and to others all dishonorable intentions and aims.
  • It involves knowing why something succeeded but posing as being ignorant of why something may have failed.
  • It involves attributing central and indispensable leadership to oneself in things that succeed and being left out of the loop in things that failed.

Werner Erhard gave another account of it. He used to say that the mind, which has, as its central value, survival of the being and anything with which the mind identifies it, tends to make itself right and others wrong, to judge and avoid being judged, and to dominate and avoid being dominated. That’s another good way of seeing the matter.

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We can see the self-serving bias at work in the testimony given today, where Rupert Murdoch, James Murdoch, and Rebekah Brooks deny having or promoting any values which might provide fertile ground for criminal activity at the News of the World, having any intention to promote it or aims in the name of which others might promote it, and any knowledge of it or responsibility for it.

Whereas the Murdoch group of companies was earlier said to be run by Rupert Murdoch with great attention to all aspects of the business, who rewarded friends and punished enemies, and whose influence was felt throughout his companies, today he represents himself as being an old man, uninformed, left out of the loop, and only concerned with the most general aspects of company appointments and decisions around acquisition and divestment.

Meanwhile, Murdoch and his highest assistants attribute the criminal activity of hacking and bribing police to underlings, rogue elements, reporters run amok, etc.

When acquiring and divesting, fighting unions, or demolishing opponents, Murdoch has been depicted over the years as a tough competitor, savvy, implacable, etc. He has on occasion shut down operations to defeat union attempts to protect their position in the face of automation or better their condition. His closure of the News of the World has a similar autocratic and merciless ring to it, leaving all employees almost abandoned, though he claims to be finding jobs for them. When accounting for his actions before a parliamentary panel, he depicts himself as innocent, concerned, charitable, and law-abiding.

The big question is: whether after years of having wished to gain control of practically everything the Murdochs had a desire to control, run it as they saw fit, and do practically anything to protect their domain, they can now successfully represent themselves as … well, the exact opposite. It may be a tough sell. It may also involve using the self-serving bias to the max.

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The self-serving bias demonstrates an overwhelming commitment, not to the truth or service of others, but to one’s own survival. It shows a willingness to sacrifice anyone who does not, or is not seen to, contribute to one’s own survival.

The higher the threat to one’s self, the larger the display of self-servingness. This is the stuff of many Hollywood movies in which the bad guy is shown to be merciless when holding the upper hand and craven in the face of unavoidable threat and the hero to be merciful when holding the upper hand and undaunted in the face of unavoidable threat.

Even the action of many Hollywood movies is self-serving. In the beginning, when the threat value of the bad guys is being established, the black hats tend to be good shots, invincible, smart, etc. In the end, when the good guys are vanquishing the bad guys, the black hats cannot shoot straight for the life of them, are knocked down one after another by the good guys as if they were straw men, etc.  The action simply serves the needs of the director and bears no resemblance to real life.

The self-serving bias itself may be the second most common theme in Hollywood movies – second only to the theme of boy meets girl and falls in love. (1)

It’s based on a view that we do not survive death and so life should be promoted and protected at all costs. (Notice if you think these views are self-evident, when in fact both statements are not true.) It puts nothing else, such as the group welfare or honor, above simple survival of the being in its physical form and everything that is seen to contribute to it (wealth, reputation, friends, country, army, ownership of guns, enforcement of racial purity, martial law, whatever is seen as contributing).

The self-serving bias lies under most, if not all, “isms” – temporocentrism, anthropocentrism, ethnocentrism, etc. An “ism” is a tendency to make an idea more important than whatever the truth of the moment is. As such, the self-serving bias may be seen as one of the chief obstacles to the truth being known and expressed.

An alternative to the self-serving bias is to recuse oneself from a situation in which a perceived conflict of interest exists and to acknowledge when one is, or is likely to be, acting self-servingly. The self-serving bias is something one can observe acting in oneself. One needn’t be a slave to it. One can even act self-servingly and acknowledge that one is doing exactly that.

Nonetheless, in moving towards the Fifth Dimension, we are moving from service to self to service to others. We know that we are eternal beings and that death is simply a stepping out of a suit of clothes that no longer serve us and not a disruption in the continuity of existence even for a minute (unless one is temporarily unconscious due to pain, etc.).

There is not for those who know their own eternal nature the same felt need to ensure the survival of all that promotes the continued existence of our physical forms and this lack of a felt need ripples down through our values, aims, and actions. The one who considers that consciousness is extinguished upon physical death cannot see his or her way clear to dropping the concern for the physical and all that promotes its survival. The desire to protect one’s form, health, position, and belongings can seem so self-evident as to be irresistible. That’s why detachment is promoted by many of the sources we read and why they try to communicate to us our true situation in regards to matters like death.


(1) Unless both those themes have been replaced in this era of the “war on terror” by the common theme that folklorist Vladimir Propp described as “interdiction, violation. consequence, escape.” These action sequences he called “motifemes” or discrete atoms of action. What this translates into is plot sequences in which someone is warned not to do something (a crime, a dishonorable act, a risky venture); they do it; they suffer the consequences; they escape the situation, often only through death.   This is the stuff of the dozens of law-and-order TV shows and war movies on almost every channel these days.

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