The Forgotten Origins of the Self-serving Bias
October 7, 2004
Reported by Jon Mueller, Professor of Psychology
Esther Stromek, 88, clearly remembers the first time she made an excuse. She was shocked at how easily it came to her. Sitting in her third grade classroom, Esther received the bad news on her latest spelling test: no gold star, just a “-3” at the top of the paper. Aware of the new fad of placing the blame for failure other than on oneself that was sweeping her small town, Esther decided to try it herself, and muttered, “Our teacher is so mean.” The initial guilt Esther felt was quickly replaced by an overwhelming sense of elation. It was “gleefully liberating,” Esther recalls. Soon, like others around her, excuses were pouring forth for failure after failure.
In fact, making excuses (and taking credit for success) is so commonplace now we tend to forget that such behavior was non-existent just 80 years ago. Few remember the story of how John and Harold Gnivers invented this invaluable skill in 1924 in their living room when they were just young boys. Since then, social psychologists have labeled our frequent tendency to give ourselves more credit for our successes and less blame for our failures than we deserve as the self-serving bias. But John and Harold, 10 and 12 years old at the time, respectively, knew nothing of the stir they were about to create when they first discovered this phenomenon.
Fortunately, John Gnivers kept an occasional journal as he grew up, so we have a rather detailed record of its origin. Apparently, one Saturday afternoon Harold was beating John for the 12th consecutive time at checkers. After the first 11 “whoopings,” as John described them, he responded with utterances such as “ Wow! You’re good,” or, “Harold, you have a superior intellect,” or “Dang it, I’m a big ol’ pile of manure.” As others for centuries before him, John acknowledged the truth regarding his performance. But after that 12th game, something snapped in John. As he tells it, “I don’t know if it was just frustration or exhaustion or my 103 degree fever1, but without even thinking I sputtered, ‘Yeah, well…you just got lucky!’”
Harold froze. He had never heard anything like it, at least not after 12 losses in a row. Eventually, Harold pulled himself together and challenged John’s assertion – “Nuh uh!” “Yeah, huh,” replied John, “you just got lucky that game.” “But I beat you 12 times in a row!” “Yeah, but this last one was just luck.” “How do you know?” “How do you know it wasn’t?” Harold couldn’t argue with that. So, John continued, “and I let you win yesterday when we was racing, and that time I broke your hamster’s neck, it ran right into my hand, and…”
According to John, it was at this exact point that the two Gnivers’ boys looked straight at each other and a light went off in their heads. This could be useful! “Wait, wait, let me try it,” shouted Harold. “The only reason you beat me at checkers that one game yesterday was because … the table was made of wood. No wait, because you …you cheated!” “No way!” “No, no, I don’t really mean you did, I’m just saying it.” “Oh, yeah.”
After only a couple hours, John and Harold had generated a list of seven more excuses they could use on each other, including, “Yeah, but I have gout,” or “I am unusually gifted,” and John’s favorite, “Well, you’re a stupid head!”2 “Hey, wait,” Harold exclaimed, “do you think we could use these on mom and dad?” “No way, they would kill us,” replied John. “Not if we sound sincere, like you did.”
So, later that evening at the dinner table, after working up the nerve, John flicked a large spoonful of creamed corn at his sister, Violet, hitting her in the eye and one nostril. Then, even before his father could grab John by the scruff3 of his neck or his sister could scream, John remorsefully uttered, “Sorry, I didn’t mean to but Corky (their epileptic pet collie) bumped my elbow.” Both John and Harold flinched expecting some serious repercussion for John’s bold act. They vividly remembered the time Harold couldn’t sit down for a week after he spread butter all over his sister’s chair and watched as she slid silently and swiftly out of her chair, her head catching a table leg square. Of course, in that instance, Harold immediately followed that act with a loud “That was neat!”
This time, John’s parents merely comforted Violet, accepting John’s explanation. Recognizing the enormous potential in this new skill, Harold was eager to use it to his advantage. Once Violet stopped screaming and all the corn was removed, Harold said, “Mom, I’m sorry I got an “F” on my history test today, but my desk was made of wood.” Once again, Harold couldn’t sit down for a week; he was not yet as adept as his brother at this magical new art.
Of course, that changed as the boys got more practice. And it wasn’t long before their parents, Violet and others caught on to the self-serving bias. It was intoxicating. Few could resist it. Within months, perhaps even weeks, this new “craze” spread across the land.
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When the craze hit her town, Esther took to it like a duck to water. In fact, Esther became so skilled that she is credited with starting a cottage industry in “excuse schools” which popped up across the country for a short time. While it seems natural to us now to take credit for success and push blame elsewhere, it didn’t come so easily back in the early days. So, companies hired “experts” like Esther to train their salespeople, immerse their upper management in exhaustive week-long workshops in which they learned to explain their disappointing quarterly reports, and counsel public relation personnel in the subtle nuances of attributing a chemical plant’s enormous explosion and subsequent fatal gaseous cloud to a toilet backing up over at a nearby bowling alley. Once such expertise was no longer needed, consultants like Esther moved seamlessly into politics.
So, the next time you deliver a particularly clever excuse remember to thank John and Harold Gnivers, or do as I do and say, “Damn, I’m good!”
1 Dr. Ivan Schnooler of the Leipzig Institute was intrigued by the fever angle of this story and eventually developed a theory proposing that the self-serving bias first began as an auto-immune response. According to Dr. Schnooler, a few isolated individuals like John had an unusual reaction to the fever, probably accompanied by hallucinations, which created the conditions in their brains triggering this rare excuse-making. Then others around these few individuals saw the benefit of the bias, imitated it, and quickly this “epidemic” spread. Most researchers reject Dr. Schnooler’s explanation and think he’s just dumb.
2 Readers might recognize one of the excuses that John and Harold crossed off their initial list: “It’s not my fault, you made me stare at that cow and it was hard to see ‘cause the cow was all shiny ‘cause some light from the sky or that bush was bouncing off of it and made me go blind.” It took another twenty or so years before that excuse was gradually honed into the now common “The sun got in my eyes!”
3 Many Americans today have never seen a scruff. Once a common site on the back of the neck, natural selection apparently has culled the relatively useless appendage from much of the human gene pool. Evolutionary biologists believe that when parents used to grab their children by the scruff of the neck, much like mother lions would pick up their cubs, the more fragile spinal column of the developing human child was frequently damaged. Consequently, children with large or easy-to-grab scruffs were less likely to propagate.