What do you attribute your behaviors to?

Is Carpe Diem your life’s mantra? Do you scream from the mountain top every time you hit a new personal record at the gym, ace a presentation, or make your significant other smile?

How about when you give a crap effort in the gym, get reamed out by your boss for making a mistake, or when your significant other can’t seem to find anything endearing to say about you- does your mantra change?

I get it – YOU make your life’s success, while the world causes all the failures, right?

How about all the other people in the world? What happens when your opponent in your favorite weekend sport (tennis, golf, basketball, etc.) gets the best of you? Do you attribute it to a bad game on your part, or were they simply better that day?

Oh we all know why you didn’t win, it must have been the new racket, or not playing on your familiar court, or you simply forgot your lucky socks. Next time when you have your lucky socks you will be back to pounding your chest on that skyrise!

We are interesting creatures – one moment we attribute behavior (ours or others) to an internal locus of control (the one doing the behavior), and then one second later we can attribute everything to an external locus of control (environment or something outside of the person doing the behaving.)

The self-serving bias is when we attribute our success to ourselves (internal locus of control) while we attribute our failures to situational factors (external locus of control). (Miller, DT & Ross, M, 1975) Many times this same bias causes the reversal when we attribute other people’s behavior (someone else’s failure is due to themselves while their success is due to their environment).

If you answered yes to many of the questions above, then you very well may be falling in-line with this bias.

It has been hypothesized that we do this to protect our self-esteem, present ourselves in a positive light to others, or simply because the information we have available to us makes us do so.

So you may ask what is the big deal if we want to make ourselves feel good about ourselves, and how does this pertain to athletics?

I will leave you with two possible outcomes of a hypothetical basketball game, and you can be the judge of whether the self-serving bias is something a coach/trainer should be concerned about….

Set-up – There are 2 seconds left on the clock, your team is down 1, and the inbound play is designed for you to take the final shot. The play starts and your own teammate sets a high pick (he helps you get open!) and you run towards the basket. Your other teammate throws a perfect pass (he helps you set up for the shot!) and you get a chance at a game winning lay-up.

Scenario 1 – You make the lay-up and immediately blow kisses to the crowd to further demonstrate how awesome you are.

Scenario 2 – You miss the lay-up and immediately look down at your sneakers and see your shoes are untied, and to come to think of it, that pass wasn’t perfect. If that pass had been higher you could have positioned yourself better for that shot!

So, does the tendency to have self-serving attributes matter to you as a coach or athlete?

1. Miller, D. T., & Ross, M. (1975). Self-serving biases in the attribution of causality: Fact or fiction? Psychological Bulletin, 82, 213-225.

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