People commonly make excuses for their shortcomings. For example, students who do poorly on exams are often quick to blame the unfairness of a test, an oncoming cold, or a distracting roommate. In contrast, individuals often seek to take credit for their successes, even when those achievements may have involved some degree of luck or assistance.
Psychologists have long identified this pattern as the Self-Serving Attribution Bias (1,2). In essence, this bias allows individuals to maintain (perhaps unrealistically) positive views of themselves. By blaming our shortcomings on factors outside of our control, we excuse any information that might threaten our sense of personal worth.
How do psychologists know that this pattern of thought is motivated by a desire to protect self-esteem? To test this idea, researchers have explored whether all people show the same bias. They don’t. For example, individuals who are highly depressed do not show this tendency and, in fact, are often more likely to attribute failures to themselves (3,4).
Who else may be willing to take on personal criticism in this way? Early research explored an alternative possibility: Perhaps some people are just secure enough with themselves that they don’t need to be defensive. These individuals may be confident enough in their self-worth that they can accept their shortcomings without seeking excuses in their environment (5).
Although this theory is appealing, it raises questions about what features of these non-defensive individuals increase their tolerance for self-blame. Is it because their self-esteem is already high? Is it because they have stable social support networks?
The possibility we focused on is variation in growth motivation, differences in people’s desire to pursue challenge and self-improvement. A long-standing theory in psychology proposes that growth motivation has an inverse relationship with defensiveness. After all, if people need to deal with imminent threats to their well-being, they won’t be able to invest time and effort into seeking new challenges. Instead, growth motivation requires a lack of defensiveness; people can only improve if they expose themselves to risk and adversity.
This idea was famously summarized in Maslow’s hierarchy of needs (6), a pyramid that haunts the study guides of every intro psychology course. In a nutshell, people’s concern for growth and self-development can be checked by hunger, thirst, a lack of sleep, loneliness, and a wide array of other defensive motives. Growth motivation plays a role only when people have those needs securely met and can pursue new opportunities for development.
Given the hydraulic tug-of-war between defense and growth, one might imagine that highly growth-oriented individuals may be less defensive. Initial studies support this idea: For example, one study found that individuals high in growth motivation who received negative academic feedback were less likely to blame their poor scores on the test (7). This finding makes intuitive sense — if individuals generally want to improve themselves, they have to be willing to admit their own shortcomings.
The goal of our study was to test whether a similar pattern occurs in the context of health (8). Specifically, we conducted an experiment in which we first measured personality differences in growth motivation then asked people to complete a (bogus) health assessment. This assessment was designed so that people would be likely on average to select options in the middle of the scale (e.g., “How many hours of sleep do you get during an average night: <2 hours/2-4/4-6/6-8/8-10/10 or more?”) so that any feedback would potentially be believable. Rather than scoring this assessment, we told people (at random) that their answers indicated that their health was significantly above average for other students at the university, significantly below average, or a control group that received no feedback about the health assessment. Finally, we asked individuals to rate how important several factors are in determining their health, including just bad luck or chance.
We found that growth motivation predicted different explanations of health, but only in the failure condition. Specifically, more growth-oriented individuals who were told that their health was below average ironically responded with lower attributions to luck or other external factors. In other words, the more individuals reported caring about improving themselves, the less they showed that defensive, self-serving attribution bias (in truth, they showed the opposite pattern).
Growth motivation was unrelated to these explanations of health in the positive feedback and control conditions, suggesting that this pattern wasn’t a general relationship between personality and health perceptions; it was specific to those individuals who had received negative feedback about themselves.
These findings help us to learn more about the importance of growth motivation. When individuals are encouraged to invest in improving themselves, they can potentially be less defensive and more honest about the role their actions might play in negative outcomes. This matters not only for health but also for any other domain where individuals might be tempted to make excuses for their shortcomings.
These findings are described in the article entitled Growth motivation moderates a self-serving attribution bias in the health domain, recently published in the journal Personality and Individual Difference. This work was conducted by Lucas A. Keefer, Mitch Brown, Shelby J. McGrew, and Shelby L. Reeves from the University of Southern Mississippi.
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- Keefer, L. A., Brown, M., McGrew, S. J. & Reeves, S. L. Growth motivation moderates a self-serving attribution bias in the health domain. Pers. Individ. Dif. 134, (2018).