Throughout my years of schooling, I have witnessed a wide variety of approaches when it comes to studying and receiving grades. I’m not referring to the actual act of studying, however. Rather, I’m referring to the mindset and attitude that different students have held toward studying and receiving grades. These attitudes included optimism, whether justified or not, and pessimism, whether justified or not. They also included people who experienced the overjustification effect, when they don’t enjoy learning because they feel forced to do so, self-handicapping, those who study less as an excuse for if they don’t do well, and, one of the most dangerous attitudes, the self-serving bias (Gruman et al., 2017).
Self-serving bias is when people take personal credit for their successes but tend to blame their failures on outside sources (Gruman et al., 2017). This can often times be witnessed in sporting events when the loser attributes the outcome to something like the weather or illness rather than the winner being better than them. In terms of academics, students may blame the teacher for not fully preparing them or their roommates for distracting them when they were trying to study. This phenomenon is likely in place to protect our self-esteem and help keep the positive image of ourselves intact. Unfortunately, this often-unjustified optimism can lead to very harmful long-term outcomes for those who let it set in. When people always attribute their negative outcomes to outside sources then they will never feel the need to change their behavior or mindset.
The good news is that there are ways to diminish the hold that self-serving bias can have. The main way to do so is to temper expectations for the results of exams in the case of academics. A study conducted by Eronen, Nurmi, and Salmels-Aro (1998) showed that people who were considered defensive pessimists were more successful in academic performance than were other categories of students. The reasoning for this is that defensive pessimists tend to set low expectations for themselves and then worry about what the result will be. They don’t just stop there though. They channel that anxiety and use it to prepare even more than may be necessary. So if you find yourself performing poorly in your academic ventures and blaming anything but yourself, you may find it beneficial to look inward and alter your expectations while keeping in mind that a healthy dose of anxiety can be helpful in avoiding the self-serving bias.
Eronen, S., Nurmi, J.-E., & Salmela-Aro, K., (1998). Optimistic, defensive-pessimistic, impulsive and self-handicapping strategies in university environments. Learning and Instruction, 8, 159-177.
Gruman, J. A., Schneider, F. W., & Coutts, L. M. (2017). Applied social psychology: Understanding and addressing social and practical problems (3rd ed.). Los Angeles, CA: SAGE.