A Statistical Review of the Literature Concerning the Self-serving

A statistical review of the literature concerning the self-serving attribution bias in interpersonal influence situations^ Robert Arkin, Harris Cooper, and Thomas Kolditz, University of Missouri Abstract Based upon his review of the self-serving attribution bias literature, Zuckerman (1979) concluded that research employing an interpersonal influence setting was less likely than other research paradigms to produce significant differences in self-attribution for success and failure. A survey of
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  A statistical review of the literatureconcerning the self-servingattribution bias in interpersonalinfluence situations^ Robert Arkin, Harris Cooper, and Thomas Kolditz, University of Missouri Abstract Based upon his review of the self-serving attribution bias literature,Zuckerman (1979) concluded that research employing an interpersonalinfluence setting was less likely than other research paradigms to producesignificant differences in self-attribution for success and failure. A surveyof the research reviewed by Zuckerman as well as a more current surveyof the relevant literature were undertaken. Statistical combinations ofthese two sets of evidence revealed Zuckerman's assessment may havebeen too conservative, at least with respect to two of three experimentalparadigms. Additionally, a general tendency of individuals to assume morepersonal responsibility for success than failure on interpersonal influencetasks was found in the more comprehensive survey. Finally, the evidenceconcerning interactions of performance outcome with either contextualvariables or individual differences indicated that the self-serving bias maybe stronger under certain conditions than others and for certain types ofindividuals. Discussion centered on the conceptual distinctions betweeninterpersonal influence and other achievement settings. Zuckerman (1979) has recently reviewed research addressingwhat is commonly called the self-serving attribution bias, or thetendency of individuals to assume greater personal responsibilityfor success than failure outcomes. Zuckerman concluded that someresearch paradigms are less likely than others to uncover this ten-dency in self-attributions. Specifically, it was argued that researchemploying an interpersonal influence setting, in which one person 1. The present research was facilitated by grants from the National Institute ofMental Health (1R08 31910) to Robert Arkin and from the National Science Foun-dation (BNS78-08834) to Harris Cooper, Principal Investigator. Funds for the on-line computer search were provided by the Center for Research in Social Behavior.Special thanks are extended to Miron Zuckerman for critical comments on an earlierdraft and for providing statistical information on several of the included studies.Requests for reprints should be sent to Robert Arkin, Department of Psychology,210 McAlester Hall, University of Missouri, Columbia, MO 65211. Journal of Personality 48:4, December, 1980. Copyright© 1980 by Duke UniversityPress.  436 Arkin et al. attempts to alter another person's behavior or outcomes, has notreliably produced significant differences in self-attributions for suc-cess versus failure. Taking this conclusion as given, Zuckermanproposed several reasons why the self-serving bias should notemerge in the interpersonal infiuence context. It was our impres-sion that the null-effect appraisal of this literature may have beenoverly conservative.The typical box score technique for analyzing a series of stud-ies (trichotomizing studies into those with positive, negative, andnull effects) used by Zuckerman neglects important information inmany research reports, and improperly weights study results in thatspecific probabilities associated with individual studies are not tak-en into account (Cooper & Rosenthal, 1980). To remedy this diffi-culty, a statistical combination of interpersonal infiuence self-serv-ing attribution bias research was conducted. To facilitatecomparison, this statistical combination of study results was per-formed for the entire set of relevant studies (including those con-ducted since the earlier review) as well as for those studies citedin the earlier review taken alone.A Categorization of Interpersonal Influence Paradigms Zuckerman categorized the relevant evidence into three groups.First, five studies using variations on teacher-student exchanges(in which an actual or role-playing teacher attempted to instruct anactual or role-playing student) were reviewed. In these studies thedependent variable involved the teacher's assessment of the ex-tent to which his or her contribution influenced the student's suc-cessful or unsuccessful absorbtion of the material. Second, fourstudies examined a client-therapist interaction. In these studies anindividual playing the role of a therapist attempted to help anotherindividual (actually an experimental confederate) cope with an ir-rational fear. The assistance proved either helpful or not helpful.The therapist was then asked to assess the extent of his/her con-tribution to the client's acquisition (or failure to acquire) greaterself-control. Finally, four studies with less clearly related proce-dures were grouped. In these studies, the subject either providedadvice on some judgment task, gave instructions on how to constructa diagram, or attempted to change the other's attitude. The per-ceived extent of the infiuencer's contribution (either successful orunsuccessful) was then assessed. The three groups of studies weretreated in the same section of Zuckerman's paper because theyshared the following attributes: (1) all required subjects to attemptinducing a change in a target person's behavior or outcomes; (2) allplaced subjects in a position of power (i.e., therapist, teacher) andconfronted them with a weak or helpless other; and (3) all required  The self-serving bias 437 subjects to assess both their own and the target person's contri-bution to the influence attempt. Review Procedures Though perfect retrieval procedures are, of course, not available,it is important to state how relevant studies were located, acknowl-edging the possibility that a biased sample of studies could bereviewed. Tests of the hypothesis that people assume more per-sonal responsibility for success than failure on interpersonal influ-ence tasks were located through (a) Zuckerman (1979); (b) informalchannels or personal involvement; (c) the Psychological Abstracts between the years 1970 and 1978; and (d) an on-line computersearch. The computer search uncovered over 340 investigationspossessing the keywords: (a) self-serving bias; (b) ego-serving bias; (c) egocentric bias; (d) teacher-student; (e) client-therapist; (f) in-terpersonal influence; and (g) a crossing of the word attribution with the words success, failure, performance, outcome, and ac-tor's. Titles were judged for potential relevance by the investi-gators. Ultimately 59 studies were examined directly in the Uni-versity library.A Meta-Analysis of Self-Serving Bias Studies The retrieval procedures uncovered 22 pertinent manuscripts, 18from professional journals and 4 from Dissertation Abstracts In-ternational (see Table 1). One study (Arkin, Appelman, & Burger,1980) contained two relevant hypothesis tests. Of the eight reportsthat did not appear in the earlier review, five were available beforethe review appeared. Of these, two had been excluded on concep-tual grounds (Stephan, 1975; Wells et al., 1977; see discussion).Teacher-student studies were conducted in six separate labora-tories, client-therapist studies in four laboratories, and miscella-neous studies in seven laboratories. The retrieved studies gener-ated 23 tests of the self-serving bias main effect and 60 tests ofwhether bias appeared only under some conditions. Results Before analysis of the studies began, several conventions wereadopted concerning how test values would be handled: (a) studiesthat reported nonsignificant effects and no accompanying statisticswere treated as revealing exactly equal success and failure means;^(b) no study was allowed to contribute a p value below .001 (two- 2. Although not srcinally reported because of space limitations, the main effecthypothesis test of Arkin et al. (1979) was retrieved.  438 o oo O0) CO co Q. o CDCO IBTJ 2 o o a ruct c 5 C q Ial o 1 CM T S in § IBO to B o bionsi in ted  r t CO o s I 2 <n c o a. a IB. ;her 5 g o o g1 1 1 1 1 o CO B o 2* bionsi Q. m  p t to oo»o> CM 18. mo § <DOto iB o bionsi a$  p 3 t CO00 1 COCJ> 1 y- 18. in 8? .co CO® to k_ a> JZ o 1 ton 3 t to o ss 13. in 8 oo CO B o bionsi a. J  p XI t CO <o o CO o 00in 8 CD o CO B o bionsi a.$  p 3 t CO o 8 oV S _^ ^ ^ to tn ^ ^ 5. Q. '5. Q. '5. 5. Q. 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