Self-handicapping: Are you sabotaging yourself to avoid evaluation or failure?

I was watching an old episode of Grey’s Anatomy – my only TV addiction – where a lawyer who’s about to take the Bar exam in a few days for the 5th time is brought in for severe burns in her hand. She says that before she took some practice tests, she wanted some tea so she put on a pot of water, set the timer and after 30 minutes the smoke alarm went off. When taking the pot off the stove she held on to it too long leading to severe burns. She explains that she should have known better and that whenever she is studying for the Bar that she can’t focus on anything with all the stuff that she has to know. She complains how bad it is with what happened to her hand with the exam coming up. With all the complaining you would think she would be happy about the news when the doctor says they can get her fixed up and she’ll be fine and can take the test, but instead one can clearly see the shock on her face… Well, in the end it becomes clear that she couldn’t stand taking the risk of failing yet another Bar exam:

“Can you imagine failing the Bar five times? It’s absurd and pathetic. I can’t sit for two and a half days to prove again to everyone how pathetic I am.”

This is a perfect example of the lengths people would go – although this one is quite extreme – to sabotage themselves prior to an important and potentially self-defining challenge. The name for this tendency in social psychology literature: self-handicapping. It is said to occur when people actively try to “arrange the circumstances of their behavior so as to protect their conceptions of themselves as competent, intelligent persons.” (Jones & Berglas, 1978, p.200)

Other examples:

  • the athlete getting drunk the night before the game;
  • the student who stays up too late studying so that the exhaustion impedes test performance;
  • the employee who “gets” sick or sleep-deprived before important presentations;
  • the expat/the immigrant who keeps on postponing taking that language course that would surely increase his chances of getting a promotion/job

Research has established that self-handicapping is motivated by uncertainty about one’s ability or, more generally, anticipated threats to self-esteem. It is quite an ironic strategy when you think about it. The individual is so concerned about protecting self-esteem that they set themselves up for poor performance! The catch: they now have a good excuse for why they failed and it is not about their intelligence, talent or competence.

Here is what makes it an even more ironic and risky approach: Self-handicapping only offers a strategic advantage „in those settings where the attributional implications of performance are more important than the success of the performance itself“ (Jones & Berglas, 1978; p. 201). Meaning, if the “why you failed” is more important than “you failed”. The outcome doesn’t change (you still underperform) but the explanation for failure doesn’t reflect on your intelligence, talent or competence.

Now, it works if that’s what is important or what you care about. But it is rarely the case that the outcomes does not matter! In other words, many times when we self-handicap to avoid self-evaluative feedback, the success of the performance really does matter.

The lawyer from Grey’s Anatomy won’t be able to avoid the failure even if she has the excuse of the “burned hand”. Yes, maybe it decreases the impact of the failure on her self-esteem because people will say “Oh, but she had a burned hand”, but really, she will know what really happened. And if she succeeds despite the burned hand – even a better outcome than passing the test without a burned hand!*

However, once the person uses self-handicapping over and over again, people stop being sympathetic about his excuses. Actually, self-handicapping is also self-deception focused strategy. It is not only targeting to protect your self-image in front of others, but you are also trying to deceive yourself into thinking “if you didn’t have that excuse you could have pulled it off successfully!” So you’re postponing putting yourself out there and give it all to see if you can actually pull it off. In other words, it is a reflection of the fear of not being able to make it if you were to give it your best.

How about you? Have you been tempted to literally create an excuse that would prevent you from being at your best? How did you rationalize your following suboptimal performance?  And of course, what would be a better strategy to deal with being evaluated or fear of failure?

Here’re a few ideas:

  • Awareness, awareness, awareness! I think this is my default advice for any kind of coping and adopting a better strategy. Be more mindful of your thinking and behavioral patterns.
  • Reframe the upcoming test/project/presentation also as a learning goal, rather than only as performance goal. Even if you fail – what can you learn from it?
  • The above strategy requires having a growth mindset, that is believing that with effort, focus and perseverance people can improve their performance and qualities (see blog post 20.01.2009 for more). If you don’t have growth mindset (you can test it here, adopting it would open up great perspectives for you!
  • Make a it a choice! Weigh the costs and benefits of self-handicapping and then actively choose to (if you will) or not to do it. So, at least take the self-deception out own the equation.

*Research shows that high self-esteem people self-handicap to enhance success, whereas low self-esteem people self-handicap to protect against the self-esteem threatening implications of failure.

Jones, E.E, & Berglas, S. (1978). Control of attributions about the self through self-handicapping strategies: The appeal of alcohol and the role of under achievement. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 4, 200-206.

Dweck, Carol. (2006).  The New Psychology of Success.

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