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Self-Handicapping

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Updated on Dec 23, 2009

Self-handicapping refers to the undermining of one's own performance, usually for the sake of impression management (Kolditz & Arkin, 1982). When individuals fear or expect they may fail at tasks that are important to them, they often engage in practices that may actually increase the probability of failure (or at least lower achievement) so they have an excuse, other than lack of ability, for the failure. For example, individuals who value romantic relationships but doubt their ability to sustain one often engage in relationship-destructive behavior (e.g., infidelity, verbal abuse, neglect) so that, when the relationship inevitably fails, they can attribute the failure to their controllable behavior rather than some unchangeable characteristic of themselves. This “shooting-oneself-in-the-foot” can and does appear in any activity or domain, but academic self-handicapping has received a considerable amount of attention because academic achievement reflects on a valued characteristic (i.e., intelligence) and there are frequent opportunities for students to display their abilities, or lack thereof, in public ways. In other words, students often worry that they will appear unintelligent if they perform poorly on a test or assignment, so they sometimes engage in self-handicapping behavior that provides an excuse, other than lack of ability, for the poor performance.

Procrastinating, becoming overly busy with too many activities, placing oneself in a loud or noisy environment to study, getting drunk the night before an important exam, selecting tasks that are much to difficult for one's ability level, failing to study, and failing to get enough sleep are just a few of the many possible self-handicapping behaviors that individuals can engage in. Self-handicapping behavior can range from active (e.g., getting drunk before a test) to passive (failing to study), but they all have the same effect of potentially undermining performance.

To be considered self-handicapping, the behavior must include several features. First, it must occur before the activity that provides the opportunity for poor performance. Students who simply tell their friends they did not study for the exam after taking the exam are providing an excuse for their potentially low performance, but if they actually did study for the exam they did not self-handicap. Second, many agree that self-handicapping is intentional. Student who do not study because they forgot that there was an exam the next day are not self-handicapping. But purposefully failing to study so that one can have a ready excuse for low performance on the test is self-handicapping. Finally, self-handicapping is a behavior undertaken for the specific purpose of influencing the judgments, or attributions, of others, and possibly oneself. Student who procrastinate until 2:00 a.m. before starting to write their term paper may well perform badly on the paper and may reasonably attribute his or her poor performance to procrastination. But the procrastination behavior would only be considered self-handicapping if the purpose of the procrastination was to provide an excuse for the poor performance, should it occur. Self-handicapping, then, is the intentional, a priori, performance-undermining behavior that individuals engage in to create the impression that it is this behavior, and not a lack of ability, that causes the low performance (Berglas & Jones, 1978).

ANTECEDENTS OF SELF-HANDICAPPING

Self-handicapping has been conceptualized as a trait-like tendency (Jones & Rhodewalt, 1982) and as a situation-ally induced behavior (Tice, 1991). Those who have described it as a trait argue that some individuals are simply more inclined to self-handicap than others, and this inclination is present across situations. Sources for the development of such a trait may be biological (i.e., more anxious personality) or can arise from socialization experiences in childhood, such as a strong emphasis on the importance of appearing able. Self-handicapping is also associated with a variety of stable characteristics that may contribute to self-handicapping behavior such as low self-esteem, low perceptions of control, high self-consciousness, and a belief that intelligence is a fixed trait (Berglas, 1985; Rhodewalt, 1994; Knee & Zucker-man, 1998). Researchers who have conceptualized self-handicapping as a situation-specific behavior tend to focus on environmental factors as the sources for the self-handicapping behavior. For example, Midgley and Urdan have examined the association between an emphasis on performance goals in the classroom and self-handicapping behavior (Midgley & Urdan, 2001; Urdan, Midgley & Anderman, 1998; Urdan, 2004). According to this research, students are more likely to self-handicap in classrooms where they perceive an emphasis on competition and trying to outperform classmates. Similarly, experimental research often creates situations in which participants are told that they will be given a difficult task and that performance on the task is indicative of ability (e.g., Tice, 1991). When individuals can be primed to fear that they may not succeed and that any lack of success may indicate a general lack of ability, self-handicapping is more likely to occur.

Perhaps the strongest experiential predictor of self-handicapping is a history of low achievement. Individuals who perform poorly can develop the expectation of low achievement on similar tasks in the future, especially if they believe the failure is caused by stable and uncontrollable causes, such as a lack of ability. Once individuals develop the belief that they may fail on an upcoming task, they become more likely to engage in self-handicapping behavior, which increases the probability that they will fail again. This cycle of failure→self-handicapping→failure can result in a gradual withdrawal of effort in school (or in any domain), leading to dropping out of the activity altogether (Urdan & Midgley, 2003; Zuckerman, Kieffer, & Knee, 1998).

A fair amount of research examining the association between motivation and self-handicapping has revealed that certain motivational characteristics of students and teacher instructional practices are associated with self-handicapping behavior. When students are concerned with not performing worse than other students, and with not appearing academically unable, they are more likely to self-handicap (Kaplan, Middleton, Urdan, & Midgley, 2002; Urdan, 2004). These concerns, known as performance-avoidance goals, can be influenced by teacher behaviors. Teachers who emphasize social comparison and competition in the classroom and publicly display reports of student achievement (e.g., test scores, grades) can promote the adoption of performance-avoidance goals in the classroom (L. Anderman & E. Anderman, 1999). In contrast, Turner and her colleagues found that in classrooms where teachers explicitly supported student autonomy and intrinsic motivation, performance-avoidance goals and self-handicapping were reduced (Turner, Meyer, Midgley, & Patrick, 2003).

CORRELATES AND CONSEQUENCES OF SELF-HANDICAPPING

Self-handicapping behavior is associated with lower achievement. Because self-handicapping behavior represents a reduction or withdrawal of effort toward a given task (e.g., not studying for a test), it is not surprising that self-handicapping is associated with lower performance on these tasks. But there may also be some benefits of self-handicapping. Some research indicates that self-handicappers do feel better about themselves after failure than do students who do not handicap (Drexler, Ahrens & Haaga, 1995; Feick & Rhodewalt, 1997). So there does appear to be some ego-protective function of self-handicapping in failure situations. In addition, there may be benefits for students who are able to succeed despite self-handicapping (Feick & Rhodewalt, 1997). Tice (1991) found that students with low self-esteem were more likely to self-handicap when they feared failing at a task, whereas students with high self-esteem were more likely to handicap when they believed they had a chance to stand out as exceptionally able by succeeding at a task. Some evidence suggests that students who succeed even after engaging in self-handicapping behavior do experience temporary increases in self-esteem. In addition, research indicates that self-handicapping is often successful at helping individuals divert the judgments of others away from low-ability attributions for failure.

Unfortunately, even though self-handicappers are often successful at their attempt to provide excuses other than low ability for their low achievement, they usually do not delude themselves. Self-handicappers describe themselves with words such as “lazy” and “shiftless” (Coving-ton, 1992). Moreover, observers of self-handicappers developed negative attitudes about the personalities and work habits of self-handicappers (Rhodewalt et al., 1995; Smith & Strube, 1991).

PRACTICAL IMPLICATIONS

Because self-handicapping behavior undermines achievement and can lead to long-term withdrawal from achievement activities (such as school), it is important for parents and teachers to discourage self-handicapping and to avoid behaviors that might encourage it. Dweck (1999) and her colleagues have long argued that teachers and parents should promote a view of intelligence as a modifiable characteristic, something that can be improved through effort. They suggest that teachers and parents praise children for using the correct strategies rather than simply telling them how smart they are, as the latter may encourage them to think of ability as fixed, a view that contributes to self-handicapping. Midgley, Urdan, and their colleagues have suggested that teachers should emphasize individual growth, improvement, and understanding of the academic material rather than social comparison and competition, as the latter can make students concerned with appearing able or, more importantly, fearing they might appear stupid. Because it is this fear that leads students to engage in self-handicapping, efforts to reduce this fear will likely result in reduction in self-handicapping as well.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Anderman, L. H., & Anderman, E. M. (1999). Social predictors of changes in students' achievement goal orientations. Contemporary Educational Psychology, 25, 21–37.

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Berglas, S., & Jones, E. E. (1978). Drug choice as a self-handicapping strategy in response to noncontingent success. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 36, 405–417.

Covington, M. V. (1992). Making the grade: A self-worth perspective on motivation and school reform. New York: Cambridge University Press.

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Jones, E. E., & Rhodewalt, F. (1982). The self-handicapping scale. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

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Turner, J. C., Meyer, D. K., Midgley, C., & Patrick, H. (2003). Teacher discourse and sixth graders' reported affect and achievement behaviors in two high-mastery/high-performance mathematics classrooms. Elementary School Journal, 103, 359–382.

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Zuckerman, M., Kieffer, S. C., & Knee, C. R., (1998). Consequences of self-handicapping: Effects on coping, academic performance, and adjustment. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 74, 1619–1628.

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