Motivation and emotion/Textbook/Motivation/Self-sabotaging

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Motivation and self-sabotaging[edit]

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Introduction[edit]

"People who bite the hand that feeds them usually lick the boot that kicks them."
Eric Hoffer (1902-1983, American author, philosopherthu)
File:Shoot yourself.jpg
Self-sabotaging - also known as shooting yourself in the foot.

As a student, have you found yourself faced with the grim task of tackling an entire essay mere hours before the due date? Have you ever succumbed to the pressure from friends and gone out drinking the night before an important meeting at work? These are but two examples of a behavioural phenomenon called self sabotaging

This chapter will aim to explore the behavioural tendency that is known as self sabotaging or self handicapping. It will explore the nature of motivation, and attempt to explain why a person would intentionally create inhibitors to prevent the successful completion of a personal goal. Finally, it will analyse some tactics used to overcome self handicapping behaviour, and thus allow you to achieve your goals.

What is Self Sabotaging?[edit]

Self sabotage is a term used in behavioural psychology to give explanation to why some people fail to achieve goals in their lives. Self sabotage, or self-handicapping as it is otherwise known is closely related to other motivational inhibitors such as Procrastination and self-esteem.

Self sabotage can take on various forms, however most agree that it involves creating impediments which hinder the successful accomplishment of tasks which an individual considers important (Urdan, 2004). Simply put, a person is seen to be performing self sabotaging behaviour when they create incidents which may be perceived as excuses when the desired goal is not achieved. This thereby reduces the likelihood of successful goal achievement. Martin et al. (2003) argue that this is a strategic technique aimed at creating a legitimate causal excuse for failure, and thus deflecting the blame off the individual. For example, ‘I only failed that exam because I got so drunk last night!’

Theoretical Perspectives[edit]

It is important to analyse the construct of self sabotage within the broader motivation theoretical perspective. To understand why an individual will create impediments to inhibit successful achievement of a goal, we must understand what drives an individual’s motivation to set and achieve goals in the first place.

Achievement Goal Theory[edit]

Achievement Goal Theory is a widely regarded theory which suggests that individuals seek to achieve goals for a variety of different reasons, and as such these purposes translate to different outcomes (Urden, 2004). Much of the research relating to achievement goal theory has revolved around academia, and has sought to analyse the differences in motivation between students, as a mechanism to explain the broad variety of academic outcomes (Covington, 2000). Nilsen (2007) argues that the core of achievement goal theory allocates students into two main categories; performance goal achievement or mastery goal achievement.

Mastery Goals[edit]

Students who represent those categorised as mastery goal achievers commonly possess a desire to develop competence, improve skills, and understand concepts (Urden, 2004). These students are learning-oriented, and view assignments and tasks as challenges to be overcome (Nilsen, 2007). In simple terms, students who fit into the mastery goal category are driven and motivated by the desire to learn and master the content of the course. Urden highlights that much of the research on mastery goal theory has demonstrated that students who fit into this category demonstrate:

  • High levels of intrinsic motivation
  • Use of deep cognitive and self-regulatory strategies
  • Persistence in the face of failure
  • Positive feelings about school and school work
  • Self efficacy

The underlying premise with the master goal aspect of the achievement goal theory is that these students are motivated by learning. There is little desire to prove one’s knowledge to peers, rather the thrill of learning and succeeding is sufficient to motivate success.

Performance Goal[edit]

Performance goal students are more concerned with the recognition they receive for performing a task (Nilsen, 2007). Urden (2004) suggests that performance goal oriented students are concerned with demonstrating their competence by outperforming peers, and by gaining recognition from teachers. It is a social imperative for students who are motivated by performance goals to appear competent to their peers, and to do everything in their power to ensure that, at no stage, they appear incompetent. Wolters (2004) lists the motivational priority of students who possess a performance goal brand of achievement as:

  • Success translates into extrinsic rewards
  • Demonstrating high ability to peers and teachers
  • Doing better than others.

As performance goal achievement is based largely on social comparison, this highlights the first insight into the inherent premise of goal achievement theory – the overall achievement is a product of the type of motivation, and the differences between the two types of motivation create different paths to success.

Multiple Goal Theory[edit]

Harackiewicz et al. (2002) suggest that achievement goal theory is not merely a dichotomy and needs to be broken down further. These experts propose a model which incorporates performance and mastery goals, but each are split into approach and avoidance (see Figure 1).

File:Performance goal theory.jpg
Figure 1. Achievement Goal Theory

Performance Approach[edit]

Performance approach orientation describes students who long for the opportunity to demonstrate their ability relative to others, and wish to prove their self worth in a public manner.

Mastery Approach[edit]

Students who fit this category possess high levels of intrinsic motivation, and are driven by the desire to learn as much as possible. Students within this category tend to be able to overcome adversity and challenges, and are constantly focused on increasing their level of competence.

Performance Avoidance[edit]

Performance avoidance is a construct whereby students are motivated by the fear of incompetence. They are motivated to learn and achieve so as to avoid appearing as though they lack ability and knowledge.

Mastery Avoidance[edit]

The mastery avoidance orientation describes students who are driven to learn in order to avoid a lack of mastery. Students in this orientation are worried they won’t be able to learn enough to master the topic, and this in turn motivates them to continue.

How is this relevant to Self Sabotage?[edit]

Understanding the motivational driving force behind an individual’s pursuit for success highlights the factors which may become detrimental to goal achievement. A great deal of research supports this statement (Martin et al., 2003), suggesting that goal orientation is a pivotal construct in identifying the manner in which students set about completing their studies. The dichotomous goal orientation theory consists of two different types of motivation; Task (Mastery) and Ego (Performance). Martin et al. (2003) argue that ego-oriented individuals are often very competitive, and derive their success based on comparison to others. Furthermore, these individuals tend to base their success upon outperforming others. Task-oriented individuals are more concerned with the task itself, and are less concerned with outperforming others. Success and failure for these individuals is primarily based on the effort they put in.

These two entirely different motivational forces create the opportunity for entirely different methods of failure. For the task-oriented individual, failure is generally seen as a sign of insufficient effort, and alterations can be made to amend the strategies before the eventual failure. However, ego-oriented individuals, who are constantly basing their own work on that of their peers, are particularly vulnerable in achievement scenarios (Martin et al., 2003). Urden (2004) argues that this vulnerability in ego-oriented individuals creates a situation where, faced with failure, that individual must salvage their own self-worth by creating excuses, often blamed on extrinsic factors such as insufficient time or unusually difficult assessment. This propensity for excuse-seeking can even extend to environmental attributes such as excessive socialising, or exhausting the time for preparation of an assignment on trivial, unrelated tasks (e.g. procrastination).

Practical Examples[edit]

Students[edit]

The bulk of current research relating to self sabotage relates to students. There is a desire within psychology to discover the motivational variances between students, in an effort to explain the different study techniques, habits, and overall results amongst a group of individuals who seemingly receive the same resources to achieve their goal.

Self sabotage is common in students of all ages, ranging from the very young through to University students. There are various mechanisms of self sabotage that students commonly engage in, including:

  • Strategic reduction in effort
  • Procrastination
  • Ingestion of drugs or alcohol
  • Choosing performance debilitating circumstances

Urden (2004) argues that self sabotage in students may be a product of the sum of the environmental factors present in the classroom. For instance, teachers emphasise the differences between the work that students produce by showing superior work to the entire class, and sub-consciously displaying preferential treatment towards the high achievers. If we consider what this level of comparison must feel like for ego-driven achievers, we begin to see the potential for these students to create defensive strategies focused on protecting that student’s self worth.

Remember!! For ego-driven achievers, comparison to other students is everything!!

In younger ego-driven students, the common form of self sabotage may be to act recklessly in class, and no pay attention as achieving this superior level of work is perceived as impossible. While this student is acting recklessly, they miss out on further information necessary to produce good work, which in turn creates more reckless behaviour. This produces a perpetual cycle which is detrimental to the goal attainment of that student.


Self sabotage exists throughout the duration of many students' lives, extending right through university studies. It is common for students to leave assignments until the bare minimum amount of time exists in which to complete them. Students often go out drinking the night before an exam. These are all examples of self sabotage to the university student. Martin et al. (2003) suggest that self handicappers avoid a disconfirmation of a desired self-conception. In simple terms, if the student fails an exam due to lack of preparation, or excessive socialising the night before, they have a ready made excuse. This allows the individual to blame extrinsic factors, rather than a lack of ability.

Martin et al. (2003) argue that a student’s goal orientation is a predictor of self sabotaging behaviours. Ego driven students are driven by a competitive nature, and base their success on out performing others. However, if that student sees the potential for failure, they will tend to start searching for extrinsic excuses for their underachievement. Harackiewicz et al. (2002) further support this argument, suggesting that is it important to distinguish between students with approach goals and students with avoidance goals, in determining the likelihood of self sabotaging behaviours occurring. Students categorised into the mastery and performance approach goal groups test higher for intrinsic motivation (Urden, 2007) and are more likely to adjust their behaviour to accommodate the necessary levels of work. However, avoidance goal category students are likely to fear failure and comparison to others so much that they will either create an external excuse, or give up entirely. It is therefore vital to determine what motivates a student to study, to determine whether or not they are likely to engage in self sabotage behaviour. This variance in motivation also seeks to explain the disparity in results amongst students' achievements who seemingly receive the same resources.

Professionals[edit]

Self sabotage is an enduring phenomenon which can extend past an individual's study and manifest throughout their professional life. Benabour (2002) argues that self handicapping within the workplace is a deliberate or instinctive strategy aimed as the preservation of one’s self esteem. The behaviour manifests similar to that of a student. In the work place, and individual might:

  • Take mind altering substances before an important task
  • Neglect necessary sleep before work
  • Set overly ambitious tasks which almost assures failure

Newton et al. (2008) suggest that failure is an inevitable aspect of professional life, stating that as many as 50% of executives fail in their jobs. Failure in a task can be a harrowing experience, and crippling to an individual’s self esteem. For ego-driven individuals, the workplace presents another opportunity for comparison to others, and as such self sabotaging techniques may be either consciously or subconsciously employed to create an excuse for inevitable failure.

Interestingly, Newton et al. (2008) suggest that self handicapping in the workplace can also be used as a technique to heighten the thrill and reward of successful completion of a task. While most commonly used to create external attributes to blame for failure, ego-driven employees may set unusually high goals for themselves, and when they complete these goals successfully, they can enjoy greater personal attribution for their success.

Weight Loss[edit]

A common vehicle for self sabotage relates to obesity and weight loss. There is a common regard that obesity is detrimental to health, lifestyle and social fulfillment, however obesity rates continue to rise. A study by Straus (2000) found there to be a strong relationship between obesity and self esteem, even at a young age. While this may be common sense, if this statement is considered within the context of goal motivation, it becomes evident that self sabotage can become prevalent for ego-driven individuals who attempt to implement a weight loss plan.

Some common statements of self sabotage in weight loss:

  • I'm too stressed
  • I need energy
  • This won't work anyway, why even try?
  • I need to lose 10kgs in 5 weeks!
  • I'm too old
  • It's taking too long!
  • I'm too busy/ I don't have time
  • I haven't been well

As mentioned previously, a common form of self sabotage is setting unrealistic goals, so that there is a ready made excuse to pre-empt failure. Jardine (2010) highlight this by suggesting that a common reason for failure when dieting is the setting of unrealistic goals in terms of exercise regime, diet, and overall weight loss goals. As with students, when the individual fails to see instant rewards for their vigilance there is the propensity to attribute blame to external factors, rather than admit failure.

Case Study: Adam[edit]

Adam grew up in a household that celebrated food. His mother was always cooking, and meal times were a time to celebrate the company of his family. Throughout his childhood, Adam learned how to cook, and developed a real passion for it. He loved to cook, and loved the reception he received when he presented friends or family with a delicious meal.

Throughout his school days, Adam dreamed only of being a chef. He thought this to be his ideal job, and pursued it as such. Upon graduation from school, Adam applied for a job in a busy restaurant, and started immediately. Soon it became apparent that cooking for friends and family was not the same as cooking for 200 people every night. Adam quickly lost the passion for cooking, and no longer enjoyed cooking for friends and family on weekends. In fact, if it wasn't for the pay cheque, Adam would have no motivation to go to work. After a while, it was becoming difficult for Adam to get to work on time. Each time, something would come up; Returning a movie, a Doctor's appointment, heavy traffic.

If Adam were to be fired for chronic lateness, would this be easier to reconcile, after spending his entire life wanting only to be a chef? Would it be less crippling on his ego to be fired for being late, rather than failing at the career he thought he was destined to love?

Overcoming Self Sabotage[edit]

The following are techniques aimed at overcoming self sabotage:


  • Identify the problem behaviours

This is paramount in eradicating self sabotage behaviours. With regards to students, it is important to identify the behaviours which are inhibiting the successful achievement of study goals.

  • Are you taking too many classes?
  • Are you giving yourself sufficient time to complete tasks?
  • Are you resting suitably before exams and assignments?

This is also the fundamental solution to maintaining a healthy and exercise plan. A report by Kase (2005) suggests that around 30% of normal weight people under-report the amount of food they eat, and around 60% of obese people under-report the amount of food they consume. This highlights the fact that overweight people are often naïve to the problem behaviours. If they do not see what they are doing is a problem, there is no way to fix it.

  • Regulate your environment

Psychologists refer to this as ‘stimulus control’. This is particularly important for individuals who attempt to diet. It is important to ensure you have control over your environment, and this includes:

  • Eliminating junk food from your house,
  • Controlling portion sizes
  • Ensure there are healthy snacks on hand

Controlling these factors will reduce the opportunity to use the aforementioned excuses, and rescind into unhealthy habits. Similarly, removing distractions such as mobile phones and laptops from a place of study or work will reduce the likelihood that an individual will create an excuse to check their phone and organise a social activity which will detract from the goal achievement.

  • Success breeds success

Achieving goals is an ongoing process. Often the problem that individuals who experience self sabotage face is the implementing of unrealistic goals. When these goals are in danger of being missed, there is a danger that the individual will see this as a sign of failure, and desist from trying to accomplish it. An easy way to avoid this is to set short term, realistic goals. For example, if a person wishes to find a new job, the first easily achievable step could be to update their resume.

Summary[edit]

Self sabotage is a psychological restraint which appears more common than may be initially thought. Research based on students motivational influences shows considerable prevalence of self sabotaging behaviours. This may be explained by the role self-esteem plays in the lives on students, and the general population. It is clear that people place a priority on maintaining a feeling of self worth for themselves, and appearing in control to their peers. It is human nature to try to avoid failure, and the human brain can create techniques to minimise the emotional tole that comes with failure. Self sabotage is a prime example of this. It guards against failure by creating the opportunity to blame external factors for failure, and helps us reconcile failed ventures in our own mind. As was discussed with regards to workplace self sabotage, it also creates the opportunity for people who truly excel, to brag about triumph through adversity, further feeding the self esteem and ego. Self sabotage is a natural defense mechanism against the threat of failure, however it can in turn become a self-fulfilling prophecy when it hinders the achievement of goals.

See also

References[edit]

Benabou, R. & Tirole, J. (2002), Self confidence and personal motivation, The Quarterly Journal of Economics,

(117), 871-915

Covington, M. V. (2000) Goal theory, motivation, and school achievement: An integrative review, Annual Review of Psychology, 51, 171-200.

Harackiewicz, J. M., Barron, K. E., Pintrich, P. R., Elliot, A. J. & Thrash, T. M. (2002), Revision of :achievement goal theory: Necessary and Illuminating, Journal of educational Psychology, 94(3), 638-645.

Jardine, G. (2010) Obesity and dietary behavioural changes, Diabetes education, 15 (2), 88-90.

Kase, L. (2005) 8 Steps to breaking bad eating habits, Strength, weightloss and wellness, 1-10.

Newton, A. N., Khanna, C. & Thompson, J. (2008), Workplace failure: mastering the last taboo, Consulting :psychology journal: Practice and research, 60(3), 227-245.

Nilsen, H. (2007) Motivation and learning strategies of IS students: From theory to practice, Computer :science and IT education conference, 1-15.

Martin, A. J., Marsh, H. W. & Williamson, A. (2003), Self-handicapping, defensive pessimism, and goal :orientation: A qualitative study of university students, Journal or educational psychology, 95(3), 617-628.

Urdan, T (2004), Predictors of academic self-handicapping and achievement: Examining achievement goals, :classroom goal structures, and culture, Journal of educational psychology, (96)2, 251-264.

Wolters, C. A. (2004), Advancing achievement goal theory: Using goal structures and goal orientations to :predict students’ motivation, cognition, and achievement, Journal or Applied Psychology, 96(2), 236-250