Motivation and emotion/Book/2013/Fear of failure

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Fear of failure: What motives underlie the fear of failure and how can the fear of failure be overcome?

How do you feel in the face of failure?


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  • A young boy dreams of being a basketballer someday, but gets cut from his high school basketball team
  • A man is fired by his newspaper editor because he is said to "lack imagination"
  • A band just starting out is rejected by a record company
  • A woman writes a novel, but all the publishers she goes to reject her

To find out how these real life examples dealt with this failure click here or keep reading till the end of the chapter (White, 1978)

Failure is something that everyone faces at some point in their lives. It is also something that most people try to avoid. Everyone wants to be respected and admired by others. This includes being seen as competent and able to achieve success. When someone tries hard at a task or challenge, they are essentially putting themselves at risk – there is a chance they may succeed, but there is also a chance they may fail. This is a dilemma that everyone faces, and while many people choose to chase success, there are those who fear gets the best of. This fear of failure can inhibit performance, induce maladaptive behaviour and result in self-doubt, and a lack of confidence in one’s own abilities (DeCastella, Byrne, & Covington, 2013).

What is the fear of failure

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Failure can often induce fear. Fear of the consequences and the feelings that are associated with failure. It is also this fear that can lead to problematic behaviours and attitudes. Fear of failure is a type of avoidance motivation. That is, people seek to avoid failure, sometimes at all costs (Bartel, Magun-Jackson, & Ryan, 2010).

Attributes of those who fear failure

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Imagine that you love to play basketball and you are given the opportunity to try out for a well-renowned team. You also know that there will be many other people trying out who are exceptional players and whom you admire when they play. Do you take up the opportunity and go to tryouts ready to try your best? Do you avoid the tryouts and stay home or turn the opportunity down? Or do you go to the tryouts and tell everyone there that you have a sore leg, so that if you don't perform as well as the others you have an excuse? These are all different approaches that someone may take in the face of a challenge and potential failure.

There are many different theories and attributes associated with the fear of failure. The study of achievement motivation takes into account many of these attributes and gives us a theory on the fear of failure.

Achievement motivation

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The need for achievement is a motive where people seek to do well, demonstrate competence, persist at challenges, and achieve skills. Seeking competence and persisting at challenges can have an outcome of either success or failure. As a result some people have a high need for achievement, whereas others don’t. This difference in need for achievement motivates people to adopt different behaviours – either approach or avoidance behaviours (Bartels, Magun-Jackson, & Ryan, 2010).

Approach motivation

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People who have a high need for achievement approach challenging tasks in full force and experience enjoyment and pride on accomplishment. They also set goals that revolve around achieving and striving towards success and achievement. These individuals do not shy away from tasks and in the face of adversity, even after failure, they persistently try to achieve success and mastery over the challenge (Bartels et al., 2010)

Avoidance motivation

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People who don’t have this high need for achievement tend to set goals to avoid these challenging tasks, feeling more anxiety then a sense of mastery or persistence. Fear of failure is a form of avoidance motivation where individuals avoid situations where their ability or competence may be judged (Bartels et al., 2010)

For more information on avoidance motivation and avoidance behaviours, see the avoidance motivation chapter of this book.

Success oriented vs. fear of failure

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This theory is based on the study of achievement motivation and suggests that there are two factors that play a role in deciding who avoids failure due to fear and who chases success. These are success orientation and fear of failure (DeCastella, Byrne, & Covington, 2013). People who are success oriented show motivation to achieve success, resilience to failure, an enthusiasm for learning, a confidence in their own abilities and skills, and approach challenges. Fear of failure on the other hand shows itself as fear, anxiety, lack of confidence in one’s ability and avoidance behaviours. While initial research looked at success orientation and fear of failure as two separate dimensions (someone was either success oriented or had a fear of failure), Covington (1992) proposed a quadripolar model that suggests these two factors interact to give people different motivational profiles. There are four profiles that someone may have (DeCastella et al., 2013). Someone who is high in success orientation and low in their fear of failure is an optimist, whereas someone who has a high success orientation, but is also high in their fear of failure is an overstriver. Similarly, someone who is low in success orientation and high in their fear of failure is a self-protector and someone who is low in both success orientation and fear of failure is a failure acceptor (see Figure 1) (DeCastella et al., 2013).

Figure 1-Diagram of the Quadripolar Model showing fear of failure and success orientation. Based on DeCastella, Byrne, & Covington (2013)

Perfectionism and fear of failure

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Perfectionism is a personality disposition where someone has extremely high and sometimes unrealistic standards for performance and therefore is highly critical in their self-evaluations of their own behaviour (Sagar, & Stoeber, 2009).In terms of success orientation and fear of failure, these people would be characterized as overstrivers. While some people view perfectionism as something that can help achieve success and bring out the most effort in people, other's see it as something that may lead to maladaptive behaviours and attitudes that undermine performance and limit development. Despite this, perfectionism is a multi-faceted concept. Sagar and Stoeber (2009) refer to two factors of perfectionism, which are

  1. Positive striving perfectionism - personal standards, organisation, self-oriented perfectionism and other oriented perfectionism
  2. Maladaptive evaluation concerns perfectionism - concern over mistakes, parental expectations, parental criticism, doubts about actions and socially prescribed perfectionism.

Perfectionism has been related to fear of failure, especially in athletes.

Sagar and Stoeber (2009) carried out a study where they looked at perfectionism, fear of failure and emotion towards success or failure. Participants were 388 athletes who were asked to fill out a questionnaire. The athletes were then given a success scenario and a failure scenario and were asked to imagine how they would feel had the scenario happened to them. They then filled out an affect questionnaire. Sagar and Stoeber measured four aspects of perfectionism - personal standards, concern over mistakes, perceived parental pressure and perceived coach pressure. Results showed that personal standards of perfectionism predicted lower fear of shame and embarrassment and more positive emotions after success, perceived coach pressure predicted higher fear of shame and embarrassment and more negative emotion after failure and both perceived coach pressure and parental pressure predicted a high fear of upsetting important others. Concern over mistakes was associated with high fear of failure altogether.

These findings show that not all aspects of perfectionism are maladaptive and lead to a greater fear of failure, however some aspects are. It also shows that the fear of shame and embarrassment results in perfectionism leading to greater fear of failure overall (Sagar and Stoeber, 2009).

Why do people fear failure?

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Imagine a time when you faced potential failure. Were you afraid to fail? If so why?

There are many reasons why people are afraid to fail including risk to self-worth, risk of shame and humiliation and risk of letting others down.

Damaging effects to self-worth and self-acceptance

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Self worth theory (Covington, 1992; DeCastella, Byrne, & Covington, 2013) suggests that the search for self acceptance and a feeling of self-worth is a psychological need that all humans seek. Achievement and success is one way that people can acquire this from others and failure is a way it can be damaged. As a result people can develop either an orientation to approach success or a fear of failure. For many people, failure only indicates a lack of competence if it is accompanied by a lot of effort. If someone fails because they did not try, for instance, then the failure does not suggest that the person lacks the ability or talent to succeed, but rather that they just didn’t try. However, if a person fails and they put in all of their effort, then it is viewed as evidence that the person lacks the ability to succeed in that area. This way of thinking can lead to problematic behaviours such as self-handicapping ,defensive pessimism , and helplessness (this is looked at further in the section fear of failure in school). DeCastella et al., (2013) found that these problematic behaviours are used by people who fear failure as a way to protect their self-worth and maintain acceptance from others in the face of potential failure.

Love withdrawal

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Another reason why people fear failure is that they have learnt to associate failure with disappointing the one’s they love and having that person’s affection withdrawn. This assumes that high fear of failure is associated with feelings of incompetence and an unworthiness to be loved. This leads to fear of the possible danger of being abandoned or having their loved ones withdraw affection from them because of their failure and mistakes. This can largely be explained in terms of child-parent interactions. A parent who is afraid to fail may display emotions, thoughts and behaviours towards their own children’s mistakes and failures that teach their children that mistakes and failure are to be avoided at all costs. Children then learn to fear failure, as they don’t want to let their parent down or lose their parent’s love (Elliot, & Thrash, 2004).

Love withdrawal is looked at more closely in the fear of failure in relationships section of this chapter.

Shame and humiliation

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One of the biggest contributors to fear of failure is said to be shame and humiliation. Elliot and Thrash (2004) argue that it is not fear of the failure itself, but rather of the shame and humiliation that often arises when someone fails, especially in front of others, that results in avoidance behaviour. Shame is a painful experience where one feels that they are a failure, stupid or lack ability and talent. Not only this, shame also involves an awareness that this self, the self who has just stuffed up is exposed before a real or imagined audience and is being judged (Elliot, & Thrash, 2004). The feelings of shame and humiliation are associated with failure and so people begin to fear failure as they do not want to experience such feelings. This leads to withdrawal and avoidance because people want to escape the presence of others who judge them and hide. This can lead to excuses, self-handicapping, quitting, helplessness and other forms of problematic behaviours, attitudes and feelings (Elliot, & Thrash, 2004).

McGregor and Elliot (2005) looked at the likelihood of students to feel shame in general (shame-proneness) and found that increased shame-proneness was related to increased fear of failure. They also found that individuals who reported high fear of failure also reported greater shame and overgeneralized this shame to other areas. These individuals who had a high fear of failure also indicated that they would be less likely to tell their parents about a circumstance where they failed, but would tell them about success. These results show that shame and humiliation are central to the fear of failure (McGregor, & Elliot, 2005).

The impact of fearing failure

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The fear of failure is a motive that influences people's behaviour, cognitions and emotions. It can be related to increased amounts of anxiety, giving up, interpersonal problems, self-handicapping, giving up/disinterest, stress, negative emotions, and helplessness. Not only this, the achievements of people who fear failure are not as great as those who are success/approach oriented (Bartels, Magun-Jackson, & Ryan, 2010). Fear of failure in school and in relationships are two specific examples of the impact that fear of failure can have.

Fear of failure in school

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School is an environment where achievement is highly sought and some of a student’s self worth comes from their ability to succeed. Failure and feelings of inadequacy can lead to shame, self-doubt and humiliation. As a way of controlling their feelings and protecting themselves from possible failure, students have been shown to exhibit maladaptive behaviours and attitudes including self-handicapping, defensive pessimism and helplessness (See Table 1) (DeCastella, Byrne, & Covington, 2013).

Self-Handicapping The cause of failure is given to a premeditated excuse rather than the person e.g. a student goes out the night before an exam, then if they don't do well, they can say it was because they had a late night
Defensive pessimism Pessimistic expectations a person has of how they are going to do on a task e.g. a student goes into an exam expecting the worst. That way if they do well, it's a pleasant surprise and if they don't do well, it's not as much of a blow
Helplessness Attributions a person has, where they believe they have no control over the situation e.g. a student believes they have no control over their grades or how well they do because they believe they're a failure and will always fail not matter what they do

Table 1 - Self-protective behaviours and attitudes shown by students who are afraid to fail. Based on DeCastella et al., (2013).

DeCastella et al., (2013) investigated the effects of fear of failure and success orientation on self-protective behaviours (self-handicapping, defensive pessimism and helplessness). 1423 Japanese students as well as 680 Australian students from different schools were asked to fill out questionnaires measuring these items along with disengagement (giving up on school/not caring), truancy (wagging school/skipping class) and academic achievement. They found that students with a high success orientation were less likely to self-handicap and use defensive pessimism. These students also had greater academic achievement and were more interested in school, with a lesser rate of truancy. Helplessness, self-handicapping, defensive pessimism, disengagement and truancy were all associated with a fear of failure; however, self-protectors (high fear of failure, low success orientation) had the highest rate of self-handicapping behaviour (DeCastella et al., 2013).

The sad part about the results of this study though, is that the self-protective behaviours that students who are afraid to fail engage in often bring about the failure that they are trying to avoid in the first place. So while, initially these behaviours may protect a person’s sense of self worth, after awhile it brings about more failure. This then increases that person’s sense of self-doubt and the process keeps going. As a person run’s out of excuses, they soon see themselves as responsible for the failure, however they also see it as uncontrollable and inevitable and take on a sense of helplessness. In some cases, students will event drop out of school (DeCastella et al., 2013). These results do suggest that success oriented goal striving may serve as protection against the fear of failure.

Similarly a study conducted by Bartels, Magun-Jackson & Ryan (2010), looked at the relationship of approach/avoidance motivation and strategies used by students to help themselves learn. They found that a need for achievement was associated with students displaying self-regulated learning strategies, whereas students who were afraid to fail used far less of these of these learning strategies, if any at all.

For more information on self-handicapping, see the self-handicapping chapter of this book

Fear of failure in relationships

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Love Withdrawal

Love withdrawal occurs when a parent withdraws affection or creates a physical separation from their child in response to their child's undesirable behaviour, mistakes or failures. Some examples include

  • looking coldly at the child
  • turning away from the child
  • refusing to speak to or acknowledge the child
  • removing the child from the room or house or threatening removal
  • verbal expression of dislike for the child

The relationship between parent and child is one factor that can influence a person’s fear of failure and one parenting practice often employed unknowingly or on purpose by parents is love withdrawal. When a parent fails and feels less worthy of love and acceptance and a decrease in self-worth, they treat a child in the same way when the child fails. This form of behaviour, however, signals to the child that undesirable behaviour, mistakes and failure results in the parent’s emotional or physical withdrawal. They let the parent down and love is withdrawn (Elliot, & Thrash, 2004).

The children’s failures and success’ also have a direct impact onto the parent’s self-evaluations. For example, if a child is caught shop lifting, the parent may see the child’s mistake as a failure in their own parenting (Elliot, & Thrash, 2004).

A study conducted by Elliot, & Thrash (2004) investigated parent and child fear of failure. Students were asked to fill out questionnaires assessing fear of failure and love withdrawal. Questionnaires were also sent to the participant’s parents to be filled out and returned. They found that students whose parents had a high fear of failure also had a high fear of failure. Mothers were afraid to fail, were also found to show greater amounts of love withdrawal. Students with these mothers had a greater fear of failure. This shows that love withdrawal in response to failure is associated with the development of fear of failure and that children internalise love withdrawal as failure (Bartels, Magun-Jackson, & Ryan, 2010).

The results of this study are troubling as it shows that avoidance behaviours and fear of failure can be passed down through the generations. While, withdrawal of love may change a child’s behaviour in the short term, it may result in maladaptive behaviours in the future including helplessness in future relationships. Not only this, the child will take on their fear of failure into relationships with friends, work mates, romantic partners and their own children (Elliot, & Thrash, 2004).

Wright, Pincus, Conroy & Elliot (2009), also examined the role that fear of failure played in regards to interpersonal relationships. They found that fear of failure could be associated to two different maladaptive social emotions that had interpersonal effects. These were appeasement (loss of status results in submissiveness) and shame-based rage (loss of status results in indignation and rage). Results showed that people with a high fear of failure exhibited interpersonal profiles that were associated with domineering/vindictiveness or non-assertive/ exploitable behaviours and attitudes.

The results of these studies show what a big impact a fear of failure can have on a person's everyday relationships with other people.

Overcoming the fear of failure

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Despite the anxiety that fear of failure can cause an individual, many of us still have this very real fear. This fear may cause anxiety, self-protective behaviours and result in withdrawal from challenges. Most of all, avoidance behaviours due to a fear of failure prevent us from achieving our full potential and striving for success (Martin, & Marsh, 2003). So, how can we overcome the fear of failure?

As we have seen already in this chapter, the fear of failure revolves mostly around negative thought patterns and feelings associated with failure. Rather than focus on the positive opportunities that challenges bring like success oriented people, people who have a fear of failure tend to focus on the negative aspects, what they may lose from failing and their own belief that they are limited or unable to achieve (DeCastella, Byrne, & Covington, 2013). One way of overcoming fear of failure would be to alter our thought patterns and attitudes so that they are more success oriented (Martin, & Marsh, 2003).

Martin and Marsh (2003) identified four aspects that people need for success orientation. They are...

  1. Self-belief is associated with persistence and effort, even in the face of failure. It is the belief and confidence in your ability to understand, do well, meet the challenges you face and perform to the best of your ability.
  2. Value or importance of the task is associated with engagement and interest. It is the belief that what you are doing is useful, that you can get something out of it
  3. Learning focus is the focus on mastering a task and your effort rather than outperforming others and success
  4. Control is associated with persistence, attention, effort and participation. It is the extent to which you believe you can avoid failure and achieve success and that this result is in your control.

Based on these principles of success orientation proposed by Martin and Marsh (2003), here are some tips you can apply to help overcome your fear of failure

Overcoming the fear of failure
  1. Maximize your opportunities or possibility for success by making work or tasks manageable and working on time management. E.g.start assignments early so that they are manageable and the self-handicapping behaviour stops). As you use your time effectively and begin to achieve and succeed in tasks, you will find that self-belief increases
  2. Change the negative thoughts to positive ones. If you find yourself start to think negatively, make an effort to change it to a positive thought. E.g. If you find yourself struggling with a task instead of thinking 'I can't do this because I'm not smart', think 'this challenge is difficult, how can I find another way to master it?'
  3. Don't give up, keep trying. Even when a challenge is difficult or you find yourself failing, think about ways that you can go about it differently
  4. Find importance and purpose in the challenges you face. How is this task relevant to you? Find importance and relevance in what you are doing, even if you end up failing, what is this task going to teach you? Will you learn from it? Grow from it?
  5. Focus on learning and developing skills rather than success. Achievement comes as you learn and develop new skills, not from final success. If you are learning something or you are more competent in a skill today then you were yesterday, then you have achieved something!
  6. Focus on your effort not achievement. If you failed, but you developed new skills or you've developed in the process, then you've won. Every bit of effort you put in is success
  7. Focus on causes of failure that are within your control. E.g. you can control the amount of time you spend studying or the amount of practice you do for sport.
  8. Think of things you can improve on. Learn from previous failures and experience by noting things you need to improve on. Work towards improving these things so that next time you are more prepared.
  9. Set goals. Break down each task or challenge into smaller parts and set goals of what you would like to achieve.
  10. Use reinforcement. Reward yourself, your kids, your partner etc. for effort alone.

Based on Martin and Marsh (2003)

Conclusion - the positive side to failing

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While many people fear failure and see failure as negative, it is not always so. There is a positive side to failure if you look hard enough. Failure helps us to learn, grow, improve, prepares us for future challenges and enables us to be persistent (Martin, & Marsh, 2003).A lot of us would not be who we are today or where we are if we had not made mistakes and learnt from them along the way. It is important that we don't let the fear of failure limit us by making us give up or stop trying. In every mistake, look for what you can learn and how you can improve for next time. Most of all, don't give up!

At the beginning of the chapter, four examples were given of people who experienced failure first hand. Well here's what happened. The boy who got cut from his high school basketball team was Michael Jordon, the man who was fired for 'lacking imagination' was Walt Disney, the band who were turned down by the record company was the Beatles and the author who was rejected was J.K Rowling (White, 1978). These people didn't let the fear of failure get the best of them and they didn't give up in the face of failure. Neither should you.

See also

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Avoidance Motivation

Fear of Success



Failure and Happiness


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Bartels, J.M., Magun-Jackson, S., & Ryan J.J.(2010). Dispositional approach-avoidance achievement motivation and cognitive self-regulated learning: the mediation of achievement goals. Individual Differences Research, 8(2), 97-110. Retrieved from

Covington, M.V.(1992). Making the grade: A self-worth perspective on motivation and school reform. Cambridge, England:Cambridge University Press. doi:10.1017/CBO9781139173582

DeCastella,K., Byrne, D., & Covington, M.(2013). Unmotivated or motivated to fail? A cross-cultural study of achievement motivation, fear of failure, and student disengagement. Journal of Educational Psychology, 105(3), 861-880. doi:10.1037/a0032464

Elliot, A.J., & Thrash, T.M.(2004). The intergenerational transmission of fear of failure. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 30(8), 957-971. doi:10.1177/0146167203262024

Martin, A.J.,& Marsh, H.W.(2003). Fear of failure:Friend or foe? Australian Psychologist, 38, 31-38. doi:10.1080/00050060310001706997

McGregor, H.A., & Elliot, A.J.(2005). The shame of failure: Examining the link between fear of failure and shame. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 31(2), 218-231. doi:10.1177/0146167204271420

Sagar, S.S., & Stoeber,J.(2009). Perfectionism, fear of failure, and affective responses to success and failure:The central role of fear of experiencing shame and embarrassment. Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology, 31(5), 602-627. Retrieved from

White, J.(1978). Rejection. Boston:Addison-Wesley Publishing

Wright, A.G., Pincus, A.L., Conroy, D.E., & Elliot, A.J.(2009). The pathoplastic relationship between interpersonal problems and fear of failure. Journal of Personality, 77(4), 997-1024. doi: 10.1111/j.1467-6494.2009.00572.x