Motivation and emotion/Book/2013/Self-handicapping

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Why do we sometimes self-handicap?
What can be done about it?


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What is self-handicapping?

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Self-handicapping is a way of setting yourself up with an external cause for failure of a task to preserve self-esteem (Gadbois & Sturgeon, 2011), it can include any action or choice that enhances the opportunity to externalise, or excuse, failure on a task, and to internalise success (Berglas & Jones, 1978). This has been replicated in most studies with findings suggesting that self-handicapping behaviours are substantially linked to self-esteem (Gadbois & Sturgeon, 2011; Midgley, Arunkumar, & Urdan, 1996). However the extent and nature of the link remain unclear. Some have suggested it is due to an over concern with competence (Zuckerman & Tsai, 2005). One of the key factors that has been revealed through studies has been that self-handicappers must be fundamentally able to justify the trade-off between an increased chance of failure at a task in favour of the protection of one's self-esteem and desired image (Rhodewalt, 2008). Arguably the greatest motivation behind self-handicapping behaviours is to avoid attribution of failure, but to claim success regardless of the outcome (Rhodewalt, 2008). Within the literature there is distinction made between two types of self-handicapping, one is an actual decrease in behaviour, or the active creation of impediments, termed behavioural self-handicapping (Standage, Treasure, hooper, & Kuczka, 2007). The second type is claimed self-handicapping, which incorporates verbalised excuses although the physical impediment may not have occurred. (Standage et al., 2007). There is also a distinction made in studies regarding the occurrence of the behaviours, whether it is trait, where self-handicapping is used many times in different situations, or situational where self-handicaps are less frequent and only in specific circumstances (Standage et al., 2007).

Figure 1. Self-handicapping and self-esteem cycle

As well as a general consensus within the literature about what can induce self-handicapping behaviours, there is also an understanding of the consequences of those behaviours. In the short-term self-handicapping behaviours can have positive outcomes (Rhodewalt, 2008). These outcomes help to reinforce the occurrence of self-handicapping so long as the implications to the individual's self-esteem outweighs the importance of success on a task (Standage et al., 2007). However despite the positive outcomes, prolonged use of self-handicapping behaviours can lead to the development of maladaptive coping styles and a decrease in academic performance, competence, and ultimately self-esteem (Zuckerman & Tsai, 2005). It is this eventual decline which contributes to the cyclical nature of self-handicapping as the drop in self-esteem induces self-handicapping which in turn lowers self-esteem (Uysal and Knee, 2012). As a result of the dramatic consequences associated with self-handicapping there is a need to understand why people engage in these behaviours, who is more likely to do so, and how it can be prevented. The Self-Handicapping Scale (SHS) is a self-report measure that allows for the measurement of a person's self-handicapping behaviours, which can then be used to monitor extent of the behaviour.


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Some examples of behavioural self-handicapping include; getting little sleep before a exam or important task, not studying for or under preparing for an exam, over-exaggerating the effects of illness or an injury, or in general accepting and embracing impediments rather than trying to overcome them (Berglas & Jones, 1978). Procrastination has also been described as a strategy of self-handicapping, rather than just poor self-control (Midgley et al, 1996). Over-engagement in extracurricular activities has also been thought to be self-handicapping as it would leave little time for study (Midgley et al., 1996). The use of drugs and alcohol to decrease ability has been suggested as a common method for self-handicappers (Uysal & Knee, 2012). While claimed self-handicapping generally includes less serious behaviours such as an explanation of sickness or some form of physical pain (Standage et al., 2007).

Early works and theory

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Berglas and Jones (1978) were first to suggest the term self-handicapping, a construct derived from earlier works such as Festinger's Theory of Social Comparison (1954), and Kelley's Augmentation Principle (1971). Self-handicapping has also been suggested to fit into the structure of Heider's Attribution Theory (1958) and was suggested to utilise the key attributional principles of discounting and augmentation (Rhodewalt, 2008). There has also been suggestion of a close link to self-presentation which incorporates similar principles and constructs. Current research has suggested a link with Achievement Goal Theory (AGT). AGT states the primary intent in in any achievement setting is the demonstration of ability, the same could be said for use of self-handicapping behaviours (Standage et al., 2007). Some of the more recent research has begun to examine how the Implicit Theories of Intelligence could be applied in this setting (Niya et al., 2010). This theory states there are two views a person can hold regarding their intelligence, the first being incremental theory, which sees intelligence as being adaptable and influenced through effort and learning (Blackwell, Trzesniewski, & Dweck, 2007). The second is Entity Theory, which sees intelligence as being fixed and unchangeable, leaving individuals the ability to only display their intelligence, not increase, and should the results be negative in that display this leads to a withdrawal of effort as there is seen to be no other incentive (Blackwell et al., 2007). It is this latter approach which mirrors the goal of self-handicapping to display ability and competence rather than focus on development, with some research suggesting tthose who see intelligence as being incremental having lower levels of self-handicapping than entity believers (Niya et al., 2010)

Why some people self-handicap

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When is self-handicapping most likely?

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In general for self-handicapping to occur a situation must exist where a person is required to perform an action or task which involves the display of skills or competency in that task (Rhodewalt, 2008). The situation should include a performance which is comparative (Standage et al., 2007), and in which failure would lead to negative implications for self-esteem (Zuckerman & Tsai, 2005). Boon (2007) has suggested that self-handicapping behaviours will be engaged in so attention can be deflected away from ability as the reason for poor performance and onto the created impediments, whether behavioural or claimed. In recent research focus has been placed on what effect non-contingent success has on an individual's likelihood of engaging in self-handicapping (Rhodewalt, 2008). Self-handicapping is said to most likely occur when self-esteem is threatened by future outcomes that will impact on some aspect that is of importance to them (Midgley et al., 1996). Rhodewalt (2008) suggested that self-handicapping is far more likely to occur if a threat has been made to the self, particularly self-esteem or competency. There is evidence to suggest that along with potential threats to the self based on outside sources, individuals who engage in self-handicapping behaviours hold more general self-doubts about themselves (Coudevylle, Ginis, & Famose, 2008). This suggests a public comparison or performance may not be necessary to induce self-handicapping (Rhodewalt, 2008).

Given that self-handicapping behaviours allow for enhancing one's ability by externalising failure on a task, while internalising success, there are two areas which would seem more likely to involve self-handicapping behaviours, academic (Gadbois & Sturgeon, 2011), and sporting settings (Coudevylle et al., 2008). Within both of these areas being competent and capable are at the forefront of importance, and any threats to these aspects are likely to affect self-esteem, potentially causing self-handicapping behaviours.

Academic setting

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Student studying
Student studying
The majority of the literature surrounding self-handicapping behaviours are conducted in an academic context centred around study and preparation for examinations and assessments (De castella, Byrne, & Covington, 2013; Gadbois & Sturgeon, 2011). In Strunk and Steele (2011) it was found that as self-handicapping behaviours increased there was a decrease in study, exam performance, and grades of students. It was also suggested that self-handicapping and procrastination were able to function as predictors of one another. In De Castella et al (2013) high school students were studied to establish if the same findings that can be seen in higher academic settings could be seen in younger participants. The results of the study suggested that self-handicapping behaviours and their causes were similar even in this sample, finding that self-handicapping behaviours were associated with lower self-esteem, academic achievement, and self-regulation. A key finding from this study was the suggestion that with a lack of motivation to succeed coupled with a fear of failure self-handicapping was much more likely to occur. Gadbois and Sturgeon (2011) suggested a similar phenomenon in that self-handicapping behaviours were associated with a much lower academic self-efficacy and grades, and higher test anxiety. This incorporates the fixed theory of intelligence whereby self-handicapping behaviours are more common when there is a belief that one does not possess the required skills, which leads to a lack of motivation to try, resulting in poor performance, leading to a further diminished self-efficacy and self-esteem.

Sports setting

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While there has been less focus on self-handicapping in this area, there is still a need to understand it. One study by Finez and Sherman (2012), has suggested that self-esteem is a key factor, and that athletes who suffered from lower self-esteem had higher rates of claimed self-handicapping, while those athletes with higher self-esteem showed a much lower rate of self-handicapping. It was noted in this study that while there was an immediate short-term positive for the use of self-handicapping, prolonged use lead to a decrease in their peers' perception of their abilities and characteristics. This once again creates the cycle in which the knowledge that they are being seen as less capable leads the individual to engage in self-handicapping to protect themselves. In Coudevylle et al. (2008) behavioural and claimed self-handicaps were studied, and found that behavioural approaches were significantly correlated to lower self-efficacy and performance, while claimed strategies were found to also be related to lower self-esteem, there was no correlation with performance. It was suggested that as claimed involved merely verbalising an excuse, it still allowed the athlete to perform to their potential, while creating an external attribution if needed. This allows the athlete to over-collect praise as they are seen as performing well despite a handicap. This contrasts with behavioural where the approach is more serious as an action is taken to ensure an impediment, as a result it was suggested to occur when the individual anticipated failure. In line with this Rhodewalt (2008) suggested that self-handicappers are prepared to accept a greater likelihood of failure given the opportunity to protect their self-image.

Who is most likely to self-handicap

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Within the literature there is a consensus that the major factor in self-handicapping behaviours is that of self-esteem, both overly high or low, and whether it is stable or unstable (Gadbois & Sturgeon, 2011; Midgely et al., 1996; Uysal & Knee, 2012). Along with this, low achievers are more likely to self-handicap than high achievers (Finez & Sherman, 2012). However Midgley et al. (1996) found that a high achiever with high but unstable self-esteem may also use self-handicapping behaviours as success was viewed as crucial. In this situation a claimed self-handicap was likely as it would allow for an external attribution should the person fail, while still allowing the individual to continue trying as usual (Zuckerman & Tsai, 2005). Self-efficacy has been suggested to influence a person's likelihood to self-handicap, with the notion that they are negatively correlated, meaning if someone is low on self-efficacy they will use more self-handicaps and vice-versa (Boon, 2007). A number of studies have attempted to determine whether there is also a link with personality factors, in particular narcissism and self-handicapping (Uysal & Knee, 2012; Zuckerman & Tsai, 2005). Zuckerman and Tsai (2005) found that a large correlation (.63) existed between narcissism and self-handicapping behaviours, this was suggested to occur as negative affectivity, which strongly relates to narcissism, and self-handicapping behaviours are reciprocally related in that one reinforces the other, however further studies are needed. There has also been the suggestion that what theory of intelligence a person subscribes to also has an influence on their likelihood of self-handicapping (Niya, Brook, & Crocker, 2010). If competency is seen as fixed (entity perspective), and can only be demonstrated rather than improved, there is a greater likelihood that self-handicaps will be used as a means of protection if the task is failed, or likely to be failed (Rhodewalt, 2008). These individuals are more concerned with avoiding the negative implication of failing a task, rather than achievement or learning (Rhodewalt, 2008). If however someone sees competency as being incremental and learned then there is a greater likelihood for that person to engage in study and apply effort as they see the eventual outcome as increased competency leading to better self-esteem. This approach however can also lead to self-handicapping if effort is applied but no improvement is gained. If effort is no longer seen as relating to improvement, regression to a fixed intelligence belief may occur coupled with the use of self-handicapping as a defense mechanism. Additionally there is an understanding that self-handicapping can only occur once the individual is aware of, and able to make the distinction between, having ability at a task and exerting effort on a task (Midgley et al., 1996). As a result it is believed that it does not occur until at least primary school or high school age groups.

Gender differences

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Gender differences with regard to self-handicapping have so far remained inconclusive, however there have been a number of similar findings that have been replicated across studies. The first is that there is generally a distinction in the style of self-handicapping occurring between genders, with Rhodewalt (2008) finding that more often men will choose behavioural, while women will opt for claimed. This finding was replicated in Hirt and McCrea (2009) who also found that women were less likely to engage in behavioural self-handicapping. McCrea (2008) also suggested that this discrepancy may occur due to women placing a higher importance on hard work. This same suggestion was included by Rhodewalt (2008) who theorised that as women value hard work more they were less likely to use behavioural self-handicapping as it involved a removal of effort, while claimed involves only verbalising excuses. A similar finding was recorded in an earlier study by Zuckerman and Tsai (2005) who found that there was no difference in the occurrence of self-handicapping behaviours, only in the types with men and women utilising behavioural and claimed self-handicaps more respectively. Additionally in the later study conducted by Hirt and McCrea (2009) they found that men and women used claimed self-handicaps equally, but there was still a significant distinction in behavioural types, with men scoring higher on the behavioural SHS subscale, and women higher on the claimed SHS subscale. As a result of this study it was also suggested that perhaps men valued success in an academic area more highly than women did, resulting in the more extreme self-handicapping behaviours. The study suggests the academic environment to be more male-focussed. In less 'masculine' environments instances of female behavioural handicapping was the same as men (Hirt & McCrea, 2009).

When self-handicapping occurs

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The reasoning behind self-handicapping

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Self-handicapping will often be employed in situations where performance on a task is believed to result in a finding that the individual is inferior or incompetent on that task (Berglas & Jones, 1978), or where there is a fear or uncertainty of the outcome. The suggestion is that self-handicapping allows for an attribution of failure to the circumstances, rather than the ability of the individual (Midgely et al., 1996), meaning it can be used to protect or in some cases enhance an individual's self-worth and self-esteem (Finez & Sherman, 2012). The reasoning behind this suggestion comes from the belief that all people desire to be seen as competent and capable to others (De Castella et al., 2013). Self-handicapping is therefore often utilised to allow for a discounting and refocusing of attention away from ability as the reason for failure or poor performance and onto the created obstacle or impediment as a means of protection or enhancement of self-perceptions should a performance result in an undesired outcome (Boon, 2007). Argument as to whether self-handicapping is a self-protection strategy or a self-presentation strategy is still unresolved, with some suggesting it is primarily a self-presentation strategy (Midgley et al., 1996). This means self-handicapping is utilised for external reasons rather than for internal. This finding however has not been replicated in all studies, others finding that self-handicapping occurs in both public and private areas, suggesting that its uses can for self-presentation as well as self-protection (Rhodewalt, 2008). This means its use can be for appearing more competent to other people as well as to trick yourself.

Can self-handicapping be useful?

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A major reason that self-handicapping behaviours become problematic and lead to long term issues is that self-handicapping provides immediate gratification in the short term (Standage et al., 2007). Resulting in the behaviour being positively reinforced and then repeated (Finez & Sherman, 2012; Zuckerman & Tsai, 2005). Hirt and McCrea (2009) suggested that individuals who did engage in self-handicapping behaviours were better at maintaining positive self-esteem and to retain positive beliefs in relation to their ability, even when faced with failure on a task. While Zuckerman and Tsai (2005) have acknowledged that those who self-handicapped experienced an immediate and short lived strengthening of performance and self-esteem, it was however noted that the act itself would eventually work to decrease both despite this, with prolonged use leading to detriments in achievement and accomplishment. Rhodewalt (2008) found that self-handicappers experienced a decrease in anxiety before performances, in particular pre-test anxiety, though noted that prolonged use does lead to maladaptive behaviours and eventual decline in academic performance and self-esteem. Standage et al. (2007) also found that through extended use low persistence and performance were likely to occur. From this self-handicapping can be useful in some cases if not relied on or overused, however as the behaviour is reinforced it can be difficult to stop once started (Zuckerman & Tsai, 2005).

Preventing or overcoming self-handicapping

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Once self-handicapping behaviours have been utilised it can be very difficult to discontinue that behaviour with some going so far to describe it as a 'Faustian Bargain' to suggest how difficult it can be to escape the behaviour cycle (Zuckerman & Tsai, 2005). The reason that it is suggested to be so difficult refrain from engaging in these behaviours stems from two factors, the first being that self-handicapping strategies allows for immediate gratification (Zuckerman & Tsai, 2005), and the second being that self-handicapping behaviours function in a cyclical manner, where the short term gratification reinforces the self-handicapping behaviour, which results in continued self-handicapping, this lead to decreased self-esteem which increases self-handicapping (Rhodewalt, 2008).

Figure 2. Cyclical nature of reinforced self-handicapping

While the literature suggests that self-handicapping is a cycle which once entered is difficult to leave (Zuckerman & Tsai, 2005), there are a number of findings which suggest there are ways to prevent yourself from both entering the cycle as well as ways to stop the continuance of it. One of the first and potentially most successful methods is utilising the principles and knowledge first established within the Berglas and Jones (1978) original experiment, being that of contingent and non-contingent response success. The original study separated individuals into two groups, those receiving contingent and non-contingent success, the groups were then offered a choice of drug which would either increase or decrease performance in another task. The study showed that those in the response contingent group who completed the task and were aware of why they went well were more likely to choose the performance enhancing drug as they wished to continue success at the task. On the other hand the non-contingent response group were unsure as to why they were successful in the first task, were more likely to choose the drug to decrease performance. It is suggested that they did not feel confident enough that they would be able to do the next task so rather than gain the assistance and potentially fail, they opted for an impediment to which they could attribute the failure. What this all means for a 'real-world' application is that one way of reducing self-handicapping behaviours is to provide feedback as to why success in a task was achieved. This approach is perhaps more suited to an academic setting, with feedback given to students after a test or assignment. If the student is unsure why they achieved success, this could potentially lead to instances of self-handicapping in the future as they have not learned the skills to replicate the performance, rather they have set themselves a standard which they do not know how to recreate.

Another approach which may limit, or prevent, the use of self-handicapping is the process of increasing self-esteem through self-affirmation. This process is usually applied to students in an academic setting, one study had students write a paragraph regarding a value of importance to them, then they were given an intelligence test (Finez & Sherman, 2012). Those students who had written the paragraph were less likely to engage in the optional behavioural handicaps during the intelligence test than those who had not written the paragraph. Finez and Sherman (2012) applied this approach within a sporting framework however, and found a decrease in the amount of claimed self-handicapping engaged in once self-affirmation had occurred. It was also found through this that handicapping behaviour occurred when a domain that was important to the self was threatened. As a way of combating this it was suggested that a reinforcing or securing of the individuals self-esteem through self-affirmation would result in a decrease in self-handicapping. This was found to be true, however not in all circumstances, and only under certain conditions. What Finez and Sherman (2012) found was that for the process of self-affirmation to be effective, the affirmation would need to focus on a domain other than the one that was being threatened. It was suggested that if self-affirmation was targeted at the threatened domain it would only exacerbate the problem rather than reduce it, as it could potentially result in an increase in protection for the threatened domain. The real world application for this approach is to try and move the focus on to an area which is more stable, rather than fixate on an area which is being threatened. This approach can be achieved internally or through an external source - such as a coach or teacher.


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While there is a multitude of research and studies conducted into this area there are still gaps in the literature. The most noted one is the lack of cross cultural models and applications (De Castella et al., 2013) with another being the lack of research outside academic settings (Hirt & McCrea, 2009). What is clear from the research however is that while self-handicapping can be useful in the short term, prolonged use can have serious effects on performance, self-esteem and health. One of the best ways to avoid self-handicapping is to focus on skills you are good at rather than fixate on ones you aren't, along with viewing competence as an incremental process.

1 Behavioural self-handicapping involves the use of?;

Created real impediments
Verbalisation of excuses

2 An example of claimed self-handicapping is?;

Staying up late before an exam
Not studying
Saying that you're ill prior to an exam

3 Self-handicapping is most common in people with?;

high, stable self-esteem
high, unstable self-esteem
low, stable self-esteem
low, unstable self-esteem

4 Who first suggested the term 'self-handicapping'?;

Gadbois and Sturgeon
Berglas and Jones
Zuckerman and Tsai

See also

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Blackwell, L. S. , Trzesniewski, K. H. , & Dweck, C. S.. (2007). Implicit theories of intelligence predict achievement across an adolescent transition: A longitudinal study and an intervention. Child Development, 78(1), 246-263. doi: 10.1111/j.1467-8624.2007.00995.x

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(4), 405-417. doi: 10.1037/0022-3514.36.4.405

Boon, H. J. (2007). Low- and high-achieving Australian secondary school students: Their parenting, motivations and academic achievement. Australian Psychologist, 42(3), 212-225. doi: 10.1080/00050060701405584

Coudevylle, G. R., Ginis, K. M., & Famose, J. (2008). Determinants of self-handicapping strategies in sport and their effects on athletic performance. Social Behavior & Personality: An International Journal, 36(3), 391-398. doi: 10.2224/sbp.2008.36.3.391

De Castella, 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

Finez, L., & Sherman, D. K. (2012). Train in vain: The role of the self in claimed self-handicapping strategies. Journal of Sport & Exercise Psychology, 34(5), 600-620. Retrieved from

Gadbois, S. A., & Sturgeon, R. D. (2011). Academic self-handicapping: Relationships with learning specific and general self-perceptions and academic performance over time. British Journal of Educational Psychology, 81(2), 207-222. doi: 10.1348/000709910X522186

Hirt, E. R., & McCrea, S. M. (2009). Man smart, woman smarter? Getting to the root of gender differences in self-handicapping. Social and Personality Psychology Compass, 3(3), 260-274. doi: 10.1111/j.1751-9004.2009.00176.x

McCrea, S. M. (2008). Self-handicapping, excuse making, and counterfactual thinking: Consequences for self-esteem and future motivation. Journal of personality and social psychology, 95(2), 274-292. doi: 10.1037/0022-3514.95.2.274

Midgley, C., Arunkumar, R., & Urdan, T. C. (1996). 'If I don't do well tomorrow, there's a reason': Predictors of adolescents' use of academic self-handicapping strategies. Journal of Educational Psychology, 88(3), 423-434. doi: 10.1037/0022-0663.88.3.423

Rhodewalt, F. (2008). Self-handicapping: On the self-perpetuating nature of defensive behavior. Social and Personality Psychology Compass, 2(3), 1255-1268. doi: 10.1111/j.1751-9004.2008.00117.x

Standage, M., Treasure, D. C., Hooper, K., & K., Kendy. (2007). Self-handicapping in school physical education: The influence of the motivational climate. British Journal of Educational Psychology, 77(1), 81-99. doi: 10.1348/000709906X103636

Strunk, K. K., & Steele, M. R. (2011). Relative contributions of self-efficacy, self-regulation, and self-handicapping in predicting student procrastination. Psychological Reports, 109(3), 983-989. doi: 10.2466/07.09.20.PR0.109.6.983-989

Uysal, A., & Knee, C. R.. (2012). Low Trait Self-Control Predicts Self-Handicapping. Journal of Personality, 80(1), 59-79. doi: 10.1111/j.1467-6494.2011.00715.x

Zuckerman, M., & Tsai, F. (2005). Costs of self-handicapping. Journal of Personality, 73(2), 411-442. doi: 10.1111/j.1467-6494.2005.00314.x

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