Self-handicapping is a self-protective strategy in which a person identifies or creates obstacles to performance in order to generate excuses for possible failure; doing so protects the individual’s positive self-views by allowing them to discount attributions to lack of ability. Self-handicapping can also be used to augment attributions to ability following success.
Self-handicapping is a defensive, often self-defeating strategy that people adopt to protect or even enhance their positive self-images (Rhodewalt & Tragakis, 2012). Self-handicapping occurs when someone identifies or creates obstacles to performance in order to manage attributions for their performance in self-serving ways. For example, a student might stay out late socializing instead of studying the night before an exam (Jones & Berglas, 1978). Self-handicappers are willing to trade the quality of performance for immediate attributional benefits to their self-views. A poor exam performance can thus be attributed to socializing instead of lack of ability. In contrast, a good performance can be augmented by the obstacle (i.e., “I did well despite staying out late”). However, self-handicapping can be detrimental in the long term (Zuckerman & Tsai, 2005). Based on nearly 40 years of research, this review summarizes the motives, antecedents, modes, consequences, gender differences, and potential remedies related to self-handicapping.
Motives for Self-Handicapping
A desire to protect positive self-views has been consistently identified as the primary motive for self-handicapping. People who engage in self-handicapping are able to maintain higher self-esteem following failure than their counterparts who do not self-handicap. This self-protective function can be explained by the ability to discount the implications of poor performance for abilities; self-handicappers attribute failure to a real or imagined obstacle instead of a lack of ability (Rhodewalt & Tragakis, 2012).
Mixed evidence suggests that people may also employ self-handicapping in order to self-enhance. That is, self-handicapping can augment attributions to ability following success. Early research found that only people with high self-esteem augmented attributions to ability following success (see Rhodewalt & Tragakis, 2012). Later research in a classroom setting demonstrated that, regardless of initial levels of self-esteem, students who self-handicapped more (by claiming more obstacles to performance) reported higher state self-esteem after learning about test grades. Self-handicappers who received grades higher than expected (success) enhanced self-esteem through augmentation, whereas self-handicappers who received grades lower than expected (failure) buffered self-esteem via discounting (Feick & Rhodewalt, 1997).
More recent investigations suggest that self-handicapping may directly protect one’s perceived ability in a specific, important domain rather than global self-evaluations. Claimed self-handicapping was found to preserve ratings of specific abilities, which in turn had an indirect effect on global self-evaluations (Hirt & McCrea, 2012). The ability of self-handicapping to preserve self-views on specific abilities, over and above global self-esteem, could explain why people self-handicap when other, less undermining strategies might restore self-integrity (e.g., self-affirmation).
An ongoing debate, related to the motivations for self-handicapping, is whether people self-handicap for self-protection or impression management. Some research reveals that people self-handicap to similar extents in private and public settings, even when their performance outcome is anonymous (Rhodewalt & Tragakis, 2012), suggesting that self-handicapping is mainly motivated by the desire to protect self-views. If impression management was a primary motive, one would expect self-handicapping to be more prevalent in public settings. Another research does, in fact, demonstrate that public settings and public self-consciousness heighten self-handicapping; this effect, moreover, may be particularly pronounced for people who are more concerned with how they are evaluated by others (Hirt & McCrea, 2012). More research is thus needed to clarify boundary conditions under which self-protective or impression management concerns motivate self-handicapping.
Antecedents of Self-Handicapping
People differ in their chronic or habitual tendency to self-handicap. This individual difference is related to a combination of (1) the belief that one’s ability is fixed rather than changeable and (2) uncertain self-views concerning one’s abilities based on experiences of noncontingent success (i.e., doing well, but being unsure of how one did well). High trait self-handicapping, measured by the Self-Handicapping Scale (Jones & Rhodewalt, 1982), is associated with more observed or reported self-handicapping in evaluative contexts, lower self-esteem, and more negative affect (Rhodewalt & Tragakis, 2012).
Self-handicapping is also related to other individual differences that heighten one’s experience of evaluative threat or the uncertainty of one’s self-concept. These individual differences include fear of failure, sensitivity to failure and punishment (i.e., the behavioral inhibition system), having an achievement goal related to performance (rather than a mastery goal; Elliot & Church, 2003), and fragile self-esteem (e.g., unstable or contingent high self-esteem that is vulnerable to threat; Lupien et al. 2010).
Broadly speaking, self-handicapping is elicited by the anticipation of possible failure in an evaluative context, calling into question a valued yet uncertain ability. To date, the most consistent situational trigger of self-handicapping has been noncontingent success – in which people receive positive feedback on an initial performance but are uncertain about how they succeeded (Rhodewalt & Tragakis, 2012). In the typical experimental paradigm (introduced by Berglas & Jones, 1978), participants believe the study will examine how different test settings influence performance on a test of an important ability (e.g., intelligence). They are told they will complete two equivalent versions of a test. All participants complete the first test under neutral conditions and are told they did well on the test. To manipulate contingencies of success, half the participants complete a set of easy questions so they can draw clear link between their ability and success. The other half of participants, however, complete a set of difficult or unsolvable questions, which prevent them drawing a clear link between their ability and success. All participants are then given a choice for the next test; they can complete the test under neutral or performance-enhancing conditions (e.g., with facilitating music) or under performance-interfering conditions (e.g., highly distracting music). Noncontingent success consistently makes participants more likely to self-handicap by choosing performance-interfering conditions for the second test administration. Doing so allows them to protect the self-view that they have high ability against possible failure on the second test.
Recent research has examined other factors that can intensify evaluative concern as situational triggers for self-handicapping. For instance, public self-focus and an induced focus on preventing loss and avoiding failure (i.e., prevention focus) increase self-handicapping (Hirt & McCrea, 2012).
Modes of Self-Handicapping
Research distinguishes claimed self-handicapping from behavioral self-handicapping (Rhodewalt & Tragakis, 2012). Claimed self-handicapping occurs when people identify barriers to performance such as stress, anxiety, or physical symptoms. Behavioral self-handicapping involves actively engaging in activities that can hinder performance, such as withdrawing effort or practice, alcohol consumption, procrastination, or setting unrealistic goals. Behavioral self-handicapping is more likely to cause worse performance than is claimed self-handicapping. It also seems to be more effective in preserving positive self-views (Hirt & McCrea, 2009). Notably, however, claimed self-handicapping that refers to behaviors (e.g., claimed poor preparation for a test) is more closely related to poor performance than claims unrelated to behaviors (e.g., stress; Hirt & McCrea, 2012).
Consequences of Self-Handicapping
As discussed in the section on motives, the short-term beneficial consequences of self-handicapping include buffering self-esteem, protecting specific beliefs about ability, and changing attributions to ability (e.g., discounting failure and augmenting success). This section focuses more on the costs of self-handicapping.
Performance. One major detrimental effect of self-handicapping is that it often undermines performance despite its self-protective functions (Rhodewalt & Tragakis, 2012). For example, students who declared weaker intention to devote effort to a math test performed worse on the test than students who did not self-handicap in this way. Similarly, high trait self-handicapping is related to poorer preparation, which is related to poorer achievement in long term.
Well-Being. Trait self-handicapping, despite self-handicapping’s immediate benefits, is related to poorer well-being in the long term (Zuckerman & Tsai, 2005). For instance, high trait self-handicappers report lower self-esteem, more negative affect, lower satisfaction of the need to feel competent and capable, less intrinsic motivation (i.e., motivation driven by internal rewards such as gaining experience), and more substance use. Ironically, lower self-esteem in turn predicted higher self-handicapping over a few months, suggesting reciprocal influence between the costs and antecedents of self-handicapping.
Although self-handicapping may help people convince others that they possess good ability despite failure, self-handicappers can still be viewed harshly by others. Observers perceive self-handicappers to care less about performance and to be less motivated. They were less willing to befriend, study with, or share residence with self-handicappers (Hirt & McCrea, 2012). When the same objective feedback is given, observers view the feedback more negatively for self-handicappers than for people who do not self-handicap (Rhodewalt & Tragakis, 2012). These interpersonal costs seem to heighten the threat of failure in evaluative situations for self-handicappers.
Consistent gender differences have been observed in self-handicapping (Hirt & McCrea, 2009). Men and women use claimed self-handicapping equally. However, men employ more behavioral self-handicapping than women. Although no gender differences are observed in well-being (Zuckerman & Tsai, 2005), self-handicapping may be more costly for men because behavioral self-handicapping is detrimental to performance.
As observers, women tend to evaluate self-handicappers more negatively than men do. Compared to men, women are less convinced by self-handicappers’ discounting. Instead, women are more likely to recognize self-handicapping and attribute it to personal qualities such as poor self-control. Men are less critical of self-handicappers on evaluative dimensions, more convinced by their discounting, and assume more situational motives (e.g., anxiety) for self-handicapping.
Effort beliefs – the extent to which one values effort as a personal quality and sees oneself as a diligent worker – is so far the most promising explanation for gender differences in self-handicapping. Women hold greater effort beliefs than men, and differences in effort beliefs explained gender differences in the use of behavioral self-handicapping and reactions to self-handicappers.
Recent research suggests that cultivating mastery goals can reduce self-handicapping for low self-esteem individuals or those who endorse performance avoidance goals (Schwinger & Stiensmeier, 2011). Other research suggests that affirming personally important values in domains unrelated to the evaluative threat can reduce self-handicapping (Hirt & McCrea, 2012). Exploring interventions to prevent self-handicapping is a promising focus for future research.
Self-handicapping is an ironic defensive strategy due to its appealing short-term benefits but long-term costs. Claiming or creating obstacles to performance can protect positive self-views by allowing people to discount failures or augment successes. These attributional benefits, however, can come at the cost of actually undermining one’s own performance.
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