Self-handicapping belongs to the number of attributional techniques that help people to prevent potential failures from severely affecting their psychological well-being and self-esteem. From a long-term perspective, self-handicapping can reduce people’s chances to fulfill their true potential. As a future specialist, I hypothesize that exploring people’s predisposition to putting obstacles in their own way can improve self-awareness and maximize a person’s chances to achieve success. The purpose of this essay is to use findings from scholarly research and my own experience to discuss the unique nature of self-handicapping and whether it has clear predisposing factors.
Self-Handicapping as the Unique Strategy to Feel Better about Yourself
The term and the theory of the same name were first proposed by Jones and Berglas in 1978 (Török & Szabó, 2018). In their experimental study, the researchers explored the anticipation of failure on the intelligence test and the resulting attempts to “build a safety net” and be able to explain failures with reference to some poorly controllable external factors. The participants were sure that the study was aimed at testing drugs that could potentially improve or hinder intellectual performance, and they were offered to choose one of the drugs and take a very challenging intelligence test. Surprisingly, many participants (predominantly men) said that they would give preference to the performance-inhibiting drug. The researchers defined the phenomenon as choices or actions making it easier for people to explain their failures.
Self-handicapping is commonly confused with self-serving biases. Self-serving biases also involve attempts to make excuses for poor performance or making serious mistakes. The main difference between them is the time when such strategies take place in relation to stressful events (Eyink et al., 2017). Self-serving biases come into play after a distressing event occurs. I have observed such biases in multiple cases in which my classmates and I got unsatisfactory grades and found it more pleasant to think that teachers had assessed us unfairly because of prejudice, negative opinions about our abilities, and so on. Self-handicapping is probably more complex and dangerous than self-serving biases when overused because it deals with the anticipation of failure and involves creating barriers even before the pride-wounding situation occurs.
The Role of Situational and Contextual Factors in Self-Handicapping Behaviors
The phenomenon of self-handicapping has been widely studied during the last decades to improve an understanding of when it emerges and what outcomes does it have in terms of self-esteem, motivation, performance, and so on. In particular, close attention has been paid to the role of the factors that are not individual traits. The feeling of uncertainty and confusion stemming from the difference between people’s beliefs about their abilities and the feedback that they receive can actually contribute to self-handicapping, and both experiential and empirical evidence can be used to support this point. In their experimental study conducted in 1978, Jones and Berglas used non-contingent success feedback and observed a high incidence of self-handicapping behaviors (Wusik & Axsom, 2016). Non-contingent success feedback is something that can maximize individuals’ uncertainty about what they can and cannot do since it is too positive and overestimates people’s actual success.
Having analyzed my past experiences as a student, I can say that misleading feedback actually fuels the use of self-handicapping, which is why the development of self-assessment skills is so vital. As a high school student, I was quite insecure about my math skills and being able to apply them to unfamiliar and totally new problems. That belief, I suppose, often encouraged me to procrastinate instead of spending more time to prepare for assessments.
One case that maximized my insecurity and confusion took place when I received a short e-mail from the teacher in which I was praised for doing my best and working hard on assignments. It was three days before the final test, and that message actually confused me, and I just did not know how much time I actually needed to devote to studying. Eventually, I started skipping some parts of my initial preparation plan due to different reasons, be it stress or anything else. I did not fail on that test, which made me proud of myself, but I also learned from my classmates that the message was not an example of individual feedback. The teacher sent it to all students, except for those with poor attendance, just to support and motivate us to study.
When analyzing the issue of self-handicapping resulting from uncertainty, it is critical to consider that it sometimes takes the form of really positive behaviors. Wusik and Axsom (2016) explored the idea of non-contingent feedback in their experimental study involving more than one hundred female participants solving tasks of different complexity. After receiving feedback, the participants could choose to devote time to solving tasks to prepare for the next test, helping another participant (an actor) who pretended to be frustrated, or doing something else. Importantly, women from the second subgroup (positive feedback on challenging/impossible tasks) were extremely likely to handicap themselves by devoting time to helping the actors instead of practicing (Wusik & Axsom, 2016).
My experiences suggest that behaviors involving helping others to deal with confusion take place quite often and are specifically attractive in terms of helping to maintain self-esteem. Thanks to self-observations, I have noticed that in many situations that involve preparing for evaluations, for instance, working on projects, specific activities that I have wanted to start pop into my mind and suddenly become significantly more attractive than before. Very often, the “handicaps” that I think about are activities that would bring benefits to others and support my altruistic intentions. For instance, I can experience a strong desire to assist my family members or close friends or start volunteering at animal shelters.
Apart from feedback and uncertainty that it creates, the incidence of self-handicapping can be related to the features of tasks to be approached. Empirical evidence suggests that self-handicapping takes place in the tasks that diagnose and assess individual abilities and when people know that they will have to perform tasks in front of the audience (Török & Szabó, 2018). Based on the facts above, it is reasonable to say that the incidence of self-handicapping behaviors increases if a person knows that others will observe his or her performance and make conclusions related to skills and abilities.
The real-life applications of these findings pertaining to individual tasks and being observed and evaluated by others can be found everywhere. For instance, a few years ago, I was going to attend a job interview, and my cousin advised me to visit the organization’s website and better study the values and recent events affecting the company. I decided that my Internet connection was not stable enough to do it, so I spent time on other tasks, including those that were not urgent at all. As a result, I gave one uninformed and even silly answer during the interview. However, the thought that it was not my fault was very reassuring, and I explained to the interviewer the reason why I knew so little about the employer.
One more factor that deserves close attention is the existence of stereotypes about people’s abilities and how they encourage a person to self-handicap. Exposure to stereotypes can cause the fear of doing something that would confirm the negative stereotype. As for particular studies proving it, in their experiment, Riciputi and Erdal (2017) demonstrate that the need to report being a student-athlete significantly decreases the number of math problems that student-athletes attempt to solve. Another study by Stone conducted in 2002 demonstrated that exposure to stereotypes about white people’s unremarkable physical abilities encouraged white male athletes to spend less time on training for different reasons (Török & Szabó, 2018). From my experience, knowing that others expect you to fail because some stereotypes suggest this outcome can actually encourage self-handicapping. For instance, my friend participated in a math competition, and it turned out that he and two more people were the only white finalists, whereas other successful participants were Asian, and it caused some jokes based on stereotypes about race and abilities in mathematics. After that, we started going out together more often even though he needed to practice for the final stage of the competition. Before that, he used to spend much more time on solving problems and training for competitions.
When it comes to the potential practical applications of the findings discussed above, it can be productive to regard information on the contributors to self-handicapping as the source of new opportunities for self-reflection for common people. Despite its ability to protect a person’s self-esteem, self-handicapping is not inherently positive since it simply reduces people’s chances of fulfilling their true potential by challenging themselves, making mistakes, and learning from their failures. Being aware of the key predictors of self-handicapping can potentially help common people to improve their self-reflection skills and find better ways to cope with the fear of failures apart from self-handicapping. For instance, using the findings above, it is possible to identify real-life situations involving high risks of such behaviors and detect artificially created barriers to success in a timely manner.
To better understand one’s own propensity to sabotaging themselves, it can be important to look for parallels between self-handicapping and specific traits or beliefs. There is empirical evidence regarding the link between a person’s proneness to negative emotions and the use of self-handicapping when approaching important tasks and preparing for situations involving evaluations. Specifically, neuroticism, which is among the domains in the five-factor model of personality, has been shown to be positively correlated with self-handicapping behaviors. The study by Martin et al. conducted in 2013 reports that high neuroticism and low conscientiousness or diligence increase the incidence of self-handicapping in students (Clarke & MacCann, 2016). Those with high neuroticism are likely to experience a wide range of negative emotions and have strong feelings about situations that other people would not consider to be threatening at all. Based on experiments in the field of forensic psychology, high neuroticism also makes people more amenable to suggestion (Mojtahedi et al., 2017). It is possible that such people’s suggestibility makes them much more vulnerable to the pressure of other people’s opinions and increases their fear of being seen as untalented or incompetent.
In my opinion, although the predictors above refer to specific traits that are not always easy to measure, it is reasonable to consider them as certain warning signs to decide whether the inability to succeed has to deal with self-handicapping. Some people can suddenly find out that their moodiness and irritability make them more likely to take insignificant issues and failures as threats to their self-esteem, thus encouraging them to search for strategies to avoid these negative emotions. Such self-assessments require honesty and a strong desire to understand the true nature of barriers to success.
Preferred Coping Strategies and Self-Handicapping
To evaluate the risks of sabotaging yourself, it can also be helpful to consider the preferred ways to react to stress and problems. In their study, Nosenko et al. (2016) encouraged more than one hundred undergraduate students to complete seven questionnaires measuring personality traits and the tendency to resort to different coping strategies. Based on the results of the correlational analysis, apart from some of the big five traits, a person’s proneness to self-handicapping increases together with the use of emotion-focused coping (Nosenko et al., 2016). As per these results, individuals that self-handicap more than other people are extremely likely to make use of different emotion-focused coping strategies in order to cope with obstacles and hindrances.
In my opinion, the potential real-life applications of these findings are numerous and include assessing one’s risks of overusing self-handicapping. Any person can observe his or her behaviors and the most frequent reactions to stressful events to learn more about the individual propensity to self-handicapping. The emotion-focused coping strategies to look for may include a variety of both positive and harmful actions helping an individual to get distracted from bothering emotions and situations instead of identifying the problem’s source and doing something about it. When confronting a problem that has a solution, some people will still prefer to focus on its consequences in the form of negative emotions and do something to alleviate emotional pain or pretend that the problem does not exist. This may include the use of alcoholic drinks or drugs, practicing meditation or praying to calm down, or disclosing one’s negative emotions and thoughts about these events in the form of writing, art, and so on. The prevalence of coping strategies that change nothing about the main problem will indicate the need to take a closer look at one’s actions to achieve important goals.
Self-Handicapping Behaviors and the Role of Gender
Society’s attitudes to women and men are still different in multiple situations. Thus, it is particularly interesting to see whether gender differences and related stereotypes influence people’s need to resort to self-handicapping and the selection of means to avoid losing their self-confidence and reputation in society. The most well-known study of self-handicapping conducted by Jones and Berglas in 1978 offers certain findings in this regard. The researchers noted that men preferred performance-inhibiting drugs more often than women. That option would provide them with an excuse in case of failures on the math test with difficult questions. The initial explanation was that the male participants were more likely to have high self-esteem. Considering that, they needed to have barriers to success since they would have more to lose in case of failures.
Gender differences in people’s proneness to self-handicapping are reported in multiple experimental studies. Based on numerous experiments focusing on gender differences, it is widely accepted that men, on average, engage in behavioral self-handicapping more often (Shin & Park, 2018). Some associate men’s greater proneness to self-handicapping with stereotypes about why men and women fail. For instance, according to Swim and Sanna’s study conducted in 1996, people are more likely to associate women’s failures with poor abilities, whereas men’s failures are commonly attributed to insufficient efforts (Török & Szabó, 2018). Following this logic, the benefits of self-handicapping behaviors will be greater for men. The study by Yu and McLellan (2019) reports that school-age boys demonstrate self-handicapping behaviors more often and are more concerned about maintaining their status in society compared to girls of the same age. Thus, another potential explanation of gender differences in self-handicapping refers to dissimilarities between the perceived consequences of failing for no external reason in front of others.
Apart from the frequency of engaging in self-handicapping behaviors, gender can affect people’s willingness to self-handicap when it comes to being observed by others when completing different tasks. The need to demonstrate certain skills and cope with challenging tasks in front of the audience can be regarded as an important stress-inducing factor in itself since it makes a person’s mistakes and what leads to them more obvious. In their experiment conducted in 2009, Brown and Kimble report that being observed by people of the opposite gender (especially when women observe men) increases the incidence of self-handicapping behaviors (Firoozi et al., 2016). The factors that cause this effect are not perfectly clear, but such findings can help to analyze the risks of engaging in self-handicapping in different situations, thus improving a person’s self-awareness.
In my opinion, although being a male is an accepted predicting factor of trying to self-handicap, it is not that easy to implement this finding into practice. Most importantly, it is not true that self-handicapping is extremely uncommon in women, and both sexes can benefit from doing less than possible in terms of their self-esteem. At the same time, the findings above can give hints about what men can emphasize if they want to limit the use of self-handicapping, and the potential problem is that they underestimate the role of efforts in achieving goals. It is not productive to perceive the absence of abilities or poor abilities as an irremovable barrier to success because many skills can be improved thanks to regular practice.
In summary, self-handicapping is a unique phenomenon in social psychology since this strategy allows people to protect their self-esteem from the negative effects of hypothetical failures. Extensive research in the field of psychology suggests that people’s tendency to self-handicap increases in many situations, including when they are uncertain about their ability to succeed or need to perform individually and in front of other people. Other factors include being afraid of confirming negative stereotypes due to failing.
Regarding individual factors, self-handicapping behaviors are more common in moody and disorganized people and those preferring emotion-focused coping to problem-solving. Differences between women and men in terms of how their failures are perceived by society and themselves generally make men more likely to use self-handicapping, especially when their performance is observed by women. From a practical viewpoint, these factors can be considered by those who want to develop self-awareness and recognize the risks of self-sabotaging in different situations that they encounter.
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