Are you standing in the way of your own success?

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Have you ever punched yourself in the eye before taking a vision test?

No?

That’s good—most people haven’t.

However, do the following situations sound familiar?

  • You have to give an important presentation, but you procrastinate, and don’t leave yourself enough time to practice. Instead of walking into the room confident in your success, you walk in hoping for the best.
  • You put off responding to an important email, even though you know it’s relatively urgent. When you do finally reply to the email, you give an excuse such as “I’ve been incredibly busy”1.
  • You want to apply for a great opportunity, but are not sure if you’ll get it. As the deadline approaches, you become less and less confident in your chances. In the end, you don’t apply2.

These tendencies may be less extreme than giving yourself a swollen eye, yet they fall into the same category of behavior: self-handicapping.

Self-handicapping is when we find or create obstacles that make good performance unlikely, giving us an excuse to fall back on if—and often when—we underperform. In general, we self-handicap when we feel that we are expected to succeed, but don’t know if we can do so3,4.

For example, in a landmark study, researchers told all participants that they had performed well on a difficult test, even though half of them had been given problems that were unsolvable. The participants were going to take a similar test again—but first they had the option to ingest either a “performance-inhibiting drug” or a “performance-enhancing drug” (in reality, both were sugar pills)5.

Which “drug” did they choose?

Unsurprisingly, those who were told they did not perform well choose the performance-enhancing drug. However, among those who were told they performed well, many chose the performance-inhibiting drug. Why would these participants choose to inhibit their performance when success was still important?

Imagine you were one of the participants who struggled through the impossible problems and got the surprising feedback that you did well. You might feel that you got lucky the first time around, and not at all confident you would do well a second time. Therefore, in case you don’t do well the second time, you create an excuse for yourself by opting for the performance-inhibiting drug. You self-handicap5.

This kind of self-defeating behavior does have some short-term benefits. When people fail or underperform, having an excuse, even if self-imposed, can help to protect self-confidence. For example, when swimmers were told they had poor starting times, those who were able to blame this on not hearing the whistle or other external reasons reported more self-confidence than those who did not have an excuse6.

However, in the long-term, self-handicapping damages self-confidence and motivation.

People who succeed on a task despite a handicap are less motivated to try the task in the future7. They also become attached to their handicap when this happens, making them more likely to engage in the destructive behavior (e.g. becoming intoxicated, procrastinating) before other challenging tasks3.

Another downside to self-handicapping: While you can fool yourself by creating excuses, it turns out others can see right through them. A workplace survey found that people quickly see through coworkers who self-handicap and stop believing the coworkers’ excuses for poor performance3.

Taken all together, these results show that self-handicapping does little to help individuals reach their goals; it only helps them cope with failures and poor performances that, because of the handicap, are more likely to occur.

While punching your eye may make you feel better about failing the vision test, it won’t help you pass it. In life, success isn’t guaranteed, but it’s definitely easier to achieve with both eyes open.

References

1Khazan, O. (2014). The Upside of Pessimism. The Atlantic.

2David, S. (2012). Don’t sabotage yourself. Harvard Business Review.

3Urdan, T., & Midgley, C. (2001). Academic self-handicapping: What we know, what more there is to learn. Educational Psychology Review, 13, 115-138.

4Carey, B. (2009). Some protect the ego by working on their excuses early. The New York Times.

5Berglas, S., & Jones, E.E. (1978). Drug choice as a self-handicapping strategy in response to noncontingent success. Journal of personality and social psychology, 36, 405.

6Seligman, M.E., Nolen-Hoeksema, S., Thornton, N., & Thornton, K.M. (1990). Explanatory style as a mechanism of disappointing athletic performance. Psychological Science, 1, 143-146.

7McCrea, S.M. (2008). Self-handicapping, excuse making, and counterfactual thinking: consequences for self-esteem and future motivation. Journal of personality and social psychology, 95, 274.