Defeating our Decisions *

David A. Gershaw, Ph.D.

At times in our life, we need to make changes. Even though we make a conscious decision to change, we often do not follow through with this decision. Even worse, some of us do not reach our goals, because we purposely handicap ourselves – whether we are aware of it or not. Why and how do we do this?

To maintain our self-esteem, we consistently try to protect our self-image. However, some of us tend to protect our self-image by insuring failure. This method is called self-handicapping.

Most of what we do is evaluated – both by others and ourselves. With such evaluations, we want to look good. We want to show that we are competent in whatever tasks we undertake – athletic, intellectual, artistic or social. If we fail in any area, this reduces our feeling of competence. With some of us, it also reduces our self-esteem. Because we have not succeeded, we mistakenly believe that we are less worthwhile as a person.

But what if we have some sort of a handicap – defective equipment, a bad headcold or inefficient help? Then failure can't be taken as a reflection of ourselves, can it? Self-handicappers use this logic to their advantage. They place barriers to successful performance on the road to completion of their goals.

In 1978, the original psychological experiment on self-handicapping offered subjects– who had previously succeeded in a task – the choice of either a performance-hindering drug or a performance-helping drug. (Both drugs were presumably under study by the psychologists.) Those who did not expect to be successful again on the task took the opportunity to protect themselves – at least their "self-esteem" – by taking the hindering drug. By taking the drug, the subjects manipulated the situation. If failure did occur, it would be blamed on the drug. In this way, subjects could maintain the illusion that their first performance – which was successful – was a reflection of their true abilities. On the other hand, there was a frightening possibility that they might fail on the upcoming task. If they did not have the drug to blame, it would undermine their self-esteem.

Not all subjects engaged in self-handicapping – only the ones who had self-doubt about their successes. In the experiment, the "successes" had been rigged. Half of the subjects had taken an initial test with 16 solvable and 4 unsolvable problems. The other half had taken a test with 4 solvable and 16 unsolvable problems. Under both conditions, the experimenter told each subject:

"You have done extremely well, in fact, better than nearly all the participants who have taken this test so far."

The subjects with the 16 unsolvable problems later reported that these problems seemed impossible. Confronted with the report of their "success," they couldn't imagine how they had achieved it! (Actually, of course, they had not succeeded.) To protect their fragile sense of competence and self-esteem, they engaged in self-handicapping. The hindering drug (1) protected them from being responsible for future failures and (2) protected their belief that their first success reflected their true capability.

In short, self-handicapping is a response to an anticipated loss of self-esteem. The self-handicapping person has a precarious and fragile self-image. However, this does not mean that the person's self is completely negative. The person has some self-esteem, but it needs to be protected. This is why the self-handicapping strategy is used.

Students with fragile self-esteem
often handicap themselves.

Sometimes students use this strategy. Although they want to do better in school, they defeat themselves by engaging in self-handicapping. One way is to take courses that have prerequisites – without taking the prerequisites. If they fail the course, it can be blamed on the missing prerequisites. Other students do not practice the skills needed for various courses or don't do the homework. In this way, failure can be blamed on the lack of practice. ("I could have passed, if I had done the homework.")

In addition, students may procrastinate – wait until the last minute to do assignments. If anything goes wrong, it can be blames on the "lack of time." Still another method is to repeatedly antagonize or criticize the teacher in class. Then, if failure occurs, it is because the teacher "had it in for me."

Whether we are students or not, whatever handicapping method we use keeps us from doing our best. We might feel better if we never really know what we are capable of doing. We might prefer ambiguity, rather than clarity, about our abilities – especially if we think that clarity might be unflattering. Our biggest fear is reflected in the following statement.

"What if I try as hard as I can, and I still do not succeed?"

If we are self-handicappers, we probably will never know what we are truly capable of doing. Using self-handicapping, we will not reach many of the goals we really want. However, if our self-esteem is not quite as fragile, we might be able to take the risk of trying our absolute best to reach our goals. True, we may fail. However, if we don't try our best, we will probably fail anyway. But if we do give our best attempt, think of how nice it will be when we do succeed!

* Adapted from Philip Zimbardo's Psychology and Life, Scott, Foresman and Company, 1985, pages 448-449.

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