A failure is not always a mistake, it may simply be the best one can do under the circumstances. The real mistake is to stop trying. — BF Skinner (a famous psychologist)
Aren’t you just the greatest? Or rather, if you’ve read my last two posts, don’t you just think you’re the greatest? For as I have been so delicately helping you realize:
You’re really rather average.
So considering our astounding mediocrity, how is it that we maintain such a deluded yet glorified perception of ourselves?
Well, alcohol is remarkably helpful here, but one form of ego-protection we engage in more frequently is called self-handicapping. Although a potentially foreign (but likely intuitive) term, it can be best explained with familiar examples:
Before playing a sport, you will preface it with the fact that you haven’t played in a while. Instead of working on a paper ahead of time, you intentionally save it till the last minute so you couldn’t “give it your all.” Prior to a presentation, you claim you were up all night searching for the perfect PB&J recipe while blaring Christmas music.
Okay, maybe that last one’s just me.
The point is this: We “self-handicap” by making up an excuse, intentionally practicing less than we should, not trying as hard as we could have, etc. so that if we fail, it won’t reflect poorly on us, but on some external circumstance.
However, as you probably expected, I’m about to scientifically show you why such self-handicapping is a bad (and rather obnoxious) practice.
First off, research shows that those with high, unfounded self-esteem (the individuals who try to project confidence without really having it) are more likely to self-handicap than those with low, unfounded self-esteem. For example, researchers had participants begin by playing a novel game: a task where they had to roll a ball across two metal poles until they dropped it into a cup.
After playing the game once, the participants were told they had failed (regardless of how they actually performed) and were then surprised with the fact that they’d be playing again; however, this time they’d be allowed to practice.
In one condition, this practice opportunity was done in private, whereas with the other condition, participants practiced with the experimenter in the room. Now, in both conditions, the low, unfounded self-esteem people practiced extensively when given the opportunity. However, those with high, unfounded self-esteem only practiced when they did so privately.
That is, when the experimenter was in the room, the person with high unfounded self-esteem didn’t practice because if they later failed, it would show publicly that it was his or her inability, not a lack of practice, that resulted in a second failure.
In another study, researchers demonstrated that when people self-handicap, it reduces their motivation to strive on subsequent tasks. For example, when participants were manipulated to self-handicap (or not) before taking a math test, when given a second math test, those who had originally self-handicapped spent less time trying to solve this second set of problems, gave up sooner, and ended up performing worse than those who didn’t self-handicap.
Besides these findings, research also shows that when you self-handicap, it often tends to have the reverse effect. That is, instead of explaining to others why your performance might not have been “as good as it could have,” it sets an expectation for the other person that your performance will be bad. Therefore, even if your performance was actually pretty good, people will still view it more negatively than it actually was–the initial self-handicapping negatively biasing their opinion of your performance.
Now, self-handicapping isn’t always terrible–sometimes there truly are external circumstances that diminish our performance–however, in general it’s good to be aware of when you yourself self-handicap (we all do it) and try to curb the urge. I know the prospect of failure can be frightening, but in the end we all fail; so you might as well be honest about it instead of trying to cower behind excuses.
Tice, D. M., & Baumeister, R. F. (June 01, 1990). Self-Esteem, Self-Handicapping, and Self-Presentation: The Strategy of Inadequate Practice. Journal of Personality, 58, 2.)
McCrea, S. M. (January 01, 2008). Self-handicapping, excuse making, and counterfactual thinking: consequences for self-esteem and future motivation. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 95, 2, 274-92.