Depressive realism

Self-handicapping is the process by which people avoid effort in the hopes of keeping potential failure from hurting self-esteem. It was first theorized by Edward E. Jones and Steven Berglas, according to whom self-handicaps are obstacles created, or claimed, by the individual in anticipation of failing performance. Self-handicapping can be seen as a method of preserving self-esteem but it can also be used for self-enhancement and to manage the impressions of others.

This conservation or augmentation of self-esteem is due to changes in causal attributions or the attributions for success and failure that self-handicapping affords. There are two methods that people use to self-handicap: behavioral and claimed self-handicaps. People withdraw effort or create obstacles to successes so they can maintain public and private self-images of competence.

Self-handicapping is a widespread behavior amongst humans that has been observed in a variety of cultures and geographic areas. For instance, students frequently participate in self-handicapping behavior to avoid feeling bad about themselves if they do not perform well in class. Self-handicapping behavior has also been observed in the business world, with some researchers even going so far as to speculate that the Enron Scandal came about as a result of the company’s managers using self-handicapping behavior. The effects of self-handicapping can be both large and small and found in virtually any environment wherein people are expected to perform.

The first method people use to self-handicap is making a task harder for themselves in fear of not successfully completing that task, so that if they do in fact fail, they can simply place the blame on the obstacles rather than placing the blame on themselves. This is known to researchers as behavioral handicapping, in which the individual actually creates obstacles to performance. Examples of behavioral handicaps include alcohol consumption, the selection of unattainable goals, and refusal to practice a task or technique (especially in sports and the fine arts). Another way that people self-handicap is by coming up with justifications for their potential failures, so that if they do not succeed in the task, they can point to their excuses as the reasons for their failures. This is known as claimed self-handicapping, in which the individual merely states that an obstacle to performance exists. Examples of claimed self-handicaps include declarations that one is very anxious or that one is experiencing various physical and psychological symptoms.

Self-handicapping behavior allows individuals to externalize failures but internalize success; accepting credit for achievements, but allowing excuses for failings. An example of self-handicapping is the student who spends the night before an important exam partying rather than studying. The student fears failing his exam and appearing incapable. In partying the night before the exam the student has engaged in self-defeating behavior and increased the likelihood of poor exam performance. However, in the event of failure, the student can offer fatigue and a hangover, rather than lack of ability, as plausible explanations. Furthermore, should the student receive positive feedback about his exam, his achievement is enhanced by the fact that he succeeded, despite the handicap.

A number of characteristics have been related to self-handicapping (e.g. hypochondriasis) and research suggests that those more prone to self-handicapping may differ motivationally compared to those that do not rely on such defensive strategies. For example, fear of failure, a heightened sensitivity to shame and embarrassment upon failure, motivates self-handicapping behavior. Students who fear failure are more likely to adopt performance goals in the classroom or goals focused on the demonstration of competence or avoidance of demonstrating incompetence; goals that heighten one’s sensitivity to failure.

The vast majority of research suggests that males are more inclined to behaviorally self-handicap. These differences are further explained by the different value men and women ascribe to the concept of effort. More recent research finds that, generally, people are willing to use handicaps to protect their self-esteem (e.g. discounting failings) but are more reluctant to employ them for self-enhancement. (e.g. to further credit their success). Previous research has looked at the consequences of self-handicapping and have suggested that it leads to a more positive mood (at least in the short term) or at least guards against a drop in positive mood after failure. Thus, self-handicapping may serve as a means of regulating one’s emotions in the course of protecting one’s self-esteem. However, based on past evidence that positive mood motivates self-protective attributions for success and failure and increases the avoidance of negative feedback, recent research has focused on mood as an antecedent to self-handicapping; expecting positive mood to increase self-handicapping behavior. Results have shown that people who are in positive mood are more likely to engage in self-handicapping, even at the cost of jeopardizing future performance.

Previous research has also suggested that because in Physical Education (PE) students are required to overtly display their physical abilities and incompetence could be readily observed by others, PE is an ideal setting to observe self-handicapping. Because of its prevalence in the sporting world, self-handicapping behavior has become of interest to sports psychologists who are interested in increasing sports performance.

One issue that cannot be overlooked, is that many people self-handicap as a result of having unrealistic expectations regarding an event, a person, or something in their lives that they somehow believe will ‘fix’ or ‘cure’ any problem they have previously been having in their lives. People with grounded expectations have reasonable goals and identifiable outcomes. People utilizing a realistic, grounded approach to things, having already figured out the probable outcomes, are not disappointed and dejected as a result of setbacks. Rather, they anticipate some losses as possibilities and continue to work on their goals until they are complete. Unrealistic people cannot handle a ‘loss’ or a setback and will look for reasons to blame an external force, another person, ‘fate,’ or whatever they may set their blame upon, so long as it isn’t focused on themselves. Moreover, unrealistic people will generally not attempt the same goal again as it may result in another ‘loss’; rather, these people will look for an alternative ‘goal’ that they believe they will be able to accomplish. This is the epitome of self-handicapping behavior.

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