Self-Handicapping and Protecting the Ego at a Cost

Self-Handicapping Examples | Social Psychology

Self-Handicapping and Protecting the Ego at a Cost
Have you ever found yourself walking into an exam knowing that you studied less than you should have or that you went out with friends instead of studying the night before the exam? Similarly, have you ever begun a competition (athletic or otherwise) for which you know you did not prepare enough? If any of these situations describe you at some point in your life, you may have been guilty of self-handicapping.

Self-handicapping is a cognitive strategy by which people publicly make advance external attributions for their anticipated failure or poor performance in a forthcoming event.

According to the social psychological concept of self-handicapping, people act in ways that may undermine their subsequent performances, thereby having anticipatory excuses for potential failures. In other words, if you studied less than you know you should have, you have a handy excuse in case your grade is lower than you would prefer.

Jones and Berglas described self-handicapping as:

  • The self-handicapper, we are suggesting, reaches out for impediments, exaggerates handicaps, embraces any factor reducing personal responsibility for mediocrity and enhancing personal responsibility for success. (Jones & Berglas, 1978, p.202).

People use this bias when they anticipate failure, whether in their job performance, in sport, or even in therapeutic settings when being ‘sick’ allows one to drop life. What a person often will do is to intentionally and publicly make external attributions for a poor showing even before it happens.

Hirt, McCrea, and Kimble (2000) conducted a research that shows that both men and women tend to claim excuses ahead of time; for instance, prior to the time of performance, they may point to potentially debilitating stress or physical illness.

Exhibit I includes items from a self-handicapping scale. A person who tends to engage in self-handicapping behavior would endorse these kinds of items.

Items Indicating Self-Handicapping
  • When I do something wrong, my first impulse is to blame circumstances.
  • I tend to put things off until the last moment.
  • I suppose I feel “under the weather” more often than most people do.
  • I am easily distracted by noises or my own creative thoughts when I try to read.
  • I would do a lot better if I tried harder.
  • I sometimes enjoy being mildly ill for a day or two because it takes off the pressure.
  • Sometimes I get so depressed that even easy tasks become difficult.
Source: Rhodewalt (1990).

Self-Handicapping in Academics Settings

There is ample research evidence that self-handicapping takes place in academic settings.

Beck, Koons, and Milgrim (2000) administered self-report measures of self-handicapping (as illustrated in Exhibit I) and procrastination to more than 400 college students and found that self-handicapping and procrastination were positively correlated.

They also found that self-handicappers (i.e., people who engages in self-handicapping behaviors) not only began studying for tests later than non-self-handicappers but also earned lower grades.

Mello-Goldner and Jackson (1999) discovered that female college students who reported premenstrual syndrome (PMS) symptoms scored higher on a self-handicapping measure than did those who did not report such symptoms.

Similarly, Zuckerman, Kieffer, and Knee (1998) found that, among college students, higher self-handicapping scores correlated with lower GPAs, less time spent on academic work, and less efficient exam preparation.

Why might students self-handicap regarding classes and exams?

To answer this question, social psychologists have considered the consequences of not self-handicapping. Suppose that a student prepares as well as s/he can for an exam and then fails the exam (or earns a grade that is below expectations). How can this student explain this outcome?

Having studied hard, a logical and disturbing answer goes something “I’m stupid” or “I’m not smart enough to handle that kind of exam.” On the other hand, if the student waits until the night before the exam to begin studying or goes out for pizza instead of studying, he or she has a ready-made excuse for not doing well on the exam.

In other words, self-handicapping prevents a blow to the student’s self-image or self-concept Opens in new window. In some cases, faculty members might also try to protect their self-images.

You might be surprised to know that many faculty members would admit that they have waited until the last minute to begin working on an important paper or grant application. Perhaps some are motivated by the ego-protective function of self-handicapping.

Attempting to Reduce Self-Handicapping

Interestingly, not everyone is a self-handicapper, although we imagine that most people can recall at least one or two times when what they did (actually, what they did not do) might fit the meaning of the term ‘self-handicapping’.

The problem, of course, is that whereas self-handicapping might protect one’s self-image on a particular occasion, it clearly undermines the possibility of performing at an optimal level on that occasion. Moreover, people should recognize that self-handicapping—in a sense—is self-defeating in the long run.

Also, other people might not respond to self-handicapping in a positive manner. For example, Rhodewalt et al.

, (1995) asked college students to evaluate a hypothetical coworker who gave one of three excuses for performing poorly on a task.

The students consistently evaluated persons making self-handicapping excuses lower on ability, on actual performance, and on 20 different personality traits (e.g., friendly, pleasant, egotistic).

Thus, if you do tend to self-handicap and give excuses for your poor performance in hopes of getting other people to “cut you some slack” in their evaluations of you, that type of behavior may boomerang on you. Instead of creating more positive evaluations of you, you may actually be creating more negative evaluations.

Is there anything that might lessen self-handicapping?

It is important to recognize the short– and long-term self-defeating aspects of self-handicapping.

Even the short-term protection of one’s self-image is soundly offset by the long-term havoc brought on by repeated under-performance experiences.

Therefore, people with self-handicapping tendencies would be better off devoting their energies to preparing for major events than to making excuses ahead of time for potential poor performances.



Self-Handicapping and Protecting the Ego at a Cost

Self-handicapping was first defined in 1978 by Steven Berglas and Edward Jones as “any action or choice of performance setting that enhances the opportunity to externalize (or excuse) failure and to internalize (reasonably accept credit for) success.

” Self-handicapping involves putting a barrier or handicap in the way of one’s own success. If one fails, then the failure can be blamed on the handicap rather than on (the lack of) one’s innate ability.

If one succeeds despite the handicap, then one can claim extra credit for success because one succeeded despite the impediment to success. Thus, self-handicapping both protects the person from the implications of failure and enhances the success if one should succeed despite the handicap.

Self-handicapping may be used to protect or enhance a person’s own self-image and public reputation. Although self-handicapping may protect one from implications of failure, self-handicapping is a trade-off, and there are both short and long-term consequences of self-handicapping.

Self-handicapping limits success and increases the probability for failure, both immediately and in the future. Chronic self-handicappers also exhibit poorer achievement and poorer adjustment over time.

Self-Handicapping Examples

One example of self-handicapping is staying out and partying the night before a big exam. If the person does poorly on the exam, he or she can blame it on partying all night. If the person does well on the exam, he or she can take credit for doing well on the exam despite partying the night before.

Researchers have cited many other examples of self-handicapping, which include procrastination, underachievement (or low effort), alcohol or drug use or abuse, test anxiety, getting too little sleep, underpreparing or inadequate practice before evaluation, exaggerating the effects of an injury or illness, complaints of physical symptoms or hypochondriacal complaints, traumatic life events, shyness, and choosing extremely difficult or unattainable goals.

Self-Handicapping Causes and Purpose

Researchers believe that self-handicapping is caused by feelings of uncertainty about future performance, especially when others have high expectations of success.

Self-handicapping appears to be a self-protective mechanism, protecting one’s self-esteem from the potentially damaging effects of failure while enhancing attributions for success.

If one fails, a self-handicapper can blame failure on external causes and can thus maintain and protect self-esteem. If one succeeds, a self-handicapper can take credit for succeeding despite external obstacles, increasing self-esteem.

There has been debate about whether one engages in self-handicapping to protect and enhance one’s own self-image or to protect and enhance one’s public reputation.

Berglas and Jones’s original self-handicapping construct defined self-handicapping as a strategy to protect both a person’s self and public images and presented evidence consistent with both the public and private functions of the attributions.

Other research has suggested, however, that self-handicapping only protects a person’s public reputation. For instance, one study found that self-handicapping was reduced when others were not present to evaluate the person’s performance on a task.

Current consensus is that self-handicapping sometimes may occur for the protection of private self-image, but it is even more common in public circumstances.

If a person self-handicaps to protect his or her public image, however, the strategy may backfire and may not improve a person’s reputation. Research has found that people do not those who self-handicap. Self-handicappers are disd more and rated more negatively on several variables by others evaluating them than are those who do not self-handicap.

Costs and Benefits of Self-Handicapping

Self-handicapping has both immediate costs and benefits, thus representing a trade-off. Self-handicapping involves constructing a barrier to one’s own success.

The self-handicapper reduces his or her chances for success, but also protects himself or herself from the implications of failure. Self-handicapping, however, also appears to have long-term costs.

For instance, research has shown that chronic self-handicappers do more poorly academically and have poorer adjustment over time. In addition, as mentioned previously, there may be several interpersonal consequences for a person who engages in self-handicapping.

Furthermore, some researchers believe that frequent self-handicapping may lead to the development of chronic self-destructive patterns, such as alcoholism or drug abuse.

A person’s self-esteem affects the motivation for self-handicapping. People with high self-esteem self-handicap for self-enhancement motives (or to enhance their success).

People with low self-esteem, however, self-handicap for self-protective motives (or to protect themselves from the esteem-threatening implications of failure).

Research has also suggested that high self-handicappers actually enjoy an activity more when they engage in self-handicapping strategies, supposedly decreasing worries about failure and increasing the intrinsic motivation for engaging in or completing the activity.

Gender Differences in Self-Handicapping

Gender differences in self-handicapping have been studied extensively. Some research has shown that men are more ly to self-handicap than women are.

Other research has shown that men and women self-handicap differently, with men being more ly to engage in behavioral self-handicapping, such as using alcohol or underpreparing, and women being more ly to engage in self-reported handicapping, such as complaining of illness or traumatic life events.

Other research, however, has found no sex differences in the incidence of self-handicapping. Research has found, however, that women are more critical of those who self-handicap, evaluating self-handicappers more negatively than men do. Women were also less ly to excuse self-handicapping than were men.


  1. Baumeister, R. F., & Scher, S. J. (1988). Self-defeating behavior patterns among normal individuals: Review and analysis of common self-destructive tendencies. Psychological Bulletin, 104, 3-22.
  2. Berglas, S., & Jones, E. E. (1978). Drug choice as a self-handicapping strategy in response to noncontingent success. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 36, 405-417.
  3. Hirt, E. R., McCrea, S. M., & Boris, S. I. (2003). “I know you self-handicapped last exam”: Gender differences in reactions to self-handicapping. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 84, 177-193.
  4. Tice, D. M. (1991). Esteem protection or enhancement? Self-handicapping motives and attributions differ by trait self-esteem. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 60, 711-725.
  5. Zuckerman, M., Kieffer, S. C., & Knee, C. R. (1998). Consequences of self-handicapping: Effects on coping, academic performance, and adjustment. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 74, 1619-1628.


Добавить комментарий

;-) :| :x :twisted: :smile: :shock: :sad: :roll: :razz: :oops: :o :mrgreen: :lol: :idea: :grin: :evil: :cry: :cool: :arrow: :???: :?: :!: