Self-Defeating Behavior Definition
For social psychologists, a self-defeating behavior is any behavior that normally ends up with a result that is something the person doing the behavior doesn’t want to happen. If you are trying to accomplish some goal, and something you do makes it less likely that you will reach that goal, then that is a self-defeating behavior. If the goal is reached, but the ways you used to reach the goal cause more bad things to happen than the positive things you get from achieving the goal, that is also self-defeating behavior. Social psychologists have been studying self-defeating behaviors for at least 30 years. And although they have identified several things that seem to lead to self-defeating behaviors, much more can be learned about what self-defeating behaviors have in common, and how to get people to reduce the impact of these behaviors in their lives.
Self-Defeating Behavior Background and History
Social psychologists began thinking about self-defeating behaviors as a class of behaviors in the late 1980s. Interest in this topic spread following the controversy that took place in the 1980s about whether or not a psychological disorder called the self-defeating personality disorder should be included in the official handbook of mental disorders, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM).
The group revising the DSM in the 1980s wanted to include a disorder where people showed “a pervasive pattern of self-defeating behaviors.” Some people didn’t want this to be included because they said that there wasn’t enough research to show that a disorder like this really existed; some people didn’t want it to be included because they said that the behaviors that supposedly made up the self-defeating personality disorder were really parts of other personality disorders; and finally, some people didn’t want it to be included because they were afraid that the disorder would be biased against women and would excuse spouse abusers, blaming their victims by claiming that the victims had self-defeating personality disorder.
In the edition of the DSM published in 1987 (called the DSM-III-R), self-defeating personality disorder was included in an appendix and was not considered an official diagnosis. More recent editions of the DSM do not mention the self-defeating personality disorder at all.
Even though social psychologists were inspired by this controversy, they are interested in studying behaviors of normal people, not those of people who are mentally ill. Although some psychiatrists believe that all humans are driven to harm themselves, most people are not motivated in this way. Most humans are interested in accomplishing their goals, not in harming themselves.
Types of Self-Defeating Behavior
Social psychologists have divided self-defeating behaviors into two types. One type is called counterproductive behaviors. A counterproductive behavior happens when people try to get something they want, but the way they try to get it ends up not being a good one. One type of counterproductive behavior occurs when people persevere at something beyond the time that it is realistic for them to achieve the desired outcome. For example, students taking a class, and doing very poorly, sometimes refuse to drop the class. They think that if they stick it out, they will be able to pull their grades up and pass the class. But, it may just be too late for some, or they may not have the ability to really pass the class. Most students’ goals are to get a degree with as high a grade point average as possible, so refusing to drop the class is a self-defeating behavior. Counterproductive behaviors usually happen because the person has a wrong idea either about himself or herself or about the situation the person is in. The students have an incorrect idea about their own abilities; they think they can succeed, but they can’t.
The second type of self-defeating behavior is called trade-offs. We make trade-offs in our behavior all the time. For example, you may decide not to go to a party so you can study for an exam. This is a trade-off: You are trading the fun you will have at the party for the benefit you will get from studying (a better grade).
This example of a trade-off is not self-defeating. You are probably going to come out a winner: The benefit of studying will, in the end, outweigh the benefit of going to the party. But, some kinds of trade-offs are self-defeating: The cost that you have to accept is greater than the benefit that you end up getting. One example is neglecting to take care of yourself physically. When people don’t exercise, go to the dentist, or follow the doctor’s orders, they are risking their health to either avoid some short-term pain or discomfort (such as the discomfort of exercise or the anxiety that the dentist causes).
Another example of a self-defeating trade-off is called self-handicapping. Self-handicapping is when people do something to make their success on a task less likely to happen. People do this so that they will have a built-in excuse if they fail. For example, students may get drunk the night before a big exam. If they do poorly on the exam, they have a built in excuse: They didn’t study and they were hungover. This way they avoid thinking that they don’t have the ability to do well in the class.
Some common self-defeating behaviors represent a combination of counterproductive behaviors and trade-offs. Procrastination is a familiar example. When you think about why people procrastinate, you probably think about it as a trade-off. People want to do something more fun, or something that is less difficult, or something that allows them to grow or develop more, instead of the thing they are putting off. But, sometimes people explain why they procrastinate in another way: That they do better work if they wait until the last minute. If this is really the reason people procrastinate (instead of something people just say to justify their procrastination), then it is a counterproductive strategy; they believe that they will do better work if they wait until the last minute, but that is not usually the case. (Research shows that college students who procrastinate get worse grades, have more stress, and are more likely to get sick.)
Alcohol or drug abuse is another self-defeating behavior. Many people use alcohol and drugs responsibly, and do it to gain pleasure or pain relief. But for addicts, and in some situations for anyone, substance use is surely self-defeating. Substance use may be a trade-off: A person trades the costs of using drugs or alcohol (health risks, addiction, embarrassing or dangerous behavior, legal problems) for benefits (feeling good, not having to think about one’s inadequacies). Usually over the long run, however, the costs are much greater than the benefits.
Even suicide can be looked at as either a self-defeating trade-off or counterproductive behavior. People who commit suicide are trying to escape from negative things in their life. They are trading off the fear of death, and the good things in life, because they think the benefit of no longer feeling the way they do will be greater than what they are giving up. But, suicide can also be thought of as a counterproductive behavior. People may think that taking their life will allow them to reach a certain goal (not having problems).
Causes and Consequences of Self-Defeating Behavior
Causes of different self-defeating behaviors vary; however, most self-defeating behaviors have some things in common. People who engage in self-defeating behaviors often feel a threat to their egos or self-esteem; there is usually some element of bad mood involved in self-defeating behaviors. And, people who engage in self-defeating behaviors often focus on the short-term consequences of their behavior, and ignore or underestimate the long-term consequences.
Procrastination is an example that combines all three of these factors. One reason people procrastinate is that they are afraid that when they do the thing they are putting off, it will show that they are not as good or competent as they want to be or believe they are (threat to self). Also, people procrastinate because the thing they put off causes anxiety (a negative emotion). Finally, people who procrastinate are focusing on the short-term effects of their behavior (it will feel good right now to watch TV instead of do my homework), but they are ignoring the long-term consequences (if I put off my homework, either I’ll get an F or I will have to pull an all-nighter to get it done).
These three common causes are all related to each other. If you have a goal for yourself, or if other people expect certain things from you, and you fail or think you will fail to meet the goal, this is a threat to your self-esteem or ego. That will usually make you feel bad (negative mood). So, ego-threats make you have negative moods.
But, negative moods also can lead to ego threats. When people are in negative moods, they set higher standards or goals for themselves. So, this will make them more likely to fail. Here is a vicious cycle: Failing to meet your goals is a threat to your ego, which leads to negative emotion, which leads you to set higher standards, which makes you fail more. Negative moods also can lead you to think more about the immediate consequences of your actions, instead of the long-term consequences. This, too, can make people do something self-defeating.
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