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.
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 like those who self-handicap. Self-handicappers are disliked 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 likely to self-handicap than women are. Other research has shown that men and women self-handicap differently, with men being more likely to engage in behavioral self-handicapping, such as using alcohol or underpreparing, and women being more likely 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 likely to excuse self-handicapping than were men.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.