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A self handicapping strategy is defined as "any action or choice of performance setting that enhances the opportunities to externalize failure and to internalize success." It was first theorized by Edward E. Jones and Steven Berglas.
According to research, people will seek out obstacles to their own success that minimizes one's own performance as a cause for failure. In one study, subjects were given positive feedback on very difficult problems, regardless of the subject's actual performance. Subjects were then given the choice between a "performance-enhancing drug" and one which would inhibit it. Those subjects who received harder problems were more likely to choose the impairing drug, and subjects who faced easier problems were more likely to choose the enhancing drug. It is argued that the subjects presented with more difficult problems chose the impairing drug because they were looking for an external attribution (what might be called an "excuse") for expected poor performance, as opposed to an internal attribution.
Self-handicapping may be the cause of paradoxically limiting one's own ability to succeed and deliberately impairing oneself purely to avoid risk, maintain control and protect the ego and self-esteem.
When awareness of failure was induced, experimental subjects have unduly:
- Reduced their preparation for an athletic event
- Studied less for an exam
- Involved less effort
- Given their opponent an advantage
- Lowered expectations
Self-handicapping is more likely to occur when the task is "ego-involving" and failure is anticipated. Some studies suggest that women may be less disposed to and less tolerant of self-handicapping than men.
Thomas Gilovich makes a distinction between "real" self-handicapping, where people actually obstruct their own success, and "feigned" self-handicapping where they merely draw attention to potential obstacles. People may self-handicap to manage the impressions of others, or of themselves (though studies have been unable to test the latter).
- Jones, E.E., & Berglas, S. (1978). Control of attributions about the self through self-handicapping strategies: The appeal of alcohol and the role of under achievement. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 4, 200-206.
- Baumgardner, A., Lake, E., & Arkin, R. (1985). Claiming mood as a self-handicap: The influence of spoiled and unspoiled public identities. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 11, 349-357.
- Gilovich, T. (1993). How We Know What Isn't So: The Fallibility of Human Reason in Everyday Life. New York: The Free Press. ISBN 0029117062
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