The motivational basis for human-achievement behavior has interested psychologists for decades. Research has linked basic psychological theory to applications in education, business, and industry where achievement is critical. Striving for success pervades social interaction in the classroom, in the corporate boardroom, on the playing field, and even within families and friendships. Those who achieve success are viewed as productive members of society worthy of admiration and respect.
To some extent, practical concerns, such as the need to motivate children to set satisfactory goals in school and to address underachievement, generated scientific interest in achievement issues. Historically, underachievement (and overachievement) has been defined in objective terms according to the match between expectations and life outcomes, and psychologists have usually been concerned with these objective terms. Specifically, expectations for one’s performance are based on relatively objective criteria. For instance, people set expectations of their potential based on past performances or on the evaluations of significant others (e.g., parents, teachers). In Western society, standardized tests (e.g., the SAT) are common as a practical and seemingly objective basis for expectations of future performance. When someone performs below (e.g., grade point average) the level expected (e.g., by aptitude scores), that is underachievement. When underachievement is identified, educators marshal effort to help people realize their full potential.
Educators have paid little attention to the mirror image of underachievement: overachievement. When someone performs better than predicted in school (or anywhere else), that is overachievement. Overachievement presents no real problem to solve. Doing well is highly regarded, so it is not surprising that educators have neglected to study it. When someone outstrips objectively based predictions of their performance, prevailing wisdom suggests reason to celebrate, not to intervene.
This traditional emphasis on objective achievement suggests that people might be expected to work tirelessly to ensure success. Yet, everyday observation reveals that people approach achievement in their everyday lives in many ways. Some people strive mightily, but others seem lazy and disengaged; still others take credit for outcomes that they appear not to have earned, and sometimes people flee from tasks when the prospects of failure or embarrassment become too great.
Social psychologists have studied the subjective experience associated with underachievement and overachievement. Findings show that there is a great deal to be learned about these experiences. In particular, the subjective experience of overachievers may be highly stressful and unpleasant and marked by anxiety, but uniquely defined by self-doubt. Specifically, the subjective experience of chronic self-doubt, coupled with intense performance concerns, appears to inspire overachieving behavior. Overachievers may expend heroic effort to cope with their chronic doubts.
One social psychologist coined the term John Henryism hypothesis to describe the psychological stress associated with the social and economic challenges faced by African Americans. The research links an increased risk of hypertension and other health problems among African Americans to the stress of persistent, effortful coping in the face of socioeconomic challenges, a parallel to the experience of the fictional character John Henry, who outpaced the steam drill but died soon thereafter from the exertion. Like John Henryism, the stress of everyday over-achieving may also have adverse health implications.
Ironically, overachievement can serve to enhance rather than diminish self-doubt in one’s natural talent. The effort of overachievers provides an alternative explanation to natural ability for any success they achieve. Moreover, these shaky assessments of ability generalize to shaky expectations of future potential. Sadly, overachievers may reap success beyond objective expectations but still doubt their own ability to reproduce success without enormous effort. Overachievers may ultimately enter a vicious cycle in which they cope with self-doubt by, once again, expending heroic effort to ensure that they can perform successfully again and again. High achievement and overachievement in the context of a group might even enhance self-doubt about an individual’s personal contribution, and produce shaky judgments about one’s individual talent and personal value to the group. The increased pressure to perform successfully in a public arena has been shown in research many times.
Some individuals experience high self-doubt without having the intense concern over performance that characterizes the overachiever. At a behavioral level, the lower concern with performance leads these individuals to employ a very different strategy than overachievers. These individuals may cope with self-doubt by employing the seemingly paradoxical strategy of deliberately sabotaging, or handicapping, their own performance. Like the over-achiever, self-handicappers experience chronic self-doubt. Unlike the overachiever, however, self-handicappers are more concerned about the implications of failure as it relates to judgments about their ability; they worry that failure will be an indication (to themselves or others) that they lack ability. Thus, whereas the overachiever will expend heroic effort to avoid failure, the self-handicapper is willing to embrace failure (i.e., withdraw effort) to protect a basic perception of personal competence. They undermine their own performance in order to make the cause of their (perhaps failing) behavior ambiguous. Examples include alcohol use and abuse, procrastination, laziness, and any other behavior that could excuse failure.
Though speculative, the distinct psychological style of subjective overachievers can be traced to their early learning history. The budding overachiever may come to internalize the parental message that only successful performance can guarantee continued love and support. These early beliefs may lead overachievers to assign higher significance to successful outcomes than to exploring their actual talents.
Subjective overachievement has been distinguished in research from high achievement motivation (people show the same concern over successful performances, but seek achievement for personal satisfaction), perfectionism (people display intense preoccupation with successful performance, but do not necessarily experience self-doubt), and the imposter phenomenon (where self-doubt is present, but success is seen as unearned or illegitimate because it is due to luck, not effort).
SEE ALSO Achievement; Underachievers
Arkin, Robert M., and Kathryn C. Oleson. 1998. Self Handicapping. In Attribution and Social Interaction: The Legacy of Edward E. Jones, eds. John M. Darley and Joel Cooper, 317–347. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.
Elliot, Andrew J., and Carol S. Dweck. 2005. Competence and Motivation: Competence as the Core of Achievement Motivation. In Handbook of Competence and Motivation, eds. Andrew J. Elliot and Carol S. Dweck, 3–12. New York: Guilford.
James, Sherman A. 1994. John Henryism and the Health of African-Americans. Culture, Medicine, and Psychiatry 18 (2): 163–182.
Oleson, Kathryn C., Kirsten M. Poehlmann, John H. Yost, et al. 2000. Subjective Overachievement: Individual Differences in Self-doubt and Concern with Performance. Journal of Personality 68 (3): 491–524.
Weiner, Bernard. 1972. Theories of Motivation: From Mechanism to Cognition. Chicago: Markham.
Robert M. Arkin
Patrick J. Carroll
"Overachievers." International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences. . Encyclopedia.com. (October 19, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/social-sciences/applied-and-social-sciences-magazines/overachievers
"Overachievers." International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences. . Retrieved October 19, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/social-sciences/applied-and-social-sciences-magazines/overachievers
A person whose performance disproportionately exceeds ability; academically, a student, whose academic achievement disproportionately exceeds his or her performance on standardized intelligence tests.
The terms "overachiever" and "underachiever," most often applied to school and academia, both refer to gaps between academic performance and IQ test scores. Generally, these terms are not used by either educators or psychologists. However, clinical psychologist Marilyn Sorenson in her book, Breaking the Chain of Low Self-Esteem, maintains that people with low self-esteem often find themselves driven to overachieve to build self-worth. Overachievers increasingly take on new projects and drive themselves to perfection, often becoming known as "workaholics." Overachievement may occur in one area of a person's life without pervading the entire life. The fear of failure drives underachievers, according to Sorenson. Gripped by their fears of failure and humiliation, underachievers fail to realize their skill or talent potential. While often viewed with a negative connotation, overachievement has come to be valued in a number of corporations, competing to remain at the top of their field. Sometimes the term is used in informal communication to describe a person intent on gathering tangible or recognized symbols of accomplishment, such as educational degrees, awards, and honorary positions.
See also Perfectionism
Sorensen, Marilyn J. Breaking the Chain of Low Self-Esteem. Sherwood, OR: Wolf Pub., 1998.
"Overachiever." Gale Encyclopedia of Psychology. . Encyclopedia.com. (October 19, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/medicine/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/overachiever
"Overachiever." Gale Encyclopedia of Psychology. . Retrieved October 19, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/medicine/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/overachiever