A self-defeating behavior is any behavior leading to a lower reward/cost ratio than is available through an alternative behavior or behaviors. Self-defeating behaviors include choosing to suffer, self-handicapping, failure to achieve potential, fear of success, learned helplessness, and procrastination. Such behaviors are learned in a variety of ways but usually are initially adaptive in preventing greater suffering or in obtaining rewards in the situations in which they are originally learned. For example, parents may be less punitive if children are self-critical after doing something the parents do not like than if children do not derogate and punish themselves. Self-defeating behaviors often occur as a consequence of situations that are uncontrollable. For example, if children are punished even when they believe they have behaved well, or if they are rewarded even when they have behaved poorly, they may gain the sense that their behavior does not matter. Then “learned helplessness” is said to occur because the child does not feel as if he or she is in control of what is happening.
Self-handicapping can occur when people receive positive information that they feel may be unwarranted. In order to protect a possible positive view of themselves, people may engage in some sort of excuse making in advance in order to protect a positive, but precarious, self-view or self-esteem. Self-handicapping involves engaging in a behavior known to hurt performance, such as getting too little sleep, using a harmful substance, not studying, or not working hard. A person may choose a task so easy that success is meaningless or so difficult that success is unlikely. Success and failure in such situations do not provide information about one’s comparative ability. Persistence can become counterproductive when it prevents people from engaging in more valuable experiences or when it leads people to exhaust their resources in futile endeavors.
Roy Baumeister and Steven Scher (1988) identified three potential types of self-defeating behaviors: (1) primary self-destructiveness; (2) tradeoffs; and (3) counterproductive strategies. They found no evidence for primary or deliberate self-destructiveness among normal individuals. Tradeoffs occur when people act to gain short-term benefits despite long-term costs—behaviors especially likely to occur when people are emotionally aroused or highly self-aware. For example, shy people may avoid social situations out of a fear of making a bad impression. Their avoidance of people may lead to greater social exclusion in the future, leading them to be even less confident. They trade the possibility of intimacy to avoid short-term rejection. Or, the cost of medical treatment may lead people to fail to continue it when they do not or no longer perceive symptom relief. Failure to comply may exacerbate their condition in the long run. Counterproductive strategies involve misjudging one’s capabilities or the realities of the situation. An example is “choking under pressure.” In this scenario, one may carefully monitor performance in order to do one’s best, but the monitoring itself may lead to more anxiety and a poorer performance.
Self-defeating behaviors often simply reflect expectancy-confirmation processes. If we think that we are not good at a particular task, we do not try our best and then perform more poorly than if we had expected that we could excel. People often internalize the expectations held for their gender, race, or social class or by significant others and then engage in self-fulfilling prophecies. If such expectations are negative, then they are self-defeating. A frequent cause of self-defeating behaviors is a desire to maximize self-esteem. There are no consistent effects for high self-reported self-esteem, however. Overconfidence and lack of confidence can both lead to problems.
Sometimes people appear to “choose to suffer” in an effort to (magically) improve their outcomes in other situations. Such behavior may stem from an unrealistic extension of the work ethic. Research has shown that people expecting an unpleasant event are more likely to choose to engage in another unpleasant activity during the waiting period if they change their beliefs about themselves, such as thinking that they are brave or that they deserve to suffer. If they change their beliefs about the situation, such as thinking it will not be so bad after all, they are less likely to engage in an unpleasant activity during the waiting period.
All clinical disorders could be considered as forms of self-defeating behaviors. A “self-defeating personality disorder” was considered briefly by the American Psychiatric Association, drawn largely from characteristics that had been noted by clinicians since Sigmund Freud (1856–1939) as masochistic. The criteria for the proposed self-defeating personality disorder, however, overlapped too much with those for dysthymic disorder (depression) and other personality disorders, such as dependent personality. Furthermore, feminists were concerned that women who were abused might get labeled as having a personality disorder that brought on abuse, thus leading victims of abuse to be blamed.
All forms of psychotherapy are designed to treat some form of what might be called self-defeating behavior. When people are frightened of situations, behavioral treatments are often the most effective. When people are not clear as to what the problem entails, a treatment involving talking and ascertaining feelings that are necessarily conscious may be appropriate. For example, psychoanalysis has been oriented especially toward understanding if fears of hurting parents or other loved ones interfere with achieving personal goals, such as leaving loved ones all alone, being more successful than they are, or not fulfilling loved ones’ desires to impress other people. Lack of motivation, anxiety, mood disorders, and unrealistic thinking are also treated with medication in combination with psychotherapy.
SEE ALSO Learned Helplessness; Psychotherapy; Psychotropic Drugs; Punishment; Shyness
Baumeister, Roy, and Steven. J. Scher. 1988. Self-Defeating Behavior Patterns Among Normal Individuals: Review and Analysis of Common Self-Destructive Tendencies. Psychological Bulletin 104 (1): 3–22.
Curtis, Rebecca Coleman. 1989. Self-Defeating Behaviors: Experimental Research, Clinical Impressions, and Practical Implications. New York: Plenum.
Rebecca C. Curtis