People might be expected to reach for any and every advantage to facilitate performance, including eliminating any obstacle or disability that might interfere with success. Nevertheless, individuals are sometimes willing to strategically create impediments to performance, and this has been termed self-handicapping. Self-handicapping is a strategy undertaken to escape the implications of an impending failure, should it occur, on an individual’s sense of self-worth. It is an anticipatory self-protective strategy, the goal of which is to guide performance-relevant attributions. Those who make use of this tactic place excessive significance on ability. They feel that competence can be demonstrated but not improved, and while they perceive their own self-worth as hinging on personal aptitude, they are uncertain of their capacity to succeed. Thus, self-handicappers possess a fragile, doubt-ridden sense of self, which they work to bolster. By erecting barriers to achievement, self-handicappers aim to discount personal competence as the causal agent in any subsequent failure. The presence of such obstacles also serves to enhance any personal responsibility for successful outcomes occurring in spite of the handicap.
Two distinct forms of self-handicapping have been investigated: behavioral and claimed. Behavioral handicaps involve actively sabotaging one’s own performance. The athlete who fails to practice in the weeks leading up to an important match may be using lack of preparation as an explanation for an impending loss. However, an athlete who complains of illness, fatigue, or injury prior to a match may satisfy the same goal of providing a justification for failure, but these are merely claims, where the individual does not actively undermine his or her performance, but instead provides an a priori excuse. In general, males are more likely to engage in behavioral self-handicapping than females, but both genders make use of claimed handicaps.
As originally conceptualized, self-handicapping was thought to stem entirely from an individual’s desire to sustain positive self-views. However, research shows that impression management or maintenance of esteem in the eyes of others is also an influential motive. As such, self-handicapping can involve self-deception as well as self-presentation.
Some individuals are more likely to employ this strategy than others. Situational factors can also increase the likelihood that self-handicapping will occur. Most notably, situations involving noncontingent success (e.g., undeserved praise, inexplicable victory) or private failure are also more likely to induce self-handicapping. Earned or expected successes are liable to be seen as repeatable (and thus are unlikely to produce the feelings of uncertainty necessary for self-handicapping). Further, whereas private failure leaves open the possibility of being viewed positively by others, public failure leaves no positive image to preserve, and makes the introduction of additional handicaps useless.
Though employed as a means to protect the self from undesirable consequences, in the long run self-handicapping may actually cause more harm than it prevents. Some handicaps are injurious in and of themselves (e.g., drug and alcohol abuse). Further, although self-handicapping does bolster immediate self-regard, habitual use of this strategy actually undermines self-esteem by underscoring a person’s self-doubt. In addition, high self-handicappers tend to demonstrate poorer academic performance. Ironically, the desire to appear capable seems to actually drive self-handicappers to undermine their competence over time.
SEE ALSO Depression, Psychological; Self-Concept; Self-Defeating Behavior; Self-Esteem; Self-Presentation
Arkin, Robert M., and Kathryn C. Oleson. 1998. Self-Handicapping. In Attribution and Social Interaction: The Legacy of Edward E. Jones, ed. John M. Darley and Joel Cooper, 313–347. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.
Pettit, Jeremy W., and Thomas E. Joiner. 2006. Self-Handicapping. In Chronic Depression: Interpersonal Sources, Therapeutic Solutions, ed. Jeremy W. Pettit and Thomas E. Joiner, 85–94. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.
Strube, Michael J. 1986. An Analysis of the Self-Handicapping Scale. Basic and Applied Social Psychology 7: 211–224.
Robert M. Arkin
Karen E. MacGregor