Self-handicapping in the Classroom

Obtaining a higher education is not an easy feat. Sometimes a student might find a certain subject or course so difficult, withdrawal from attempting to do well may seem like a better idea than trying at all. The prime example of this phenomenon can be described by the college student that is constantly partying. If a student chooses to drink alcohol and attend a party the night before their final exam, this student will be subjected to taking their exam extemporaneously the next day. This unpreparedness may lead to lower grades. This particular student boosts their self efficacy in this situation by already having the excuse of not studying enough because they were out partying before their exam. The process of performing behaviors in order to sabotage their prior tasks, thereby using the negative behaviors as an expectant alibi for failure is known as self-handicapping (Schneider, Gruman, & Coutts, 2012). In this example of the party animal, if this student ended up failing the exam, they have the excuse of lack of studying due to their wild night last night.

Self-handicapping is a problem within the college environment. Many people that I have known personally partook in self-handicapping behaviors right before they failed out of their universities. Some examples of beliefs self-handicapping student may abide by are as follows: “When I do something wrong, my first impulse is to blame the circumstances,” or “I sometimes enjoy being mildly ill for a day or two because it takes off the pressure” (Schneider et al, 2012). These student may have erroneous beliefs that they are not able to learn the material in college as well as everybody else. This erroneous belief is a well known cause of self-handicapping behaviors. Many studies involving self-handicapping behaviors have been conducted in the college environment, so researchers are aware this is a large issue that occurs in college students specifically.

Berglas and Jones conducted a study in 1978 testing college students on their levels of self-handicapping. The researchers conducted the college students to first solve analogies. After the students were finished solving or attempting to solve the analogies, the researchers told all of the students that they completed the puzzles well even though the puzzles were not solvable. The researchers then asked the students whether they would like to take a performance enhancing drug before the next analogy they solve, or a performance impairing drug. Men in particular chose to take the drug that would impair their skills because their self efficacy to complete the task has dropped due to the discovery that the analogies are unsolvable (Berglas & Jones, 1978). Although men are more likely to sabotage their performance prior to even trying to solve the analogy, both men and women use excuses to obviate their potential for low performance to effect their self efficacy in that specific task (Hirt, McCrea, & Kimble, 2000).

In a study conducted in the year 2000 by Beck, Koons, and Milgrim, procrastination and self handicapping behaviors were found to be positively correlated. How can we reduce self-handicapping in the educational environment? It has been proven that self-affirming actions in replacement of self sabotage has assisted in mitigating self-handicapping behaviors (Siegel, Scillitoe, & Parks-Yancy, 2005). For example, writing down a list of educational values one has and educational goals one would like to reach may remind students of the importance of studying and learning. If a self-handicapped person’s educational values are prioritized, it will be much easier for that student to see the discrepancy between their beliefs and behaviors. Hopefully, this discrepancy will result in a change in behaviors for the better of their education.



Beck, B.L., Koons, S.R., & Milgrim, D.L. (2000) Correlates and consequences of behavioral procrastination: The effects of academic procrastination, self-consciousness, self-esteem and self-handicapping. Journal of Social Behavior and Personality, 15(5), 3-13.

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., & Kimble, C.E. (2000). Public self-focus and sex differences in behavioral self-handicapping: Does increasing self-threat still make it “just a man’s game”? Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 26, 1131-1141

Schneider, F., Gruman, J., & Coutts, L. (2012) Applied social psychology: Understanding and addressing social and practical problems. 2nd ed. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications, Inc.

Siegel, P.A., Scillitoe, J., & Parks-Yancy, R. (2005). Reducing the tendency to self-handicap: The effect of self-affirmation. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 41, 589-597.


  1. Therese Dawn Tolley

    I enjoyed reading your blog post on self-handicapping focusing on college students. As a college student and an older individual, I am sure we all have been in a situation where we utilized self-handicapping to rationalize our negative task outcomes. Unfortunately, as you have suggested, college students have a prevalence of utilizing self-handicapping strategies to engage in behaviors that will reciprocate their negative academic outcomes.

    The Berglas and Jones (1978) article was an interesting study that demonstrated the effects of self-efficacy and self-handicapping. I discovered a similar finding by Waschbusch, Craig, Pelham, and King (2007) that suggested children with ADHD demonstrated self-handicapping measures by “reduced effort and preferences for debilitating conditions.” Which is comparable to the men taking drugs, impairing their skills and self-efficacy, in the Berglas and Jones (1978) study. Furthermore, Waschbusch et al. (2007) discovered that when the children’s self-concept was threatened, they had increased self-handicapping strategies and when faced with easier tasks, which did not threaten their self-concept, they had less self-handicapping strategies (Waschbusch, Craig, Pelham, and King, 2007). These are both interesting studies that may have found a possible link with self-handicapping to one’s self-concept and self-efficacy.

    The education environment can be quite challenging. So, it’s understandable that the stresses associated with perceived achievement can lead to self-handicapping. Self-affirming actions are certainly conducive of mitigating self-handicapping. Also, teachers should incorporate strategies that emphasize choices for learning topics, allow student’s various methodology to demonstrate one’s knowledge, and facilitate challenging short-term achievable goals (Schneider, Gruman, & Coutts, 2012).

    Again, I enjoyed reading your blog post and the concepts associated with self-handicapping in the college student’s environment.

    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. Retrieved from

    Schneider, F., Gruman, J., and Coutts, L. (2012). Applied Social Psychology: Understanding and Addressing Social and Practical Problems. (2ed). Washington D.C., Sage Publications.

    Waschbusch, Daniel A., Craig, Rebecca, Pelham, William E., and King, Sara. (2007). Self-Handicapping Prior to Academic-Oriented Tasks in Children with Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD): Medication Effects and Comparisons with Controls. Journal of Abnormal Psychology. 35(2). 275-286. Retrieved from

  2. Self-handicapping – until this term I would have simply described myself as not prepared to go to college. Your description refers to partying and alcohol and that holds very true for a number of college students. Schneider, Gruman, and Coutts describe this as “creating barriers for successful performance” (Schneider, Gruman, and Coutts, 2012, p.195). For me self-handicapping was focusing on what I was good at – video games and denying that there were any other problems. My problems were anxiety and panic but being undiagnosed this became a vicious cycle of failure.
    Could the school have helped? Probably. And maybe they did when they ‘suggested’ I take a term off. But in the end this cycle of self-handicapping continued until I could address my problems and make decisions about what I really wanted. In my experience, the changes that I made are reflective of self-determination theory. When I decided that I wanted to be successful in school I made the personal commitment and I was willing to ask for help when I needed it. Once to goal was mine, and not simply a family expectation, it was time for me to actually show up. For me, and probably many others it was self-determination that won the day. As Deci and Ryan proposed that once it was my decision, my goal, and my future it was the time for me to take control (Schneider, Gruman, and Coutts, 2012, p. 198).
    Reflecting on the studies that you cited I am hoping that colleges, in recognition that some students are struggling, are developing proactive strategies to recognize and assist their students. Being successful in academics is important but learning strategies of self-determination can serve a student in many aspects of their lives.

    Schneider, F., Gruman, J., & Coutts, L. (2012) Applied social psychology: Understanding and addressing social and practical problems. 2nd ed. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications, Inc.

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