“I had to baby sit my little brother Monday night and I had planned on studying that night!” “I really needed to help out a friend of mine through a rough break-up this week, so that interfered with my study time.” “I might not do as well as I had planned on this test because I wasn’t feeling very well this week and couldn’t study a lot.” Precautionary excuses such as these are examples of self-handicapping. Self-handicapping is a process used to protect one’s self-image or self-concept. Self-handicapping refers to the strategy of creating or acknowledging potential barriers to success in an effort to displace the blame of possible failure to an external cause vs. an internal one, as well as enhances the value of success if achieved despite the barriers (Schneider, Gruman, Coutts, 2012).
Most of us have most likely witnessed examples of self-handicapping, if not practiced this phenomenon ourselves. This past week while meeting with a student she revealed to me that she had completely skipped taking an exam for one of her classes. She explained her decision by stating that her teacher didn’t remind them consistently enough that they had an upcoming exam, then had the audacity to only gave them 5 minutes to study right before the test! Instead of taking the test in the only class that she has been struggling in this year, and risking the possibility of not doing well, she chose to not take it instead and place the blame on her teacher’s actions, or lack thereof. This protected her self-concept because her poor grade wasn’t due to her lack of intelligence, her inability to grasp the concept of the material, or her lack of organization, it was all due to the course of bad decisions on her teacher’s part. Have you ever witnessed someone utilize the self-handicapping self-serving strategy or utilized it yourself?
The process of self-handicapping presents other questions. Is self-handicapping a strategy that is used minimally in times of high stress or fear of not doing well? Are there long term implications for someone who self-handicaps regularly? If someone habitually self-handicaps is it no longer a question of creating some barriers to make ones-self feel better about an outcome, is it now a question of self-esteem, depression, or anxiety for example?
Schneider, F.W., Gruman, J.A., Coutts, L.M. (2012). Applied Social Psychology: Understanding and Addressing Social and Practical Problems (2nd ed). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.