What Is Self-Handicapping?

Have you ever found yourself walking into an exam knowing that you studied less than you should have or that you went out with friends instead of studying the night before the exam? Similarly, have you ever begun a competition (athletic or otherwise) for which you know you did not prepare enough? If any of these situations describe you at some point in your life, you may have been guilty of self-handicapping.

Self-handicapping is a cognitive strategy by which people publicly make advance external attributions for their anticipated failure or poor performance in a forthcoming event.

According to the social psychological concept of self-handicapping, people act in ways that may undermine their subsequent performances, thereby having anticipatory excuses for potential failures. In other words, if you studied less than you know you should have, you have a handy excuse in case your grade is lower than you would prefer.

Jones and Berglas described self-handicapping as:

  • The self-handicapper, we are suggesting, reaches out for impediments, exaggerates handicaps, embraces any factor reducing personal responsibility for mediocrity and enhancing personal responsibility for success. (Jones & Berglas, 1978, p.202).

People use this bias when they anticipate failure, whether in their job performance, in sport, or even in therapeutic settings when being ‘sick’ allows one to drop out of life. What a person often will do is to intentionally and publicly make external attributions for a poor showing even before it happens.

Hirt, McCrea, and Kimble (2000) conducted a research that shows that both men and women tend to claim excuses ahead of time; for instance, prior to the time of performance, they may point to potentially debilitating stress or physical illness.

Exhibit I includes items from a self-handicapping scale. A person who tends to engage in self-handicapping behavior would endorse these kinds of items.

Items Indicating Self-Handicapping
  • When I do something wrong, my first impulse is to blame circumstances.
  • I tend to put things off until the last moment.
  • I suppose I feel “under the weather” more often than most people do.
  • I am easily distracted by noises or my own creative thoughts when I try to read.
  • I would do a lot better if I tried harder.
  • I sometimes enjoy being mildly ill for a day or two because it takes off the pressure.
  • Sometimes I get so depressed that even easy tasks become difficult.
Source: Rhodewalt (1990).

Self-Handicapping in Academics Settings

There is ample research evidence that self-handicapping takes place in academic settings. Beck, Koons, and Milgrim (2000) administered self-report measures of self-handicapping (as illustrated in Exhibit I) and procrastination to more than 400 college students and found that self-handicapping and procrastination were positively correlated. They also found that self-handicappers (i.e., people who engages in self-handicapping behaviors) not only began studying for tests later than non-self-handicappers but also earned lower grades.

Mello-Goldner and Jackson (1999) discovered that female college students who reported premenstrual syndrome (PMS) symptoms scored higher on a self-handicapping measure than did those who did not report such symptoms.

Similarly, Zuckerman, Kieffer, and Knee (1998) found that, among college students, higher self-handicapping scores correlated with lower GPAs, less time spent on academic work, and less efficient exam preparation.

Why might students self-handicap regarding classes and exams?

To answer this question, social psychologists have considered the consequences of not self-handicapping. Suppose that a student prepares as well as s/he can for an exam and then fails the exam (or earns a grade that is below expectations). How can this student explain this outcome?

Having studied hard, a logical and disturbing answer goes something like “I’m stupid” or “I’m not smart enough to handle that kind of exam.” On the other hand, if the student waits until the night before the exam to begin studying or goes out for pizza instead of studying, he or she has a ready-made excuse for not doing well on the exam.

In other words, self-handicapping prevents a blow to the student’s self-image or self-concept Opens in new window. In some cases, faculty members might also try to protect their self-images.

You might be surprised to know that many faculty members would admit that they have waited until the last minute to begin working on an important paper or grant application. Perhaps some are motivated by the ego-protective function of self-handicapping.

Attempting to Reduce Self-Handicapping

Interestingly, not everyone is a self-handicapper, although we imagine that most people can recall at least one or two times when what they did (actually, what they did not do) might fit the meaning of the term ‘self-handicapping’.

The problem, of course, is that whereas self-handicapping might protect one’s self-image on a particular occasion, it clearly undermines the possibility of performing at an optimal level on that occasion. Moreover, people should recognize that self-handicapping—in a sense—is self-defeating in the long run.

Also, other people might not respond to self-handicapping in a positive manner. For example, Rhodewalt et al., (1995) asked college students to evaluate a hypothetical coworker who gave one of three excuses for performing poorly on a task. The students consistently evaluated persons making self-handicapping excuses lower on ability, on actual performance, and on 20 different personality traits (e.g., friendly, pleasant, egotistic).

Thus, if you do tend to self-handicap and give excuses for your poor performance in hopes of getting other people to “cut you some slack” in their evaluations of you, that type of behavior may boomerang on you. Instead of creating more positive evaluations of you, you may actually be creating more negative evaluations.

Is there anything that might lessen self-handicapping?

It is important to recognize the short– and long-term self-defeating aspects of self-handicapping. Even the short-term protection of one’s self-image is soundly offset by the long-term havoc brought on by repeated under-performance experiences. Therefore, people with self-handicapping tendencies would be better off devoting their energies to preparing for major events than to making excuses ahead of time for potential poor performances.