The Psychology of Self-Handicapping: Why Intelligent People Sometimes Sabotage Their Own Success

Team IIBP Anveshan, Business Psychology, Corporate Social Responsibility, Issue 34, Organizational Culture, Social justice, Volume 4

The concept of Self Handicapping was introduced by Edward Jones and Steven Berglas in 1978 to answer the question of why people tend to sabotage success or outcomes they seem to value the most. It refers to putting a barrier to one’s own success where in an event of failure is attributed to a lack of ability being diminished because of the existence of the barrier and in an event of success, is attributed to the ability being enhanced because of the barrier. The act of self-handicapping helps a person from both the implications of failure and enhances success irrespective of whether one fails or succeeds. (Rhodewalt., 2008)

One of the many examples of self-handicapping can be that of staying up late in the night partying before an important event the next day. An individual prepare well in advance for that particular event, but because they stay up the night partying before the event, may end up sabotaging the event or may not be able to perform well because of lack of sleep or rest. They may attribute their failure in terms of not being able to sleep or lack of rest whereas if they succeed, may end up not regretting leaving that party and may consider it as ending up performing well despite partying the previous night.

Research suggests that self-handicapping is effective in the short term because it allows the individual to maintain a sense of competence and self-esteem. One of the biggest questions researchers are facing right now is whether, if self-handicapping is the creation of obstacles for oneself to succeed, it should be viewed as negative- still people tend to engage in self-handicapping behaviours. It seems to be affecting the self-esteem and competence in an individual, where if they face failure, may attribute it to the obstacle that they have created for themselves and if they succeed, may accept the success irrespective of the obstacle they created for themselves. An individual needs to realise that although self-handicapping has short-term benefits, it is of big harm in the long run. Constantly engaging in acts of self-handicapping may result in an individual feeling helpless, a decrease in self-esteem and turn affect performance. It creates a vicious cycle, and to overcome this, an individual might require a lot of time and effort. 

Research has also found that self-handicappers over time score low on well-being and health in general with high mood swings, less satisfaction and less intrinsic motivation to do something. Self-handicapping is known to be working in the short term and helps enhance and improve self-esteem. ( McCrae and Hirt, 2001 as cited in Zuckerman et al., 2005)

When it comes to gender differences in engaging in acts of self-handicapping, men tend to engage in acts of self-handicapping more. (psychology. To overcome the acts of self-handicapping, one needs to understand when they are engaging in the acts where they are required to be self-aware along with a reflection of the past. With the realisation of these activities, one should try to develop strategies to break this vicious cycle. One needs to stop worrying about the result and try engaging in the process to achieve their goals. An individual can also try and see that if they face any kind of failures- learn to look at them as opportunities for growth and try and rectify the potential mistakes from the past. (Zuckerman et al., 2005)

In conclusion, self-handicapping, although it helps in the short term, is very harmful in the long term and an individual can end up in trouble for the same. It leads to people creating negative patterns of behaviour for themselves which might affect them in the long run. Individuals need to learn to be able to overcome them by planning strategies to efficiently achieve their goals.


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