Explaining Self- Destructive Behaviors

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Defining Self-Destructive Behavior

Self-defeating behavior is the idea that sometimes people knowingly do things that will cause them to fail or bring them trouble. It is defined as “any deliberate or intentional behavior that has clear, definitely or probably negative effects on the self or on the self’s projects” (Scher & Baumeister 1988). Many theories as to why humans sometimes behave in a self destructive ways have been examined by many psychologists. One proposed theory that answers this question is the Freudian argument, which states that “people have an innate death drive that impels them to pursue their own downfall and death”. This argument also concludes that people do harm themselves deliberately, even though they sometimes are not conscious of this. “Self defeating behaviors are especially common when people feel that others view them less favorably than the people desire” Psychologists have constructed three models that explain different types of self-defeating behaviors, which are “distinguished by their varying degrees of intentionality”. (Beaumeister 2008).

Three Models of Self-Destructive Behavior

There are three models that represent self-defeating behaviors on the basis of “intentionality.” The first model is called, “primary self destruction.” This model includes those human beings who deliberately and intentionally hurt themselves. Those in this group, usually intentionally choose an action that they know will bring harm to them. “One example of this type of behavior is called, “masochism” (Beaumeister & Scher 1988).

A second “conceptual model” of self-defeating behavior is called, “tradeoff”. This behavior is done when a person literally and knowingly makes a trade-off in a situation. It is when a person chooses a certain option that has some benefit but also has the potential to cause harm to the person as well. A good example of this would be when a person chooses to take up smoking. In a tradeoff, the “harm or risk to the self is accepted as a necessary accompaniment to achieving some other goal” (Beaumeister and Scher 1988). In this tradeoff model, “the individual has multiple goals and desires, but the situation sets two of them in opposition. One type of tradeoff is known as, “self-handicapping”. In the tradeoff, people will deliberately choose to do something that they know will harm them, so that if they fail later they are able to blame their failure on the bad choice they previously made.

The third category of self-destructiveness includes “counterproductive strategies.” This type involves self defeating behaviors is one in which “the person neither desires nor foresees the harm to self. In this instance a person is pursuing a desirable outcome but chooses a strategy or approach that backfires and produces the opposite of the desired result. Thus, the person is pursuing a positive goal, but the person’s method of pursuing is negative.” This type of behavior is very common among young adults and usually results in some kind of “self-harmful outcomes” (Beaumeister & Scher 1988). Reasons for Self Defeating Behavior: People are more likely to behave in a self-defeating or destructive manner when either there are threats made to their ego or when they have low self-esteem. When a person has a low self-esteem, they are more likely to be susceptible to having depression, anxiety and, emotional distress, which are problems that are usually directly related to a less favorable self-appraisal. (Beaumeister, 1997) “Emotional stress has also had a link to self-defeating behavior. Anecdotal observations have long suggested that highly distraught people are more likely than others to do self destructive things.” (Beaumeister, 1997) Also, self-regulation failure is yet another supposed cause of self-defeating behaviors. One’s self regulation is related mostly to one’s self-control. Self-regulation allows a person to prepare themselves to a certain situation and adapt to that situation. With self-regulation a person can either make sure they succeed or fail in a certain situation. “Self regulation is presumably one of the major capacities that the human self has evolved in order to help bring about positive outcomes. When the self brings about negative outcomes, therefore, one could readily suspect that self-regulation has failed in some crucial way. Ultimately, self-defeating behavior may often result from the failure of the self to regulate its behaviors properly” (Beaumeister, 1997).

Experiments Testing Self-Destructive Behavior

More than 20 different experiments have concluded that social exclusion and rejection lead to negative outcomes, such as self defeating or destructive behaviors. “Socially excluded people are more aggressive even towards innocent targets, are less willing to help or cooperate, engage in self-defeating behaviors like risk-taking and procrastination , and perform poorly on analytical reasoning tasks" (Twenge and Baumeister, 2002). Mark Leary concluded that “low self- esteem often results from feelings of rejection and loneliness. Leary suggests that self- esteem acts as a "sociometer" that measures a person's prospects for belongingness. Experiments have concluded that there is a direct correlation between effects of social exclusion and self- defeating behaviors” (Leary & Baumeister, 2000). The overall results of this experiment are clearly displayed in the “laboratory studies of social exclusion”. Previous research had also found a close correlation between social exclusion and self-defeating behavior. Suicide is one example of the “ultimate self-defeating act, and people with fewer social attachments are more likely than others to commit suicide" (Baumeitster, Durkheim & Trout 1980). Also it has been shown that those who live alone or who are not in any type of relationships is more likely to abuse substances dangerous such as drugs and alcohol.


Various experiments have proved and psychologists have shown that regular people do in fact perform behaviors that can be self-detrimental. The three models of self-destructiveness illustrate the different ways in which a person behaves in a self-defeating way, depending on each person’s level of “intentionality” to harm oneself. Human beings are more likely to behave in more self- defeating ways depending different circumstances, such as a person’s mental health. If a person is depressed or anxious then that person is more likely to behave in a self-destructive way than a person would if they were mentally healthy. Other important factors that contribute to self-destructive behaviors include low- egos, low self-esteem and seclusion. Results from various studies propose that a “strong feeling of social inclusion is important for enabling the individual to use the human capacity for self-regulation in ways that will preserve and protect the self and promote the self's best long term interests of health and well-being." (Twenge, Catanese, & Baumeiter 2002.)

Sources Cited:

Baumeister, R.F. (1997). Esteem threat, self-regulatory breakdown, and emotional distress as factors in self-defeating behavior. Review of General Psychology, 1, 145-174

Baumeister, R.F. Scher, Stephen (1988). Self-Defeating Behavior Patterns among Normal Individuals: Review and Analysis of Common Self-Destructive Tendencies. American Psychological Association, 1-22

Baumeister, R.F. (1995). The Psychology of Irrationality: Why People Make Foolish. Self-Defeating Choices. Cae Western Reserve University, 1-17

Baumeister, R.F. Twenge, Jean. Catanese, Kathleen (2002). Social Exclusion Causes.Self-Defeating Behavior. American Psychological Association, 606-614

Baumeister, R.F. Bushman, Brad (2008). Social Psychology and Human Nature. Thompson Learning Inc. 3-4, 136-137

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