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Self-handicapping is described as an action or choice which prevents a person from being responsible for failure (Kolditz & Arkin, 1982). Berglas and Jones (1978) describe this strategy as making choices or acting in ways which make it possible to externalize failure and to internalize success. People want to be able to accept credit for any success, but have an excuse for any failure. From these definitions we can see that the strategy of self-handicapping is used in evaluative setting so that the person has ready excuses for failures. Therefore if a failure occurs it is attributed to the handicap instead of the lack of ability on the part of the individual (Smith, Snyder, & Perkins, 1983). However, if someone does succeed despite the impediment then they can attribute the success to their abilities. As we can see, self-handicapping behaviors are designed so that there are desirable attributions for both success and failure (Hirt, Deppe, & Gordon, 1991).

There are many behaviors that may be used to serve as self-handicaps such as alcohol or drug abuse, physical or psychological symptoms, decreased practice effort, and test anxiety. A specific example of the use of self-handicaps is a student who chooses to go out partying and drinking the night before a big exam. Leary and Shepperd (1986) argue that self-handicapping strategies should be separated into self-reported handicaps and behavioral self-handicapping. Self-reported handicaps are verbal claims which are used to proclaim that one has handicaps which will interfere with there performance. When people use actions to construct handicaps that prevent failures from being attributed to non-ability, they are using behavioral self-handicaps.

The self-handicapping strategy can be linked to the self-serving bias, as well as self-defeating behavior. The self-serving bias is when people repeatedly claim credit for successes but deny blame for failures. The fact that people will purposely handicap themselves in order to prevent responsibility for failure is an example of self-defeating behavior. Self-defeating behavior is described as any action which a person does to bring failure, suffering, or misfortune on themselves (Baumeister and Bushman 2008).

Berglas and Jones (1978) designed an experiment to test the proposition linking self-handicapping strategies- in this case the choice of a performance inhibiting drug- to a recent history of non-contingent success. Non-contigent success refers to a condition where the performer receives successful feedback after attempting to solve insoluble problems. Therefore the subject is suspicious of the successful feedback. The results showed that male subjects (but not female subjects) chose a performance-inhibiting drug when in a situation in which they had just experienced a success apparently based substantially on luck. They chose to take the drug presumably to prevent their previous success from being challenged by subsequent failure.

Additional studies

Additional studies have been conducted that have looked at a variety of aspects concerning the self-handicapping strategy. Kolditz and Arkin (1982) explored the impression management underpinnings of the self-handicapping strategy. They found that when the experimenter was present and when the participant believed that the experimenter would have access to the score on their upcoming second test, participants chose the debilitating drug more often. Smith, Snyder, and Perkins (1983) looked into the possible link between hypochondriacal individuals commonly used reports of physical illness and symptoms as a strategy to control attributions made about their performances in evaluative settings (i.e., self-handicapping strategies). Harris, Snyder, Higgins, and Schrag (1986) studied what the predictors of self-handicapping might be for college women. They found that high levels of test anxiety and high levels of covert self-esteem were correlated with women’s use of self-handicaps. Hirt, Deppe, and Gordon (1991) found that high self-handicapping men and women showed evidence of self-reported handicapping, but only high self-handicapping men behaviorally self-handicapped. When both self-handicaps were possible, both high self-handicapping men and women preferred the self-reported over the behavioral self-handicap. Tice (1991) found that high-self-esteem participants self-handicapped to enhance success, whereas low-self-esteem participants self-handicapped to protect against the esteem-threatened implications of failure.

Recent Studies

Recent studies have looked at the predictors and achievement consequences of academic self-handicapping and have begun to explore cultural variations in the pursuit and effects of performance goals and perceived classroom performance goal structures (Urban, 2004). Martin, Marsh, Williamson, & Debus (2003) are looking into the ways in which students use self-handicapping and defensive pessimism, what the advantages are that students see in using self-handicapping and defensive pessimism, and what goal orientations underlie students use of self-handicapping and defensive pessimism. Hirt, McCrea, & Boris (2003) are looking into who the intended audience of the self-handicapping strategy is, and what sex differences exist in the use of self-handicapping.


Baumeister, Roy F., and Brad J., Bushman. (2008) Social Psychology & Human Nature. United States: Thomson Wadsworth. 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(4), 405-417.

Harris, R. N., Snyder, C. R., Higgins, R. L., & Schrag, J. L. (1986). Enhancing the Prediction of Self-Handicapping. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 51(6), 1191-1199.

Hirt, E. R., Deppe, R. K., & Gordon, L. J. (1991). Self-Reported Versus Behavioral Self-Handicapping: Empirical Evidence for a Theoretical Distinction. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 61(6), 981-991.

Hirt, E. R., McCrea, S. M., & Boris, H. I. (2003). ‘I know you self-handicapped last exam”: Gender differences in reactions to self-handicapping. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 84(1), 177-193.

Jones, E. E., & Berglas, S. (1978). Control of attributions about the self through self-handicapping strategies: The appeal of alcohol and the role of underachievement. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 42(2), 200-206.

Kolditz, T. A., & Arkin, R. M. (1982). An Impression Management Interpretation of the Self-Handicapping Strategy. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 43(3), 492-502

Leary, M. R, & Shepperd, J. A. (1986). Behavioral self-handicaps versus self-reported handicaps; A conceptual note. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 51(6), 1265-1268.

Martin, A. J., Marsh, H.W., Williamson, A., & Debus, R. L. (2003). Self-handicapping, defensive pessimism, and goal orientation: A qualitative study of university students. Journal of Educational Psychology, 95(3), 617-628.

Smith, T. W., Snyder, C. R., & Perkins, S. C. (1983). The Self-Serving Function of Hypochondriacal Complaints: Physical Symptoms as Self-Handicapping Strategies. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 44(4), 787-797.

Tice, D. M. (1991). Esteem Protection or Enhancement? Self-Handicapping Motives and Attributions Differ by Trait Self-Esteem. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 60(5), 711-725. Urban, T. (2004) Predictors of Academic Self-Handicapping and Achievement: Examining Achievement Goals, Classroom Goal Structures, and Culture. Journal of Educational Psychology, 96(2), 251-264.

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