I suspect that we have all heard some of these phrases uttered by our students:
‘I’m no good at exams’
‘I have a very bad memory’
‘I never did any revision for my GCSE’s’
‘I haven’t been able to revise because I’ve been too busy/tired/poorly’
‘I just don’t have time, what with all the coursework for my other subjects’
‘Art takes up so much of my time’ (Art teachers please note!)
Are such phrases just laziness or is there something deeper at work here? Interestingly, those who tend to use the first two phrases are also the ones who claim that revision techniques which involve self-testing (doing timed exam questions, for example) just don’t work for them and that writing copious amounts of notes does (while listening to music…grrrr!) All these phrases represent a phenomenon known as ‘self-handicapping’ (sometimes referred to as ‘self-sabotage’). They’re a way of attempting to safeguard self-esteem by placing obstacles in the way of success – it’s a way of saying ‘I didn’t fail because I’m stupid, I failed because I was ill’ or some other such reason.
Despite what we might think of our students, many of them aren’t as confident as they would like us all to believe, certainly when it comes to academic success.
Needless to say, the more of these self-handicapping phrases that they use, the more likely they are to underachieve, and studies have found that self-handicapping is indeed negatively correlated with academic grades (e.g. Midgley et al., 1996)
Unfortunately, academic self-handicapping is perhaps a symptom of the test-obsessed culture in which we live. It allows us to defend ourselves against setbacks by externalising the reasons for them and often leads to self-fulfilling failure. It’s easier for many people (especially adolescents who have been sheltered from the realities of failure) to handicap themselves academically so that if failure is encountered they can reply with ‘well I did tell you I couldn’t do exams’ or ‘well I was very ill on the day of the exam and that’s why I didn’t do very well.’ They may also feign excuses, such as claiming that they are too tired when they are not – this allows them to fall back on the ‘tired’ reason for underachieving in an exam, keeping their academic self-esteem intact.
It’s also easier to say ‘I failed because I didn’t revise’ as this doesn’t reflect negatively on them in terms of their intelligence or ‘cleverness’ and this is what many young people are desperate to safeguard. They may of course claim that they didn’t revise when, in fact, they spent hours preparing for their exam.
A common-sense assumption would be that self-handicapping is linked to poor self-esteem, however research into this relationship appears very mixed, with studies showing no relationship, positive relationship and negative relationship (dependent on which study you consult). It is perhaps better to investigate self-handicapping on the basis of self-concept (and its consistency and stability – known as self-clarity) rather than looking for answers within the globalisation of self-esteem generally.
If self-handicapping isn’t related to self-esteem then this creates all sorts of issues for educators trying to get the most from learners. High self-esteem might even encourage self-handicapping in some learners in an attempt to safeguard their status (and I have seen as many learners under-achieve through arrogance than through low self-esteem). Praising effort over intelligence might be one way that we as educators can improve academic self-concept without impacting on self-esteem. Equally, and continuing on with the work of Harvard psychologist Carol Dweck, an emphasis away from the view that intelligence is largely innate (changing so-called ‘implicit theories of intelligence’) could provide an antidote for the grade-led school culture.
What teachers (and parents) also need to change is this view that failure is a bad thing. Successful students often see failure in different ways to those who might be more vulnerable to self-handicapping, and rather than viewing failure as a direct attack on self-esteem, they are more likely to see it as an opportunity to improve. Successful students don’t tend to self-handicap, not because they have very high self-esteem, but rather because they don’t worry too much about what others will think if they do underachieve – they tend not to compare themselves to their classmates.
From a psychological viewpoint, comparisons don’t necessarily lead to greater success and higher marks. Comparisons invariably lead to greater anxiety and an increase in the possibility that students will self-handicap and research indicates that the most successful students don’t actually care that much about how they measure up against the others in their class, school or nationally.
Picking up on these, often subtle, clues can help teachers and parents to recognise when children are placing obstacles in their own path because of an unhealthy view of failure or a deep-seated fear of failure.