Motivated To Fail?

We tend to view motivation from a positive perspective; motivated pupils work harder than unmotivated ones, display higher levels of persistence (or ‘grit’, if we insist on using the current preferred terminology) and are more likely to meet or even exceed their achievement goals.

Unfortunately, some types of motivation can also have negative consequences. Self-handicapping is one way – those pre-emptive excuses people use to explain away their failure (I’ve discussed self-handicapping at length in the past). In this post I want to discuss another consequence of students’ fear of failure and the two related motivational strategies that arise from it: Defensive Pessimism and Defensive Optimism.

Why would students want to fail anyway?

Students don’t want to fail; however many are more worried about safeguarding their self-esteem and self-worth than they are with achieving academically. Young people (especially teenagers and young adults) are fearful of looking unintelligent in front of their peers (and their teachers) leading to attempts to ensure that a situation never arises when others might think them ‘stupid’.

In a very rudimentary way, we can view these choices in the form of a Failure Matrix (below). As can be seen, the most effective way to safeguard self-esteem is to withhold effort, hence, some students might be motivated to fail rather than motivated to succeed.


Defensive Pessimism: Aiming Low

Defensive pessimism involves the holding of unrealistically low expectations of tasks involving formal evaluation, such as an exam or a homework that will be given a grade. If we hold low expectations of our own performance then these beliefs cushion us against anxiety by creating unrealistic targets for ourselves – it’s not as far to fall when we fail (and a cause celebration when we do well). We turn a failure into a success in our own minds.

Defensive pessimism can manifest itself in several ways, such as telling yourself and others that you are going to fail the test even though past experience suggests that failure is far from inevitable. While some may think of this as reasonable strategy, unconsciously there is a real danger that this type of behaviour will reduce motivation and engagement due to the complex relationship between our thoughts and our behaviours, in other words, we end up convincing ourselves that failure is the most likely outcome even though we have displayed a history of success. If we lower the bar, we make failure less likely (in our own eyes at least) which in turn lifts some of the anxiety associated with the fear of failure.

Aiming for failure allows us to revel in success, even if that success is below expectations. Students aim lower than their academic history suggests, for example aiming for a grade C when all indications suggest that an A or a B is a more likely outcome.

Defensive Optimism: Aiming Too High.

While defensive pessimism leads to students pitching themselves below their ability, defensive optimism exists at the other end of this continuum.

Defensive optimists set unrealistically high goals and expectations for themselves even though past experience and evidence suggests that they are unlikely to reach these levels. Students who are predicted D’s and E’s, for example, might set their sites on an A despite having only achieved D’s in tests and other assessed work. They may also choose to embark on subjects at higher levels despite only mediocre success at lower levels. We often find this during the transition from GCSE’s to A-levels and, although many schools will discourage or bar some students from taking certain subjects at a higher level, others have more flexible entry requirements. A student who has only managed D’s in science subjects might then wish to take A-levels in Physics and Chemistry even though prior attainment in these subjects has been low. This often leads to students struggling and eventually leaving the course.

Schools, therefore, need to be careful in assessing students in terms of prior attainment and ensuring that minimum standards are upheld. Teachers want students to remain optimistic about their chances of success and realistic optimism should be encouraged, however, defensive optimism doesn’t represent a realistic approach due to the evidence for success being absent.

Defensive optimists display certain behaviours that betray their thoughts. These might include:

  • Striving towards an A grade when previous assessments have placed them closer to a D.
  • Choosing books, texts of other information that are far beyond their capabilities in terms of their previous attainment. For example, our struggling Physics student might select a textbook aimed at first year undergraduate students.

The problem here is not the optimism but the unrealistic nature of the optimism. Certainly, students should be encouraged to aim high but also encouraged to aim within realistic parameters. Rather than aiming for an A (when the current level is closer to a D) students should be encouraged to aim for the mid-range and rise in increments once evidence is able to support higher expectations.

It seems logical that students might downplay their ability in an attempt to feel good about a lower grade (Defensive Pessimism), but why would a student over-estimate their ability?

This is indeed a curious thing, after all, isn’t the defensive optimist simply setting themselves up for a fall? The most probable explanation for such a destructive strategy involves our thinking about short and long-term goals and the perception of time, as well as failure and academic insecurity. The fear of failure problem can easily be resolved – simply refuse to accept failure as a possibility, even when evidence suggests that our belief in success is so far removed from the evidence. If students refuse to accept the evidence of failure as a possible outcome, then the beliefs created by such a refusal protects them from the anxiety and fear associated with failure – at least in the short-term.

Defensive optimism can also be used as a way of excusing poor performance by blaming their high expectations rather than accepting that it was down to ability or effort. Explaining away poor performance by accepting that your expectations were too high doesn’t necessarily represent an attack on self-worth.

An awareness of the motives behind withholding effort is as important as the awareness of motives related to the desire to succeed. As educators we have tendency to view motivation as positive while assuming some students are unmotivated rather than motivated to fail.


2 thoughts on “Motivated To Fail?

  1. conorheaven

    Marc, I’m interested in this and relate it to mindsets/beliefs/thoughts due to personal experiences.

    I spent the first 11 years of my life being told I was clever, I revelled in things I found easy and spent more time getting quicker/better at these (football/times tables/spelling/mental arithmetic) and would categorically avoid writing in length of grammar work as I struggled to understand it. In some way, I probably saw struggle as weakness.

    Moving to secondary grammar, all of a sudden there were some really bright kids who made it look easy and I would have had to work exceptionally hard to keep up with them. This change in pace/expectations of self/competition led me to become defensively pessimistic. My self esteem was shot already, so try and only so okay compared to peers? Nah. I became a class clown and avoided hard work. Expectations were low (of myself) so when I achieved poorly it was no big deal. However teachers and parents knowing my potential probably found it excruciating…

    I wish my parents and primary school had done more to push me in areas I struggled and not used the words clever, bright etc as I struggled to shake those off.

    Haply ending – I went to university on a primary teaching/history BEd double honours course and gained a 2:1 – purely because I grew up, read about mindsets/beliefs/thoughts and their impact, tried hard and got something worthwhile!


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