Self-Handicapping: Definition, Examples & Strategies

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  • 0:01 Definition & Example
  • 1:57 Self-Handicapping Strategies
  • 3:00 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Yolanda Williams

Yolanda has taught college Psychology and Ethics, and has a doctorate of philosophy in counselor education and supervision.

Did you know that not studying for a test is a form of self-handicapping? Learn more about self-handicapping from examples. Then test your knowledge with a quiz.

Definition and Example

Stephen is a first-generation college student who is used to excelling at things like school and sports with very little effort. Despite his usual success, Stephen has been having trouble keeping up in his chemistry class. He knows that the midterm exam in his chemistry course is worth 25% of his final grade and could boost his class average. Instead of studying the weekend before his exam, he decides to go on a ski trip with his friends.

Stephen receives a 'D' on his midterm exam, much to his dismay. He concludes that the reason he did so poorly on the exam is because he went on the ski trip and did not have time to study. Stephen's behavior is an example of self-handicapping.

Self-handicapping refers to actions or statements we make that allow us to avoid effort or responsibility for potential failures that could damage our self-esteem. It is much more embarrassing and harmful to our self-esteem to put forth effort and fail than it is to self-handicap and have excuses as to why we failed. When we self-handicap, our decisions and actions provide us with a way to internalize success while externalizing failure. In other words, self-handicapping lets us take the credit for our successes, while blaming other external factors for our failures.

Stephen hasn't had to put forth much effort in any of his academic endeavors, so when he came across a challenging course, it was much easier for him to self-handicap than it was to try, especially since he had not been doing well in the course to begin with. Stephen was easily able to explain this bad grade away by blaming it on his ski trip and lack of studying, which are external factors. However, if Stephen had done well on the midterm, he would have concluded that he has exceptional abilities in chemistry, which is an internal factor, because he was able to receive a high grade despite not studying and going on the trip. This would have boosted his self-esteem.

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