Tuesday, August 18, 2009

"I barely studied, and I still aced the test!" "Why didn't you study?"

Paper we’re looking at: On being happy but fearing failure: The effects of mood on self-handicapping strategies AL Alter, JP Forgas - Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 2007

Today we’re going to talk about the wonderful world of self-handicapping. It’s rarely talked about by that name, but we’ve all seen it (and most of us have done it, at one point or another).

The classic example is the student who doesn’t study for an exam, or who shows up hung over. The more relevant (and serious) example is when we engage in extended procrastination instead of doing the things we know we should be doing (such as preparing that report, writing that presentation, prep for the job interview, etc).

Why the hell would anybody in their right mind work AGAINST their best interest? Is self-handicapping behavior just some kind of temporary psychological breakdown? Does it indicate a deeply disturbed person, or one who has poor logical reasoning abilities?


Turns out, there are 2 main preconditions to self handicapping behavior. One is that the person is happy, and the second is that they’ve previously received non-relevant feedback in the area they’re handicapping.

Wait a minute… I’m trying to get you to swallow the fact that somebody being HAPPY means that they’re going to put off working on what they should be working on, or even actively sabotage themselves. But that doesn’t make much sense – after all, haven’t we been told pretty much forever that happiness is a golden ticket that creates success, improves health, and generally makes the world a much better place?

Well, boys and girls, that’s exactly what this paper is all about.

Consider an anecdote about chess grand master Deschapelles. It seems that there was a time when he’d begun to doubt his ability to continue competing at a high level. So what did he do? Well,

“he offered every opponent an extra pawn and an extra move. This apparently self-defeating behavior gave Deschapelles a plausible excuse for defeat and earned him extra credit when he won the match.”

That, in a nutshell, is the essence of self handicapping. It’s about stacking the deck AGAINST yourself, in the mistaken belief that if you do well, you’ll get even more credit – and if you fail, then nobody will believe that it’s because of YOU, but because of circumstances.

Now, what about that “irrelevant feedback” point? This was glossed over in the paper, but it’s probably one of the MOST important points to come out of it, so I’m going to give it some loving right here.

The experiment in this case consisted of 3 parts, and as usual were split into groups so that effects could be studied.

Part 1: Subjects were given feedback on a verbal test (one group got real feedback, the other group got random/inconsistent feedback).

Part 2: Subjects watched a movie clip designed to alter their mood (either happy or sad).

Part 3: Subjects were given the option of drinking one of 2 herbal teas, which they were told were either performance enhancing or performance inhibiting, before doing another verbal test.

Here’s what happened. When the feedback was unreliable (somebody who’d bombed the test was told “Good job!”), FAR more people chose the performance enhancing tea than when it was reliable.

In a secondary effect, people who were happy also chose the performance inhibiting tea far more often – which means that the combination of the subjects being happy, and receiving unreliable feedback, was deadly – in fact, in that condition, over 75% of subjects chose the self-handicapping route.

Here’s the breakdown for who chose what (first number is irrelevant feedback, second is relevant): Happy: 75% vs. 45%; neutral: 40% vs. 14%; sad: 47% vs. 21%

This is RIDICULOUSLY important for any type of educator. It means that giving BS “positive feedback” that the students know they don’t deserve will increase their self handicapping behavior. Leading to lower actual results. Leading to more BS feedback. Leading to even lower actual results.

Of course, it’s hard not to notice that even when feedback is relevant, there’s still quite a bit of self handicapping going on for happy people. That goes back to the earlier point about working hard to preserve the happy mood – self-handicapping allows us to face failure without FEELING like failures, which is counter-productive in the long run, but feels ever so good in the short run.

So what does all this mean? Well, it means that if you’re in a position of authority over other people (boss, parent, teacher, coach), that you really need to work to make sure that your feedback is relevant (blowing smoke up people’s derriere’s might seem like a good idea, and you might think it will raise their precious self esteem, but it’s going to be counterproductive).

Further, it means that if you’re on one of those positions, you should be aware that while happiness is great and should be encouraged, that it can lead to self-handicapping. Often it’s unconscious – people won’t tell you why they’re choosing the self-handicapping option. Knowing that it might be coming, and knowing why, is going to put you in a better position to help them.

But what if you’re NOT in any of those positions? Then you’ve only got to worry about your own self-handicapping. And that’s almost certainly the hardest to catch.