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The proper APA Style reference for this manuscript is:
HALL, T. R. (2000). Self-handicapping: an Evaluation and Comparison of Honors and Traditional College Students` Utilization. National Undergraduate Research Clearinghouse, 3. Available online at http://www.webclearinghouse.net/volume/. Retrieved December 9, 2022 .

Self-handicapping: an Evaluation and Comparison of Honors and Traditional College Students` Utilization

Sponsored by: PHIL WANN (wann@missouriwestern.edu)
A 2X2X2 factorial, between subjects design was conducted of 73 honors and traditional college students in general studies courses at Missouri Western State College. The purpose for the study is to determine the use of self-handicapping strategy within each of these populations. Academic confidence and instructional conditions served as dependent variables alongside the honors designation of each student. No interactions were evident, but interesting main effects were found for both honors designation and academic confidence levels.

Self-esteem is an integral factor in one`s identity. In any task that is important to an individual there is risk of either enhancing or maintaining one`s self esteem in a successful attempt, or damaging one`s self-perception in the case of failure (Deppe, Hirt & Gordon, 1991). Many people approach performance situations as accurate evaluations of personal ability, and they often engage in self-serving attributions that consider success a result of internal forces like ability, and failure to external forces like task difficulty. (Greenburg & Pyszczynski, 1983). As a result, they are refuting any evidence that failure may be due to any fault of their own, and that success is self-inflicted. This attributional style has been applied to the concept of self-handicapping. There is a distinction to be made between the two, yet self-handicapping can be considered a subclass in the self-serving attribution theory (Leary & Sheppard, 1986). Self-handicapping is utilized prior to situations where probability of success is uncertain or unlikely, whereas attributions are made after feedback has been given regarding performance. Many researchers have found that people often engage in self-handicapping prior to an event that may threaten self-esteem, and provide a plausible excuse for failure rather than taking full responsibility upon themselves (Haemmerlie, Montgomery, & Zoellner, 1996).Haemmerlie, et. al. have identified are two types of self-handicapping: behavioral and self-reported. Behavioral types are the most obvious, and are overt actions that reduce the likelihood of success. Things such as inhibiting drugs and alcohol, reduced effort and practice, and distracting environment are examples of these obstacles. Although they are sometimes perceived as more negative, they are the most convincing and effective due to the observable nature. Self-reported handicaps are claims that a condition exists that is impeding to performance that may or may not be true. These have a less costly effect to performance and include things like psychological and health problems, bad mood, and traumatic life events (Leary, et al., 1986). Studies have shown that when faced with a choice between the two, subjects will opt for the self-report because it provides an excuse for poor performance without actually lowering their chances for success, and that men more often provide behavioral barriers than do women, which is almost an extreme ratio of all to none (Deppe, et al., 1991). An age trend is also evident. Until adolescence, children don`t recognize the perceptions of others. At this level of development one begins to understand how others view his ability. Low effort and high performance result in the perception of great ability, whereas high effort and low performance result in the perception of a lack thereof. Another effect on the use of handicapping is the phenomenon of egocentric ideation where the adolescent feels that all eyes are on him. The `imaginary audience` effect results in a higher probability that self-handicapping will occur. Therefore, testing for self-handicapping tendencies is most fruitful at the high school and college freshman level (Haemmerlie, et. al.). Arunkumar, Midgley, & Urdan suggest that self-handicapping is engaged in for two reasons: self-protection in regard to worth to oneself and self-presentation in regard to the perception of others. Self-esteem is very much a factor of both, so a strong correlation has been found between low esteem and use of self-handicapping. However, in the area of academics, it has been found that students with both high and low self-esteem engage in self-handicapping strategies, but for different reasons. Those with high esteem wish to appear successful under harsh conditions in order to bolster them higher, whereas those with low esteem are guarding against ego-threatening effects (1996). Use of self-handicaps in the classroom is of utmost importance for today`s educators. Goal structure is of utmost importance. Many classrooms discuss the importance of grades and are rewarded when they receive above average scores on evaluations. This structure promotes competition among classmates, and therefore perpetuates peer evaluation. Self-esteem then becomes an issue in appearing able to others and to the self, hence the role of self-handicaps (Anderman, Midgley, & Urdan, 1998). Exercising self-handicaps has a lasting effect in many aspects of life. The most immediate of which is GPA. Empirical evidence has shown a strong negative relationship between handicapping and GPA. It is therefore important to interrupt its effects early in an individual`s academic career to prevent further impediments in higher education. Study habits are also inhibited, as this is a primary factor in self-handicapping (lack of effort). Most importantly, people scaling high in self-handicapping exhibit poorer adjustment later in life. This lasting effect can impede growth in adulthood (Thompson, 1994; Kieffer, Knee, & Zuckerman, 1998).Research suggests that major improvements can be made in our educational system to combat the long-term effects of self-handicapping. I hope to provide insight to this research by discovering the difference between honors and average students. This can assist in determining whether the use of handicaps affects overall academic achievement. In turn, I hope to see a restructure in education in order to increase the population of students in the honors segment of college curriculum. It is predicted that honors students will have a higher level of academic confidence, based on the fact that positive prior experiences foster competence. Research has shown that a higher level of confidence in academic pursuits will decrease the probability of a self-handicapping strategy. Therefore, it is predicted that honors students will be less likely to self-handicap than average students. When prompted that self-handicapping procedures like lack of studying and stress adversely affect performance, honors students will be no more likely to attribute subsequent performance to these conditions than their unprompted counterparts. However, because of the lower levels of perceived academic confidence a degree of uncertainty exists for the average college student. Subsequently, students receiving the instruction condition will be more likely to pose these predisposed conditions than their non-instructed counterparts.


Two honors sections and two general sections of introductory courses in the Humanities and Physical Education departments at MWSC will be used for comparison.

An academic confidence scale provided by Dr. Wann and Rhodewalt`s Self-handicapping Scale and will be used to measure the independent and dependent variables.

Prior to a regularly scheduled quiz or exam the classes were offered an opportunity to participate in sharing their attitudes toward academics. An instruction condition was given to one honors and one general section describing the negative effects of lack of study and stress on performance on tests and quizzes. An academic confidence scale and self-handicapping scale was administered immediately following. After completing the scales, the students were debriefed as to the actual purpose of the study.

An analysis of the self-handicapping scale indicated that honors students handicap significantly more than non-honors students, F(1,65)=5.628, p<.025. Figure 1 depicts the mean self-handicapping scores in each of these populations. Academic confidence significantly reduced the likelihood of self-handicapping strategy, F(1,65)=18.701, p<.0001. This effect is shown in Figure 2. No difference was found between honors and non-honors students in levels of academic confidence, F(1,65)=34.993, p>.05 (Figure 3). Verbal prompting had no influence on self-handicapping attributions for either the honors or non-honors subjects, F(1,65)= 1.958, p>.05. Table 1 shows the overall effects of each variable on self-handicapping; no interaction effects were evident in this study.

Main effects of self-handicapping were evident in the above results. Honors students` use of the self-handicapping strategy may be a result of a heightened concern for academic achievement. A performance relevant to a personal value increases the likelihood of the placement of hindering obstacles so as to avoid personal responsibility that may detrimentally affect one`s self-concept. This could explain why their rates of self-handicapping behavior are significantly higher than traditional students that may not care as much about their grades. However, why aren`t honors students more confident in academic pursuits? Positive prior experience fosters confidence, but this was not evident in the current study. A more reliable scale may be needed to measure this construct, but other variables may be taking their toll, such as adjustment difficulties and other related stressors relative to the collegiate life experience. These students may be underestimating their level of confidence when engaging in self-handicapping. It would be very advantageous to investigate this phenomenon further. Discovering the variables that lower academic confidence will assist in reducing the use of self-handicapping strategy, and consequently decrease inhibitions on performance. This in turn may increase the number of students graduating with honors.

Anderman, E.M., Midgley, C., Urdan, T. (1998). The role of classroom goal structure in students` use of self-handicapping strategies. American Educational Research Journal, 35, 101-122. Arunkumar, R., Midgley, C., Urdan, T.C. (1996). "If I don`t do well tomorrow, there`s a reason": Predictors of adolescents` use of academic self-handicapping strategies. Journal of Educational Psychology, 3, 423-434. Deppe, R.K., Hirt, E.R., Gordon, L.J. (1991). Self-reported versus behavioral sel-handicapping: Empirical evidence for a theoretical distinction. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 61, 981-990. Greenberg, J., Pyszczynski, T. (1983). Determinants of reduction in intended effort as a strategy for coping with anticipated failure. Journal of Research in Personality, 17, 412-422. Haemmerlie, F.M., Montgomery, R.L., Zoellner, S. (1996). The "imaginary audience," self-handicapping, and drinking patterns among college students. Pschological Reports, 79, 783-786. Kieffer, S.C., Knee, C.R., Zuckerman, M. (1998). Consequences of self-handicapping: Effects on coping, academic performance, and adjustment. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 6, 1619-1628. Leary, M.R., Shepperd, J.A. (1986). Behavioral self-handicaps versus self-reported handicaps: A conceptual note. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 6, 1265-1268. Thompson, T. (1994). Self-worth protection: Review and implications for the classroom. Educational Review, 46, 259-275.

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Submitted 3/28/00 12:58:54 PM
Last Edited 3/28/00 2:09:07 PM
Converted to New Site 03/09/2009

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