Fear of Failure and Self-sabotage, Self-handicapping and Self-deception

Fear of Failure and Self-sabotage, Self-handicapping and Self-deception

self-deceeption self-handicapping self-sabotage

Many people engage in self sabotage where they think, act and behave in ways that reduce their effectiveness or even sabotage their own success. Sometimes this is unconscious and sometimes is purposeful. Examples include students who party the night before an exam, professionals who watch a box set on TV or surf the internet, rather than preparing for a critical client meeting, bingeing on chocolate in the midst of a diet and so on.


Self-handicapping are proactive strategies and behaviours to both externalise failure (for example, explaining why something wasn’t achieved “I failed because I was ill with the stress of it all”) and to internalise success (for example, “I must be smart, because I managed this with little preparation”.

Such cases of self-handicapping or self-sabotage are common and are largely considered to be a result of robust self-deception often aimed at self-esteem regulation.

Self-handicapping has been found to occur more frequently when the individual has less self-concept clarity. Self-concept clarity refers to how stable and consistent an individual’s knowledge and evaluation of themselves is. People with less self-concept clarity also tend to have lower levels of self-esteem.

Self-handicapping is a form of self-defeating and self-destructive thinking and behaviours. It was discovered in the 1920s and later in the 1960s that some trauma and post-traumatic symptoms disorder (PTSD) patients actively tried to recreate traumatic experiences, and others were found to create imaginary traumatic past and histories to explain their lack of progress or lack of success.


Self-handicapping can be:

Self-handicapping can be:

  1. Self-directed or
  2. Other-directed

Other-directed self-handicapping as a form of deception occurs where the individual either consciously or unconsciously manipulates the information given to others. For example, using a form of words to create the impression that one has done something (for example a body of work, or being a veteran) that is not in fact wholly true. This is a form of impression management and is usually small scale conducted during job interviews or a first date, for example.


Self-directed deceptions, however, are of a different nature and, when conducted to induce self-handicapping, are done to regulate their own self-esteem whilst reducing their effectiveness as part of the process. Self-deception is a common feature of self-handicapping and is used to make the handicapping behaviour more rational and convincing and to provide an external reason for failure that is not due to a choice, motivational issue or laziness, but rather because of some factor outside their direct control.

An experiment in self-sabotage

A classic experiment conducted in the 1970s illustrates this effect. Researchers Steven Berglas from Harvard Medical School and Edward Jones from Princeton University told participants that they were going to have two examinations to measure intelligence.

In the first exam half of the participants were presented with problems that were not solvable and the others were given challenging but solvable problems that were designed to be difficult but still make sure that they got relatively high scores.

At the end of the first test each participant was asked to rate how well they think they did. As expected, the participants who had the unsolvable problems rated their performance lower than the group with solvable problems.

Regardless of which condition the individuals were in, all the participants were told that their score was one of the best they had ever seen.

Given the fact that half of the participants were unable to solve the problems on their test, those that had the unsolvable problems experienced some doubt about their final scores on the first test. This induced a lack of confidence in most of the participants who got the unsolvable questions.

Before the second test, all the participants were told that in this exam they would be penalised for wrong answers but would not be penalised if they passed on a question.

Additionally, just before the second exam commenced the participants were offered the choice of two drugs, one that would improve performance (Actavil) and one that would impair performance (Pandocrin) or they could choose no drug at all and that their choice would be private.

70% of the participants who had the unsolvable problems in round one opted to take Pandocrin and only 13% of those who had the solvable problems did likewise. This is a clear case of self-handicapping. The experiment showed that people with higher self-doubt tended to seek an external source of blame in a situation they expected would show poor results. In effect, this allowed the participants to still maintain a positive self-belief (self-directed), whilst undergoing something they expected to fail at whilst also having a ready explanation to others as to why they failed (others-directed).
When asked why they opted for Pandocrin the participants who took it said they were trying to help the researchers.


A new study

A new study by researchers at the University of Arkansas in the US has looked at the role of self-deception in self-handicapping.


The researchers found that:

  1. There are five conditions which lead to self-handicapping:
    1. An evaluation by the individual that they possess a trait that is important to their sense of identity and self-concept.
    2. That the individual is unclear or uncertain that the trait is a robust and solid enough part of their make-up.
    3. That a situation exists that is likely to test that trait and make it obvious that the trait exists or doesn’t exist, for example intelligence.
    4. Some form of impediment or obstacle is manufactured that will prevent or reduce success in that situation.
    5. The individual knows that the impediment or obstacle will explain the failure and provide an external excuse for failure.
  2. Self-handicapping is a proactive means of regulating beliefs, particularly in what can and can’t be done and thus removing the burden of high levels of effort whist protect the self-concept and identity.
  3. Self-handicapping both leads to robust self-deception that is stable and long-term and is a direct result of self-deception.
  4. Self-deception is not accidental, but purposeful and strategic.
  5. The constructed impediments or obstacles are plausible and they excuse failure.
  6. Self-handicapping takes effort.
  7. Self-handicappers actively engage in layers of conscious and unconscious forms of self-deception and truth suppression:
    1. Their knowledge of the trait vulnerability tends to be unconscious or suppressed.
    2. The knowledge that they are constructing an obstacle or impediment tends also to be unconscious or suppressed.
    3. They also tend to deceive themselves that the obstacle or impediment they are creating is an excuse for failure.
    4. Pretending not to know what it takes to succeed. A lack of knowledge of what to do or how to do it is another typical form of self-deception engaged in by self-handicappers.
    5. They tend to avoid evidence that highlights their self-deception and thus stay away from anything that will confront the fact they are making excuses for failure.
    6. Self-handicappers usually have an excuse for their excuses. The reason for this is because of something else. I took Pandocrin to help the researchers, rather than the real reason, to avoid the impact of a potential failure.
  8. Self-handicapping results in the maintenance or enhancement of self-esteem and belief in self-competency or avoids the belief of incompetency.
  9. Self-handicapping and self-deception stem from a series of sensitivities. Sensitivity to:
    1. The importance of a trait and achievement
    2. The situation and its potential for failure
    3. Identity and sense of self
    4. The need for an excuse
    5. The nature of the excuse of obstacle
    6. The plausibility of the excuse

We are not victims, but willing participants in our self-limiting actions, beliefs and behaviour.

Primary reference

Eric Funkhouser & Kyle Hallam (2022): Self-handicapping and self-deception:
A two-way street, Philosophical Psychology, DOI: 10.1080/09515089.2022.2055915

New Research about Self-deception in Organisations


Disclaimer: This is a research review, expert interpretation and briefing. As such it contains other studies, expert comment and practitioner advice. It is not a copy of the original study – which is referenced. The original study should be consulted and referenced in all cases. This research briefing is for informational and educational purposes only. We do not accept any liability for the use to which this review and briefing is put or for it or the research accuracy, reliability or validity. This briefing as an original work in its own right and is copyright © Oxcognita LLC 2024. Any use made of this briefing is entirely at your own risk.

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