Family under the microscope – The problem of self-handicapping becomes a vicious circle

These are illustrations of a common problem that plagues families across the generations – self-handicapping: when a challenge arises, the person engages in a self-defeating action. It can apply to almost any domain, from domestic tasks to homework and sport. The tactic can be anything from procrastination to self-induced injury and rudeness.

Extensive research suggests that the handicapper creates an excuse for themselves when threatened with evaluation out of a fear of feeling like a failure, to protect their self-esteem. It can work two ways. If the person does badly, they blame it on the booze, the lack of exam preparation, the unfortunate injury. If the person does well, they say they would have done even better without the handicap. In the short-term, it allows them to sustain their belief that they had the capacity needed, whatever the outcome. They become addicted to a disastrous tendency to want to keep their true capability under wraps, untested by unhandicapped conditions.

But in the long-term it leads to decreased performance. Self-handicapping pupils do worse than non-handicappers in class and exams. They perform below the standard that their IQ scores would predict. And adults do worse in their careers than their true potential.

Studies of handicappers show they tend to believe their abilities in the fields where they handicap are fixed, usually by genes. The threat of a failure signals a potential lack of ability; a devastating message because they cannot remedy the deficit. Handicapping deflects the potentially negative feedback. But people who feel their capacities are not fixed can risk evaluation, confident that increased effort and better preparation will improve performance.

Allied to this, handicappers have been shown to have a history of not feeling confident that it was their volition that resulted in success in the field where they handicap. For example, a child who has been heavily pressurised or controlled by a parent in a skill is liable not to really feel it that was them who achieved the outcome. This means they feel safer handicapping when threatened by evaluation.

While parents or employers do give the handicapper the benefit of the doubt, it’s a short-term gain. For they also offer fiercer, more condemnatory feedback to handicappers – a vicious circle in which the more the person feels insecure and hides behind handicapping, the worse they do, and the more their abilities are criticised.

So, beware of seeing capacities as genetically inherited – it makes for fearfulness that your efforts can make no difference to outcomes. On top of this, as a parent, there is persuasive evidence that how you nurture skills affects whether offspring handicap.

Children of “authoritative” parents do so less – they are warm but also firm and monitor what is happening. Neglectful parents, who just leave the children to get on with it (often assuming it’s in the genes as to how things turn out) and display little warmth, are more liable to have children who are scared to be evaluated, and handicap in defence. Alternatively, permissive parents may be warm but they do not back this up with sufficient attention and monitoring to enable the child to succeed. They may be loving and tell the child it has high abilities, but without the necessary scaffolding of support, it leaves the child confused as to its real abilities.


Parenting, children’s academic performance and handicapping: Boon, HJ, 2007, Australian Psychologist, 42, 212–225. More Oliver James