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Why do we self-sabotage our success?

Rodolfo Mendoza-Denton, professor of psychology | April 14, 2011

One of my students reached out to me after lecture the other day. He noticed that I was low on energy, even a bit down.  I had been trying to hide it, but was truly disappointed that attendance in the class was so low that day. We were covering one of the central topics of the course– stereotype threat— and I had been preparing the students precisely for this topic through a series of prior lessons on perspective taking and cultural relativism. I felt that I had missed the chance to tie the strands of the course together for a whole swath of the class.

It was a beautiful, sunny afternoon, the student reminded me. Spring is in the air. But I couldn’t help seeing this as part of a larger trend. Attendance in discussion sections has been low, and I’ve been receiving e-mail from students asking me details on things I’ve mentioned several times in lecture.

Every class and every instructor confronts attendance and motivation issues; my class is not unique. However, I have been having a parallel conversation with this particular class about how to think about their performance and ability. This blog post outlines that conversation, which emphasizes the importance of focusing on adopting an incremental rather than a fixed view of ability and intelligence. To summarize: believing that your ability is fixed is great when the course material is easy (“I’m brilliant!”), but puts students at risk for disengagement when the material is hard and when one doesn’t do well (“I suck; why come to class anyway?”). By contrast, if you believe your ability is something to nurture and grow, those same academic challenges become indicators of growth and development.

Accordingly, I set up the course to encourage an incremental mindset– the students’ best midterm counts more heavily, and section attendance counts towards the students’ final grade (to reward a view that success is built on small, incremental steps). Yet many students are still falling behind on the reading, not coming to section, and not coming to lecture.


As I thought about the poorly attended lecture on the ride home, I realized something. I have been expecting that the incremental message should be enough to motivate my students to do the little, doable things, like coming to class or section, that slowly build up to success. And it dawned on me that it the issue here may not be that the students haven’t been listening to the message about incremental learning, but rather, that they’ve been listening closely.

You see, when the going gets tough– you get a deflating midterm score, or you fall behind on the reading, or your work piles up– saying to yourself “I suck at this” may not be great for further learning, but it sure can protect your self-esteem. By invoking an inherent lack of ability, you reduce your personal responsibility in the negative outcome, since you couldn’t have done anything about it anyway. In other words, a fixed-ability mindset absolves you, and you don’t have to think about what you did (or didn’t do!) to contribute to that bad outcome. And while an incremental mindset can remind you that negative outcomes are indicators of the areas you need to improve on, this mindset rests on the assumption that the change is essentially up to you. This can be scary, because if outcomes are up to you, and you still do badly, it’s not going to feel good. 

So what do you do in this situation? You find ways to convince yourself that you couldn’t come to class, or just couldn’t come to section, or fell behind for any number of other reasons. Life, after all, gets in the way.

A recent study by Niiya, Brook, and Crocker, published in 2010 in the journal Self and Identity, makes exactly this point. These researchers identified study participants whose self-esteem was tied to getting good grades — in other words, people who were invested in doing well academically. Within this group, some people believed that ability is fixed (the entity theorists) and others believed that ability is nurtured through effort (the incremental theorists). The participants believed they would complete a difficult SAT-like test while listening to music, and everyone was given the option to choose from a set of CD’s. Some CD’s were labeled as performance detractors, and others were labeled as performance enhancers.

The study ended before any test was given: the interest of the researchers was actually in seeing which CD’s the participants chose. Surprisingly, the incremental theorists who really cared about doing well willingly chose the music CD that was labeled as most detracting to their performance! Why? If, indeed, the incremental theorists did poorly, they would be able to protect their self-esteem by blaming it on the detracting music. In a second study that did not involve music, it was again those participants whose self-esteem was tied to doing well and who were incremental theorists who ended up self-handicapping– they willinglly chose to skip practice questions before a difficult test.

These findings show us that even when we believe that our abilities are the result of our effort- a mindset I have urged my students to adopt– we are not out of the woods when it comes to academic motivation. The knowledge that our effort (as opposed to our genetics) is tied to our abilities can be threatening precisely because it’s in our hands, and incredibly, puts us at risk for self-sabotaging our own success to protect ourselves– just in case our efforts are not enough.

I’m keenly aware that the more popular blogs on this site are the ones that offer straight-up advice– How To Overcome Self-Sabotage, or How to Succeed at Difficult Tasks. I don’t have a simple solution for this one– when tasks are difficult, having an entity theory can be demotivating, but having an incremental theory can instead be threatening. I can only hope that the insight that incremental theories can sometimes be linked to self-handicapping will lead us to be on the lookout in our own behaviors, and that this introspection will itself be a protective factor.

In the meantime, though, how DO you overcome self-sabotage? For starters, try the little, doable things that slowly build up to success. Some examples:  Set a small weight-loss goal. Write 400 words. Go to class.

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Cross-posted from Psychology Today; Copyright 2011 Rodolfo Mendoza-Denton. All rights reserved.