“If I create an obstacle for myself before performing a difficult task, I will win regardless of whether I fail or succeed.”
Self-handicapping is an unconscious strategy used to protect oneself or to improve one’s self-esteem. It can take two forms, being either claimed or behavioral . Claimed self-handicapping consists of verbally expressing the presence of an obstacle before performing a specific task. Behavioral self-handicapping is the action of actually creating an obstacle before starting a task, thereby hindering one's own success.  These strategies make one feel secure because no matter the outcome, one wins. On the one hand, by unconsciously attributing the cause of failure to the obstacle claimed or created, we can relieve ourselves of responsibility. On the other hand, in case of success, we can congratulate ourselves since we can attribute our success to our skills despite the claimed or created difficulty . This bias has been found to be present in the general population, but is especially prevalent in people with low self-esteem .
During his last physical education class of the year, a high school student must run three kilometers. However, he believes that he is not very good at running and he does not have confidence in his success, which makes him very anxious. Thus, in order to protect his self-esteem, the student mentions to the other students, before starting, that he may not be able to finish the race because he did not have breakfast that morning.
This bias is thought to be mainly caused by low self-esteem. In a situation where the results are uncertain, the possibility of failure can seem threatening, which can lead to a need to protect one's self-esteem. Thus, some people unconsciously use self-handicapping as a protective strategy, offering them a quick and easy way out. By putting forward an obstacle, the person justifies their possibly unsatisfactory performance other than by deficiencies in their personal skills.
However, by avoiding exposure to the anxiety generated by the possibility of failure, the person runs the risk of finding themselves in a vicious circle. The obstacle put forward makes it possible to avoid the fear of failing or of being judged, but it does not allow the individual to go beyond this anxiety. Thus, the person becomes more likely to use self-handicapping in the next anxiety-provoking situation. A person who does not self-handicap develops a better understanding of their failures and successes by taking responsibility and credit for them, which allows them to be more confident of their future performance. Thus, the person who regularly resorts to self-handicapping will not feel confidence in their abilities, which further lowers self-esteem .
Self-handicapping may allow the immediate avoidance of a threat to self-esteem, but in the long term, it turns out to be negative. Repeated use of self-handicapping is detrimental to potential improvement, because it does not allow adaptation to the threatening situation, which leads to multiple failures and thus, a negative self-view sets in [1, 4]. Noticing the many obstacles frequently put forward by the person, their peers may develop a more negative view of their abilities and general characteristics. Over time, the person becomes somehow attached to their handicap, because they no longer know how to distinguish between the obstacle they put forward and their real personal characteristics [3, 4]. Consequently, these repeated failures can lead to a whole range of avoidance strategies and to concrete impacts, such as a higher level of anxiety, a constant negative mood, poorer academic performance, and a drop in motivation . Thus, a reduction in well-being and a deterioration in self-esteem impact the person in several spheres of their life, which only intensifies the use of self-handicap to protect themselves .
Thoughts on how to act in light of this bias
Work on one’s self-esteem, trying to distinguish between successes, failures and skills in a specific area and one’s overall personal value. This can help us to understand that our skills in a particular situation do not define our value as an individual and that we all have our strengths and weaknesses .
Participate in a program supervised by a professional such as a psychologist in order to reach our potential for success and thereafter internalize our successes .
How is this bias measured?
The most widely used tool to measure self-handicapping is the Self-Handicap Scale developed by Jones and Rhodewalt . This is a questionnaire containing 25 statements which measure a wide variety of self-handicap behaviors. The individual must rate the extent to which they exhibit a behavior presented in the form of a statement such as “I tend to put things off until the last minute”. The higher a person scores on this scale, the more the person tends to use self-handicapping in a situation that poses a threat to self-esteem. This scale makes it possible to identify the existence of this bias in an individual .
This bias is discussed in the scientific literature:
This bias has social or individual repercussions:
This bias is empirically demonstrated:
 Zuckerman, Miron, Suzanne C. Kieffer, & C. Raymond Knee (1998). Consequences of self-handicapping: Effects on coping, academic performance, and adjustment. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 74(6): 1619-1628.
 Thompson, Ted, & Anna Richardson (2001). Self-handicapping status, claimed self-handicaps and reduced practice effort following success and failure feedback. British Journal of Educational Psychology 71(1): 151-170.
 Finez, Lucie, & David K. Sherman (2012). Train in vain: the role of the self in claimed self-handicapping strategies. J Sport Exerc Psychol 34(5): 600-620.
 Zuckerman, Miron, & Fen-Fang, Tsai (2005). Costs of self-handicapping. Journal of Personality 73(2): 411-442.
Interpersonal level, Need for self-esteem
Marika Limoges, Bachelor’s student in psychology, Université de Montréal. Translated by Susan D. Renaud.
How to cite this entry
Limoges, M. (2022). Self-handicapping bias, trans. S. D. Renaud. In G. Béghin, E. Gagnon-St-Pierre, C. Gratton, & E. Muszynski (Eds). Shortcuts: A handy guide to cognitive biases Vol. 5. Online: www.shortcogs.com
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