School & District Management

Studies Illuminate Self-Defeating Behavior By Students

By Debra Viadero — March 26, 2003 6 min read
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Almost every teacher has come across this kind of student. It might be the boy in the back of the room who always puts off his work until the last minute, the girl who’s always getting distracted by friends, or the teenager who crams so many activities into the day that there is no time left to study.

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It’s almost as if, teachers have thought, these students were setting themselves up to fail.

In a way, they are, according to a growing number of psychologists who specialize in studying motivation. Some students who purposely goof off or procrastinate may be engaging in what researchers call “self-handicapping” behaviors. That is, they go to great lengths to avoid looking “stupid” in front of teachers or classmates—even if it means undermining themselves in the process.

“For these individuals, how others perceive them is more important to them than what they do for themselves,” said Tim C. Urdan, an associate professor of psychology at Santa Clara University, in Santa Clara, Calif. “They think, ‘If I can engage in some behavior that sort of dupes other people, then those other people can think, well, he’s not dumb, he’s just really busy or whatever.’”

Researchers have been describing such behaviors in the psychological literature since the late 1960s, according to Martin Covington, one of the pioneer authorities on the subject. Much of that earlier research, however, was conducted in laboratory settings with college students and other adults.

Over the past decade or so, researchers began to move some of those studies into K-12 classrooms. What they are finding is that self-handicapping behaviors are more than just personality traits. They may have as much to do with the social and learning climate that teachers create in their classrooms, in fact, as they do with the inner psychological workings of students themselves.

“Kids don’t choose to use avoidance behaviors unless they have a reason for doing so,” said Julianne C. Turner, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Notre Dame, in South Bend, Ind. “We put such emphasis in schools on looking smart, and nobody wants to look dumb.”

Changing the Culture

Ms. Turner and other researchers have found that, in classrooms where teachers grade on a bell curve, emphasize getting the right answer, or publicly display students’ grades, students seem to employ self-handicapping strategies more frequently.

Such behaviors seem to occur less often, in comparison, when the classroom focus is on understanding and mastering the material being taught—rather than just getting the right answer—and teachers encourage children to take risks and view mistakes as part of learning.

As part of her study, which was published in March 2002 in the Journal of Educational Psychology, Ms. Turner and her colleagues surveyed 1,092 6th graders in three Midwestern states and audiotaped lessons in their mathematics classes. They found that students procrastinated less, sought help more often, tried harder, and were more disposed to tackle unfamiliar kinds of assignments in classes where the patterns of instruction and teacher talk were more consistent with a “mastery” learning approach.

“And it’s not all about praise, either,” added Ms. Turner. “It’s about encouraging kids to persist, telling them it’s OK if they don’t understand the first time, and encouraging them to help each other. It’s more subtle and targeted than praise.”

Understanding vs. Achievement

Mr. Urdan, in his own research with the late Carol Midgley, came to similar conclusions using different yardsticks to measure the degree to which teachers emphasized achievement or understanding.

He found that, regardless of whether the data come from teachers’ reports of classroom practices or from students’ perceptions of what those classroom environments are like, self-handicapping behaviors occur less often when the focus is on improving and understanding, rather than on achieving.

That seems to be true, the studies have found so far, with girls as well as with boys. A handful of studies suggest, though, that women and girls may self-handicap a little less often than their male peers.

Researchers have documented self-defeating behaviors in students from as early as 5th grade, though middle school seems to be a prime time for the behaviors to take hold.

According to Mr. Covington, who is a psychology professor at the University of California, Berkeley, surveys also suggest that as many as 90 percent of college students admit to resorting to self-handicapping strategies at one time or another—going out partying, for example, the night before an exam, or oversleeping on exam day.

“In one form or another, these kinds of excuses tend to begin fairly early and increase as a child begins to see his sense of worth or self-value get tied up in grades,” he said. “They might get better at it as they get older.”

Mr. Covington, the recipient of a teaching award at Berkeley, has reorganized his own classes to be less achievement-focused. Students get points, for example, when they take an assignment they consider boring and turn it into something that is more relevant to their own learning needs. They also sign contracts pledging to take more responsibility for their own learning.

But other researchers suggest that advocating wholesale changes in the grade-oriented world of today’s classrooms may be impractical.

“It’s a pipe dream to think that education wouldn’t be performance-based,” said Steven Berglas, a psychology professor at the University of Southern California, in Los Angeles, and one of the first researchers to identify the phenomenon. “I just don’t think students would buy it.”

Nonetheless, psychologists’ explanations for why students create these kinds of built-in excuses for failure ring true to some teachers.

One is Daphne Gregory, a Millburn, N.J., high school teacher who works with students who are at risk of failing or have learning or emotional disabilities. She sees self-handicapping behaviors in her students on a daily basis.

Research suggests, in fact, that low-achieving students—such as those Ms. Gregory encounters—are more likely than others to resort to such strategies.

Ms. Gregory would expand the experts’ lists to include drug and alcohol abuse, sleeping through class, acting out in class, and even dressing outrageously.

“Kids who dress that way think people will look at them and say, ‘Well, he’s a weirdo, anyway,’ and not expect them to do well,” she said. “It’s our job as teachers to help them understand that they aren’t stupid, that taking risks is a wonderful thing, and it’s good to make a mistake.”

Classroom Climate

Researchers speculate, however, that the attitude of teachers such as Ms. Gregory may be atypical—especially with the advent of the “No Child Left Behind Act” of 2001, the federal law that dictates an even greater reliance on standardized testing and student performance throughout precollegiate schooling.

“I think teachers recognize the symptoms immediately,” said Mr. Urdan. “I don’t think it’s as easy to identify how my grading practices might influence self-handicapping behaviors.”

That may be especially difficult because researchers themselves have yet to hit on a tried-and-true model for eliminating self-handicapping behaviors in class. Still, they are convinced that changing the learning climate will be an important part of the solution.

“I think we need to be in more classrooms,” Ms. Turner of the University of Notre Dame said of researchers on the subject. “We’ve uncovered a couple of positive patterns in teacher discourse, and I think there are probably more patterns out there.”

Coverage of research is underwritten in part by a grant from the Spencer Foundation.

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