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It’s pretty common to procrastinate before a big exam or an important presentation, and those self-handicapping has to do with protecting yourself from negative feelings.

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[♪ INTRO ].

Let’s say you’ve got a big test tomorrow, and it’s a big chunk of your final grade. So what should you do?

Study? Or… binge watch some Netflix? Procrastination, getting a hangover, or putting on music so loud that it’s hard to concentrate — those all seem like pretty solid ways to sabotage your success.

So psychologists consider them forms of self-handicapping. Now, self-handicapping seems like a pretty bad idea… but we still do it anyway. And that could be because it’s a handy excuse if things don’t go so well, so you can blame something other than you, and your own skills.

Self-handicapping is fairly common, though some of us do it more than others. And research has defined two types. There’s behavioral self-handicapping, when you actively do things like go out to a party, or don’t do things like study, which hurt your chances of success.

Or there’s claimed self-handicapping, like saying you’re tired, anxious, or sick. These are reports of something that happened or how you’re feeling not your best. Self-handicapping doesn’t just apply to tests at school, either.

It can pop up anytime your performance is evaluated, whether it’s sports, work, or uploading a YouTube video, or coming up with funny captions when you’re playing Jackbox. Games and trying to impress your friends. Most scientists think self-handicapping has to do with protecting yourself from negative things.

It’s basically an excuse so you don’t feel bad about yourself or so other people don’t think badly of your performance. For example, one study by researchers at the University of Wisconsin — Madison in 1996 had 135 male undergraduates play a pinball game. Before coming to the study, they had filled out a survey about their habits, so researchers knew if they tended to be high or low self-handicappers.

For instance, if you agree with statements like “When I do something wrong, my first impulse is to blame the circumstances” and “I would do a lot better if I tried harder,” you might be higher on that scale. At the study, some participants were told that they’d be competing against another person in another room for the highest score. Others were not.

Then, they were all given a chance to practice a helpful reaction time task before playing pinball. As expected, high self-handicappers practiced less than low self-handicappers overall. But of the high self-handicappers who thought they were competing and therefore being evaluated, the folks who didn’t practice very much had the most fun.

They also rated their own abilities higher. So behavioral self-handicapping seemed to let them blame any mistakes on not practicing, rather than their actual abilities. They could hold on to some sort of “I’m not terrible at the pinball, like, I still am variable!" feeling.

This logic makes sense in a lot of situations. Like, it’s harder to handle a bad score on a math test when you tried really hard, than if you watched a whole season of RuPaul’s Drag Race the night before. You might regret staying up so late, but at least you can still feel like you’re okay at math.

And psychologists have found how you feel matters a lot when it comes to self-handicapping. For instance, if you feel positively about yourself, being evaluated might not be so threatening. But people with lower self-esteem are more likely to self-handicap, both behavioral and claimed.

The same goes for people who are low in self-efficacy — the belief that you can do a task well — and people who are lower in self-compassion — treating yourself with kindness when faced with difficulties, and accepting your mistakes. You might also have a certain time of day when you tend to be at your best. Like, your biological clock might make you more of an early bird or a night owl.

Turns out, you’re more likely to behaviorally self-handicap at your peak time. Which kind of makes sense, since if you’re a night person and have an 8am exam, you’ve already got a built-in excuse. But all this talk about excuses makes self-handicapping sound like, definitely a bad thing.

And some research has found that we tend to negatively judge people who claim self-handicaps, though it does depend on the excuse. For instance, one 1995 experiment at the University of Utah had undergrads write funny cartoon captions and rate each other. And saying you just didn’t try very hard was worse than saying that cough medicine made you tired.

So can you do anything to stop self-handicapping? The good news is yes, probably, though more research needs to be done because it’s a complicated thing. A set of 3 studies in 2011 looked at German students who self-reported goals.

And those researchers found that you can sort of protect against self-handicapping if you focus on mastering a skill, rather than on achievement, like getting good grades. So basically, just do things the exact opposite of how the education system is set up. When you focus on learning, getting something wrong isn’t such a big deal, because it’s normal to make mistakes.

And self-affirmation might also help. Thinking about something that matters to you, or how you’ve done well at something else in the past, can help you feel better and not self-handicap as much. So just looking in the mirror and say, Hank, your eyebrows look great.

For example, one 2005 study at Rutgers University had students do a Business Aptitude Test. Doing a self-affirmation by writing about something important to them, like social issues or economics, reduced self-handicapping. So self-handicapping is common and maybe not a completely bad thing, but it can definitely make it harder to do your best.

But there are also a bunch of ways to work on feeling good about yourself, instead of binging shows on Netflix. Thanks for watching this episode of SciShow Psych; we think you’re great! In fact, this channel couldn’t exist without you watching, or without our patrons on Patreon!

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So don’t be like “Hey you have this problem, check it out!” Unless, you are very close friends. [♪ OUTRO ].