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Fear of Failure

The latest research on fear of failure and procrastination.

It was an exciting day in our research group. Adam presented the preliminary analyses of his thesis data. His study provides some interesting insight into the relationship between fear of failure and procrastination.

Human motivation: Active engagement and psychological growth
Last fall, Adam McCaffrey set out an interesting project in which he would explore the relations between the need for autonomy, competence and relatedness (three fundamental human needs proposed by Edward Deci & Richard Ryan in their Self-Determination Theory) and procrastination (For another Don't Delay blog that draws on Self-Determination Theory and the need for human autonomy see "Where there's a will, there's a").

Self-Determination Theory (SDT) is a general theory of motivation and personality that evolved over three decades of research to explain the natural human tendencies toward active engagement and psychological growth. Their theory frames human behaviors as volitional or self-determined. They argue that we have a fundamental need that is basic to human motivation to engage in actions with a full sense of choice (an existential theme that I think it essential to overcoming procrastination).

Given that higher scores on a measure of self-determination reflect this strong volitional choice in action, Adam hypothesized that the higher an individual's scores on the measure of self-determination, the lower their procrastination.

Fear of Failure
In addition to this focus on Self-Determination Theory (SDT), Adam was interested in fear of failure - that irrational fear that we will not succeed. Of course, fear of failure is often discussed as a reason for procrastination, and we might expect a fear of this sort to undermine the sense of agency expressed in SDT. The measure of fear of failure that Adam used included a number of subscales that captured uncertainty about the future, upsetting important others, and devaluing one's sense of self.

In contrast to this sense of fear, Adam was also interested in the notion of "vitality" (perhaps because he's such an energetic and spirited man himself). Adam's measure of vitality consisted of items such as, "Sometimes I am so alive I just want to burst", "I have energy and spirit" and "I look forward to each new day."

Not surprisingly, he hypothesized that higher fear of failure scores would predict higher procrastination, whereas higher scores on a measure of personal vitality would predict lower procrastination.

To explore the relation among these variables, Adam collected data from a large sample of undergraduate students on our campus using an online survey. His results are so strong, he's going to continue collecting data so that we might use more sophisticated statistical modeling techniques to tease out the relations among the variables. For today, however, I can summarize the key findings.

What he found
As expected, scores on the measures of autonomy, competence, relatedness and vitality, were strongly related to lower scores on two different measures of procrastination. And, not surprisingly, higher scores on the fear of failure measure predicted higher scores on procrastination.

In other words, if you're feeling like your behaviours are self-determined and/or you feel "vital" - vigorous, lively, animated - you procrastinate less. These were very strong relations statistically. The smaller, yet still statistically significant relation was between fear of failure and procrastination. Higher fear of failure predicted more procrastination.

The important role of competence
The one interesting result I really want to focus on today is an analysis that involves three of these variables together in what is known as a mediational model. In this case, we examined what happens to the relation between fear of failure and procrastination when we statistically control for the effects of the measure of competence (the ability to learn new skills, feeling capable).

KEY FINDING: After we take into account the relation with competence, fear of failure no longer predicts procrastination!

What does this mean?
Although we might all have some fear about the future (feelings that are often related to avoidance goals), to the extent that we feel competent to engage in the tasks ahead of us, this fear of failure doesn't predict procrastination. We get on with our goal pursuit.

In a sense, these results echo one of my favorite expressions,

"I can have fear, but I need not be fear - if I am willing to stand someplace else in my inner landscape"
(Palmer, 1998; p. 57).

Given the results of Adam's research, I would argue that this alternative place within myself needs to be rooted in my sense of competence, not my sense of fear.

It isn't unusual for any of us to have fear. In fact, it can be considered part of the human condition). A key question in spite of this fear is, are we fulfilling our basic human needs, finding the ongoing nutriments and supports from the social environment in order to function effectively?

Adam's research, and I'm only touching on our early look at these data, indicates that developing and maintaining our sense of competence plays an essential role in our ability to pursue our goals effectively. In fact, to the extent that we feel competent, our fears of the potential for failure are not related to our procrastination.

Concluding comments
The question now is how do we foster that sense of competence in our lives that is so essential to our well-being? Competence, sometimes known as self-efficacy or our confidence in our ability, is built on earlier success. It is an upward spiral of confidence in our ability based on previous experience. It's also partly perception. When we recall the past, what do we recall? Where do we put our focus? Are we feeding our fears by remembering times when we did fail (because we all do at times), or are we optimistically and strategically focusing on our many successes to bolster our sense of competence? The choice is ours (ok, there are personality differences here, and we may discuss those at another time, but it is ultimately up to us).

As the image of the sign for this blog post said so clearly, "What would you attempt to do if you knew you could not fail?" The attempt is the "courage to be", and our well-being depends on our moving forward with this courage in our lives.


Deci, E. L., & Ryan, R. M. (1985). Intrinsic motivation and self-determination in human behavior. New York: Plenum.

Deci, E. L., & Ryan, R. M. (2000). The "what" and "why" of goal pursuits: Human needs and the self-determination of behavior. Psychological Inquiry, 11, 227-268.

Ryan, R. M., & Deci, E. L. (2000). Self-determination theory and the facilitation of intrinsic motivation, social development, and well-being. American Psychologist, 55, 68-78.

Palmer, P. (1998). The Courage to Teach: Exploring the inner landscape of the teacher's life. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

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