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Delay as a Self-handicapping Strategy

Put it off, pull it off, looks good on yah!

"Do people always want to know precisely who they are and exactly what they are capable of accomplishing at their best? We doubt it . . ."

The opening quote is taken from a study published by Edward Jones (New York Times obituary) & Steven Berglas (1978, p. 200). Usually, I'm summarizing very recent publications. This paper is 30 years old, short and insightful. It set the stage for a great deal of subsequent research.

Interestingly, Jones and Berglas begin their article, "Control of attributions about the self through self-handicapping strategies: The appeal of alcohol and the role of underachievement" by challenging the notion that we always want to know precisely who we are and what we're capable of accomplishing. In fact, as quoted above, they say, "we doubt it." They argue that we have a "need for certain kinds of ambiguity to allow room for self-sustaining and self-embellishing fantasies" (p. 200). Unfortunately, these self-embellishing fantasies get us into trouble with procrastination in particular.

What is self-handicapping?
Although their focus was specifically on alcohol use, Jones and Berglas set the foundation for the concept of self-handicapping. They argued that some people turn to alcohol to avoid the implications of negative feedback for failure and to enhance the impact of positive feedback for success. This is based, they note, on the public assumption that alcohol generally interferes with or disrupts performance. This assumption, "paves the way for what we shall call self-handicapping strategies."

"By finding or creating impediments that make good performance less likely, the strategist nicely protects his [or her] sense of self-competence" (p. 201).

In sum, if you self-handicap (with alcohol or any other strategy known to undermine performance - ah, yes, procrastination) and you fail, you protect your sense of competence, because you can externalize the blame to the alcohol or procrastination (on the college campus, it could well be both!).

As well, if you self-handicap and succeed, you have succeeded in spite of less than optimum conditions, enhancing the internal attributions for success and boosting self-competence (actually, not really, as you're well aware of the self-deception and even uncertain of how you managed to pull it off, and research has indicated that this self-doubt just serves to set up more self-handicapping in the future - you just may find, you can't pull it off again and you're not so smart or competent, and you won't risk that!).

The thing is, irrespective of the outcome, it would seem that the self-handicapper can't lose - "at least in those settings where the attributional implications of performance are more important than the success of the performance itself" (Jones & Berglas, 1978; p. 201) - and there's the rub! We'll come back to this problem later, as it smacks of the self-deception I have written about before in terms of procrastination. It is in effect "living in bad faith," and Jones & Berglas provide plenty of examples from sports through to mental illness of how even illness becomes a "cover story" for our potential failures.

Self-handicapping and Procrastination
Since the publication of this article by Jones and Berglas, there have been many studies focused on self-handicapping, including self-handicapping and procrastination specifically. In fact, there have been two doctoral dissertations (Joe Ferrari, 1990 and Cheryl Meyer, 1991) and about 20 research articles that address the relation between procrastination and self-handicapping over the past 20 years. My focus today is on the work of Joseph Ferrari, and the most recent publication he has on the topic with Dianne Tice, as well as the work of Dr. Clarry Lay (retired, York University, Toronto). Ferrari and Lay in particular have laid a foundation of research related to procrastination, and Joe Ferrari has simply been prolific. He has numerous studies published on self-handicapping and procrastination alone, as well as many others on various other aspects of procrastination. I'll certainly return to his research over and over again in blogs to come.

So what do we know about self-handicapping and procrastination specifically?
Wendelien van Eerde's meta-analysis of procrastination research provides the broadest overview of the relation between self-handicapping and procrastination, as she reports that across all of the studies there is an average correlation of 0.46 between measures of these two variables. They are strongly related. In order to understand the nature of this relation, we need to look at some of the research that has been done, particularly experimental work. Although they are highly related, these are not the same thing. Clarry Lay's research in particular makes this clear.

Research Summary - 4 Studies
Ferrari & Tice (2000) conducted two studies with an experimental design to empirically demonstrate many of the things that Jones and Berglas set out in their original theory. Specifically, Ferrari and Tice found that people who scored high on a measure of chronic procrastination were more likely than others to self-handicap by procrastinating, and chronic procrastinators engaged in procrastination only when the task at hand was evaluative and potentially threatening.

Clarry Lay, Steven Knish and Rita Zanatta approached the relation of procrastination and self-handicapping by noting that the self-handicapping of procrastinators with temporal delay may be seen as a subset of self-handicapping overall. That is, a trait self-handicapper may use a wide range of behaviors strategically to protect self-esteem, whereas the procrastinator may be limited to temporal delay (and not always with the motive of protecting self-esteem). They conducted two studies using high school students: one in the classroom during class time, and the other outside of class during a 5-day period prior to an anticipated intelligence test. In both cases, the students were to practice for the test. To heighten the potential for failure, Lay and his colleagues also manipulated the level of difficulty of the practice questions, assuming that the students who got the difficult as opposed to the easy practice questions would expect failure prompting more self-protective handicapping. Finally, they also assessed the students' perceived task ability as this was expected to affect test preparation (i.e., self-handicappers who perceived themselves as less than competent would anticipate poorer performance and my increase their self-handicapping behavior).

Interestingly, Lay and his colleagues used a similar approach as Ferrari and Tice in the design. In Study 1, they asked participants to use the available time to practice for the upcoming test, but they also provided an irrelevant task as an option. And, similar to Ferrari and Tice, Lay explained that practice made a difference on performance for this test, which was a test that reflected ability. The difference in Study 2 is that the participants didn't just use the 40 minutes of class time. They had 5 days for independent work at home, and they were instructed to indicate when and how much they practiced, if at all, on each day.

The results of Study 1 clearly delineated between procrastination and self-handicapping. High trait self-handicappers practiced less, however trait procrastinators did not self-handicap through reduced effort or practice. The results of Study 2 were more complex. I've listed the main findings below.

  1. Participants with greater ability started practice earlier and practiced on more days than participants with less ability.
  2. Both high self-handicappers and high procrastinators reported starting practice later than participants who scored low on these measures, respectively.
  3. Participants with the more difficult practice items answered and worked on fewer items in the actual test and guessed at more items.
  4. As predicted, there were some interactions among the variables. Procrastinators with the difficult practice items reported a sharp increase in time spent preparing when they had high task ability.

Interestingly, although both self-handicappers and procrastinators delayed the practice, Lay and his colleagues still argue that behavioral delay may have served different functions for each group. They write, "Such behavior may have been a self-handicapping strategy for traits self-handicappers and a means of avoiding a task deemed aversive for trait procrastinators" (p. 254).

In sum, they believe that their results underscore the fact that chronic procrastinators may not share the self-handicapper's motives in all cases. Whereas procrastination may be a self-handicapping strategy, it is not always serving this motive. Procrastinators may be simply avoiding an aversive task, for example, not protecting self. This is an important distinction that deserves further research.

Implications of the relationship between self-handicapping and procrastination?
To the extent that procrastinators may be delaying tasks unnecessarily in order to build in an external excuse for failure, Ferrari and Tice argue that it may be possible to reduce task avoidance for chronic procrastinators by reducing the perceived threat of the task. This would involve re-labeling the task at hand to be less threatening; something that "low procrastinators" may already be very good at. For example, Ferrari and Tice note that "It is also possible that one reason nonprocrastinators do not avoid working on an unpleasant or evaluative task is that they are better than procrastinators at making a game out of the task or relabeling the task in a less threatening manner" (p. 80).

I know from studies that my students and I have conducted on psychological "hardiness" (see The Hardiness Institute for details), that research participants who scored higher on a measure of hardiness scored significantly lower on procrastination. This may well be because one attribute of hardy individuals is that they see potentially stressful situations as a challenge not a threat. We'll return to this concept in a later blog.

Alternatively, given Lay and colleagues' results, a focus on ensuring that we build our ability and self-efficacy for the tasks at hand will reduce our procrastination and our tendency to delay to protect self-esteem. Certainly, other research indicating that uncertainty about what to do is highly correlated with procrastination underscores the important role ability and self-efficacy play in procrastination.

Concluding thoughts . . .
Taken together, what the research indicates is that in an effort to protect our self-esteem, we may engage in deception of both others and self. We will manage our self-presentation by finding impediments to our performance to avoid facing feedback that we know can only be based on our competence. This self-handicapping strategy may well be at the heart of procrastination for many people.

Of course, this self-deception is yet another example of how procrastination is a deeply existential issue in terms of not facing life with the courage to choose. The self-deception of self-handicapping is terribly problematic in most situations because, as Jones and Berglas noted, self-handicapping is only offers a strategic advantage "in those settings where the attributional implications of performance are more important than the success of the performance itself" (Jones & Berglas, 1978; p. 201). Unfortunately, many times when we self-handicap to avoid self-evaluative feedback, the success of the performance really does matter. I know this, because I have received emails from people for over 15 years that document how their procrastination continues to undermine their success.

Food for thought the next time we're needlessly delaying a task. It's time for some honest self reflection with the question, "Am I doing this to build in an excuse for potential failure?" If there is any hint that the answer might be yes, you know what to do next. Just get started!


Jones, E.E., & Berglas, S. (1978). Control of attributions about the self through self-handicapping strategies: The appeal of alcohol and the role of under achievement. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 4, 200-206.

Ferrari, J.R., & Tice, D.M. (2000). Procrastination as a self-handicap for men and women: A task-avoidance strategy in a laboratory setting. Journal of Research in Personality, 34, 73-83.

Lay, C.H., Knish, S., & Zanatta, R. (1992). Self-handicappers and procrastinators: A comparison of their practice behavior prior to an evaluation. Journal of Research in Personality, 26, 242-257.

Van Eerde, W. (2003). A meta-analytically derived nomological network of procrastination. Personality and Individual Differences, 35, 1401-1418.

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