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New Research on How to Overcome Setbacks

After a failure, a focus on external causes may protect self-efficacy.

Key points

  • People are often not fully aware of the causes of setbacks. They tend to attribute a failure to internal causes while ignoring external ones.
  • Attributing setbacks to stable, internal factors beyond one’s control can make future failures more likely. This is called the setback effect.
  • Research suggests that a mindset shift to focus on external causes of a failure can prevent the setback effect.
Source: JerzyGorecki/Pixabay

A setback is an occurrence that delays, prevents, or even reverses progress.

Some examples of self-regulation setbacks (i.e. lapses in self-control and self-discipline) are: cheating on a diet, purchasing non-essential items when on a budget, and watching TV or playing computer games when one should be studying.

Because setbacks are common, what differentiates successful from unsuccessful people is not whether they have ever experienced a failure. The differentiating factor is, instead, how they have responded—e.g., with greater determination and a renewed commitment to the goal vs. losing hope and giving up.

Research shows people are more likely to experience subsequent failures after an initial self-control failure. This is called the setback effect. The setback effect commonly occurs when a person attributes a failure to internal factors beyond their control (e.g., genetics).

According to a recent study by researchers Adriaanse and Broeke, attributing the initial failure to external sources can prevent the setback effect. Attributing the failure to external factors may allow people to refocus on the goal, remain confident in their abilities, and achieve sustained success. This research, published in Applied Psychology: Health and Well-Being, is discussed below.

Investigating a Technique to Overcome Setbacks

Study 1

Sample: 298 females; average age of 25 years old.

The authors recruited only women aged 18–30 who were trying to manage their weight. The goal was “to create a relatively homogeneous group for whom dieting is a relevant concern.”

Methods: At Time 1, participants were randomly assigned to one of three groups: control group, dieting intervention, or procrastination intervention.

The intervention had two parts; reading a text and forming an if-then plan. The text read: “Research has shown that whether you can get back on track actually has a lot to do with the way people think about the causes of their [unhealthy eating behavior/ procrastination].”

The next section instructed participants to attribute failures to external factors, “such as the environment, or the people around you that influenced your behavior.”

The implementation intention (the if-then plan) applied the above shift in mindset to potential future failures. For instance, those in the dieting group read: “If I fail to adhere to my dieting goal” then “I will reflect on the external factors that contributed to this failure,” and “will continue to pursue my dieting goal as usual.”

Those in the control group did not read the first text nor make an implementation intention.

At Time 2, procrastination and dieting success/failure were assessed. To take one example, dieting failure was calculated as the sum of daily ratings of the frequency of failure (i.e. of eating foods not allowed on the diet).

Study 2

Sample: 209 (138 female); average age of 33 years old.

Methods: The second study included only procrastination and control conditions. The procedure resembled that of the first investigation, with a few exceptions. For instance, intention and self-efficacy were also measured.

Baseline self-efficacy was measured with, “I feel in control over minimizing my procrastination behavior” and “I feel confident in my abilities to minimize my procrastination behavior.” Baseline intention was assessed with, “I intend to minimize my procrastination behavior” and “I plan to minimize my procrastination behavior.”

Preventing and Overcoming Setbacks By Preparing for Failure

Before discussing the results, let me reiterate that research suggests a single failure in self-control (e.g., cheating on one’s diet) can increase the likelihood of future self-regulation failures.

This setback effect is more likely when a person believes the negative result was caused by stable, internal factors (e.g., genetics, personality traits, lack of intelligence, low ability) than unstable, external causes (e.g., bad luck). Why? Perhaps because these internal attributions result in reduced self-confidence and self-efficacy.

The two investigations by Broeke and Adriaanse examined whether an intervention targeting how one explains a failure can help prevent the setback effect. Participants were instructed to acknowledge and pay attention to external factors when faced with setbacks. The results were promising:

On average, compared to the control group, those in the experimental groups “failed their diets once less, and... procrastinated 93 to 105 min less over a period of 3 days.” Analysis of data showed this effect was “fueled by an increase in people's self-efficacy.”

So, the technique of preparing for setbacks appears to work. But why should we not try to prevent setbacks instead? Partly because setbacks are common and cannot always be prevented. For instance, individuals in the control group “failed their diets approximately six times and procrastinated approximately 230 min over a time period of 4 days.”

So, preparing for setbacks may be more helpful than preventing setbacks—particularly for individuals who are perfectionists or have a rigid way of thinking about goal pursuit and are quick to give up after a single failure.

Source: JerzyGorecki/Pixabay


Despite our best attempts to prevent self-regulation failure and stay motivated and focused (e.g., through goal setting or progress monitoring), setbacks can still occur.

While it is healthy and adaptive to take responsibility for a failure and aim to improve performance, blaming oneself—especially internal causes beyond one’s control (e.g., thinking that “I’m weak” or “I have no willpower”)—is dysfunctional and has a negative effect on motivation and self-confidence.

Blaming oneself is also often inaccurate because, in many situations, we underestimate—or are not even aware of—external factors that contributed to the failure. For example, you may not be aware of the effects of a medication, TV commercials, or friends’ eating behavior on your experience of hunger and ability to stick to a diet.

So, the next time you experience a self-control setback, try this approach:

  • Consider external causes.
  • Remind yourself of previous successes and your potential to succeed.
  • Refocus on the goal and try again.

In short, to overcome setbacks and stay motivated, expect the best, but prepare for the worst. That is the key to success.

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