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You Only Sabotage Yourself When You're at Your Peak, Study Finds

Setting yourself up for failure takes a lot of mental resources, new research shows.
Photo by Marija Mandic via Stocksy

Many of us have eaten a burrito prior to a hot date, shown up late to a mandatory guild meeting in World of Warcraft, or otherwise self-sabotaged personal success. Though it seems likely that one would only undermine themselves when they're tired or not thinking clearly, new research suggests that people only self-sabotage when they have enough energy to plan something so stupid.

The study, "Circadian variations in claimed self-handicapping: Exploring the strategic use of stress as an excuse," was conducted at Indiana University and consisted of 237 subjects, all of whom were instructed to come to the lab and take an intelligence test. The time of day that the subjects were instructed to come in varied, but was designed around their sleep patterns and the times of day they were most likely to be—or not to be—at their mental and energetic "peak." Some who qualified as "morning people" came in the AM, but other early risers were told to come at night, and the same was true for so-called "night owls."


A control group had been informed that stress levels would not negatively affect their score, but the test group of subjects had been informed that stress would have a negative impact. When it came time to take the test, they were given an opportunity to report their level of stress. If the subjects from the test group reported being stressed, they would be effectively "handicapping" themselves, setting themselves up for failure. The researchers found that the subjects from that group who took these tests during "peak" hours—as in night owls at night, and morning people in the morning—reported high levels of stress and effectively handicapped themselves. People who came at off-peak hours did not.

Researchers Ed Hirt and Julie Eyink told Broadly that stress was used in their experiment because it is "a fairly common handicap that people will report to excuse poor performance," and they underscore the fact that their findings "seem counterintuitive," explaining that the majority of students who they interviewed thought that people would "handicap," or self-sabotage, themselves at "off-peak" hours. "When people are off-peak, they don't have all their cognitive resources—and not having all your resources should be when failure is most likely to occur," the researchers said.

Hirt and Eyink said that self-handicapping protects "against the implications of failure." Since people are logically likely to fail when they're tired, you'd think that they'd also be more likely to protect against failure at that time. "We find, however, that because handicapping is a resource-demanding strategy, individuals engage in handicapping only when they have their full contingent of resources during their on-peak times," they explain.

Sometimes I witness pitiful acts of self-handicapping in WoW. People duel against each other, and before the match they sometimes complain like futile fools. It's not uncommon for players to mash out a warning to their nemesis, naming unfair conditions or making other excuses for their eventual failure. Maybe their internet speed is slow, or whatever; it is hard to confront one's fallibility.

"People self-sabotage because they want to protect their self-esteem," the researchers said. "When you fail at something, it hurts—your self-esteem suffers and others' impressions of you are likely to become more negative as well." Thus, self-sabotage is a way for people to externalize the error in order to keep their ego intact. "This allows the individual to retain the belief that they are competent in a given domain, and also allows them to save face in front of others, despite poor performance"

Disturbingly, such pitiful behavior is most likely to occur when we are thinking clearly; when we're at our best, not worst. It costs a great deal of mental resources set yourself up to fail, and unfortunately this behavior has really hideous results. "Self-handicapping is a costly strategy for people to use," the researchers said, listing many harmful effects of the behavior: "failure, lack of motivation, negative mood, low self-esteem, and the potential for substance abuse as well as notable interpersonal costs." They add that such undermining is exponential, capable of sending you into a sort of unending self-sabotage trap—"where handicapping leads to lower self-esteem and higher failure beliefs, which you deal with by self-handicapping more."