Just one week out into 2009, and many of us are already tripping up on our resolutions. It’s another case of our disposition being weaker than our situation. Here are a couple of excerpts that shed some light on the interior situation of our resolve.
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From Sam Sommers’ excellent post “A Once-a-Year Reality Check“:
. . . . I was surprised to hear that one of my aforementioned vital signs was not in the “normal” range one would expect.
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You’d be amazed at the mental gymnastics I went through in order to convince myself that this was some sort of mistake. The room where the screening took place was hot and crowded. They were disorganized enough that they could have transposed digits or confused samples. It was the midterm crunch and I, like everyone else there, was even more stressed than usual. The election was coming up and I had stayed up too late the night before reading polls on line. Seriously. I remember telling myself that.
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We do this type of thing all the time. As many a psychologist has observed and demonstrated empirically, our processes of self-perception are very often less focused on accuracy than on self-enhancement and self-protection.
You could write a blog entry every day for a month on the different mental and behavioral strategies we employ in the effort to continue feeling good about ourselves in the wake of threatening feedback or personal failure: comparing ourselves to people less fortunate than we are; blaming external factors for our own underperformance; putting ourselves in no-lose situations; thinking that we’re better than average at most of the mundane tasks we engage in.
This toolbox of self-deception has a lot to offer. It allows us to remain resilient in the face of our own disappointments. It permits us to bounce back quickly from failure. It gives us the gall to say things like, I know I’m unpopular now, but history will judge me to have been a great leader. And so on.
Of course, as it is with red wine, chocolate, and Jim Carrey movies, these self-serving tendencies have positive effects in moderation, but too much becomes hard to stomach. Keep failing to assume responsibility for outcomes in our lives, and we never seize the opportunity for improvement. Refuse to admit to the reality of our surroundings, and we become unsufferable jerks no one wants to be around.
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From Benedict Carey‘s interesting New York Times article, “Some Protect the Ego by Working on Their Excuses Early.”
This is one reason that genuine excuse artisans — and there are millions of them — don’t wait until after choking to practice their craft. They hobble themselves, in earnest, before pursuing a goal or delivering a performance. Their excuses come preattached: I never went to class. I was hung over at the interview. I had no idea what the college application required.
“This is real self-sabotage, like drinking heavily before a test, skipping practice or using really poor equipment,” said Edward R. Hirt, a psychologist at Indiana University. “Some people do this a lot, and often it’s not clear whether they’re entirely conscious of doing it — or of its costs.”
Psychologists have studied this sort of behavior since at least 1978, when Steven Berglas and Edward E. Jones used the phrase “self-handicapping” to describe students in a study who chose to take a drug that they were told would inhibit their performance on an exam (the drug was actually inert).
The urge goes well beyond a mere lowering of expectations, and it has more to do with protecting self-image than with psychological conflicts rooted in early development, in the Freudian sense. Recent research has helped clarify not just who is prone to self-handicapping but also its consequences — and its possible benefits.
In the original conception, Dr. Berglas and Dr. Jones identified self-handicapping in students who were told they had aced a test made up of impossible-to-answer questions. They had “succeeded” without knowing how or why. “These are the people who are told they are brilliant, without knowing how that inference is derived,” said Dr. Berglas, now an executive coach in the Los Angeles area. He understood the impulse, he said; he himself first experimented with drugs in high school just before taking the SAT, on which he was expected to get a perfect score — a reckless stunt that provided the seed for the theory.
The urge to shoot one’s own foot seems to be stronger in men than in women. In surveys, Dr. Hirt and others have measured the tendency by asking people to rate how well a series of 25 statements describes their own behavior — for example, “I try not to get too intensely involved in competitive activities so it won’t hurt too much if I lose or do poorly.” Men tend to score higher on these measures and, in lab studies, to handicap themselves more severely.
Yet given the opportunity, and a good reason, most people will claim some handicap. In a paper published last summer, Sean McCrea, a psychologist at the University of Konstanz in Germany, described experiments in which he manipulated participants’ scores on a variety of intelligence tests. In some, the subjects could choose to prepare before taking the test or could join the “no practice” group.
Sure enough, Dr. McCrea found that those told they got bad scores blamed a lack of practice, if they could, and that citing this handicap cushioned the blow to their self-confidence.
But the handicap also had another effect. In another experiment, participants who had a good excuse for their poor scores — distracting noises, pumped through headphones they wore during the test — were less motivated to prepare for a subsequent test than those who had no excuse. “The handicap allowed them to say, ‘All things considered, I actually did pretty well,’ ” Dr. McCrea said in a phone interview. “And there’s no drive to get better.”
The burn of embarrassment is, in some sense, the pilot light of motivation.
As a short-term strategy, self-handicapping is often no more than an exercise in self-delusion. Studies of college students have found that habitual handicappers — who skip a lot of classes; who miss deadlines; who don’t buy the textbook — tend to rate themselves in the top 10 percent of the class, though their grades slouch between C and D.
Those who succeed despite their flirtations with disorder typically grow increasingly fond of the handicap itself, whether drink or drugs or defying rules. “With success, expectations go up, and the behavior gets more extreme,” said Dr. Berglas, author of “Reclaiming the Fire: How Successful People Overcome Burnout”. . . .
But the tactic doesn’t fool many people. In a recent study, James C. McElroy of Iowa State University and J. Michael Crant of Notre Dame had 246 adults evaluate the behavior of characters in several workplace anecdotes. The participants’ impressions of a character began to sour after the second time the person cited a handicap.
“What happens here is that if you do it often, observers attribute your performance to you, but begin to view it as part of your disposition, i.e., you’re a whiner,” Dr. McElroy wrote in an e-mail message. “But you can avoid this happening if someone else does the handicapping for you, and surprisingly enough, even if they do it often.”
That, too, is well known among the very best of excuse makers: for best results, recruit an apologist.