Some protect the ego by working on their excuses early

Author: Benedict Carey

Every ugly exam score, blown deadline and failed project provides the opportunity to try out new excuses. It was a blowup at home. A sick cat. An emergency at work.

Not to mention the roadways: if only they hadn’t been so icy.

This kind of talk is so familiar that most people quickly dismiss it, even when it comes out of their own mouth.

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” (Random House, 2001).

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.

The important thing for some is, no matter the method, to avoid considering the alternative explanation.

“It’s like the line from the old Brando movie ‘On the Waterfront’: ‘I coulda been a contender,’ ” Dr. Hirt said. “In the long term, that may be easier to live with for some people than to know that they did their very best and failed.”