Winners and losers in the blame game

Classrooms are full of children who "self-handicap", and this goes far in accounting for differences in academic success. This problem of "self-handicapping" was recently investigated by sports scientists led by Dr Hugh Richards at the University of Edinburgh who published their findings in the journal Personality and Individual Differences.

The study points out that we all have to explain our successes and failures in life, and the means we choose for doing this are key to indicating how hard we will try in the future. We can explain failure or success by referring to predominantly "internal" factors, such as our skill or effort, or we could invoke external factors such as "bad luck" or the weather.

It seems that those who are most likely to succeed have a tendency to blame themselves or take responsibility for whether they succeed or fail. Those who are less good at attaining goals seem in contrast to believe that it is external factors beyond their control which determine their fate.

Having external factors to explain away our failures does help us feel better about ourselves. So, as Dr Richards points out, a runner who falsely complains of flu before a key race has a useful excuse for poor performance. And if the race is run well, then surely he deserves even more credit for doing well. However, some strategies, such as excessive alcohol consumption, may provide an excuse for failure, but entail a price, since performance will be negatively affected by being drunk.

If you suffer from low self-esteem, then any likelihood of it plummeting further, such as a failure in public, might motivate you to try self-handicapping. This means you prepare a ready-made excuse that protects your self-esteem from the blow of failure. But the problem is this reliance on an excuse makes you more likely to fail. Some people will go out for a drink - or seven - the night before an important performance event, perhaps unaware that they are using a self-handicapping strategy.

If our self-esteem is fragile and hugely dependent on success - or at least avoiding failure - then maybe we protect it unconsciously by relying on excuses to explain away failure rather than relying more on hard work to get us success.

Dr Raj Persaud is consultant psychiatrist at the Maudsley Hospital in south London and Gresham professor for public understanding of psychiatry. His new book, Simply Irresistible: the psychology of seduction - how to catch and keep your perfect partner, is available from Bantam Press, pound;12.99. Email:

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