*Toronto Star* November 24, 2007 includes an article: “Unlocking the
secrets of self-sabotage TheStar.com – News – Unlocking the secrets of
self-sabotage; A new study suggests that if you believe you’re mediocre,
chances are you’ll keep shooting yourself in the foot to prove it” by
Brett Popplewell, Staff Reporter.
Here’s the article:
It seems some of us just can’t handle the thought of success.
Be it in algebra, chemistry, grammar, poker or golf – there are certain
fields in which each of us believe we can excel while, in others we
accept, nay expect, our own mediocrity.
Yet according to new research by Dr. Jason Plaks, a social psychologist
with the University of Toronto, if that basic human expectation of
mediocrity is challenged, we’re just as likely to sabotage our abilities
to succeed as we are to rise to the occasion.
It’s all part of an inadvertent psychological game we play to convince
ourselves that there are certain things we can’t do well.
>From the ostensibly meat-headed jock who can’t seem to pass an IQ test,
to the artsy-fartsy literati who can’t tweak a carburetor, to the
stereotypical four-eyed human calculator who can’t throw a spiral – it
seems only natural for all of us to expect limitations in our abilities.
“We all have it in ourselves to believe our abilities are either fixed
or malleable,” says Plaks, whose research shows that when experiencing
unexpected success, people resort to inadvertent self-sabotage and
increase their likelihood of future failure.
But what exactly does that mean?
According to Kali Trzesniewski, a psychologist at the University of
Western Ontario, it means it might be unwise to try to pump up people’s
belief in themselves.
“It’s misguided to tell people that they’ll be great in the hopes that
they’ll be great. If you don’t believe that you can be better than you
consistently are and then you’re told that you are better, that causes
some anxiety. It’s troublesome for some people,” she says.
“I don’t know if it’s a fear of success as much as a disbelief of success.”
Plaks recently took 500 university students and subjected them to three
Before the tests, he split the students into two groups: those who
believed they had a consistent level of intelligence and those who
believed themselves capable of improving over time.
The students all wrote an initial logic test and were assigned a grade
in the 60th percentile. They were then given instructions and guidance
on how to do better on the next test.
After the second test, those who believed their level of intelligence
was fixed were told they had greatly improved while those who believed
themselves able to enhance their intelligence were told their marks had
not changed or had, in fact, gotten worse.
Plaks then judged the anxiety levels of each student and found that
among the ones who thought they would do better on the second test those
who learned their performance had not changed were more troubled than
those who were told they had done worse.
“The people who felt they had the capacity to change took it harder when
they stayed the same than those who did worse,” Plaks says.
“This was a bit of a surprise to us. Perhaps they thought it took one
step back to take two steps forward.”
Curiously, the most troubled of all were those who thought their marks
would not change but who were told they had actually improved
substantially on the second test.
This group of students didn’t know how to handle their success because
the results rocked their belief in the limits of their abilities.
“These people had their belief violated and had a lower success level on
future tests, that’s where the self-sabotaging came in,” Plaks says.
The results show if people are led to believe they’re doing better than
they think they are capable of doing, they might buckle with anxiety.
Plaks’s findings relate to the cognitive dissonance theory, first
proposed in 1957 by social psychologist Leon Festinger.
Festinger’s cognitive dissonance was the anxious mental state in which
people “find themselves doing things that don’t fit with what they know,
or having opinions that do not fit with other opinions they hold.”
To Festinger, the human need to avoid dissonance was as basic as the
need for food and shelter.
In his theory, the tension of dissonance makes us change either our
behaviour or our belief in an effort to avoid a sense of inconsistency.
What’s important for our ability to succeed, however, is that our
perceptions of our abilities not fall out of whack with reality.
That is, of course, unless we can understand ourselves to such a degree
that we’re able to learn from our self-imposed restrictions and accept
our abilities to succeed where we otherwise assume we cannot.
After all, did you truly feel when you began reading this article that
you would make it this far?
If not, perhaps you might now find it within yourself to repeat your
newfound success instead of being disturbed by what you have learned.