Self-sabotage

SELF-SABOTAGE PEAKS AT OUR FAVORITE TIME OF DAY

A study by PBS professor Ed Hirt, graduate student Julie Eyink and others in Hirt’s lab shows that people are more likely to undermine their performance at stressful tasks when according to their circadian rhythm, they’re at their peak time of day.

The seemingly counterintuitive results, reported in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, are based on an investigation into the connection between people’s circadian rhythm and the risk of “self-handicapping,” or self-sabotage. But rather than trying to protect against possible failure at “off-peak” times, the study found, people actually engage in this behavior more at their peak times.

In other words, “morning people,” who reported greater alertness at sunrise, self-handicapped more in the morning. “Night owls,” who reported greater alertness at sunset, self-handicapped more in the evening.

WHAT THIS STUDY TELLS US IS THAT SELF-HANDICAPPING REQUIRES THOUGHT AND PLANNING.

Ed Hirt

By “self-handicapping” an individual seeks to protect their ego against potential failure in advance by creating circumstances -- real or imagined -- that harm their ability to carry out a stressful task. A classic example is failing to study or staying out too late the night before an important test or job interview.

“What this study tells us is that self-handicapping requires thought and planning,” said Hirt. “People who are feeling uncertain about themselves and start to fear that they might fail are more likely to identify potential excuses and self-handicap when they’re at their peak than when they’re not.”

“When an individual’s positive self-views are threatened, they may lash out against the source of the threat, compare themselves to others worse off than themselves, or engage in self-destructive actions, such as substance abuse,” added Julie Eyink, a graduate student in Hirt’s lab and lead author on the study. “Unfortunately, it’s not uncommon to get caught in a negative spiral, in which self-handicapping leads to lower self-esteem and higher belief in failure, which prompt more self-handicapping.”

Based solely on the study, she said, people who want to avoid self-sabotage might conclude that they should engage in stressful tasks at off-peak times. But she warns that such a strategy would require carrying out tasks at a time when a person lacks all the cognitive tools required to achieve top performance.

Other authors on the paper were Eric Galante and Kristin S. Hendrix, an undergraduate student and Ph.D. student in PBS, respectively, at the time of the study.