Fear of failure key to understanding underachieving students, psychological study says

iStock_000004579760XSmallTo reach some of their most challenging and frustrating students, educators should become familiar with the psychological profile of the “self-worth protective” student, according to a new study in Educational Psychology.

Self-worth protective students are often inconsistent performers who have low estimates of their ability and are uncertain about their self-worth, write Ted Thompson and Cathryn Parker of the University of Tasmania in Australia.

These students set the bar low, selecting safe goals they are confident can be achieved. At the same time, they minimize their successes, which gradually erodes their intrinsic motivation to improve performance. To educators, they are chronic underachievers who show erratic signs of ability but who are frustratingly lacking in motivation.

Fear of failure

The key to understanding these students, the researchers say, is to appreciate that they may be self-worth protective students who struggle with a debilitating fear of failure. In fact, their fear of failure is so strong that they will use self-handicapping behaviors such as withholding effort, to avoid the risk of failure.

For their study, researchers selected 75 students from an original group of 255 undergraduates, who rated highest and lowest in the self-worth protection scale (SWPS). Students had to identify out-of-focus pictures and complete number patterns in conditions that simulated failure and success conditions. Students completed an anxiety inventory following the tests.

The researchers concluded that self-worth protective students performed poorly on tests not only because of low confidence and low expectations but also because they withhold effort to protect themselves from experiencing failure.

Uncertain self-worth is “known to be critical in relation to self-handicapping behaviors,” the researchers say.” People who are uncertain of their overall self-worth are likely to sabotage their performance intentionally by, for example, withholding effort in an attempt to blur the link between poor performance and low ability, making an inference of low ability all the more
obscure,” they say.

A simple model for thinking about the achievement motivations of all students is a four-part model (Martin Covington 1992) that considers students’ (1) expectation of achieving success (is it high or low?) and (2) motivation for avoiding failure (is it high or low?).

Four categories

Under this model, students fall into one of the following categories: Success-oriented students are high in approach behavior but low in avoidance behavior. “These students approach new achievement tasks with confidence, expecting a positive outcome. They are not unduly
perturbed by the prospect of failure and are likely to be stayers in the academic race, being little troubled by excessive anxiety and unlikely to experience emotional wear and tear and burnout,” the researchers write.

Overstrivers are also success-oriented but compensate for an excessive fear of failure by expending a great deal of effort to minimize the risk of failure. 

Failure-accepting students are passive and indifferent to achievement. While they may make sporadic efforts, eventually this gives way to resignation, apathy and loss of hope.

Failure-avoiding or self-worth protective students are uncertain about their abilities and self worth. They are underachievers, particularly in situations where their sense of self-worth is under threat.

Among the key techniques for motivating self-worth protective students are:

  • Place emphasis on strategies rather than ability in evaluating performance and improvement in performance,
  • Avoid confusing them with excessive praise,
  • Minimize early experiences of failure or “evaluative threat”
  • Give explicit advice concerning the procedures to be followed in a task, the goals they are expected to pursue, and the intended outcomes.

Many self-worth protective students have a great deal of confusion and uncertainty about their abilities, the researchers write. This leads them to play it safe and opt for the more conservative strategy of withholding effort to avoid failure rather than testing their abilities.

Praise that is out of proportion to what has been accomplished in a task serves only to confuse self-worth protective students further and make them even more uncertain about their true abilities, the researchers say. Strategies for motivating students who are self-worth protective emphasize both reducing “evaluative threat” and clearing up uncertainties around a task as much as possible.

“Consistent with an incremental view of ability,” the researchers write, “strategy attributions are to be encouraged in preference to ability attributions. Being somewhat less stable than ability but rather more stable than effort, attributions to strategy are more easily modified.” Explicit instructions can help reduce the uncertainty of outcome around a task as well.

“Making clear the criteria on which achievement tasks are to be assessed is critical to reducing uncertainty about the factors responsible for successful and unsuccessful outcomes and the extent to which self-estimates of ability are under threat,” the researchers write.

“Failure at the beginning or at critical points in a learning sequence also plays a critical role in the level of evaluative threat,” the researchers conclude, emphasizing the importance of minimizing early experiences of failure in school.

Published in ERN May/June 2007 Volume 20 Number 5

One Response to “Fear of failure key to understanding underachieving students, psychological study says”

  1. Kat

    Thanks for taking the time to publish this article. It has insight and depth into this baffling, frustrating issue. It’s refreshing to hear other than the usual list of shallow, judgemental & degrading terms I’ve heard myself referred as most of my life (from parents and also myself) . I’m a 53-year old American woman and chronic underachiever with a history of comet-like higher achievements. Blasting out of the mire of my underachieving comfort zone has been a great view of where I’d like to be. I feel like a closet achiever. I’ve had therapy over the years, but find I’m attracted to psychologists who vocalize opinions like the shaming adults from my past, or they are underachievers themselves & have no desire to get out of their comfort zone.
    I feel underachievers should know they are not alone.
    I’m the youngest of four with an 8-year gap to the next eldest.
    I witnessed criminally dangerous sibling rivalry & physical abuse by my brothers to my sister when she was 12 and I was 4. It was terrifying.
    I experienced life-threatening sibling rivalry abuse & mind games by both brothers.
    My sister often discouraged me from achieving anything that would draw the attention from herself.
    She would pout and give me less care if I had a ballet recital or achieved a good grade.
    Underachievement was the price of admission among my siblings.
    I was assigned a role in the pecking order & to step out of their control & shine academically, for instance; was punished.
    I feel my step-mother used verbal abuse to make herself feel superior. She was an emotionally unhealthy individual inside and saw me as a sibling rival rather than a child who needed kindness & structure.
    I feel the anxiety of achievement is linked to all of the ‘sibling’ rivalry.
    This is what I’ve learned:
    I feel most anxious when I make achievements happen & am rewarded with a paycheck = report card (achieve power & self esteem). I quickly buy presents with the proceeds & give away my achievement or buy beautiful shoes/handbags which are hidden/hoarded under clutter in my room ( ‘lazy pig’ stye).
    It’s taken a long time to see this pattern. Today I’m addressing the anxiety of achievement, clutter and calling myself derogatory names.
    I also have better friends today.

    Thanks for your article. It validated a lot.
    Molly in Seattle, WA


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