How should I approach my education? Part 2, by Dr Sam Fairlamb

How should I approach my education? Part 2, by Dr Sam Fairlamb

Part 2

Read  Part 1 of this blog here: PART 1 

It is not just experiencing failure that can be damaging for our self-worth, but also the potential to experience it too.   When we feel confident in our qualities, and ability to succeed, this is likely to have positive consequences for our approach to education. We are motivated to experience success because of the positive emotions that accompany it, and so when we feel success is likely, we increase the amount of effort we put into our work which will likely translate to positive outcomes in terms of test scores. Unfortunately, it is perhaps quite commonplace to feel less assured about our abilities – probably all of us can conjure up a time when we felt unsure about whether we would really do well on an upcoming examination or assignment. This uncertainty about our abilities, raises the possibility of failure in our minds, and can often lead to behaviours that attempt to dull the negative emotions that would accompany failure if it was to occur.

This is demonstrated in a study by Pyszczynski and Greenberg (1983). In this study, students were told they would be taking part in an intelligence test. To make the test sufficiently ego threatening, some of these participants were told that the test was “highly respected” and a “good predictor of academic and career success” (yikes!). The remaining participants were informed that the test was “not standardised” and that “their scores would not mean very much”.

Subsequently, the participants were given a couple of sample questions that unknown to them were either manipulated to be very easy (success likely) or very difficult (failure likely). After completing these practice questions, they were asked to complete a short questionnaire measuring their intended effort, before taking the main test. In fact, there was no test, and after completing this questionnaire the experiment concluded.

The findings showed that when participants believed that the test was a good predictor of intelligence that participants suggested they put less effort in when given the difficult sample questions. Of course, simple logic would dictate that by withdrawing effort the participants in this study were increasing the chance of experiencing failure, even though that is what they are motivated to avoid. So why did participants reduce effort? The study authors suggest that the reduction in effort reflects a strategy to minimise the sting of failure, if it was to occur. By reducing effort, we can always appeal to the belief that failure reflects this lack of effort, and not ability.

This study neatly highlights how our need and pursuit of self-esteem can trump our ability to learn and succeed. When faced with threatening scenarios such as examinations, we can often engage in self-handicapping behaviours that allow us to provide ready excuses for failure if it was to occur. For example, your bedroom might typically be a mess and you normally don’t mind, but suddenly the night of the exam or an assignment that’s due you decide that now is the time to clean it. Or perhaps there’s a new episode of Game of Thrones out that will still be around tomorrow for you to watch, but you just have to watch it now. These are the types of behaviours we can often engage in that subtly allow us to prepare for the experience of failure.

So how might we think about avoiding these behaviours and approaching our education differently? Well, one possibility is to try and become less ego involved in our work. Ego involvement often leads to defensiveness when self-esteem is challenged, or potentially on the line, as these studies have demonstrated. When people are less ego involved, they are more likely to accept mistakes, criticism and failure, and see these as avenues to learning and self-improvement.

One way to potentially become less ego involved in our studies, is to see our self-worth as being less contingent upon the successes and failures that we experience. By basing our self-worth on our studies, as has been described, the need to experience success (and avoid failure) can become impediments to our learning and future success. Unfortunately, we may often be socialised to feeling like our self-worth is contingent upon performance outcomes. Did you ever get rewarded by your parents for doing well on a test, or punished when you didn’t? It is experiences like this that inadvertently convey a belief that our self-worth is contingent upon the successes and failures we experience.

In line with this, Crocker et al., 2006, ran an experiment that was similar to the paradigm used by Pyszczynski and Greenberg (1983). Students were told that they would be taking a test, and that they had the opportunity to practice before taking this test. To manipulate the possibility of failure, participants were either given easy or difficult questions. The outcome of interest here was the number of questions participants practiced before deciding to take the test.

The findings showed that, for participants whose self-worth was highly contingent on their academic studies, they practiced less when they were given hard sample questions than easy ones. This, as already discussed, is a self-handicapping strategy that minimises the damage that future failure may carry by providing ready excuses for it. In contrast, participants whose self-worth was less contingent on their academic studies exhibited the correct response, which was to increase effort (e.g., practice more) when faced with the difficult questions.

So, the next time you think about your work, think to yourself about how you are choosing to approach your education. You may find that being focused on experiencing success because it matters to your sense of self may be an impediment rather than a benefit. Instead, perhaps try to imagine that no matter what the outcome of the assignment or test, that success or failure are just different pathways to learning. Failure does occur, and happens to all of us, but picking ourselves back up and learning from the mistakes that we make is one of the keys to experiencing long-term success. Remember also that the most you can ever ask of yourself is just to do your best and try your hardest. No matter what outcome you receive, you can always feel worthy by putting your best into it.


Brown, J. D., & Dutton, K. A. (1995). The thrill of victory, the complexity of defeat: Self-esteem and people’s emotional reactions to success and failure. Journal of personality and social psychology68(4), 712-722.

Crocker, J., Brook, A. T., Niiya, Y., & Villacorta, M. (2006). The pursuit of self‐esteem: Contingencies of self‐worth and self‐regulation. Journal of personality74(6), 1749-1772.

Greenberg, J., Pyszczynski, T., & Solomon, S. (1982). The self-serving attributional bias: Beyond self-presentation. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology18(1), 56-67.

Pyszczynski, T., & Greenberg, J. (1983). Determinants of reduction in intended effort as a strategy for coping with anticipated failure. Journal of Research in Personality17(4), 412-422.

Vandellen, M. R., Campbell, W. K., Hoyle, R. H., & Bradfield, E. K. (2011). Compensating, resisting, and breaking: A meta-analytic examination of reactions to self-esteem threat. Personality and Social Psychology Review15(1), 51-74.