An experiment shows how people deliberately sabotage themselves

Illustration for article titled An experiment shows how people deliberately sabotage themselves

If you got a great score on a test, you'd like to continue your winning streak, wouldn't you? One experiment proves you wouldn't. You'd self-sabotage. Not unintentionally and not subconsciously. You'd knowingly and deliberately screw up.


We sometimes engage in behaviors that scuttle our chances of getting what we want. This is a baffling behavior that, no matter how ridiculous it sounds, we have all engaged in at some point. Sometimes we are so anxious to impress someone that we don't want to say anything wrong - and so we don't say anything at all, which is hardly impressive. Sometimes we so want to relax for that big day tomorrow that we have a drink. Or eight.

These incidents can be viewed as any number of things, from flawed but sincere success strategies to unconscious attempts at self-sabotage. The unconscious part of the equation is key. However much nerves prey on the mind, they can't ever make someone actually say, "I will specifically do this to screw everything up."

And yet, in 1978, a group of students did exactly that. Two researchers, Edward Jones and Steven Berglas, asked students to take a test. They pretended to score the test and happily told the students that they'd gotten a perfect score. This had to have come as good - and somewhat surprising - news to the students, who were then asked to take another test.

Before they took this second test, they were asked to take their choice of two different drugs. Both were perfectly legal, the researchers assured the students. One was designed to improve academic performance. The other was designed to lower it. Guess which ones the students overwhelmingly chose.

Its true that the stakes were not particularly high for the test, but one assumes that, even during the swinging seventies, a bunch of goody-two-shoes students who had volunteered to be part of a psychology experiment wouldn't want to do badly on a test. And yet that's exactly what they consciously and explicitly chose. Jones and Berglas related the experiment to the impulse to drink to excess at crucial moments. Blame the drug for your poor performance and you won't have to blame your own brain. At the same time, it's surprising that so many of the study participants were willing not only to ruin their "grade," but to admit that they wanted to out loud. Maybe what we want more than anything is to fail.

Via You Are Not So Smart, Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin.



Debbie Notkin

(may be duplicate)

Please don't use "prove" for an experiment which 1) is 35 years old; 2) you don't claim ever was repeated; 3) gives no sample size or statistical information; and 4) had a very nonstandard and hard-to-defend approach.

I'm not really sure why you wrote about this (I like your work!), but since you did, I really wish you had said "demonstrates" or "seems to imply."