woman using computer at night
Mental & Emotional Health

Self-Sabotage and The Time of Day

New research shows that people are more likely to undermine their performance at stressful tasks when they’re operating at “peak capacity” based on their preferred time of the day.

The seemingly counterintuitive results, recently reported in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, are based on an investigation into the connection between people’s circadian rhythm and risk of “self-handicapping,” or self-sabotage. But rather than trying to protect against possible failure more 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.

Self-handicapping is defined by psychologists as when 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.

The behavior also extends to mere claims of debilitating circumstances, such as imagined illness, fatigue or stress. Other studies have linked self-handicapping to additional self-destructive behaviors such as aggression, overeating and drug or alcohol addiction.

The study also found that people chronically prone to making excuses reported the same stress levels at “off-peak” hours as peers who do not engage in this behavior. Only at peak hours did these individuals report higher levels of stress as an excuse for poor performance.

“What this study tells us is that self-handicapping requires thought and planning,” said Ed Hirt, professor in the IU Bloomington College of Arts and Sciences’ Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences and an author of the study. “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 failure beliefs, which prompt more self-handicapping.”

To conduct the study, IU researchers administered intelligence tests to 237 students (98 men and 139 women), half of whom were told that stress had been found to affect performance on the test and half of whom were told that stress should not affect the result. The tests were given at either 8 a.m. or 8 p.m.

logo

The latest for the greatest!

Get up-to-the-moment health + wellness info
  right to your inbox, plus exclusive offers!