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From Yishan Wong, via Quora:

In college, I took a course called Cognitive and Social Supports for Irrational Belief Systems[1].

It was an interesting course, taught by a somewhat cantankerous and brilliant tenured professor.

It examined irrational belief systems, both of the “conventional” kind, like how ordinary people in WW2 Germany ended up committing atrocities against Jews and other conquered peoples, as well as cults and religions in general, but most interesting were the odd social behaviors that are irrational but which people nonetheless engage in.

One of these is self-handicapping. (Wikipedia:…)

Basically, it’s when you prime expectations in a negative way in anticipation of failure or setback so as to avoid hurting your self-esteem.


Tennis player: Oh, you’re probably going to beat me, but let’s play anyway.

You can tell from my example exactly what I’m talking about. You probably hear it all the time – now you know the name for it. Inevitably, self-handicapping doesn’t help the person at all. Anyone who hears it just thinks that you’re lame and kind of winces a little on the inside, waiting for you to get to the point. But people still do it.

I tend to do this a lot. I’m not sure how it started, and I’ve never thought about self handicapping as an explicit way to protect my self esteem, but more as a lightweight way to gauge how much discernment somebody is able to exercise in the presence of bias, what self perception or level of confidence somebody wishes to portray to me, and what level of bias or spin somebody places on their words and actions. When you say that you’re bad at X, an activity which you are not actually be bad at, you’re anchoring the expectations of those around you. There are a couple of different reactions a person might have to this:

  1. “Hey, everybody is bad at X” or “Well, the important thing is that you’re good at Y”: The person is trying to be nice to you. They may want something from you, or may just be genuinely nice and derive a sense of self identity from making others feel good. This means that it’s hard to trust this person’s feedback, since it will always skew towards the positive.
  2. “Oh, you’re not actually bad at X” or “Heh, you’re just saying you’re bad at X — the people best at X always say that”: The person secretly thinks they are better than you.
  3. “Why do you always say that? I don’t think you’re actually bad at X”: The person actually has a pretty accurate sense of judgement, and probably has a pretty high sense of self worth. This sense of self worth causes him or her to experience frustration at others who do not have a high sense of self worth.
To me, self handicapping is a method of communicating without communicating directly. I wonder if it’s something that I picked up from Chinese conversation with my parents and others, where false modesty is prevalent and where the meaning of a conversation doesn’t often lie directly in the words that are spoken.



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