According to research, people will seek out obstacles to their own success that minimizes their own performance as a cause for failure. In one study, subjects were given positive feedback on problem-solving tests, regardless of the subject's actual performance. Half the subjects had been given fairly easy problems, while the others were given difficult problems. Subjects were then given the choice between a "performance-enhancing drug" and one which would inhibit it. Those subjects who received the difficult problems were more likely to choose the impairing drug, and subjects who faced easy problems were more likely to choose the enhancing drug. It is argued that the subjects presented with hard problems, believing that their success had been due to chance, chose the impairing drug because they were looking for an external attribution (what might be called an "excuse") for expected poor performance in the future, as opposed to an internal attribution.
Self-handicapping may be the cause of paradoxically limiting one's own ability to succeed and deliberately impairing oneself purely to avoid risk, maintain control and protect the ego and self-esteem.
When awareness of failure was induced, experimental subjects have unduly:
Self-handicapping is more likely to occur when the task is "ego-involving" and failure is anticipated. Some studies suggest that women may be less disposed to and less tolerant of self-handicapping than men (Hirt, McCrea, & Boris, 2003).
Thomas Gilovich makes a distinction between "real" self-handicapping, where people actually obstruct their own success, and "feigned" self-handicapping where they merely draw attention to potential obstacles. People may self-handicap to manage the impressions of others, or of themselves (though studies have been unable to test the latter).