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IU research examines gender differences in excuses for failure


When men make lame excuses for a poor test performance, women don’t buy it, according to research just published by Edward Hirt, a social psychologist at Indiana University Bloomington.

Hirt has spent the last 10 years conducting research on this aspect of social psychology that involves the term self-handicapping. The associate professor of psychology is the lead author of "I Know You Self-Handicapped Last Exam: Gender Differences in Reactions to Self-Handicapping" in the current issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

"Self-handicapping is defined as an individual’s attempt to reduce a threat to esteem by actively seeking or creating factors that interfere with performance as a causal explanation for failure," he explained. "The goals of self-handicapping are to disregard ability as the causal factor for a poor performance and to embrace ability as the causal factor for a success."

His current study of several hundred subjects concentrated on gender differences in how self-handicapping is perceived. "What we found is that women have less tolerance for self-handicapping by men or women. They routinely made more negative evaluations of the self-handicapping targets and were less willing than men to excuse self-handicapping even when alternative explanations for effort withdrawal, such as peer pressure, were viable. We found that women not only are more suspicious of people who blow things off or withdraw effort, but also are more likely to think the person is just generally lazy, unmotivated or lacking in self-control," he said.

Hirt believes these findings reflect a fundamental difference between men and women in what they value in performance settings. "Men were far more lenient in their attributions of self-handicapping targets than were women and less likely to ascribe negative motivations to individuals who engage in self-handicapping behavior. Women, however, have little respect for individuals who lack motivation and fail to put forth the effort in important performance settings," he said. He noted an interesting paradox: those most inclined to engage in self-handicapping behavior are less likely to attribute that motive to others.

Hirt said researchers want to develop a better understanding of the sources of such gender differences in value orientation. "It may be that the sex differences we have observed are simply another manifestation of broad gender differences in personality," he said.

Assisting Hirt with the journal article were IU psychology graduate students Sean McCrea and Hillary Boris.

For more details, contact Hirt at 812-855-4815 or

Edward Hirt | Indiana University
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