Motivated to Fail: When Flunking Becomes an Ambition

Motivmotivated to failation to succeed means you’re determined to do well. What is the opposite of being motivated to succeed? Well, it must be lack of motivation, or not caring. Because surely nobody is motivated to do poorly, or are they?

A recent study published in the Journal of Educational Psychology shows that in fact some students purposefully behave in ways that will lead them to fail. They seem to be motivated to fail.

According to the study, some students disengage from school activities, skip classes, put off studying or, maybe don’t study or go to school at all, not because they don’t take their performance seriously…but because they take it so seriously they’re terrified of failing.

A student failing because they’re afraid of failing. It sounds like one of those hopelessly absurd situations, a catch-22, or a snake trying to eat its own tail kind of a thing. How could this be?

Think about this. We all pretty much agree that if you succeed without putting much effort into something then it must mean you have talent. It follows that if you do put effort into something and fail, then you lack ability.

If you’re afraid that you lack ability, then the best way to avoid confirming that suspicion is to never put effort in. That way, at least you can preserve some of your self-worth.

Student Motivation and Engagement

Krista De Castella and Don Byrne from the Australian National University along with Martin Covington from the University of California, Berkeley studied more than 2000 students in Japan and Australia and made radical discoveries about the relationship between student motivation and engagement.

The researchers gave the participating students a set of questionnaires asking them about their achievement goals and how they felt about failure. For example, they were asked to rate how important it was for them to do better than others, and how much they worried about what others would think of them if they failed.

The researchers then correlated the answers on these questionnaires with the extent to which students’ applied strategies to actively preserve their self-worth. They used questionnaires that assessed three strategies: defensive pessimism, helplessness, and self-handicapping.

  • With defensive pessimism a student sets unrealistically low expectations for themselves on tasks where their performance will be evaluated. This helps them change the meaning of failure. If they do better than the low benchmark they set, they feel pleasantly surprised.
  • With helplessness a student adopts the belief that their academic performance is outside their own control. If they do poorly, well, it’s not their fault.
  • With self-handicapping a student actively engages in behaviors that can later be used to excuse poor performance. Like, leaving studying to the night before a test. If they don’t do well, it’s because they didn’t spend much time studying.

So, what were the ways the differently motivated students approached success and failure?

Motivated to Self-Defend

De Castella and her colleagues found that many of the students had fear of failure; even some students who were highly motivated to succeed. But, in these students fear did not weaken performance. On the contrary, their strategy for avoiding failure was to try harder to succeed.

The surprising finding was that the students who who were afraid of failure but weren’t particularly motivated to succeed performed worse in school than students who didn’t care about either success or failure.

The students who had fear of failure and were not motivated to succeed had the worst academic performance and were the most likely to engage in the defensive strategies.

Ironically, in the study these students were also the most likely to say they “couldn’t care less” about school.

This suggests that fear of failure untempered by motivation to succeed can be detrimental. De Castella speculates that being motivated to succeed insulates you from the negative effects of fear.

De Castella’s findings, which held true for both the Japanese and Australian students, run counter to the traditional view of achievement where ‘rock bottom’ is thought to be when you have accepted failure as an outcome.

It seems that fear of having proof you really are as inept as you think you are becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Replacing Fear with a Recipe for Success

So, what does the path to success look like for students who obviously care (even if they say they don’t), but who impede their own achievement because of fear?

De Castella warns that increasing the pressure on students who appear to be disengaged is not productive. This may instead add fuel to the fire by intensifying the fear of failure.

The key thing that appears to trip these students up is lack of confidence in their own ability.

A possible recipe for increasing confidence might include:

  • reinforcing the belief that ability and intelligence can be changed
  • replacing the defensive strategies with practical and effective study strategies for attacking fearsome content areas

No matter how poor a fighter you think you are, you’ll be more confident going into a battle with a plan of attack than you will be without it.


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Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

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