Drinking Too Much Alcohol as a Self-Handicapping Strategy

It is usually much more deflating and embarrassing to try hard and then fail at a task than it is to self-handicap ourselves to provide an explanation for our failure to ourselves and others. For example, if we have to take a math test but choose to drink too much the night before, we can easily explain our poor performance by saying “I didn’t do well because I had a terrible hangover. If it hadn’t been for that, I would have aced it.” However, if we do well in spite of the hangover, we get an additional boost to our self-esteem and social standing by saying “I knocked that test right out of the ballpark, even with a terrible hangover!”

Research has repeatedly demonstrated this phenomenon. In one study, college students participated in what they were told was a study of drugs and intellectual performance. As psychologist Dr. David Myers explains, imagine yourself in the position of the subjects. “You guess answers to some difficult aptitude questions and then are told, ‘Yours was one of the best scores seen to date.’ Feeling incredibly lucky, you are then offered a choice between two drugs before answering more of these items. One drug will aid intellectual performance and the other will inhibit it. Which drug do you want? Most students wanted the drug than would supposedly disrupt their thinking and thus provide a handy excuse for anticipated poorer performance.”

Some people choose to self-handicap themselves before a test, job interview, audition, recital, or any other task that has the potential to call into question their competence and deflate their self-concept.

Although self-handicapping might have short term psychological benefits, its long term effects on personal achievement would appear to be negative and counterproductive.


  • Myers, David G. Social Psychology, Boston: McGraw-Hill, 7th ed., 2002; Berglas, S. and Jones, E.E. Drug choice and a self-handicapping strategy in response to noncontingent success. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 1978, 36, 405-417.


  • Bordini, F.J., et al. Alcohol consumption as a self-handicapping strategy in women. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 1986, 95(4), 346-349.
  • Carey, Benedict. Some protect the ego by working on their excuses early. New York Times, January 5, 2009, p. D5 of the New York edition.
  • Montgomery, R.L., et al. The “imaginary audience,” self-handdicapping, and drinking patterns among college students. Psychological Reports, 1996, 79(3 Pt 1), 783-786.
  • Tucker, Jalie A., et al. Alcohol consumption as a self-handicapping strategy. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 1981, 90(3), 220-230.

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