Academic journal article College Student Journal

Self in Self-Worth Protection: The Relationship of Possible Selves and Self-Protective Strategies

Academic journal article College Student Journal

Self in Self-Worth Protection: The Relationship of Possible Selves and Self-Protective Strategies

Article excerpt

This study examined community college students' future-related self-concept, termed "possible selves," in relationship to their current academic behavior with a focus on self-worth protective strategies. As demonstrated via hierarchical regression, possible selves added to understanding the students' self-protective behavior above and beyond their underlying motivation. Specifically, a balance between the students' hoped for and feared possible selves was related to a lower occurrence of the most detrimental of self-protective behaviors, self-handicapping. Further, a balance between hopes and fears was related to a higher occurrence of an effective strategy, reflectivity. Results provided partial support for the notion that possible selves serve as a cognitive link between motivation and behavior and could serve as a foundation for interventions.


In the college setting, students often perceive their academic ability as the major cause of success and failure (Covington, 1984). In the context of continual evaluation of one's academic performance, ability becomes a central part of a student's self-concept with high ability resulting in high self-worth and low ability in low self-worth. With the need for a positive sense of self-worth being among the highest of human priorities (Covington, 1984; Covington & Beery, 1976), protecting the sense of high self-worth becomes of great importance for students. In some cases, the motive to protect self-worth becomes even more important to students than the need to perform well and students may engage in self-worth protective strategies that may cause the very failures they are trying to avoid (Covington, 1992). For instance, this is the case when students jeopardize their academic standing by procrastinating or by taking on too heavy a course load and virtually ensuring failure. In such cases, the students feel that they are "failing with honor" since their failure reflects little on their ability. In other words, by using strategies such as procrastination, students can shift the perceived reason for failure away from their lack of ability to lack of effort ("I would have done well if I started my research paper earlier") or to circumstantial factors ("I would have gotten a higher GPA if I did not have so many courses on my plate"). Through shifting the reason for failure away from ability, the students can maintain the illusion of their high ability, and therefore, preserve a sense of high self-worth. Their grades as well as aspects of their well-being, however, suffer.

In the past three decades, self-worth protection has been the focus of numerous studies (Elliot & Church, 2003; Jones & Berglas, 1978; Martin, Marsh & Debus, 2001; Midgley, Arunkumar, & Urdan, 1996; Norem & Cantor, 1986). Researchers have identified two specific self-worth protection strategies: self-handicapping (Jones & Berglas, 1978) and defensive pessimism (Norem & Cantor, 1986). Both of these strategies have fear of failure, usually established in childhood, as their foundation (Elliot & Church, 2003). Self-handicapping and defensive pessimism have been found to have detrimental effects in areas such as academic self-regulation, persistence and anxiety. In the case of self-handicapping, specifically, grades have been shown to suffer (Urdan, 2004). Despite the valuable insights established by empirical studies into why and how students self-protect, concrete suggestions of how to help students adaptively deal with their underlying fear of failure and need to protect self-worth have been proposed only in few writings (Covington, 1998). The reason for the lack of suggestions for intervention may lie in fear of failure, the foremost predictor of self-worth protection, being seen as resistant to change (Elliot & Thrash, 2002, 2004).

Purpose of the Study

This study examined self-worth protection in a population of community college students. …

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