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Fear of failure is examined from a need achievement perspective and in the context of research amongst high school and university students. Theory and data suggest that fear of failure can be separated into two camps: overstriving and self-protection. Although each has yields in terms of achievement or in terms of self-protection, they render the academic process an uncertain one for students marked by anxiety, low resilience, and vulnerability to learned helplessness. A cascading model of failure avoidance is developed that differentiates various aspects of fear of failure on the basis of a number of correlates and outcomes and provides direction for intervention. An alternative orientation—success orientation—is explored in detail as are four factors identified as the key means to promote success orientation. These factors are self-belief, control, learning focus, and value of school and ways to promote these in the educational and counselling context are discussed.
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Fear of Failure
Martin, A.J., & Marsh, H.W. (2003). Fear of failure: Friend or foe? Australian Psychologist,
38, 31-38.
This article may not exactly replicate the authoritative document published in the journal. It is
not the copy of record.
Fear of Failure
Fear of Failure: Friend or Foe?
Andrew J. Martin
Herbert W. Marsh
SELF Research Centre, University of Western Sydney
Running Head: Fear of failure
Word Count: 5715 (including abstract, body, tables, figures, references)
Journal Section: Articles
Professional Area: Educational and Developmental; Counselling
Author Note
Requests for further information about this investigation can be made to Dr Andrew Martin,
SELF Research Centre, Bankstown Campus, University of Western Sydney, Locked Bag
1797, Penrith South DC, NSW 1797. E-Mail:
The authors would like to thank Associate Professor Ray Debus for his input into this
Fear of Failure
Fear of Failure: Friend or Foe?
Fear of failure is examined from a need achievement perspective and in the context of
research amongst high school and university students. Theory and data suggest that
fear of failure can be separated into two camps: overstriving and self-protection.
Although each has yields in terms of achievement or in terms of self-protection, they
render the academic process an uncertain one for students marked by anxiety, low
resilience, and vulnerability to learned helplessness. A cascading model of failure
avoidance is developed that differentiates various aspects of fear of failure on the
basis of a number of correlates and outcomes and provides direction for intervention.
An alternative orientation success orientation is explored in detail as are four
factors identified as the key means to promote success orientation. These factors are
self-belief, control, learning focus, and value of school and ways to promote these in
the educational and counselling context are discussed.
Fear of Failure
Fear of Failure: Friend or Foe?
Fear of failure1: Friend or foe? This may seem like a silly and possibly
rhetorical question. In fact, it is not such a silly question. As this paper shows, a fear
of failure is a friend to some students in the sense that it drives them to achieve and
persist in the face of challenge and adversity. However, as the paper also shows, for
these students, it is not a particularly good friend because it also renders them
vulnerable to setback, takes them on a roller-coaster ride of emotional ups and downs,
and renders the journey to success somewhat difficult and uncertain. For many other
students, a fear of failure is more clearly a foe, yielding high anxiety,
underachievement, reduced resilience, and leading some to learned helplessness. This
paper examines these two groups of failure fearers and explores an alternative
orientation – success orientation – and ways to facilitate it. To illustrate the
arguments, the paper draws primarily on educational and counselling psychology
theory, data, and research – but practitioners will readily recognise that the principles
are applicable in many other contexts.
Theoretical foundations
The theoretical context for this paper is located in need achievement theory and
later refinements of this theory. From a need achievement perspective, students vary in
terms of their motive to avoid failure and approach success (Atkinson 1957;
McClelland, 1965). Based on a need achievement model of motivation, students can
be characterised in terms of three typologies: those that are success oriented, those that
are failure avoidant, and those that are failure accepting.
Fear of Failure
Success-oriented students tend to be optimistic, adopt a proactive and positive
orientation to tasks, and respond to setback with optimism and energy (Covington &
Omelich, 1991; Martin, 1998; in press; Martin, Marsh, & Debus, 2001a).
Failure-avoidant students are the classic failure fearers. They tend to be anxious
(Alpert & Haber, 1960), motivated by a fear of failure, live in self-doubt, and are
uncertain about their ability to avoid failure or achieve success (Covington &
Omelich, 1991). While these students often work hard and achieve, they tend to be
adversely affected by setback as it tends to confirm their doubts about their ability and
their uncertain control (Covington & Omelich, 1991; Martin, 1998; Martin, 2001; in
press; Martin et al., 2001a, 2001b). In essence, they lack resilience. Often in response
to this fear of failure, these students may even actively sabotage their chances of
success (e.g., procrastinate, leave tasks until the last minute, or expend little effort) so
that they have an excuse if they do not do so well. This excuse serves a protective
function in that they can blame their poor performance on their procrastination, for
example, rather than a possible lack of ability (Covington, 1992).
Failure-accepting students (sometimes referred to as learned helpless) have
given up to the point of not even trying to avoid failure. These students are generally
disengaged from tasks and display a helpless pattern of motivation (Abramson,
Seligman, & Teasdale, 1978; see also Covington, 1992, 1997). These students lack
both motivation and resilience.
A quadripolar model of need achievement
The classic theory of need achievement (Atkinson, 1957; see also McClelland,
1965) has recently been revisited and represented in a two dimensional model that
locates students in terms of the dual motives to avoid failure and approach success
(Covington, 1992, 1997; Covington & Omelich, 1991). This two dimensional
Fear of Failure
framework, adapted from Covington (1992, 1997) is shown in Figure 1. This figure
presents four broad typologies that vary in the extent to which they are failure
avoidant and success oriented.
Insert Figure 1 about here
In previous work by Martin and colleagues (Martin, 1998; Martin et al., 2001a),
failure fearers have been separated into two groups: (1) students who deal with their
fear of failure by hard work and/or success – the overstriver in Figure 1 who is high
on both failure avoidance and success orientation and (2) students who deal with their
fear of failure through counterproductive activity that is aimed more at self-protection
than attaining success the self-protector in Figure 1 who is high on failure avoidance
and low on success orientation.
The overstriver
The overstriver tends to avoid failure by succeeding (Covington & Omelich,
1991; Martin et al., 2001a). As is discussed below, this is in marked contrast to the
student who is success oriented and achieves to attain success rather than to avoid
failure. The fact that a fear of failure underpins much of what the overstriver does
means that many of the factors that are associated with fear of failure ‘come along for
the ride’ – an expression used deliberately because even though performance may be
unimpaired, the journey is far from pleasant. These concomitant factors include
anxiety, perceptions of low control, and an unstable self-esteem (Martin, 1998, 2001;
Martin et al., 2001a, 2001b).
This form of failure avoidance is quite common. As Table 1 shows, amongst
two samples of university students (first and second year students from three
universities in Sydney, Australia), around 45% agreed with survey items reflecting a
need to succeed based on a fear of failure (Martin, 1998). Amongst high school
Fear of Failure
students (Year 9, 10, and 11 students from two Australian high schools), this was 40%
(Martin, 2001).
Insert Table 1 about here
The risks inherent in this form of motivation are two-fold. First, as indicated
above, it renders the journey somewhat unpleasant – fraught with anxiety, perceptions
of low control, and unstable self-esteem (Martin et al., 2001a). Second, when
overstrivers do not succeed, failure is seen as proof of suspected incompetence and
this increases the risk of falling into the second and more counter-productive form of
failure avoidance: self-protection (Covington, 1992; Covington & Omelich, 1991;
Martin et al., 2001a). Essentially, then, overstrivers are less resilient than their
success-oriented counterparts and so in this sense what appears to be the friend can in
fact be a foe.
The self-protector
The self-protector does not aim so much to avoid failure but to avoid the
implications of failure (Covington, 1992). They avoid the implications of failure
through strategically manoeuvring in ways to protect their self-worth. In doing so,
they are able to mitigate the extent to which failure reflects poorly on their ability and
consequent self-worth (Covington, 1992). They do this in a number of ways, two of
which will be discussed here: self-handicapping and defensive pessimism.
Self-handicappers choose impediments or obstacles to successful performance
that enable them to deflect the cause of failure away from their ability and on to the
acquired impediment. In doing so, they avoid disconfirmation of a desired self-
conception (Rhodewalt & Davison, 1986). Failure under these conditions is seen as
related to the acquired impediment and not because of low ability. Examples of self-
handicapping include the strategic reduction of effort, engaging in little or no practice
Fear of Failure
for upcoming tasks, procrastination, or the choice of performance debilitating
circumstances (see Berglas & Jones, 1978; Rhodewalt & Davison, 1986). In the event
of failure, the student has a ready excuse. For example, the lack of effort is seen as the
cause and not the student’s lack of ability.
Defensive pessimism involves setting unrealistically low expectations prior to
events in which one’s performance is to be evaluated (Norem & Cantor, 1986a,
1986b). In the event of failure, the student has cognitively and affectively “steeled”
him or herself for the outcome (Norem & Cantor, 1986a, 1986b), and so in this sense,
defensive pessimism is self-protective. Moreover, setting lower, and possibly safer,
expectations can reduce the threshold for satisfactory performance (Baumgardner &
Brownlee, 1987) or serve to set performance standards that are less difficult to
achieve (Showers & Ruben, 1990). Setting lower and safer standards against which
one’s ability is judged reduces the likelihood that it will be judged as inadequate in a
way that would call into question one’s self-worth.
Of the two self-protective strategies, defensive pessimism is the most commonly
seen. As Table 1 shows, amongst university students, over one-third in their first and
second years endorse items reflecting defensive pessimism (Martin, 1998), while a
similar number of high school students agree to such items (Martin, 2001). Table 1
also shows that at least ten percent of high school students endorse items reflecting
self-handicapping while six percent of first and second year university students do so.
A cascading model of failure avoidance
Martin and colleagues (1998; Martin et al., 2001a) have also shown that the
three forms of failure avoidance can be differentiated in terms of the degree to which
they are inimical to achievement and accomplishment. Multidimensional scaling by
Martin (1998; Martin et al., 2001a) showed that when mapped in multidimensional
Fear of Failure
space, overstriving is high in success orientation and failure avoidance, defensive
pessimism is high in failure avoidance and neither high nor low in success orientation,
while self-handicapping actually borders failure acceptance. This is conceptually
feasible given that self-handicapping involves active sabotage to one’s performance,
whereas defensive pessimism primarily involves cognitive posturing that does not
necessarily put in place behavioural barriers to success. Outcomes for overstrivers are
the least impaired because they are known to work hard – but their effort is steeped in
In support of this, Martin et al. (2001a, 2001b, in press) found that self-
handicapping yielded the most markedly negative outcomes predicting lower self-
regulation, lower persistence, an unwillingness to continue with one’s studies, later
withdrawal, and lower achievement (see also Midgley, Arunkumar, & Urdan, 1996;
Midgley & Urdan, 1995; Rhodewalt & Davison, 1986). Further down the cascade,
defensive pessimism negatively predicted academic outcomes such as self-regulation,
however, the strength of predictive paths was markedly lower than those between
self-handicapping and the same outcomes. Finally, overstriving actually positively
predicted outcomes, however, was also highly correlated with anxiety – underscoring
the fact that although the outcomes may be adaptive, the journey can be unpleasant
for these people.
Perhaps the most maladaptive aspect of self-protective failure avoidance is that
it renders the individual particularly vulnerable to setback and consequently failure
acceptance or learned helplessness (Martin et al., 2001a). The self-doubt and
uncertain self-esteem that plagues the overstriver is even more pronounced in the self-
protector and setback, no matter how isolated, can have the effect of confirming the
Fear of Failure
doubts these students have about themselves and lead to a downward spiralling of
underachievement and ultimately failure acceptance (Martin, 1998).
Failure avoidance can be further differentiated in terms of the cognitions
students hold about success and failure as well as the behaviours they exhibit when
going about their studies. More specifically, they are cognitively and behaviourally
engaged with success and failure in different ways. As is discussed more fully below,
success orientation is reflected in both cognitive and behavioural engagement that is
oriented towards achievement (e.g., optimism and hard work). Overstriving is
reflected in behavioural engagement similar to success orientation but also reflects a
cognitive disposition that is more engaged with fear than success (e.g., hard work and
anxiety). Defensive pessimism represents greater cognitive engagement with fear that
is not yet carried through behaviourally (e.g., pessimism but not overtly
counterproductive behaviour). Self-handicapping reflects full cognitive engagement
with fear that is also followed through behaviourally (e.g., pessimism and negativity
yielding counterproductive behaviour). Finally, failure acceptance reflects cognitive
and behavioural disengagement from fear of failure and success.
Taken together, the data, the theory, and our hypothesising suggest that there is
something of a cascading model of failure avoidance. This model is shown in Figure 2
with the process moving from success orientation to overstriving to defensive
pessimism to self-handicapping to failure acceptance.
Insert Figure 2 about here
The arguments presented above indicate that the cascading nature of fear of
failure or failure avoidance is borne out in a number of ways. First, as the orientation
moves from overstriving to defensive pessimism and then to self-handicapping,
decreasing numbers of students (hence cascading from an item-response theory
Fear of Failure
perspective) endorse survey items measuring these constructs (see Table 1). Second,
as Martin and colleagues (Martin, 2001, Martin et al., 2001a, 2001b, in press) have
shown, achievement and other outcomes become more adversely affected the further a
student moves down the cascade. Third, multidimensional scaling maps these
constructs in ever declining success orientation and increasing failure avoidance (and
then to failure acceptance). Fourth, across university students’ first two years,
correlations between the constructs progressively decrease the more distant they
become in terms of failure avoidance and success orientation. Table 2 demonstrates.
For example, overstriving is more proximal to defensive pessimism than it is to self-
handicapping and the respective correlations support this. The fact that this finding is
supported in students’ first and second years at university (where the same students
were again assessed one year later) underscores the stability of this phenomenon.
Insert Table 2 about here
The implications of a model along these lines are three-fold. First, it shows that
students do not so much differ in kind but in degree. This means that there is likely to
be a set of common factors that underpin their orientations and which can be
harnessed in intervention (as is discussed below). Second, following from this the
model provides information on how students are oriented in terms of failure
avoidance, processes and outcomes, and cognitive and behavioural engagement.
Third, in locating students on this continuum we are able to develop appropriate
interventions. For example, if a student presents as overstriving, intervention would
primarily target cognitive aspects of their academic lives on the understanding that
behaviourally they share many characteristics with the success-oriented student. On
the other hand, intervention with self-handicappers would target both cognitive and
behavioural aspects of their academic lives (see Covington, 1992; Covington &
Fear of Failure
Omelich, 1991; Martin, 2001; Martin et al., 2001a, for conceptual and empirical
expansion of these ideas).
An alternative: Success orientation
We now revisit the central question of whether failure avoidance or fear of
failure is friend or foe. The theory and data suggest that for the overstriver, fear of
failure can be construed as a friend but not a very good one while for the self-
protector it is more clearly a foe but offers the individual self-protective rewards that
may be misconstrued as a friend of sorts. The fact that each has particular yields
makes the selection of these strategies very tempting for students.
Progressing the friendship analogy further and identifying the criteria that
constitute good friendships provides a useful heuristic for exploring alternatives. A
good friend is someone who is optimistic for us, recognises and values our abilities
and talents, is focused on our betterment, and looks beyond our weaknesses to our
strengths. Good friendships are characterised by a focus on improvement, self-
development, striving for personal potential, and autonomy/self-determination.
What emerges from this analysis of friendship and viewed from a need
achievement perspective is that friends and friendships are success oriented and
promote a success orientation. Success orientation is characterised by optimism,
energy and drive focused on achieving positive outcomes (not avoiding negative
ones), resilience to setback, and a focus on strengths rather than deficits (Atkinson
1957; Covington, 1992; Covington & Omelich, 1991; Martin, 1998, 2001, in press;
Martin et al., 2001a; McClelland, 1965). The factors that drive these processes and
outcomes are a focus on personal development, maintenance and fostering of an
individual’s sense of worth, a valuing of the relationship, and the scope for self-
Fear of Failure
determination and autonomy. It is these factors that we harness to develop the
alternative orientation success orientation.
Factors underpinning success orientation
In the educational context, Martin (2001, in press) has developed a model of
motivation and resilience that encompasses the factors described above that underpin
success orientation. Four (psychometrically sound and reliable – see Martin, 2001)
factors in his model that are particularly congruent with our criteria underpinning
friendship are self-belief (mean target loading=.53; Cronbach’s alpha=.81), learning
focus (mean target loading=.54; Cronbach’s alpha=.79), value of school (mean target
loading=.54; Cronbach’s alpha=.79), and perceived control (mean target loading=.66;
Cronbach’s alpha=.85). Most importantly, it is these factors that are the conduits for
intervention aimed at promoting success orientation (Martin, 2001). Each of these
four factors is explored in turn.
Self-belief: Self-belief is students’ belief and confidence in their ability to
understand or to do well in what they set out to do, to meet challenges they face, and
to perform to the best of their ability. Self-belief is important for three primary
reasons. First, it constitutes a generative capacity such that students high in self-belief
tend to generate and test alternative courses of action when they do not meet with
initial success. Second, self-belief enhances students’ functioning through elevated
levels of effort and persistence. Third, self-belief enhances students’ ability to deal
with a problem situation by influencing cognitive and emotional processes related to
the situation (Bandura, 1986, 1997). Students low in self-belief tend to focus on their
deficiencies rather than their strengths and view situations as more difficult than they
are in reality (Bandura, 1986, 1997). Self-belief has been linked to a number of
adaptive outcomes including self-regulation, effort, persistence, and achievement
Fear of Failure
(Marsh, 1990; Martin & Debus, 1998; Meece, Wigfield, & Eccles, 1990; Pintrich &
Blumenfeld, 1985; Schunk, 1990; Skinner, Wellborn, & Connell, 1990).
Value of school: Value of school is how much students believe what they learn
or do is useful, important, and relevant to them or to the world in general. When
students see the importance and usefulness of what they learn and do, they tend to be
more engaged in tasks and are in a stronger position to achieve (Martin, 2001, in
press). A value of school is also relevant to resilience in the sense that it is related to
persistence in the face of challenge and even adversity (Martin, 2001, in press) and it
is this persistence that demarcates students that abandon tasks prematurely from those
who are able to effectively meet challenges. A value of school can also strengthen
students for tough times in the way that it also predicts their willingness to continue
with their studies in the future (Martin & Debus, 1998).
Learning focus: Learning focus refers to a focus on solving problems and
developing skills. If students are learning focused they tend to work hard, want to
learn more, enjoy learning new things, enjoy solving problems, and do a good job for
its own satisfaction and not just for rewards. Learning-focused students are focused on
mastery rather than outperforming others. These students see achievement on tasks as
reflecting more on their effort than their ability and failure is viewed as diagnostic
feedback that can lead to improvement at a later time (Middleton & Midgley, 1997).
Because of this effort and mastery emphasis, learning-focused students are not so
threatened by failure because failure says more about their effort and strategy than
their ability. It has been found that learning-focused individuals choose challenging
tasks and are less inclined to worry about performance (Duda, 1995). Moreover,
learning focus is linked to the practice of mastery strategies and negatively correlated
with avoidance strategies (Lochbaum & Roberts, 1993).
Fear of Failure
Control: Control refers to the extent to which students believe they are able to
avoid failure and achieve success. Students who believe they have little or no control
over outcomes are increasingly uncertain as to whether they can avoid failure or bring
about success. When students are low in perceived control, they are more likely to
engage in counterproductive behaviour such as self-handicapping or may give up
altogether along the lines of learned helplessness (Martin et al., 2001a, 2001b).
Perceived control predicts individuals’ persistence, attention, effort, and participation
(Patrick, Skinner, & Connell, 1993) while uncertain control is negatively correlated
with achievement, mastery motivation, competence evaluation, and competence affect
(Harter & Connell, 1984). Moreover, individuals high on an uncertain control
dimension are likely to score significantly lower on IQ tests and others’ ratings of
competence and are also low in mastery orientation (Connell, 1985).
Strategies for promoting success orientation
Consistent with the proposition that success orientation is multifaceted, it
follows that intervention or prevention strategies must also be multifaceted. In line
with the four pivotal factors identified above, a series of strategies is put forward
aimed at enhancing students’ self-belief, value of school, perceived control, and
learning focus.
Strategies to enhance self-belief: Self-belief is perhaps the most critical facet to
develop primarily because it is one of the strongest predictors of task achievement and
engagement (Bandura, 1986, 1997; Marsh, 1990; Martin & Debus, 1998). It has been
shown that one of the strongest predictors of a positive self-belief is students’ previous
experience of success (Marsh, 1990). Thus, from an educator’s perspective, enhancing
students’ self-belief involves structuring activities so as to maximise their
opportunities for success. One way to do this is to break class work into smaller and
Fear of Failure
more manageable components (‘chunking’) so that students can experience small
successes along the way thus building confidence and intrinsic motivation. Students
can also be encouraged to chunk their own schoolwork tasks in a similar way. Another
behavioural strategy is to build ‘hard skills’ such as study management and time
management. Research into behaviour analysis shows that students can be taught study
and self management strategies with the results of increasing the time they spend on
tasks (e.g., homework), enhancing their academic achievement, and experiencing less
problems with completing tasks (Olympia, Sheridan, Jenson, & Andrews, 1994).
Of course, for a more comprehensive approach to enhancing students’ self-
belief, educators should address both behavioural and cognitive dimensions.
Accordingly, challenging students’ negative thinking and encouraging them to also do
this is relevant here. For example, harnessing principles of cognitive-behavioural
therapy (Beck, 1976; Meichenbaum, 1974), we encourage students to challenge their
negative thinking by teaching them the skills they require to observe their automatic
thoughts when they receive feedback or are assigned tasks, showing them how to look
for the evidence that challenges their negative thinking, and then encouraging them to
challenge these thoughts with this evidence. Another cognitive strategy is to maximise
students’ opportunities for success by repositioning their perception of success in
terms of personal bests and improvement – outcomes accessible to all students
(Covington, 1992).
Strategies to enhance perceived value of school: The issues of relevance and
meaning are what underpin students’ value of school. Enhancing the relevance and
meaning of school requires educators to link what is taught in class with students’
lives or interests, students’ talents, what they may do when they leave school, and
perhaps what they do in other parts of their lives. Doing one or more of these things
Fear of Failure
builds opportunities for students to see the relevance, utility, and importance of what
they do – this builds a value of school. It is also important to show students that what
they learn not only teaches them facts but also how to think and analyse and that these
skills help them in many walks of life including later workplace responsibilities, their
social and personal lives, and other areas of their lives such as sport. Moreover,
educators themselves must be role models by showing that they value what they are
teaching (McInerney, 2000).
Strategies to enhance learning focus: Researchers make a distinction between
a learning focus and a performance focus (Duda & Nicholls, 1992; Martin & Debus,
1998; Middleton & Midgley, 1997). Learning focus refers to an individual’s focus on
the task at hand, mastery on it, developing new skills, and extending him or herself. A
learning focus is also underpinned by an individual’s focus on effort and strategy
rather than ability (Martin et al., 2001a, 2001b, in press; Middleton & Midgley, 1997).
Essentially, it reflects a focus on process. Performance focus refers to an individual’s
focus on outcomes and how performance on the task will be judged or evaluated.
Essentially, it reflects a focus on outcomes. Following from this, enhancing students’
learning focus essentially involves promoting a focus on mastery and skill
development, aspiring to personal bests rather than outperforming others (Martin,
2001, in press), emphasising effort and strategy as the key means to mastery (Craven,
Marsh, & Debus, 1991; Martin et al., 2001a), and encouraging students to focus on the
task at hand and how to do it (McInerney, 2000; Nicholls, 1989; Qin, Johnson, &
Johnson, 1995). In essence, these strategies encourage students to focus on the task at
hand and this reduces cognitive interference in the form of concern (or fear) about how
they are being evaluated or their performance relative to others.
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Research into class climate also provides direction for enhancing students’
learning focus (Urdan, Midgley, & Anderman, 1998). Not only does a learning focus
differ at the individual level, it can also vary at a group level. This is not uncommon in
classrooms, sporting teams, or workplaces. Ideally, then, we need to not only address a
learning focus at the individual level but also at the group level. Three ways to affect a
group- or class-level learning focus are through peer tutoring, cooperative learning, or
collaborative learning (Kamps, Barhetta, Leonard, & Delquadri, 1994; Killen, 1998).
For example, Kamps et al. (1994) found that classwide peer tutoring in reading not
only facilitates interactions between students in the class but also enhances reading
fluency and correct responses to reading comprehension.
Strategies to enhance control: Attribution research shows that amongst the key
means to enhance students’ sense of control is to encourage them to focus on causes of
success and failure that are within their control (Weiner, 1985, 1994). The core causal
factors within students’ control are effort (how much work they do) and strategy (how
they do that work). Students develop a sense of control when they focus on the
connection between their effort (and strategy) and outcomes. Students also develop a
sense of control when they see that they are able to make choices and decisions in
class that affect the way work is done. One way to do this is to provide students with
choices (within sensible and clearly thought-out parameters) over class objectives,
assessment tasks, criteria for assessment, and due dates for work assigned (McInerney,
2000). Students’ control is also enhanced when they know what they need to do to
maintain good performance and to minimise the risk of poor performance. This
requires educators to provide students with feedback in effective and consistent ways
(Martens, 1992; Martens & Mellor, 1990). Research shows that feedback that
enhances a sense of control is primarily task based and makes it very clear how they
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can improve (Craven et al., 1991; Martin et al., 2001b). Enhancing students’ control is
also about reducing uncertainty in their academic lives. Students who are uncertain as
to why they received a particular mark or outcome have a low sense of control
(Thompson, 1994). Hence, an important strategy to reduce students’ uncertainty is to
administer rewards that are directly contingent on what they do and reduce
inconsistent reward contingencies that can create confusion and uncertainty in
students’ minds as to what they did to receive that reward and how they should go
about things next time around (Thompson, 1994).
Effective goal setting combined with effective reinforcement (as described
above) can be an even more powerful way to enhance students’ sense of control and
also their achievement (Martens, Witt, Daly, & Vollmer, 1999; McInerney, 2000;
Miller & Kelley, 1994). Effective goal setting requires that goals are achievable,
believable, clear, and desirable (ABCD – McInerney, 2000) and when these criteria
are met students have a greater sense of direction and capacity.
Other issues relevant to these strategies: The relationship between the
quadripolar model and the four strategies is, we propose, bi-directional in that (a) the
strategies are a means to improve students’ orientations to their studies and (b) the
quadripolar model is a means to assist interventions using these strategies. In relation
to the former, the four strategies are a means to shift students up the cascade towards
success orientation. Obviously the further down the cascade students are located, the
more intensively these strategies would need to be implemented over a longer period
of time. Conversely, the quadripolar model is also a means to classify students and this
classification leads to assessments that can better guide practitioners and educators in
their application of cognitive and behavioural strategies.
Future directions
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Although this paper is primarily aimed at answering a specific question
(friend or foe?), along the way a number of new ideas and propositions have emerged
that require further analysis and empirical verification. It was proposed that failure
avoidance orientations are attractive to the student because they can enhance
achievement or offer self-protection opportunities. There is a need to explore
strategies in the classroom and counselling contexts to promote the attractiveness of
success orientation. This will require addressing such issues as peer group influence,
family backgrounds, and even the school culture. Following from this, some solid
intervention research is needed to examine the impact of assistance on the four facets
proposed here to underpin success orientation – self-belief, control, learning focus,
and value of school.
The cascading model of failure avoidance is a new representation of need
achievement theory and requires verification. This might involve tracking students
and their cognitive and behavioural movement over time to explore shifts along the
lines of that presented in the model. Also, requiring further empirical consideration is
the interface of self-belief, control, learning focus, and value of schooling and each
stage of the cascade with particular emphasis on which facets and in what degree
are most effective in moving students up the cascade towards success orientation.
The impact of the learning climate on students’ fear of failure must also be
addressed. The learning climate has been shown to hold implications for students’
motivation and has also been linked to students’ tendency to self-protect (Midgley &
Urdan, 1995). This raises the issue of students’ contexts and how they impact on
other aspects of their academic lives. For example, the learning climate and its
impact on defensive pessimism has not been addressed to date. Also, the impact of
altering the learning climate (e.g., from competitive to cooperative - see Johnson &
Fear of Failure
Johnson, 1989; Qin et al., 1995) on students’ academic strategies has not been
studied and future research might focus on this with a view to identifying
interventions that can take place at class and institutional levels.
This paper began with what seemed like a silly question. Examination of the
evidence and the separation of fear of failure or failure avoidance into two groups
indicated that it is not such a silly question. In some respects fear of failure can be a
friend of sorts – but not a very good one, and in other respects it is more a foe – but
with some self-protective advantages. Pursuing the friendship analogy a little further,
four characteristics of adaptive friendships were identified that are congruent with
factors underpinning a model of success orientation developed by Martin (2001, in
press). The factors self-belief, learning focus, value of school, and control – are each
important means by which success orientation is nurtured in students’ lives and thus
important points of intervention for practitioners operating in contexts where students
fear failure and are motivated to avoid it.
Fear of Failure
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Footnote 1. Throughout the paper, ‘fear of failure’ and ‘failure avoidance’ are often
used interchangeably. It is recognised, however, that fear of failure is a cognitive
phenomenon and failure avoidance is its behavioural counterpart.
Fear of Failure
Table 1. Percentage of three samples agreeing to items in subscales
High School
First Year Uni
Second Year Uni
Defensive pessimism
Note. Subscales are not independent so students can endorse items on more than one subscale
Fear of Failure
Table 2. Time 1 and Time 2 correlations (n=328 university students)
Notes: All correlations significant at p<0.05; Bolded coefficients are test-retest correlations (1-year time lapse)
Coefficients in diagonal are reliability coefficients (Cronbach’s alpha)
OS=Overstriving; DP=Defensive Pessimism; SH=Self-Handicapping
Fear of Failure
Figure 1
Quadripolar model of need achievement
adapted from Covington (1992)
Failure fearer I:
Failure accepter
Failure fearer II:
Fear of Failure
Figure 2. Cascading model of failure avoidance
Failure Avoidance I
(eg. Overstriving)
Failure Acceptance
(eg. Learned Helpless)
Success Orientation
Adaptive concomitants:
success focus, effort
attributions, perceived
control, high and stable
Adaptive outcomes:
persistence, self-
regulation, future
plans, resilience.
Counterproductive concomitants: focus on failure and self-protection, helpless attributions,
perceived lack of control, unstable self-belief and self-doubt, anxiety.
Counterproductive outcomes: withdrawal, poor achievement, low persistence, low resilience.
Failure Avoidance II
(eg. Defensive Pessimism)
Failure Avoidance II
(eg. Self-Handicapping)
(a) Cognitively engaged
and (b) Behaviourally
engaged with success
(a) Beginning to
engage cognitively
with fear but (b)
Behaviourally engaged
with success
(a) Cognitively
engaged with fear and
(b) Beginning to
behaviourally engage
with fear
(a) Cognitively engaged
with fear and (b)
Behaviourally engaged
with fear
(a) Cognitively
disengaged and (b)
disengaged from fear
and success
... Hana also presented her mark in a conversation with her teacher who observed that she was about to quit her learning, she lost motivation, and she was misbehaving in his class (See extract 44). Hana's loss of motivation can be interpreted as an outcome of the feeling of fear (Martin and Marsh, 2003), as she noted that she feared failing in her final school exam. Chams also demonstrated her mentor's support, and said what her uncle did for her, had an enduring impact on her life and learning experiences (See extract 51). ...
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This research aims to understand how English as a foreign language (EFL) learners develop their learning identities. While there has been interest on second language (L2) Self in immigrant contexts, not much has been investigated in EFL contexts. This research is conducted with a group of ten women who are second year bachelor students in Tlemcen University, Algeria. The students’ learning process: their past, and present learning experiences, and their future imagined identity. This research investigates how they have been influenced by their sociocultural backgrounds, and how the social factors contributed to the development of their learning identities, hence how these factors helped them reshape their EFL learning identity. This thesis discusses the key theoretical perspectives on identity through the sociocultural theory. The literature gives a theoretical understanding of narrative, which informs about the key concepts in language learning: identity, agency, investment and imagined identity. A narrative perspective is merged with a broad meaning of experiential learning, scaffolding, and ‘process writing’ to engage the students in a reflective narrative activity. A narrative approach has been used in two ways: (1) the narrative was used as a methodology, within which a narrative model was designed to assist the students to reflect on their learning experiences in the mentioned periods. (2) Students’ written narratives were collected for data analysis. Focus group discussion is employed as a method to further investigate the themes which emerged from the narratives. My original contribution to the methodology is the applicability of process writing with narrative writing. The results of this research provide insights into the social factors which are presented as ‘mentors’ and ‘marks’. My original contribution to the theory is the representation of ‘mentors’ and ‘marks’ as socio-cultural influencing factors which contributed to the emergence of students’ learning agency in their early learning. This means that agency pre-existed in the past learning experiences, and it is expanded on in the present through language learning. Students’ agency is also discussed as a process of continuity and change. These social factors enable them to develop new self-images. The future is discussed in relation to both the past and the present experiences, and it reveals the students’ ability to imagine their future identities when they will become teachers. Experiences of the past have not constrained the students’ agency, but they have created a salient impact which involved multiple social identities: learning identity, religious identity, language identity, and future imagined/teaching identity.
... Having students' own questions included in the learning process can support a sense of autonomy for learning, which is a powerful motivator for learning (Grolnick and Ryan, 1987). Together, these methods can all help to support a learning culture where mistakes are not seen as something to try and avoid (Martin and Marsh, 2003;Martin, 2011), and instead puts the focus on the learning process whereby inquiry is valued and appreciated. ...
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Curiosity is widely acknowledged as a crucial aspect of children’s development and as an important part of the learning process, with prior research showing associations between curiosity and achievement. Despite this evidence, there is little research on the development of curiosity or on promoting curiosity in school settings, and measures of curiosity promotion in the classroom are absent from the published literature. This article introduces the Curiosity in Classrooms (CiC) Framework coding protocol, a tool for observing and coding instructional practices that support the promotion of curiosity. We describe the development of the framework and observation instrument and the results of a feasibility study using the protocol, which gives a descriptive overview of curiosity-promoting instruction in 35 elementary-level math lessons. Our discussion includes lessons learned from this work and suggestions for future research using the developed observation tool.
... This literature is large (Schwinger et al., 2021), and there has been a great deal of discussion around students' motivations to achieve their academic goals, and the outcomes of their success pertaining to how they approach their academics (Ross et al., 2002). Many different factors influence these outcomes (Elliot and McGregor, 2001;Elliot and Church, 2003), from self-esteem (Rhodewalt and Tragakis, 2002;Covington, 2004), personality traits (Ross et al., 2002;Conrad and Patry, 2012), self-efficacy (Arazzini Stewart and De George-Walker, 2014), self-concept, and several emotionalmotivational variables (Dweck, 2017) such as fear of failure (Elliot and Church, 2003;Martin and Marsh, 2003;De Castella et al., 2013), avoidance, test anxiety (Martin et al., 2014), and past levels of achievement (Covington, 2004), all leading to selfhandicapping (Schwinger et al., 2014). Understanding students' achievement goals will give an insight into many factors relevant to student success outcomes. ...
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There are many factors that influence the first-year university student experience, and these factors can vary depending on student characteristics. In this research, using survey data, we explore differences between domestic Canadian and international (non-Canadian) first year university students across four categories that have been identified in past research. These categories broadly influence student success: individual factors, psychological needs, social relationships and connections to campus, and learning preferences and behaviors. Two hundred and seventy-two students (domestic: N = 185, international: N = 86) responded to quantitative individual difference items. International students reported greater drive, higher self-esteem, and placed greater importance on strong social networks, social life, and faith. Further, as compared to domestic first-year students, international students reported higher campus engagement, greater preferences for textbooks and online tutorials, being alone with their thoughts, higher confidence with their major choice, and reported studying more. Importantly, international students were less likely to feel they had a safe place to live in comparison to domestic students (all p < 0.05). These data show that international students come to campus with differential needs, styles, and experiences, which can inform approaches taken by institutions in supporting their students’ success.
... FoF has numerous detrimental effects on students, especially in those who are failure avoidant. It is associated with higher anxiety levels, self-doubt, and lower self-estimate (Elliot and Thrash, 2004;Martin and Marsh, 2003). ...
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Background Fear of failure (FoF) is described as a “dispositional tendency to avoid failure in achievement settings.” It may potentially and adversely affect students’ ability to perform well in their educational activities. Objectives To measure FoF among medical students at King Saud University, FoF between men and women, academic levels, grade point average (GPA), and other factors among medical students were compared. Method A cross-sectional observational study was carried out using a stratified random sampling method. A total of 455 medical students completed “the Performance Failure Appraisal Inventory” during the academic year 2019–2020 at King Saud University, Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. Results The results showed that the mean of FoF was −0.3117. Moreover, higher levels of fear of devaluing one’s self-estimate were seen in women, and higher levels of fear of important others losing interest were seen in men. A significant relation was seen between different academic levels and fear of shame and embarrassment, fear of upsetting important others, as well as FoF. Higher levels of FoF were seen in those who had a GPA below 3.5 and a GPA greater than 4.9. Also, it was high in students who were not interested in studying medicine. The Cronbach’s α value of 0.93 of all items indicates good internal consistency, and the factor analysis confirms five items of an instrument. Conclusion The overall level of FoF was low among medical students at King Saud University. However, the domains and levels of FoF differed significantly according to gender, academic level, GPA, and interest in studying medicine.
... Fear of failure can be characterized as experiencing discomfort at the thought of failing to display one's abilities, while hope for success encompasses the desire to improve one's abilities (Engeser, 2005;Steinmayr & Spinath, 2009a;Steinmayr et al., 2019). Hope for success was found to contribute positively to general school performance (Steinmayr & Spinath, 2009b), while fear of failure was associated with higher anxiety, self-handicapping, and low resilience (Martin & Marsh, 2003). A meta-analysis (Severiens & Dam, 1998) as well as a study from Germany (Engeser, 2005) highlighted that women scored higher on fear of failure than men. ...
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Gender differences in school are often discussed in reference to a particular type of masculinity, negative masculinity, which is often conceptualized as detrimental to success. Another type of masculinity, instrumentality, has rarely been studied in schools even though instrumental characteristics are often exalted outside the academic context. The current study focuses on potential benefits that students may reap from instrumentality. The extent to which an instrumental self-concept is directly and indirectly associated with achievement motivation and self-esteem was examined for adolescent boys and girls in a structural equation model (SEM). A sample of German ninth graders (N = 355) completed self-report measures pertaining to their gender role self-concept, hope for success, fear of failure, and global and academic contingent self-esteem. The SEM revealed that instrumentality was associated with lower fear of failure and higher hope for success for both male and female adolescents. High scores in instrumentality were associated with greater self-esteem and lower academic contingent self-esteem. The association between instrumentality and global self-esteem was stronger for adolescent girls, and the indirect association between instrumentality and fear of failure through global self-esteem was significant only for girls. Results indicate that instrumentality can be an asset for students and that female students especially reap the benefits of an instrumental self-concept. The results are discussed in reference to the dangers of emphasizing solely the association between negative masculinity and academic failure, and the importance of studying relations with gender role self-concept separately for male and female adolescents.
... Fear of failure, especially in the domain of fear of experiencing shame and embarrassment can cause for psychological stress and mental burnout, such as emotional and physical exhaustion, which can thus reduce an individual's sense of accomplishment (Walburg et al., 2015). Although some individuals may find fear of failure to be a deterrent to overall well-being, to others, it may serve as an intrinsic motivator to avoid failure (Martin & Marsh, 2003). Individuals who have experienced academic failure events may understand the negative ramifications surrounding failure; the fear of these consequences may impact the wisdom needed when faced with subsequent adversity. ...
... Nuestros resultados son consistentes con los de la investigación precedente (e.g., Martin y Marsh, 2003;Rodríguez, 1999), indicando la existencia de un porcentaje nada desdeñable de estudiantes que recurre con asiduidad a estas estrategias. En este sentido, nuestros hallazgos ponen de manifiesto que entre un 15% y un 20% del alumnado encuestado afirma utilizar con bastante frecuencia el self-handicapping (en cualquiera de sus formas) y el pesimismo defensivo. ...
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Para algunos estudiantes, un bajo rendimiento es sinónimo de baja competencia personal. En aras de proteger sus propios sentimientos de valía, estos estudiantes se implican propositivamente en la adopción de complejas estrategias como el self-handicapping o el pesimismo defensivo. Si bien este tipo de estrategias cumplen a corto plazo su objetivo autoprotector, su utilización recurrente suele conllevar a largo plazo importantes perjuicios para la salud y el rendimiento académico. El presente estudio pretende analizar la prevalencia del self-handicapping (activo y alegado) y del pesimismo defensivo en una muestra de estudiantes universitarios. 592 estudiantes (Medad = 21.31; DTedad = 3.18) de la Universidade da Coruña formaron parte de la investigación. Para analizar la prevalencia en la utilización de estas tres estrategias se efectuó un análisis de frecuencias, tanto con la muestra en su conjunto como en función del género. Respecto a esta última variable, se efectuó una tabla de contingencia y se calculó el estadístico chi-cuadrado (χ2) de Pearson. Los resultados obtenidos evidenciaron una utilización frecuente de las estrategias de self-handicapping y pesimismo defensivo en el 15-20% del alumnado encuestado. Respecto al género, se observó que los estudiantes varones utilizaban con una frecuencia significativamente más elevada la estrategia de self-handicapping activo que las mujeres. Estos hallazgos se discuten y analizan a la luz de sus implicaciones educativas. En este sentido, se proporcionan algunas indicaciones a tener en cuenta por el profesorado para reducir la tendencia del estudiantado a recurrir a las estrategias de autoprotección de la valía personal.
... In spite of the inevitability and ubiquity of errors, organizations habitually hold aversive attitudes toward error occurrence, associating errors with failure, a lack of competence, indifference, disengagement, and untrustworthiness (Wang et al., 2020a). Moreover, as socialization processes long have led errors to be stigmatized as negative events, individuals tend to be intolerant of errors in order to protect their self-esteem (e.g., Martin and Marsh, 2003). Employees are sometimes motivated to be intolerant of others' errors as a way to show their personal commitment to high standards (Wang et al., 2020b). ...
Service management researchers have clearly demonstrated that customers experience various emotions in service failure situations. In comparison, hospitality employees’ emotional experiences in such situations, are relatively unknown, as they are often required to hide experienced emotions and express emotions in ways consistent with industry standards. To address this gap, we examine the typical emotional experience of shame in the wake of service failure and explain how it influences employees’ job behaviors—service recovery performance and organizational citizenship behavior—via self-efficacy beliefs. Furthermore, we draw on social information processing to introduce error tolerance as a social persuasion buffer that mitigates the negative effects of shame on self-efficacy perceptions. Survey data collected from 217 subordinate-supervisor dyads employed in restaurant settings reveal that shame experienced weakened employees’ self-efficacy beliefs, and these weakened beliefs were in turn negatively associated with job behaviors. Finally, error tolerance significantly moderated the relationship between shame and self-efficacy.
The ability to navigate scientific obstacles is widely recognized as a hallmark of a scientific disposition and is one predictor of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics persistence for early-career scientists. However, the development of this competency in undergraduate research has been largely underexplored. This study addresses this gap by examining introductory students' emotional and behavioral responses to research-related challenges and failures that occur in two sequential research-based courses. We describe commonly reported emotions, coping responses, and perceived outcomes and examine relationships between these themes, student demographics, and course enrollment. Students commonly experience frustration, confusion, and disappointment when coping with challenges and failures. Yet the predominance of students report coping responses likely to be adaptive in academic contexts despite experiencing negative emotions. Being enrolled in the second course of a research-based course sequence was related to several shifts in response to challenges during data collection, including less reporting of confusion and fewer reports of learning to be cautious from students. Overall, students in both the first and second courses reported many positive outcomes indicating improvements in their ability to cope with challenge and failure. We assert that educators can improve research-based educational courses by scaffolding students' research trials, failures, and iterations to support students' perseverance.
In this study, the authors investigated the attitudes of Japanese junior high school students towards studying English from the perspective of the Self-worth Theory. A total of 383 students aged 12 to 15 years participated in the qualitative study. Students were required to write three essays about how they would react under hypothetical circumstances in which their feelings of self-worth might be threatened. The contents of the students’ essays were analysed and matched with mechanisms within the quadrants of Covington’s Quadripolar Model of Achievement Motivation. Overall, the results suggested that the adolescents appeared to show traits of low defensive pessimism, high self-handicapping, and high helplessness, placing the students on the borderline of the Self-protectors and the Failure Acceptors. Reasons for the findings and pedagogical implications will be discussed.
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In this chapter a theory of motivation and emotion developed from an attributional perspective is presented. Before undertaking this central task, it might be beneficial to review the progression of the book. In Chapter 1 it was suggested that causal attributions have been prevalent throughout history and in disparate cultures. Studies reviewed in Chapter 2 revealed a large number of causal ascriptions within motivational domains, and different ascriptions in disparate domains. Yet some attributions, particularly ability and effort in the achievement area, dominate causal thinking. To compare and contrast causes such as ability and effort, their common denominators or shared properties were identified. Three causal dimensions, examined in Chapter 3, are locus, stability, and controllability, with intentionality and globality as other possible causal properties. As documented in Chapter 4, the perceived stability of a cause influences the subjective probability of success following a previous success or failure; causes perceived as enduring increase the certainty that the prior outcome will be repeated in the future. And all the causal dimensions, as well as the outcome of an activity and specific causes, influence the emotions experienced after attainment or nonattainment of a goal. The affects linked to causal dimensions include pride (with locus), hopelessness and resignation (with stability), and anger, gratitude, guilt, pity, and shame (with controllability).
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This paper assesses the psychometric properties of the Student Motivation Scale, an instrument measuring school students' motivation. Motivation is assessed through nine measures, separated into what are referred to as boosters and guzzlers. Boosters are constructs that reflect adaptive motivation and guzzlers are constructs that reflect less adaptive motivation. Boosters are subsumed by thoughts (self-belief, learning focus, value of schooling) and behaviours (persistence and planning and monitoring). Guzzlers are subsumed by thoughts or feelings (low control and anxiety) and behaviours (avoidance and self-sabotage). Data show that the Student Motivation Scale has a clear factor structure reflecting the hypothesised five boosters and four guzzlers, is reliable, and correlated with achievement. Gender and year level differences also emerge: girls are significantly more learning focused and engage in more planning and monitoring than boys; girls are significantly more anxious than boys; Year 9 students are significantly lower than Year 10 and Year 11 students in learning focus, significantly higher than Year 11 students in avoidance, and significantly higher than Year 10 and Year 11 students in self-sabotage. Strategies for intervention are discussed in the context of these findings and the issue of academic resilience is introduced as an additional aspect of motivation that the Student Motivation Scale is able to assess.
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A new conceptualization of perceived control was used to test a process model describing the contribution of these perceptions to school achievement for students in elementary school (N = 220). Three sets of beliefs were distinguished: (a) expectations about whether one can influence success and failure in school (control beliefs); (b) expectations about the strategies that are effective in producing academic outcomes; and (c) expectations about one's own capacities to execute these strategies. Correlational and path analyses were consistent with a process model which predicted that children's perceived control (self-report) influences academic performance (grades and achievement test scores) by promoting or undermining active engagement in learning activities (as reported by teachers) and that teachers positively influence children's perceived control by provision of contingency and involvement (as reported by students). These results have implications for theories of perceived control and also suggest one pathway by which teachers can enhance children's motivation in school.
In 2 experiments, college student Ss were instructed to choose between a drug that allegedly interfered with performance and a drug that allegedly enhanced performance. This choice was the main dependent measure of the experiment. The drug choice intervened between work on soluble or insoluble problems and a promised retest on similar problems. In Exp I with 68 males and 43 females, all Ss received success feedback after their initial problem-solving attempts, thus creating one condition in which the success appeared to be accidental (noncontingent on performance) and one in which the success appeared to be contingent on appropriate knowledge. Males in the noncontingent-success condition were alone in preferring the performance-inhibiting drug, presumably because they wished to externalize probable failure on the retest. The predicted effect, however, did not hold for female Ss. Exp II, with 87 Ss, replicated the unique preference shown by males after noncontingent success and showed the critical importance of success feedback. (18 ref) (PsycINFO Database Record (c) 2006 APA, all rights reserved).
The learned helplessness hypothesis is criticized and reformulated. The old hypothesis, when applied to learned helplessness in humans, has two major problems: (a) It does not distinguish between cases in which outcomes are uncontrollable for all people and cases in which they are uncontrollable only for some people (univervsal vs. personal helplessness), and (b) it does not explain when helplessness is general and when specific, or when chronic and when acute. A reformulation based on a revision of attribution theory is proposed to resolve these inadequacies. According to the reformulation, once people perceive noncontingency, they attribute their helplessness to a cause. This cause can be stable or unstable, global or specific, and internal or external. The attribution chosen influences whether expectation of future helplessness will be chronic or acute, broad or narrow, and whether helplessness will lower self-esteem or not. The implications of this reformulation of human helplessness for the learned helplessness model of depression are outlined.