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Unmotivated or Motivated to Fail? A Cross-Cultural Study of Achievement Motivation, Fear of Failure, and Student Disengagement

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A classic distinction in the literature on achievement and motivation is between fear of failure and success orientations. From the perspective of self-worth theory, these motives are not bipolar constructs but dimensions that interact in ways that make some students particularly vulnerable to underachievement and disengagement from school. The current study employs the quadripolar model of need achievement (Covington, 1992; Covington & Omelich, 1988) to explore how these approach and avoidance orientations are related to self-handicapping, defensive pessimism, and helplessness in Eastern and Western settings. Although there have been numerous calls for research of this kind across cultures (Elliott & Bempechat, 2002; Jose & Kilburg, 2007; Pintrich, 2003), little exists in the field to date. In Study 1, with 1,423 Japanese high school students, helplessness and self-handicapping were found to be highest when students were low in success orientation and high in fear of failure. These findings were replicated in Study 2 with 643 Australian students and extended to measures of truancy, disengagement, and self-reported academic achievement. Consistent with self-worth theory, success orientation largely moderated the relationship between fear of failure and academic engagement in both cultures. These results suggest that in the absence of firm achievement goals, fear of failure is associated with a range of maladaptive self-protective strategies. The current project thus represents a unique application of self-worth theory to achievement dynamics and clarifies substantive issues relevant to self-handicapping and disengagement across cultures.
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Journal of Educational Psychology
Unmotivated or Motivated to Fail? A Cross-Cultural Study
of Achievement Motivation, Fear of Failure, and Student
Disengagement
Krista De Castella, Don Byrne, and Martin Covington
Online First Publication, April 29, 2013. doi: 10.1037/a0032464
CITATION
De Castella, K., Byrne, D., & Covington, M. (2013, April 29). Unmotivated or Motivated to
Fail? A Cross-Cultural Study of Achievement Motivation, Fear of Failure, and Student
Disengagement. Journal of Educational Psychology. Advance online publication. doi:
10.1037/a0032464
Unmotivated or Motivated to Fail? A Cross-Cultural Study of Achievement
Motivation, Fear of Failure, and Student Disengagement
Krista De Castella and Don Byrne
The Australian National University
Martin Covington
University of California, Berkeley
A classic distinction in the literature on achievement and motivation is between fear of failure and
success orientations. From the perspective of self-worth theory, these motives are not bipolar
constructs but dimensions that interact in ways that make some students particularly vulnerable to
underachievement and disengagement from school. The current study employs the quadripolar
model of need achievement (Covington, 1992; Covington & Omelich, 1988) to explore how these
approach and avoidance orientations are related to self-handicapping, defensive pessimism, and
helplessness in Eastern and Western settings. Although there have been numerous calls for research
of this kind across cultures (Elliott & Bempechat, 2002; Jose & Kilburg, 2007; Pintrich, 2003), little
exists in the field to date. In Study 1, with 1,423 Japanese high school students, helplessness and
self-handicapping were found to be highest when students were low in success orientation and high
in fear of failure. These findings were replicated in Study 2 with 643 Australian students and
extended to measures of truancy, disengagement, and self-reported academic achievement. Consis-
tent with self-worth theory, success orientation largely moderated the relationship between fear of
failure and academic engagement in both cultures. These results suggest that in the absence of firm
achievement goals, fear of failure is associated with a range of maladaptive self-protective strategies.
The current project thus represents a unique application of self-worth theory to achievement
dynamics and clarifies substantive issues relevant to self-handicapping and disengagement across
cultures.
Keywords: fear of failure, achievement, motivation, self-handicapping, defensive pessimism
All students, even the seemingly unmotivated, care about being
seen as competent and able in the eyes of others. And yet, despite
the undeniable benefits of trying hard, effort puts students at risk.
Success without trying can indicate one has talent, but failure
following effort is often viewed as compelling evidence that one
lacks ability. In evaluative contexts in which students are con-
cerned with the implications of failure, they can thus seek to avoid
failure by succeeding, or they can manage these fears by altering
the personal meaning of failure (e.g., by expecting the worst or by
controlling the circumstances that bring it about).
The motives to avoid failure and approach success have a long
history in the achievement and motivation literature (see A. J.
Elliot & Covington, 2001, for a review). They have been discussed
as implicit needs that “drive” behavior (Atkinson, 1957; McClel-
land, 1965; McClelland, Atkinson, Clark, & Lowell, 1953); as
neuropsychological systems (Carver & White, 1994; Gray, 1991),
temperaments (A. J. Elliot & Thrash, 2002), and attributions
(Weiner, 1972; Weiner & Kukla, 1970); and as orientations that
are malleable and closely linked with students’ achievement goals
(Conroy & Elliot, 2004; Covington, 1984, 1992; Covington &
Beery, 1976; E. S. Elliot & Dweck, 1988). Regardless of how these
constructs are labeled, a consistent theme emerges when describ-
ing failure-fearing and success-oriented students: The former are
characterized by their fears and self-doubts and the latter by their
motivation, resilience, and enthusiasm for learning (Covington,
1992; A. J. Elliot & Church, 1997; E. S. Elliot & Dweck, 1988).
In early work classifying students as success oriented or failure
avoidant, researchers considered these motives to be opposite ends
of a bipolar spectrum, with people differing only in relative
amounts of hope and fear (Feather, 1961, 1963; Litwin, 1966;
Moulton, 1965). However, success orientation and fear of failure
may also interact in ways that lead to qualitatively different mo-
tivational profiles among students (Covington, 1992; Martin &
Marsh, 2003; Martin, Marsh, & Debus, 2001a, 2001b). With over
five decades of research in this area (Atkinson, 1957; Dweck &
Wortman, 1982; McClelland et al., 1953), there have been increas-
ing calls for theoretical integration. Many researchers have sug-
gested that this literature has become fragmented and diffuse
(Martin, 2008; Pintrich, 2003). Others have pointed to the lack of
research in cross-cultural settings and growing inconsistencies
with Western models when applied to other cultures (Chang, 2002;
Otsuka & Smith, 2005; Zusho, Pintrich, & Cortina, 2005).
Krista De Castella and Don Byrne, Department of Psychology, the
Australian National University, Canberra, Australian Capital Territory,
Australia; Martin Covington, Department of Psychology, University of
California, Berkeley.
Krista De Castella is now at the Clinically Applied Affective, Neuro-
science Laboratory (CAAN), Department of Psychology, Stanford Univer-
sity.
Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Krista De
Castella, 290 Page Street, San Francisco, CA 94102. E-mail: krista1@
stanford.edu
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Journal of Educational Psychology © 2013 American Psychological Association
2013, Vol. 105, No. 2, 000 0022-0663/13/$12.00 DOI: 10.1037/a0032464
1
The current project aims to integrate and extend work on
achievement and motivation by exploring the relationship among
fear of failure, success orientation, and student disengagement in
both Eastern and Western settings. To do so, we have employed
self-worth theory (Beery, 1975; Covington, 1992; Covington &
Beery, 1976; Covington & Omelich, 1988), which considers the
combined cognitive, motivational, and emotional factors in
achievement striving.
Self-Worth Theory and Self-Protective Strategies
Influenced by both drive theorists (Atkinson, 1957; McClelland,
1965) and goal orientation approaches (Ames, 1992; Dweck, 1985;
Urdan, 1997), self-worth theory (Beery, 1975;Covington, 1992;
Covington & Beery, 1976) assumes that the search for self-
acceptance is the highest human priority and that this need can
give rise both to a fear of failure and to an orientation to approach
success. According to self-worth theory, in school, where one’s
worth is largely measured by one’s ability to achieve, self-
perceptions of incompetence can trigger feelings of shame and
humiliation. In these settings, efforts to regulate one’s feelings and
protect one’s sense of self-worth sometimes lead students to de-
flective strategies designed to alter the meaning of failure by
minimizing information about their “true” level of ability. Two key
strategies are defensive pessimism and self-handicapping.
Defensive pessimism is a strategy used to alter the meaning of
failure by holding unrealistically low expectations for tasks where
one’s performance will be evaluated (Norem & Cantor, 1986a,
1986b). This strategy “protects” students who are afraid of failing
by cushioning them against debilitating anxiety prior to stress-
provoking tasks (Cantor & Norem, 1989, p. 93). It can also serve
to alter the meaning of failure and to keep one’s own and others’
expectations in check (Martin et al., 2001a). As one student ex-
plained, “I think if I border slightly on the pessimistic, then if I do
better than I expected then it’s a pleasant surprise, and if I do worse
than expected then it’s less of a fall. You just try to minimize those
falls” (Martin, Marsh, Williamson, & Debus, 2003, p. 621). Re-
search indicates that in the West, defensive pessimism is a com-
mon strategy among high school and college students, particularly
female students (Thompson & Le Fevre, 1999), with 33– 44% of
students engaging in this kind of thinking (Martin, 1998; Martin &
Marsh, 2003). Although defensive pessimism may buffer self-
esteem in the event of failure (Norem & Cantor, 1986a, 1986b),
longitudinal research suggests that compared to optimism, defen-
sive pessimism is associated with lower grade-point averages
(GPAs) and significantly higher global life stress and dissatisfac-
tion, as well as increased psychological problems (Martin et al.,
2001b, Martin, Marsh, & Debus, 2003). These findings indicate
that despite this strategy’s self-protective appeal, among Western
students, the “ups and downs” of consistent negative expectations
may take their toll over time, reducing the rewards of success and
leading to poorer academic performance (Martin et al., 2001a,
2003; Norem & Cantor, 1986a, 1986b).
Like defensive pessimism, self-handicapping is a strategy for
altering the meaning of failure; however, it does so by deflecting
the cause of failure away from students’ ability onto premeditated
excuses, should failure occur (Midgley & Urdan, 2001). As one
student explained, “If I leave [study] to the last minute, then I’ve
got an excuse if I didn’t do well. . . It’s easier to say, ‘I failed
because I didn’t put enough work into it’ than ‘I failed because I’m
not good at it’” (Martin, Marsh, Williamson, & Debus, 2003, p.
621). Examples of self-handicapping include task avoidance, de-
nial, deliberately withholding effort, procrastination, lack of prac-
tice, reporting illness or other physical symptoms, drug or alcohol
use, and the choice of other performance-debilitating circum-
stances (Covington, 1992; Kearns, Forbes, & Gardiner, 2007;
Martin et al., 2001a, 2001b; Martin, Marsh, & Debus, 2003; Riggs,
1992). Compared to defensive pessimism, self-handicapping is
typically less common, with approximately 6 –10% of high school
and university students reporting that they use this strategy (Mar-
tin, 1998; Martin & Marsh, 2003). It is also especially prevalent
among boys (Midgley & Urdan, 1995, 2001; Rhodewalt & Hill,
1995; Smith, Sinclair, & Chapman, 2002). Academic self-
handicapping in particular has been found to predict lower self-
esteem and more negative affect over time (Zuckerman & Tsai,
2005), as well as poor self-regulation, lower academic achieve-
ment, and increased likelihood of later withdrawal from studies
(Martin et al., 2001b).
Although defensive pessimism and self-handicapping can work
to protect self-esteem in the short term, these strategies often bring
about the failure students are trying to avoid. This in turn confirms
doubts about ability and in a cumulative downward spiral can
promote subsequent use of performance avoidance and handicap-
ping strategies (Nurmi, Aunola, Salmela-Aro, & Lindroos, 2003;
Zuckerman & Tsai, 2005). Covington (2000) explained that with
repeated failures, students’ excuses become increasingly implau-
sible and can start to lose much of their self-protective value.
When students are forced to take responsibility for these failures
but fail to see these outcomes as things they can control, they may
ultimately respond helplessly by disengaging from school alto-
gether (Abramson, Seligman, & Teasdale, 1978; Dweck, 1975;
Stipek, 1989). Although self-protective strategies are problematic
in achievement settings, the fact that they put students at risk of
learned helplessness is perhaps of greatest concern (Covington,
1992; Martin & Marsh, 2003; Martin et al., 2001b). This is
particularly true given the wide range of negative implications that
helplessness holds for student motivation, academic performance,
general adjustment, and psychological health (Dweck, 1975; Fin-
cham, Hokoda, & Sanders, 1989), as well the potential long-term
impact of these behavioral patterns in later life (Ziegert, Kistner,
Castro, & Robertson, 2001).
Existing Research and the Cross-Cultural Divide
Research into self-handicapping, defensive pessimism, and
helplessness has typically been concerned with the independent
contributions of a wide range of predictor variables including:
achievement motives (A. J. Elliot & Church, 2003; Jones &
Berglas, 1978; Norem & Cantor, 1986a, 1986b); personal and
classroom goal orientations (A. J. Elliot & Church, 1997, 2003;
Martin, Marsh, Williamson, & Debus, 2003; Midgley & Urdan,
2001; Urdan, Midgley, & Anderman, 1998); and other variables
such as perfectionism, efficacy and control beliefs, temperament,
theories of ability, and self-esteem (A. J. Elliot & Church, 2003;
Martin et al., 2001b; Midgley, Arunkumar, & Urdan, 1996; Pul-
ford, Johnson, & Awaida, 2005; Riggs, 1992; Rhodewalt, 1990;
Thompson, Davidson, & Barber, 1995). Although these measures
have all proved to be significant predictors, fully explaining these
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2
DE CASTELLA, BYRNE, AND COVINGTON
behaviors remains a challenging task; even the more complex
models typically capture only 5 to 20% of the overall variance
(Harris, Snyder, Higgins, & Schrag, 1986; Howell & Buro, 2009;
Martin & Brawley, 2002; Midgley & Urdan, 2001; Ommundsen,
2001).
A separate limitation of much of the work in the field of
achievement and motivation is the comparative lack of research in
cross-cultural settings (Elliott & Bempechat, 2002; Jose & Kil-
burg, 2007; Midgley, Kaplan, & Middleton, 2001). Few theories
have been tested and validated in more than one culture, and when
they have, findings often lack generalizability because they are
gender specific (Kudo & Numazaki, 2003; Tanaka & Yamauchi,
2001) and/or restricted to Asian Americans and small student
samples (Pualengco, Chiu, & Kim, 2009; Zusho et al., 2005). The
scarcity of research in this area means that Western models of
achievement motivation have at times been criticized as being
culturally entrenched in an ideology of individualism (Martin &
Hau, 2010; Otsuka & Smith, 2005). Mobley, Slaney, and Rice
(2005) stated that cross-cultural research in this area is “clearly
needed.” Until then, they said, existing research must be inter-
preted with caution, as the literature’s cultural divide severely
restricts generalizability beyond European American samples.
Self-Worth Protection in the East
Cultural differences may play a particularly important role in
explaining defensive pessimism, self-handicapping, and helpless-
ness. Norem (2008) argued that defensive pessimism may be well
suited to students in collectivist cultures such as Japan, where
optimism and explicit self-enhancement are less prevalent (see
also Heine & Hamamura, 2007). Chinese and Japanese students
often report reduced self-esteem (Hawkins, 1994; Ip & Bond,
1995; Pulford et al., 2005); lower self-efficacy beliefs despite
outperforming their Western peers (Eaton & Dembo, 1997); and
greater sensitivity to negative self-relevant information and self-
criticism (Heine, Lehman, Markus, & Kitayama, 1999). Further-
more, there is research to suggest that when compared to European
Americans, Eastern students more readily imagine the occurrence
of negative events (Chang & Asakawa, 2003).
Cultural values may also act as deterrents against strategies like
self-handicapping. In Japan, for example, there is greater acknowl-
edgment and encouragement of interdependencies on family,
teachers, and peers in the academic process (Otsuka & Smith,
2005; Sagie, Elizur, & Yamauchi, 1996). This attitude of duty and
interdependence, the value placed on effort, and concerns with
“letting down” teachers, family, and friends may largely serve as
disincentives against the use of debilitating strategies like self-
handicapping. When such behavior results in parental and peer
disappointment and subsequent feelings of shame and guilt, the
negative consequences of self-handicapping may come to out-
weigh any short-term individual benefits gained from externalizing
failures.
A substantial amount of research exists on self-handicapping
(Martin & Marsh, 2003; Midgley & Urdan, 1995, 2001; Rhode-
walt, 1990, 1994), defensive pessimism (Martin et al., 2001a,
2001b,Martin, Marsh, & Debus, 2003; Norem & Cantor, 1986a),
and learned helplessness (Abramson et al., 1978; Dweck & Wort-
man, 1982; Stipek, 1989), but, to our knowledge, there have been
few studies examining this behavior in East Asian settings. Pua-
lengco et al. (2009) examined cross-cultural differences in pre-
emptive effort downplaying (PED)—a form of self-handicapping
that involves publicly underreporting effort expenditure prior to
test taking. They found that European Americans more readily
underreported the number of practice problems they completed
prior to a test, but Asian Americans did not. Other cross-cultural
research suggests that students in East Asian countries such as
Japan frequently display significant differences in group norms,
motivation, and thinking that simply do not conform to typical
Western models of achievement and motivation (Heine et al.,
1999; Markus & Kitayama, 1991; Otsuka & Smith, 2005; Sue &
Chang, 2003). Chang (1996, 2002), for example, found that for
Eastern students, in contrast to their Western peers, high rates of
pessimism might actually have adaptive consequences, fostering
increased engagement and improved problem-solving strategies.
Similarly, Zusho et al. (2005) discovered that although Asian
American students exhibit lower self-efficacy beliefs and higher
fear of failure than do their Western peers, these factors do not
seem to have the same negative consequences for subsequent
motivation or performance. Instead, fear of failure in Eastern
settings has even been identified as a strong predictor of academic
achievement—a finding at odds with much of the research in the
West (Eaton & Dembo, 1997; Heine, Kitayama, & Lehman, 2001;
Heine, Kitayama, Lehman, Takata, et al., 2001). These studies
cautioned against simplified models of achievement and motiva-
tion and pointed to the need for cross-cultural research.
The Quadripolar Model
Success orientation and fear of failure have been explored
independently and in combination as predictors of a range of
student outcomes (Conroy & Elliot, 2004; DeCharms & Davé,
1965; A. J. Elliot & Church, 2003). Early work in this area viewed
these constructs as opposite ends of a bipolar spectrum (Feather,
1961, 1963; Litwin, 1966; Moulton, 1965). However, this model
was later criticized for failing to consider the potential interplay
between these opposing forces (Covington, 1992; Covington &
Mueller, 2001). Based on the early work of Atkinson and col-
leagues (Atkinson, 1957; Atkinson & Litwin, 1960; McClelland,
1965), Covington’s refined quadripolar model provides a two-
dimensional framework that represents students on the basis of
their combined fear of failure and orientation toward success
(Covington, 1992; Covington & Omelich, 1988). With this
two-dimensional structure, students can be located within one
of four broad orientations: (a) optimists (low fear of failure,
high success orientation), (b) overstrivers (high fear of failure,
high success orientation), (c) self-protectors (high fear of fail-
ure, low success orientation), and (d) failure acceptors (low fear
of failure, low-success orientation; see Figure 1).
Optimists
According to the quadripolar model, optimists are students who
are highly success oriented. These students are characterized by
their self-confidence, resiliency, proactive orientation to tasks, and
exemplary achievement behaviors (Covington & Omelich, 1991,
p. 86). They are self-efficacious, confident of their abilities and
their self-worth. For this reason, these students are unlikely to
contemplate failure or engage in defensive and self-protective
behavior.
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3
UNDERMOTIVATED OR MOTIVATED TO FAIL?
Overstrivers
Students high on both success orientation and fear of failure
meet the criteria for overstriving. For these students, fear of failure
may actually serve to motivate achievement behavior, as they seek
to avoid failure by succeeding. Like optimists, overstrivers are
usually bright, diligent, and meticulous. But unlike their optimistic
peers, they are mainly driven by a fear of underperforming (Cov-
ington, 1992). Thompson and Parker (2007) explained that over-
strivers resolve their lack of confidence in their abilities by “leav-
ing no stone unturned,” and it is this hybrid quality of hope and
fear that drives their accomplishments. However, though they
often achieve success, their success comes at a cost, placing them
at risk of emotional fatigue and burnout despite their often-
impressive achievements. As a result, these students subsequently
suffer high anxiety and unstable self-esteem, and they lack resil-
iency when they encounter challenges and setbacks (Covington,
1992; Martin & Marsh, 2003; Martin et al., 2001a).
Although these students may engage in defensive thinking about
the consequences of poor performance (Martin, Marsh, & Debus,
2003), this is unlikely to translate into self-protective behavior.
Despite being afraid of failing, overstriving students are also
success oriented. For this reason, these students are more likely to
channel their fears into increased effort and academic study than
they are to behave in ways that could undermine their perfor-
mance.
Self-Protectors
Students high on fear of failure and low on success orientation
are classified as self-protectors. These students are primarily mo-
tivated by fears of failure over and above their ambitions for
success. Like overstrivers, self-protectors lack confidence, but
rather than seeking to prevent failure, they aim to reduce its
implications. They do so by adopting strategies that deflect the
causes of failure away from their ability and consequent self-worth
(Martin & Marsh, 2003; Thompson & Parker, 2007). This makes
them particularly vulnerable to self-handicapping. By feigning
carelessness and not studying, for example, these students can
attribute poor performance to lack of effort rather than lack of
ability (Martin et al., 2001a, 2001b).
Failure Acceptors
Students low on both fear of failure and success-oriented di-
mensions are classified as failure acceptors. Although these stu-
dents display some characteristics similar to those of self-protec-
tors—such as low self-esteem and control beliefs—they are
typically distinguished by their apparent indifference to academic
tasks and their overall disengagement from school (Martin &
Marsh, 2003). Thompson and Parker (2007) argued that, for these
students, anxiety is not so much a hallmark of their achievement
orientation as is dejection and loss of hope. This is consistent with
research on learned helplessness (Abramson et al., 1978; Burhans
& Dweck, 1995; Dweck & Leggett, 1988), which is why some
believe failure acceptance is associated with the poorest academic
outcomes in school (Martin & Marsh, 2003).
Evidence for the Quadripolar Model
The quadripolar model provides a simple yet sophisticated ex-
planation for underachievement and disengagement in particular as
it relates to defensive and self-protective behavior (Covington &
Omelich, 1991; Martin & Marsh, 2003). Research with undergrad-
uates at the University of California, Berkeley (Covington &
Omelich, 1985; 1988, 1991), also lends support to the quadripolar
types. In these studies, success-oriented students (optimists and
overstrivers) displayed confidence in their own abilities and good
study skills. However, overstrivers reported greater anxiety and
High Fear of Failure
Low Fear of Failure
High Success
Orientation
Low Success
Orientation
Overstrivers
Low Self-handicapping
High Defensive Pessimism
Low Helplessness
Self-Protectors
High Self-handicapping
High Defensive Pessimism
Low Helplessness
Optimists
Low Self-handicapping
Low Defensive Pessimism
Low Helplessness
Failure Acceptors
Low Self-handicapping
Low Defensive Pessimism
High Helplessness
Figure 1. The quadripolar model of achievement motivation and predictions regarding self-handicapping,
defensive pessimism, and helplessness. Adapted from Making the Grade: A Self-Worth Perspective on Moti-
vation and School Reform (p. 40), by M. Covington, 1992, Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press.
Copyright 1992 by Cambridge University Press. Adapted with permission.
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4
DE CASTELLA, BYRNE, AND COVINGTON
more time spent in preparation for tests. Failure-accepting students
by contrast exhibited poor study skills and expressed an apparent
lack of achievement affect (i.e., little pride in their success or
shame at their failures).
Martin et al. (2001a) have also found some preliminary support
for the links between the quadripolar model and self-protective
strategies like self-handicapping and defensive pessimism. With-
out directly measuring success orientation and fear of failure,
Martin et al. used multidimensional scaling (MDS) to represent
these self-protective strategies in two-dimensional space. This
procedure uses a matrix of correlations and Euclidean distance
measures to represent each variable as a point in Euclidean space:
The distance between two points are inversely related to the
correlation between the variables, being closer when correlations
are high and farther apart when they are low. In this way, Martin
et al. were able to map self-handicapping and defensive pessimism
(along with other measures like academic self-concept and reflex-
ivity) onto the success orientation and fear of failure dimensions
based on their interrelationships with the other variables. The
results of the MDS procedure indicated that defensive pessimism
was associated more generally with high fear of failure and was
prevalent among overstriving and self-protecting students. Self-
handicapping, on the other hand, emerged predominantly as a
strategy of self-protection occurring when students were high in
fear of failure and low in success orientation (although there was
also some overlap with the dimension of failure acceptance).
Although these findings are consistent with predictions of the
quadripolar model, Martin et al. recognized the need for direct
measures of success orientation and fear of failure in future re-
search.
Cross-cultural inconsistencies and the general lack of cross-
cultural research in the field of achievement and motivation pose
serious challenges for generalizability beyond Western student
samples. There have, in fact, been substantial calls for cross-
cultural research of this kind (Elliott & Bempechat, 2002; Jose &
Kilburg, 2007; Midgley et al., 2001; Pintrich, 2003; Zusho et al.,
2005). In an attempt to extend research on achievement dynamics,
the current project thus aims to explore how the quadripolar types
are related to underachievement and student disengagement in two
highly distinct cultural settings.
Study 1: Japan
Our aim in Study 1 was to explore the relationship among fear
of failure, success orientation, and self-protective behavior (defen-
sive pessimism, self-handicapping, and helplessness) with a large
sample of Japanese high school students. We were particularly
interested in testing the quadripolar model’s hypothesized interac-
tion between the fear of failure and success orientation dimensions.
Research in the West has found a positive link between fear of
failure and self-protective behavior (A. J. Elliot & Church, 2003;
Martin et al., 2001a). In these studies, success orientation has been
a strong negative predictor of self-handicapping and helplessness.
Defensive pessimism, however, is believed to be simultaneously
associated with fear of failure and an orientation toward success
(Norem, 2008). Although there is limited cross-cultural research
on these strategies, research with Asian and Anglo American
college students (Zusho et al., 2005) and with Chinese and Aus-
tralian middle school students (Martin & Hau, 2010) indicates that
the relationship between achievement motives and academic out-
comes is highly similar across cultures. These findings suggest that
despite cross-cultural differences, highly similar motivational pro-
cesses underlie achievement behavior in these settings. On the
basis of these findings, we expected (H1) that fear of failure would
be positively associated with self-handicapping, defensive pessi-
mism, and helplessness in Japan (as is the case in the West). We
also predicted (H2) that success orientation would be negatively
associated with self-handicapping and helplessness but positively
associated with defensive pessimism. In accordance with the quad-
ripolar model (and preliminary research by Martin et al., 2001a),
we further anticipated (H3) that there would be an interaction
between success orientation and fear of failure on self-
handicapping. In particular, we hypothesized that fear of failure
would be positively associated with self-handicapping when stu-
dents were low in success orientation (self-protectors) but would
not be significantly related to self-handicapping when students
were highly success oriented (overstrivers). Finally, we predicted
(H4) that there would be a significant interaction between success
orientation and fear of failure on helplessness attributions, with the
highest scores among students who were low in fear of failure and
success orientation (failure acceptors). See Figure 1 for a summary
of predictions regarding each of the quadripolar types.
Method
Participants. Participants consisted of 1,423 Japanese stu-
dents from eight high schools in the central and northern districts
of Mie Ken prefecture, Japan. All schools in the prefecture were
invited to take part, and involvement in the project was coordi-
nated with the assistance of the Japan Exchange and Teaching
Program. The final sample of participating schools captured a
diverse spread of low- (1), intermediate- (5), and high-ranking (2)
schools within the northern, central, and southern districts.
1
Stu-
dents ranged from 15 to 18 years of age (M 15.9 years, SD
0.83); 42% were male, and 58% were female.
Measures. For all scale items in the questionnaire, partici-
pants were asked to rate their agreement on a 7-point Likert scale.
After reverse coding, high scores on items indicated greater agree-
ment with the item in question. Where Japanese versions of scales
were available, they were obtained from the original authors. All
other survey items underwent translation and back translation by
two bilingual translators fluent in Japanese and English. The
translators worked independently, and problematic items were
discussed and modified until both translators and the authors were
satisfied that the Japanese items were semantically equivalent. All
measures displayed adequate internal reliability (coefficient al-
pha), and all scale items were retained in each measure.
Success orientation. Although early measures of success ori-
entation have focused almost exclusively on the competitive nature
1
Our sample of Japanese schools included Matsusaka High, Kameyama
High, Kuwana Nishi High, Komono High, Iino Senior High, Nabari
Kikyogaoka Senior High School, Nabari Nishi High, and Kambe High
School. High- and low-performing schools are those falling within the top
and bottom 15% of the distribution. Rankings are based on the Mie Ken
prefecture high school entrance exam. Results can be found on the follow-
ing three web pages: (a) Northern District (http://mie.tokai-school.net/
public/hokubu/); (b) Central District (http://mie.tokai-school.net/public/
tyubu/); (c) Southern District (http://mie.tokai-school.net/public/nanbu/).
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5
UNDERMOTIVATED OR MOTIVATED TO FAIL?
of this drive (Atkinson & Litwin, 1960; McClelland, 1965), Cov-
ington’s (1992) refined quadripolar model conceives success ori-
entation as a combined performance approach and mastery motive.
For this reason, we chose to assess success orientation with the
mastery and performance-approach subscales of A. J. Elliot and
McGregor’s (2001) revised Achievement Goal Questionnaire
(AGQ-R). This combined measure offers a number of advantages
over using a measure of mastery or performance goals alone. For
example, research indicates that both goal orientations can have
independent and additive effects on achievement and motivation:
Mastery goals typically predict interest and enrollment, and per-
formance approach goals are stronger predictors of academic
achievement (A. J. Elliot & Church, 1997; Harackiewicz, Barron,
Tauer, & Elliot, 2002; Linnenbrink, 2005; see Harackiewicz, Bar-
ron, Tauer, Carter, & Elliot, 2000, for a review). Furthermore,
these goals can work in combination, predicting reduced anxiety
and depression (Sideridis, 2005) and more adaptive outcomes for
achievement and motivation than can the pursuit of mastery or
performance goals alone (Barron & Harackiewicz, 2001; Pintrich,
2000).
2
The AGQ-R consists of three items measuring performance-
approach goals (e.g., “It is important to me to do well compared to
others in this class”) and three items measuring mastery-approach
goals (e.g., “It is important for me to understand the content of this
course as thoroughly as possible”). The summed scores on the six
AGQ-R items were used to provide a general index of students’
desire to approach success (␣⫽.86). Research indicates that the
AGQ is a reliable measure that shows sound construct and external
validity, latent mean stability, and longitudinal invariance (A. J.
Elliot & Church, 1997; A. J. Elliot & McGregor, 2001).
Fear of failure. In the current study, fear of failure was
measured with the five-item Performance Failure Appraisal Inven-
tory—Short Form (PFAI-S; Conroy, Willow, & Metzler, 2002).
The PFAI is a multidimensional measure of the cognitive-
motivational-relational appraisals associated with fear of failure.
The scale consists of five factors that assess (a) fears of experi-
encing shame and embarrassment, (b) fears of devaluing one’s
self-estimate, (c) fears of having an uncertain future, (d) fears of
important others losing interest, and, (e) fears of upsetting impor-
tant others. The PFAI-S is made up of the most representative
items from each of the five factors. Research indicates that the
PFAI-S demonstrates good construct validity, is internally consis-
tent and reliable, and shows factorial invariance across groups and
over time (Conroy, 2001; Conroy & Elliot, 2004; Conroy, Metzler,
& Hofer, 2003). Sample items include “When I am failing, I am
afraid that I might not have enough talent” and “When I am failing,
I worry about what others think about me” (␣⫽.84). Scores were
summed to provide a general index of students’ fear of failing.
Fear of failure and success orientation were both anchored on
7-point Likert scales, with responses ranging from 1 (Not at all
true of me)to7(Very true of me). Although these motives have
been used as categorical and bipolar predictors of achievement
outcomes (Atkinson & Litwin, 1960; Feather, 1961, 1963; Litwin,
1966; Moulton, 1965), in the current study these dimensions are
treated as continuous variables. This approach avoids the loss of
power associated with typologizing dimensional variables (Cohen,
1983). It also allows us to retain all participants in our analyses,
including those close to the mean. For ease of explanation. how-
ever, we refer to optimists, overstrivers, self-protectors, and failure
acceptors in broad terms as students displaying higher and lower
scores on the combined success orientation and fear of failure
dimensions.
Dependent measures. Academic self-handicapping behavior
was measured with the six-item subscale from the Patterns of
Adaptive Learning Survey (PALS; Midgley et al., 1998). Each of
the 6 items asks about an a priori defensive strategy used to
influence self-presentation and is thereby distinguishable from an
attribution (e.g., “Some students purposely don’t try hard in class.
Then if they don’t do well, they can say it is because they didn’t
try. How true is this of you?” ␣⫽.80). Responses ranged from 1
(Not at all true of me)to7(Very true of me).
Defensive pessimism was measured with the six-item Japa-
nese Defensive Pessimism Questionnaire (J-DPQ; Hosogoshi &
Kodama, 2005). The scale assesses the extent to which students
hold pessimistic expectations for their future academic perfor-
mance relative to how well they have performed in the past
(e.g., “I go into academic situations expecting the worst, even
though I know I will probably do OK”). The J-DPQ is based on
the original English version of by Norem and Cantor (1986a,
1986b), and it displays good construct validity, internal consis-
tency (␣⫽.78), and test–retest reliability at 2 months (r .74;
Hosogoshi & Kodama, 2005). Cronbach’s alpha for the current
sample was .77.
Helplessness beliefs were assessed with the seven-item Help-
lessness Beliefs subscale from the Strategy and Attribution Ques-
tionnaire (SAQ; Nurmi, Salmela-Aro, & Haavisto, 1995). The
scale is designed specifically to assess helplessness attributions
with reference to perceived control over academic outcomes (e.g.,
“I do not have the means to affect the way my studies go”).
Research indicates the scale displays good construct validity, in-
ternal reliability (.70 and above), and test–retest reliability at 6
months (␣⫽.4 to .9; Nurmi et al., 1995, 2003). Defensive
pessimism and helplessness beliefs were both anchored on 7-point
Likert scales, ranging from 1 (Strongly disagree)to7(Strongly
agree). Cronbach’s alpha for the current sample was .61.
Procedure. All questionnaires were administered to students
in their English classes by assistant language teachers on the Japan
Exchange and Teaching program. Students were informed that
participation was voluntary and anonymous and that there were no
right or wrong answers. They were also informed that the infor-
mation would be kept confidential and that no one at home or
school would see their results. Surveys were completed in 20 to 30
minutes in a normal classroom and were anonymously sealed in
envelopes and returned to the primary researcher via mail. The
project was granted full ethics approval by the Australian National
University Human Research Ethics Committee and the Mie Ken
Board of Education, and it was approved by all relevant teachers
and principals at participating schools.
2
Recognizing that this combined measure has some controversial as-
pects (Midgley et al., 2001), we repeated all regression analyses using only
mastery goals as a measure of success orientation. Ninety-five percent
confidence intervals for R
2
were computed at each step to ascertain whether
there were significant differences in effect sizes for the alternative regres-
sion models. In all analyses, the main effects and interactions reported in
the text were significant and in the same directions. There were also no
significant differences in overall variance explained.
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6
DE CASTELLA, BYRNE, AND COVINGTON
Results (Study 1)
Prior to analysis, all variables were examined through SPSS for
accuracy of data entry, missing values, and distributional assump-
tions of multivariate analysis (Tabachnick & Fidell, 2007). As-
sumptions of normality, linearity, and homogeneity of variance
were all found to be satisfactory. Of the total 1,450 participants, 27
left their survey blank or incomplete (missing data 10%), and
these surveys were excluded from the analysis. This reduced the
total to 1,423 participants (a response rate of 98%). Missing data
were rare (1%) and were imputed with the overall mean for that
variable (a conservative technique in such cases; Tabachnick &
Fidell, 2007).
Descriptive statistics. Means (Ms), standard deviations
(SDs), ranges, internal consistencies (), and correlations for all
variables are presented in Table 1. For fear of failure (PFAI-S),
19.3% of students reported average agreement on each of the
five items (e.g., total scores of 25 and above). For the six-item
measure of success orientation (AGQ-R), 36% of students re-
ported average agreement (e.g., scores of 30 and above). Of the
dependent variables, self-handicapping (PALS) and helpless-
ness (SAQ) were endorsed less strongly: 3% of students scored
above 30 (average agreement) on the self-handicapping mea-
sure, and only 1% of students scored above 35 (average agree-
ment) on attributions of helplessness. Defensive pessimism
(J-DPQ), by contrast, was more frequently endorsed, with
14.4% of students agreeing somewhat or above (scores above
30) across the six-item J-DPQ.
Correlations between variables. Consistent with H1, fear
of failure was positively associated with self-handicapping and
defensive pessimism. Although there was also a significant
relationship between fear of failure and helplessness beliefs, the
correlation was quite low (r .08). Our predictions regarding
success orientation (H2) were also partially supported by the
positive relationship with defensive pessimism and the negative
relationship that emerged between success orientation and help-
lessness. Counter to H2, however, in Japan there was no sig-
nificant negative correlation between success orientation and
self-handicapping.
Multiple regression analyses. In order to explore the pre-
dicted interaction between fear of failure and success orienta-
tion, we conducted a series of two-step hierarchical regressions
analyses on self-handicapping, defensive pessimism, and help-
lessness. Demographic variables including age, school, and
gender were entered as predictor variables with statistical entry
procedures (p .05 for entry and p .10 for removal). Overall,
these variables were not significant predictors and resulted in
only marginal increases in explained variance for the dependent
variables (R
2
.01).
3
For this reason, demographic variables
were not included as covariates in the final analysis. Students’
mean scores on the fear of failure and success orientation axes
were standardized, and an interaction term was computed be-
tween the two continuous predictors (see Aiken & West, 1991).
Table 2 displays the standardized regression coefficient (), R
2
,
and R
2
for the full and restricted models in each analysis.
Noncentral 95% confidence intervals were also calculated for
R
2
at each step.
Results from the regression analyses indicated that fear of
failure and success orientation independently accounted for a sig-
nificant amount of variance in self-handicapping, F(2, 1420)
53.69, p .001; defensive pessimism, F(2, 1419) 181.93, p
.001; and attributions of helplessness, F(2, 1420) 46.97, p
.001. The predicted interaction between these two variables was
also significant for self-handicapping, F(1, 1419) 28.33, p
.001; and for helplessness, F(1, 1419) 6.54, p .05; but not for
defensive pessimism, F(1, 1419) 1.00, p .05. To interpret the
interaction effect (see Figures 2 and 3), we computed predicted
values for self-handicapping and helplessness and graphed them at
1 SD above and below mean for fear of failure and success
orientation (see Aiken & West, 1991).
The resulting graph indicates that, consistent with H3, suc-
cess orientation appeared to moderate the association between
fear of failure and negative outcomes (self-handicapping and
helplessness). Analyses of simple slopes with standardized vari-
ables indicated that when students held a lower success orien-
tation (1 SD below the mean), there was a significant and
positive relationship between fear of failure and self-
handicapping, B 0.24, t(1,1422) 0.91, p .001. This
relationship also remained significant for students who were
more success oriented (1 SD above the mean), B 1.01,
t(1,1422) 5.06, p .001. At 1.5 SDs and above, however,
3
Gender accounted for a small portion of variance in self-handicapping,
F(2, 1420) 6.425, p .05, B .07, R
2
.004; and helplessness, F(2,
1420) 7.86, p .01, B ⫽⫺.08, R
2
.006; but not in defensive
pessimism. On average, girls scored marginally higher than boys on
self-handicapping (Mgirls 17.7 vs. Mboys 16.82) and lower than boys
on attributions of helplessness (Mgirls 20.97 vs. Mboys 21.76). There
were no significant effects for age on any of these variables and no
significant two- or three-way interactions with age or gender.
Table 1
Descriptive Statistics: Means and Standard Deviations, Cronbach’s Alphas and Pearson Product-Moment Correlations
(Japan, N 1,423)
Variable MSDPossible range
Correlations
12 3 4 5
1. Success orientation 19.06 6.39 6.00–42.00 .782 .28
ⴱⴱⴱ
.05 .33
ⴱⴱⴱ
.20
ⴱⴱⴱ
2. Fear of failure 27.16 6.11 5.00–35.00 .838 .24
ⴱⴱⴱ
.39
ⴱⴱⴱ
.08
ⴱⴱ
3. Self-handicapping 17.35 6.60 6.00–42.00 .795 .15
ⴱⴱ
.20
ⴱⴱ
4. Defensive pessimism 23.26 6.33 6.00–42.00 .768 .08
ⴱⴱ
5. Helplessness attributions 21.27 5.12 7.00–49.00 .611
ⴱⴱ
p .01.
ⴱⴱⴱ
p .001.
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7
UNDERMOTIVATED OR MOTIVATED TO FAIL?
there was no longer a significant difference in self-
handicapping between students who were high or low in fear of
failure, B 0.62, t(1,1422) 2.0, p .05. A similar pattern
was present for helplessness. When students held a low success
orientation (1 SD below the mean), there was a significant and
positive relationship between fear of failure and helplessness
attributions, B 1.07, t(1, 1422) 6.02, p .001. This
remained significant 1 SD above the mean, B 0.49, t (1,
1422) 2.705, p .01. But at 1.2 SDs and above, there was no
longer a significant difference in helplessness attributions be-
tween students who were high or low in failure fearing, B
0.43, t(1,1422) 1.99, p .05.
These results suggest that, consistent with H3, fear of failure
did predict increased self-handicapping, but this was mostly
true of self-protective students (high fear of failure, low success
orientation). Failure acceptors, optimists, and overstrivers all
reported somewhat lower endorsement of the self-handicapping
items. Counter to predictions (H4), a similar pattern appeared
for helplessness. Although failure acceptors reported greater
attributions of helplessness than did their success-oriented peers
(optimists and overstrivers), the highest levels of helplessness
were once again observed among self-protecting students.
Commentary on Study 1
In our first study, we used the quadripolar model to predict
self-handicapping, defensive pessimism, and helplessness in a
largely unexplored East Asian setting. Our results suggest that
optimists (low fear of failure, high success orientation) and
overstrivers (high fear of failure, high success orientation)
report similarly low levels of self-handicapping and helpless-
ness. However, these students also more frequently report hold-
ing defensively pessimistic expectations about their future per-
formance. Consistent with existing research (Norem, 2008;
Yamawaki, Tschanz, & Feick, 2004) and Covington’s depiction
of overstriving, this was particularly true of those students who
scored high in both fear of failure and success orientation.
Self-handicapping behavior and attributions of helplessness
were most common among students scoring high on the dimen-
sion of self-protection (high fear of failure and low success
orientation). Although the findings for self-handicapping were
in line with predictions, the results for helplessness attributions
Table 2
Study 1 (Japan): Results of Hierarchical Multiple Regression Predicting Self-Handicapping, Defensive Pessimism, and Helplessness
Attributions (N 1,423)
Dependent variable and step At step Final R
2
R
2
95% CI
a
Self-handicapping
1. Success orientation .12
ⴱⴱ
.13
ⴱⴱ
Fear of failure .27
ⴱⴱ
.27
ⴱⴱ
.07
ⴱⴱ
.07
ⴱⴱ
[.05, .10]
2. Success Orientation Fear of Failure .14
ⴱⴱ
.09
ⴱⴱ
.02
ⴱⴱ
[.06, .10]
Defensive pessimism
1. Success orientation .24
ⴱⴱ
.24
ⴱⴱ
Fear of failure .32
ⴱⴱ
.32
ⴱⴱ
.20
ⴱⴱ
.20
ⴱⴱ
[.17, .24]
2. Success Orientation Fear of Failure .02 .20
ⴱⴱ
.00 [.17, .24]
Helplessness attributions
1. Success orientation .24
ⴱⴱ
.25
ⴱⴱ
Fear of failure .15
ⴱⴱ
.15
ⴱⴱ
.06
ⴱⴱ
.06
ⴱⴱ
[.04, .09]
2. Success Orientation Fear of Failure .07
.07
ⴱⴱ
.01
[.04, .09]
Note. Beta is the standardized regression coefficient. Increments for variables entered at R
2
significance levels are based upon F tests for that step. CI confidence
interval.
a
Ninety-five percent noncentral confidence intervals were computed for R
2
at each step.
p .05.
ⴱⴱ
p .01.
Failure Acceptors
Optimists
Self Protectors
Overstrivers
10
12
14
16
18
20
22
24
Low Success Orientation High Success Orientation
Self Handicapping
Low Fear of Failure
High Fear of Failure
Figure 2. Interaction between fear of failure and success orientation on
self-handicapping (Japan N 1,423). Predicted self-handicapping as a
function of fear of failure and success orientation. Values are based on
standardized coefficients and represent one standard deviation below and
above the mean. Total self-handicapping scores range from a minimum of
6 to a maximum of 48.
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8
DE CASTELLA, BYRNE, AND COVINGTON
were surprising. “Failure acceptance” (low fear of failure and
low success orientation) has traditionally been viewed as a
disaffected state of resignation to poor performance. Martin and
Marsh (2003) even presented a cascading model of failure
avoidance in which students gradually progressed from one
dimension to the next in a downward spiral of underachieve-
ment, with failure acceptance associated with the greatest neg-
ative outcomes (Martin & Marsh, 2003). The results from the
current study are inconsistent with this view and indicate that it
may be the self-protecting students who are actually at greatest
risk. In Study 2, we extended these predictions to a Western
context to explore the generalizability of these findings.
Study 2: Australia
The results of Study 1 lend some support to self-worth theory
and the quadripolar model; however, they also raised questions
about which students are at greatest risk of learned helplessness
and disengagement from school. Because helplessness beliefs
do not always translate into helpless patterns of behavior (Co-
vington, 2000), in Study 2 we included three additional self-
report measures: truancy, disengagement, and academic
achievement. This time, we sought to test our original hypoth-
eses with Australian high school students. To date, there is
limited cross-cultural research on self-worth protection in East-
ern and Western settings (with the exception of Pualengco et al.,
2009). A number of studies have, however, examined self-
handicapping and defensive pessimism in Australia (Martin &
Marsh, 2003; Martin et al., 2001a, 2001b, Martin, Marsh, &
Debus, 2003), and Australian students are frequently used as a
basis of comparison for this kind of cross-cultural research
(Martin & Hau, 2010; McInerney, 2006).
Self-Worth Protection in the West
Despite cross-cultural differences in achievement motivation and
self-regulation (Eaton & Dembo, 1997; Heine, Kitayama, & Lehman,
2001; Pualengco et al., 2009; Purdie & Hattie, 1996), there is little
evidence for cross-cultural differences in underlying motivational
processes (see Martin & Hau, 2010; Zusho et al., 2005). For this
reason, we expected that the quadripolar model would be valid across
cultures and that this would be evident in (H4) a similar pattern of
relationships between success orientation and fear of failure on each
of the dependent variables. We predicted, based on the findings from
Study 1, that success orientation would again moderate the relation-
ship between fear of failure and maladaptive student outcomes; in
particular, that (like self-handicapping and helplessness), fear of fail-
ure would be positively associated with disengagement and truancy
when students were also low in success orientation. Finally, we
expected that these students would report the lowest academic
achievement overall. When students were highly success oriented,
however, we expected that they would perform better academically
and that there would be a weaker association between fear of failure
and self-handicapping, helplessness, truancy, and disengagement.
Method
Participants. For Study 2, participants consisted of 680 Aus-
tralian students in years 9–12 from five schools in the Australian
Capital Territory. Schools were again selected to capture a spread
of low- (1), intermediate- (3), and high-performing (1) schools
based on national performance indicators (Australian Tertiary Ad-
mission Rankings).
4
Of the total sample, 35% of students (N
235) were from private schools, and 65% (N 445) were from
public high schools and colleges. Students ranged from 15 to 19
years of age (M 16.6 years, SD 1.01); 38% (N 258) were
male, and 62% (N 422) were female.
Measures. Questionnaire items consisted of English-language
versions of the scales used in Study 1. To better differentiate
helplessness attributions from behavior, we incorporated three
additional measures to assess student disengagement, truancy, and
general academic achievement. Disengagement was assessed with
three items adapted from the Motivation and Engagement Scale
(MES-HS; Green, Martin, & Marsh, 2007): “I often feel like
giving up in school”; “I’ve pretty much given up being interested
in school”; and “I really couldn’t care less about school” (␣⫽.82).
Truancy was measured with two items: “I sometimes wag school”
4
Our sample of schools included Radford, Merici, Melba Copland,
Canberra College, and Lake Ginninderra. High- and low-performing
schools are those falling within the top and bottom 15% of the distribution.
Rankings for these schools based on the Australian Tertiary Admission
Rank (ATAR) can be found at www.bettereducation.com.au/results/ACT/
2010/ACT.aspx
Self Protectors
Overstrivers
Failure Acceptors
Optimists
15
17
19
21
23
25
27
Low Success Orientation High Success Orientation
Helplessness Attributions
Low Fear of Failure
High Fear of Failure
Figure 3. Interaction between fear of failure and success orientation on
helplessness attributions (Japan N 1,423). Predicted helplessness as a
function of fear of failure and success orientation. Values are based on
standardized coefficients and represent one standard deviation below and
above the mean. Helplessness attribution scores range from a minimum of
7 to a maximum of 43.
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9
UNDERMOTIVATED OR MOTIVATED TO FAIL?
and “I’ll skip class when I can get away with it” (␣⫽.86). The two
scales were anchored with the same 7-point Likert scale (1
strongly disagree to 7 strongly agree). In addition to these
measures, four items were used as an indicator of self-reported
academic achievement: “In the past 12 months, the grades I mostly
received were . . .”; “I would describe myself typically as an . . .”;
“Compared to other students my age, I think I’d be . . .”; and
“Compared to others in my class, I think I’d be . . . .” Response
choices were anchored with scores ranging from 1 (Ds/D-average
student or among the worst students)to7(As/A-average student or
among the best students). Together, the four items were a reliable
measure of students’ self-reported academic status (␣⫽.91).
Mean scores across the four items provided an average index of
students’ perceived academic ability. Self-report measures were
used because official academic and absentee records could not be
obtained. Although self-report measures of this kind are subject to
memory and bias distortions, research indicates that these biases
are typically small (Cassady, 2001). Research with high school
student samples indicates the correlation between actual grades
and self-reported academic achievement usually ranges from .74 to
.96 (Baird, 1976; Kuncel, Credé, & Thomas, 2005; Maxey &
Ormsby, 1971; Shaw & Mattern, 2009).
Procedure. Surveys were constructed with Qualtrics, an online
survey software. Questionnaire items were presented in the same
format as used in Study 1 but were administered online during a
computer lab session. Students completed the online survey under
normal classroom conditions, and supervising teachers followed the
same procedures outlined in Study 1. Once again, students were
informed that their participation was voluntary, anonymous, and con-
fidential. Ethics approval for the project was also obtained from
appropriate governing bodies including the Australian National Uni-
versity, the Catholic Education Office, and the Department of Edu-
cation and Training, as well as from principals and teachers at par-
ticipating schools.
Results (Study 2)
Of the total 680 participants, 37 left their surveys incomplete
(missing data 10%). Their data were deleted, which reduced the
total sample to 643 (a response rate of 95%). For the remaining
cases, missing data were extremely rare due to form validation
measures (.01%) and where present were replaced with the mean
for that variable. Data were further screened and cleaned following
the same procedures outlined in Study 1.
Descriptive statistics. Table 3 displays the means (Ms), stan-
dard deviations (SDs), ranges, internal consistencies (), and correla-
tions for all variables in Study 2. For fear of failure, 26.6% of
Australian students reported average agreement (e.g., scores of 25 or
above) on the five-item scale (PFAI-S). For success orientation
(AGQ-R), 64.1% of students agreed on average with the scale items
(e.g., scores of 30 and above). Of the dependent variables, 8.7% of
students reported that they engaged in self-handicapping (PALS
scores of 30 and above); 27.7% reported that they engaged in defen-
sive pessimism (DPQ scores of 30 and above); 15.6% reported that
they sometimes skipped class (truancy scores of 10 and above);
13.6% reported that they felt like giving up in school (MES-HS
disengagement scores of 15 and above); and no students scored above
35 (average agreement) on the helplessness attributions scale (SAQ).
Correlations between variables. Correlations between vari-
ables (see Table 3) revealed that, in line with predictions and findings
from Study 1, success orientation was positively associated with
defensive pessimism and self-reported achievement but was nega-
tively associated with self-handicapping, helplessness, disengage-
ment, and truancy. Fear of failure, on the other hand, was positively
associated with self-handicapping, defensive pessimism, and disen-
gagement but was unrelated to helplessness, truancy, or achievement.
Multiple regression analyses. Two-step hierarchical regres-
sion analyses were again used to test our hypotheses, this time with
Australian students. Once again, demographic variables were
omitted from the final analyses.
5
The results from these analyses
are provided in Table 4.
5
Controlling for demographic variables resulted in a marginal increase
in explained variance (typically less than 1%). Gender accounted for a
small portion of variance in self-handicapping, F(2, 640) 7.82, p .01,
B ⫽⫺.11, R
2
.01; helplessness, F(2, 640) 11.61, p .01, B ⫽⫺.14,
R
2
.01; and defensive pessimism, F(2, 640) 19.19, p .001, B .12,
R
2
.02. On average, girls scored marginally lower than boys on self-
handicapping (Mgirls 18.7 vs. Mboys 20.4) and helplessness
(Mgirls 19.0 vs. Mboys 20.7) but higher on defensive pessimism
(Mgirls 27 vs. Mboys 25). There were no significant effects for gender
on truancy, disengagement, or grades. Age did not account for a significant
portion of variance on any of the dependent variables with the exception of
truancy, F(2, 640) 11.85, p .01, B .17, R
2
.03.
Table 3
Study 2 (Australia), Descriptive Statistics: Means and Standard Deviations, Cronbach’s Alphas, and Pearson Product-Moment
Correlations (N 643)
Correlations
Variable MSDPossible range 12345678
1. Success orientation 30.94 5.94 6.00–42.00 .847 .25
ⴱⴱⴱ
.20
ⴱⴱⴱ
.22
ⴱⴱⴱ
.30
ⴱⴱⴱ
.25
ⴱⴱⴱ
.24
ⴱⴱⴱ
.40
ⴱⴱⴱ
2. Fear of failure 20.23 5.99 5.00–35.00 .802 .17
ⴱⴱⴱ
.49
ⴱⴱⴱ
.06 .17
ⴱⴱⴱ
.00 .05
3. Self-handicapping 19.28 7.80 6.00–42.00 .855 .13
ⴱⴱⴱ
.39
ⴱⴱ
.44
ⴱⴱⴱ
.40
ⴱⴱⴱ
.31
ⴱⴱⴱ
4. Defensive pessimism 26.26 5.60 6.00–42.00 .712 .02 .12
ⴱⴱ
.03 .02
5. Helplessness attributions 19.69 6.11 7.00–49.00 .752 .39
ⴱⴱⴱ
.31
ⴱⴱⴱ
.30
ⴱⴱⴱ
6. Disengagement 9.70 4.34 3.00–21.00 .819 .50
ⴱⴱⴱ
.38
ⴱⴱⴱ
7. Truancy 5.60 4.88 2.00–14.00 .862 .30
ⴱⴱⴱ
8. Mean self-reported grade 4.79 1.22 1.00–7.00 .906
ⴱⴱ
p .01.
ⴱⴱⴱ
p .001.
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10
DE CASTELLA, BYRNE, AND COVINGTON
Consistent with the results from Study 1, fear of failure and
success orientation significantly predicted self-handicapping,
F(2, 640) 32.77, p .001; defensive pessimism, F(2, 640)
105.63, p .001; and students’ tendencies to engage in helpless
patterns of thinking, F(2, 640) 39.82, p .001. On each of
these outcomes, the model explained 10 to 25% of the overall
variance. The predicted interaction between these dimensions
was also significant for self-handicapping, F(1, 639) 9.10,
p .01; but not for helplessness, F(1, 639) 0.80, p .05; or
defensive pessimism, F(1, 639) 0.1, p .05. As seen in
Study 1, self-protecting students displayed the highest rates of
self-handicapping (see Figure 4). Analyses of simple slopes
revealed that when students held a lower success orientation (1
SD below the mean), there was a significant and positive
relationship between fear of failure and self-handicapping, B
2.719, t(1,642) 6.537, p .001. This relationship also
remained significant for success-oriented students (1 SD above
the mean), B 1.185, t(1,642) 3.156, p .01. At 1.5 SDs
above the mean, however, this relationship ceased to be signif-
icant, B 0.802, t(1,642) 1.732, p .05.
Additional measures. A second series of hierarchical re-
gressions was conducted on the three additional dependent
variables: disengagement, truancy, and self-reported achieve-
ment (see Table 5).
In the second series of analyses, success orientation and fear
of failure accounted for significant portions of variance on all
three measures: disengagement, F(2, 640) 43.168, p .001;
truancy, F(3, 639) 16.989, p .01; and self-reported
achievement, F(2, 1420) 68.05, p .001. In each analysis,
the predicted interaction between the two dimensions was sig-
nificant: F(1, 639) 6.72, p .001; F (1, 639) 8.58, p .01;
F(1, 639) 10.13, p .01, respectively.
6
To interpret the
6
As in Study 1, we performed supplementary analyses for each of our
dependent variables with mastery goals as an alternative measure of
success orientation. In all analyses, the main effects for fear of failure and
success orientation were again significant and in the same directions. The
interaction was also significant for all dependent variables with the excep-
tion of self-reported grades, F(3, 639) 1.721, p .05. There were no
significant differences in overall variance explained.
Table 4
Study 2 (Australia): Results of Hierarchical Multiple Regression Predicting Self-Handicapping, Defensive Pessimism, and
Helplessness Attributions (N 643)
Dependent variable and step
At step Final R
2
R
2
95% CI
a
Self-handicapping
1. Success orientation .26
ⴱⴱ
.31
ⴱⴱ
Fear of failure .24
ⴱⴱ
.25
ⴱⴱ
.09
ⴱⴱ
.09
ⴱⴱ
[.05, .14]
2. Success Orientation Fear of Failure .12
ⴱⴱ
.11
ⴱⴱ
.01
ⴱⴱ
[.06, .15]
Defensive pessimism
1. Success Orientation .10
ⴱⴱ
.11
ⴱⴱ
Fear of failure .46
ⴱⴱ
.46
ⴱⴱ
.25
ⴱⴱ
.25
ⴱⴱ
[.19, .30]
2. Success Orientation Fear of Failure .01 .25
ⴱⴱ
.00 [.19, .30]
Helplessness attributions
1. Success orientation .34
ⴱⴱ
.35
ⴱⴱ
Fear of failure .14
ⴱⴱ
.15
ⴱⴱ
.11
ⴱⴱ
.11
ⴱⴱ
[.07, .16]
2. Success Orientation Fear of Failure .04 .11
ⴱⴱ
.00 [.07, .16]
Note. Beta is the standardized regression coefficient. Increments for variables entered at R
2
significance levels are based upon F tests for that step. CI
confidence interval.
a
Ninety-five percent noncentral confidence intervals were computed for R
2
at each step.
ⴱⴱ
p .01.
Failure Acceptors
Optimists
Self Protectors
Overstrivers
10
12
14
16
18
20
22
24
26
28
30
Low Success Orientation High Success Orientation
Self-Handicapping
Low Fear of Failure
High Fear of Failure
Figure 4. Interaction between fear of failure and success orientation on self-
handicapping (Australia N 643). Predicted self-handicapping as a function of
fear of failure and success orientation. Values are based on standardized coeffi-
cients and represent one standard deviation below and above the mean. Total
self-handicapping scores range from a minimum of 6 to a maximum of 42.
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11
UNDERMOTIVATED OR MOTIVATED TO FAIL?
interaction effects, we graphed the predicted values for students
high and low in failure fearing (see Figures 4, 5, and 6).
An analysis of simple slopes for disengagement revealed a
positive relationship with fear of failure at 1 SD below the mean,
B 1.47, t(1,642) 6.44, p .001, and 1 SD above the mean,
B 0.740, t(1,642) 3.53, p .001. The association between
fear of failure and disengagement declined with increasing success
orientation, and at 1.6 SDs above the mean, fear of failure was no
longer significantly associated with disengagement, B 0.522,
t(1,642) 1.933, p .05. For truancy, there was a positive
relationship with fear of failure at 1 SD below the mean, B
0.601, t(1,642) 3.212, p .001. However, at 1 SD above the
mean, this relationship was no longer significant, B ⫽⫺0.06,
t(1,642) ⫽⫺0.38, p .05. Finally, for self-reported achieve-
ment, fear of failure was associated with poorer overall aca-
demic achievement when students scored lower in success
orientation (1 SD below the mean), B ⫽⫺0.35, t(1,642)
5.56, p .001 (see Figure 7). However, at 1 SD above the
mean, this too was no longer significant, B ⫽⫺0.09, t(1,642)
.1.39, p .05.
Plotting the values for students high and low in failure fearing
revealed a similar interaction between success orientation and fear
of failure on helpless patterns of behavior. Consistent with predic-
tions, self-protective students (low success orientation and high
fear of failure) performed poorest across a range of measures. They
were also most likely to report disengaging from school and
skipping class. These findings are consistent with the results from
Study 1 and suggest that it is the self-protecting students who may
be at greatest risk of self-handicapping, helplessness, and disen-
gagement from school.
As seen in Japan, students high in success orientation (opti-
mists and overstrivers) appeared to be more resilient to fear of
failure and showed the most adaptive outcomes across all key
measures. In our Australian sample, these students typically
described themselves as being in the top third of their class and
reported receiving mostly As and Bs over the last 12 months. As
success orientation diminished, however, fear of failure was
more strongly associated with poorer achievement estimates.
Students high in fear of failure reported the greatest number of
D and F grades and rated themselves among the worst in their
class. It is interesting that students low in both success orien-
tation and fear of failure fared better than their failure-fearing
peers. Rather than displaying a helpless pattern of behavior
(consistent with traditional portrayals of failure acceptance),
these students ranked themselves as “about average” when
compared to other students and reported that they received
mostly C grades over the last 12 months.
Cross-cultural similarities. To examine whether the pattern
of relationships between variables were equivalent across cul-
tures (H4), we first tested for measurement invariance using
multigroup confirmatory factor analysis (CFA) with structural
equation modeling. Separate analyses were conducted for
each measure—success orientation, fear of failure, self-
handicapping, defensive pessimism, and helplessness—and the
results were used to determine whether the English and Japa-
nese scales were structurally equivalent in the Australian and
Japanese samples. In each analysis, two nested models were
compared: an unconstrained (configural) model, where factor
loadings and intercepts were estimated freely, and a constrained
(factor loading invariance) model, where parameters were fixed
to be equal in both groups. Invariance at the configural level
indicates that scale items are associated with the same factors in
each sample. Invariance at the factor loading level indicates that
the strength of relationship between items and their associated
factors are also equal across cultures (Chen, 2007). Poor fit
and/or a significant difference between the two models suggests
a lack of invariance at the tested level (e.g., cross-cultural
differences in the measured constructs and scale items).
Significant differences between models in multigroup CFA
have typically been assessed with chi-square (
2
) tests, which
evaluate discrepancies between the sample and fitted covari-
ance matrices. However, because
2
is sensitive to large sample
sizes and violations of the multivariate normality assumption, it
often rejects invariant models under these conditions (Chen,
Table 5
Study 2 (Australia): Results of Hierarchical Multiple Regression Predicting Disengagement, Truancy, and Self-Reported Achievement
(N 643)
Dependent variable and step At step Final R
2
R
2
95% CI
a
Disengagement
1. Success orientation .31
ⴱⴱⴱ
.36
ⴱⴱ
Fear of failure .24
ⴱⴱⴱ
.25
ⴱⴱⴱ
.12
ⴱⴱⴱ
.12
ⴱⴱⴱ
[.07, .16]
2. Success Orientation Fear of Failure .11
ⴱⴱ
.13
ⴱⴱⴱ
.01
ⴱⴱⴱ
[.08, .17]
Truancy
1. Success orientation .26
ⴱⴱⴱ
.31
ⴱⴱⴱ
Fear of failure .07 .08
.06
ⴱⴱⴱ
.06
ⴱⴱⴱ
[.03, .10]
2. Success Orientation Fear of Failure .12
ⴱⴱⴱ
.07
ⴱⴱ
.01
ⴱⴱⴱ
[.04, .11]
Self-reported achievement
1. Success orientation .43
ⴱⴱⴱ
.48
ⴱⴱⴱ
Fear of failure .16
ⴱⴱⴱ
.17
ⴱⴱⴱ
.17
ⴱⴱⴱ
.17
ⴱⴱⴱ
[.12, .23]
2. Success Orientation Fear of Failure .12
ⴱⴱⴱ
.19
ⴱⴱⴱ
.02
ⴱⴱⴱ
[.14, .24]
Note. Beta is the standardized regression coefficient. Increments for variables entered at R
2
significance levels are based upon F tests for that step. CI
confidence interval.
a
Ninety-five percent noncentral confidence intervals were computed for R
2
at each step.
p .05.
ⴱⴱ
p .01.
ⴱⴱⴱ
p .001.
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12
DE CASTELLA, BYRNE, AND COVINGTON
2007; Hu & Bentler, 1995). For this reason, goodness of fit
indices are recommended as alternative criteria for assessing
measurement invariance (see Chen, 2007, for a review). For
large samples, Chen (2007) provides the following cutoffs for
invariance at the configural and factor loading levels: (a) a
difference between models less than or equal to .01 in the
comparative fit index (CFI), and (b) a difference less than or
equal to .015 in the root-mean-square error of approximation
(RMSEA) or less than or equal to .03 in the standardized
root-mean-square residual (SRMR).
Using the criteria provided by Chen (2007), we examined fit
indices in separate analyses for each of our measures. Results
indicated that for success orientation, the single-factor config-
ural model fit the data well (
2
58.95, df 10, p .001;
CFI .991, RMSEA .049, and SRMR .017), and there
was no significant change in fit indices when it was compared
to the loading invariance model (⌬␹
2
117.76, df 15, p
.001; CFI ⫽⫺.009, RMSEA .009, SRMR .012). The
configural model for fear of failure also displayed good fit
(
2
33.23, df 4, p .001; CFI .992, RMSEA .06,
SRMR .009), with no significant change in fit indices be-
tween the configural and factor loading models (⌬␹
2
68.478,
df 8, p .001; CFI ⫽⫺.009, RMSEA .001,
SRMR .03).
The configural models for self-handicapping (
2
150.56, df
10, p .001; CFI .967, RMSEA .08, SRMR .077), defensive
pessimism (
2
33.504, df 8, p .001; CFI .992, RMSEA
.039, SRMR .02), and helplessness (
2
103.99, df 13, p
.001; CFI .973, RMSEA .058, SRMR .037) also fit the data
well, and there were again no significant changes in fit indices
between the two models (self-handicapping: ⌬␹
2
179.98, df 15,
p .001; CFI ⫽⫺.006, RMSEA ⫽⫺.01, SRMR .007;
defensive pessimism: ⌬␹
2
52.848, df 12, p .001; CFI
.004, RMSEA .002, SRMR ⫽⫺.001; helplessness: ⌬␹
2
143.20, df 18, p .001; CFI ⫽⫺.011, RMSEA .00,
SRMR .031). These findings indicated that, for each of our
measures, the underlying constructs were structurally equivalent
across cultures.
After establishing measurement invariance in our constructs, we
examined whether the patterns emerging for the quadripolar types
were also equivalent across cultures. We tested the main and interac-
tive effects for culture, success orientation, and fear of failure in a
second set of hierarchical regression analyses. Results indicated that
the interaction between fear of failure and success orientation on
self-handicapping and helplessness remained significant even when
Failure Acceptors
Optimists
Self Protectors
Overstrivers
5
6
7
8
9
10
11
12
13
14
Low Success Orientation High Success Orientation
Disengagement
Low Fear of Failure
High Fear of Failure
Figure 5. Interaction between fear of failure and success orientation on
student disengagement (Australia N 643). Predicted disengagement as a
function of fear of failure and success orientation. Values are based on
standardized coefficients and represent one standard deviation below and
above the mean. Total disengagement scores range from a minimum of 3
to a maximum of 21.
Failure Acceptor
Overstriver
Self Protector
Optimist
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
Low Success Orientation High Success Orientation
Truancy
Low Fear of Failure
High Fear of Failure
Figure 6. Interaction between fear of failure and success orientation
on truancy (Australia N 643). Predicted truancy as a function of fear
of failure and success orientation. Values are based on standardized
coefficients and represent one standard deviation below and above the
mean. Total truancy scores range from a minimum of 2 to a maximum
of 14.
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13
UNDERMOTIVATED OR MOTIVATED TO FAIL?
controlling for culture.
7
There were also no two- or three-way inter-
actions with culture, with the exception of a small but significant
interaction with success orientation: At lower success orientation (1
SD below the mean), Australian students reported higher rates of
self-handicapping, B 0.18, F(6, 1992) 40.58, p .001, R
2
.01; defensive pessimism, B 0.13, F(6, 1992) 112.73, p .001,
R
2
.01; and helplessness, B 0.15, F(6, 1992) 37.46, p .001,
R
2
.01, than did Japanese students. At higher success orientation
(1 SD above the mean), however, culture ceased to be significantly
associated with these outcomes. These results suggest that when
success orientation is low, Australian students are particularly vulner-
able to self-handicapping, defensive pessimism, and helplessness. The
relationship between success orientation and fear of failure, however,
was largely equivalent across cultures.
Commentary on Study 2
The results from Study 2 provide further evidence in support of
the quadripolar model. Australian students, like Japanese students,
appeared most prone to defensive and pessimistic thinking when
they were anxious about failing. Yet, it was only when these
students also displayed a lack of motivation to succeed that they
were at risk of underachievement and disengagement from school.
Consistent with predictions, students showed the most adaptive
behavior when they were low in fear of failure and were highly
success oriented. At one standard deviation above the mean for
success orientation, fear of failure was still associated with self-
reported self-handicapping and disengagement; however, it was no
longer associated with truancy and academic achievement. Cov-
ington (1992) explained that it is because of the hybrid quality of
hope and fear that overstrivers typically display adaptive patterns
of performance in academic domains. Despite being afraid of
failing, overstriving students are success oriented, and they may
thus be more likely to channel their fears into increased effort and
study rather than behave in ways that could undermine their
academic performance. In both studies, self-protective students
faired poorest across all measures. They reported the lowest aca-
demic achievement and were most prone to attributions of help-
lessness, self-handicapping, truancy, and disengagement.
Discussion
The current study makes two important contributions to the
literature on achievement motivation and self-worth. First, it ex-
tends predictions based on the quadripolar model to the domains of
self-handicapping, defensive pessimism, helplessness, and student
disengagement. Second, it contributes to much needed research on
achievement motivation in cross-cultural settings, providing one of
the first empirical evaluations of self-worth protection in Eastern
and Western contexts.
Self-Worth Protection Across Cultures
In Study 1 and 2, the interaction between self-handicapping and
fear of failure was largely consistent across cultures and in accor-
dance with predictions based on the quadripolar model. In their
research with Asian and Anglo-American students, Zusho et al.
(2005) also found no discernible cultural differences in the rela-
tionship among motives, goals, and outcomes. Trumbull and
Rothstein-Fisch (2011) argued that achievement motivation theory
must move beyond cultural generalizations, as a student’s motiva-
tion cannot be reliably inferred from hos or her culture or group
membership. These findings largely support the generalizability of
the quadripolar model across cultures and suggest that, when it
comes to protecting one’s self-worth, Eastern and Western stu-
dents may have much in common.
Success Orientation
Consistent with the predictions of the quadripolar model and
existing research (Martin et al., 2001a), success orientation largely
moderated the relationship between fear of failure and student
outcomes in both samples. Australian and Japanese students who
reported high success orientation (striving for mastery and perfor-
mance approach goals) typically reported lower rates of self-
handicapping, helplessness, truancy, and disengagement. These
7
In an alternative approach, we used a model comparison method to
examine the fear of failure and success orientation interaction in both samples.
To avoid inflated Type I error rates associated with multiple significance tests,
we examined unstandardized coefficients for each of the predictor variables
simultaneously in “verification” regressions that used the regression equation
from one sample to explain variance in the other. We found that parameter
estimates (coefficients) were equivalent across cultures.
Failure Acceptors
Optimists
Self-Protectors
Overstrivers
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
Low Success Orientation High Success Orientation
Grades
Low Fear of Failure
High Fear of Failure
Figure 7. Interaction between fear of failure and success orientation on
self-reported academic achievement (Australia N 643). Predicted mean
grades as a function of fear of failure and success orientation. Values are
based on standardized coefficients and represent one standard deviation
below and above the mean. Scores for grades range from 1 (DorF
average/among the worst in my class)to7(Mostly As/among the best in my
class).
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14
DE CASTELLA, BYRNE, AND COVINGTON
students also reported the highest overall academic achievement.
Although this was especially true when students were also low in
fear of failure, fear of failure ceased to be significantly associated
with these outcomes when students were highly success oriented
(1.5 SD above the mean for approach goals). These findings
indicate that, in both cultures, success-oriented goal striving may
serve as a protective factor that buffers students against their fear
of failure.
Fear of Failure
Unlike optimists and overstrivers, self-protectors and failure
acceptors were characterized by their lack the motivation to
approach success. In our Australian and Japanese samples,
self-handicapping behavior was most common when this lack of
motivation to succeed was coupled with a fear of failing. For
these “self-protecting students,” the need to protect a sense of
self-worth from the implications of failure may have indeed
served as a driving force behind a range of problem behaviors
intended to explain and excuse poor performance. Ultimately,
these strategies appear to have offered little protective value, as
self-handicapping was at the same time associated with the
highest rates of helpless thinking and behavior. Paradoxically,
despite attempts at self-presentation and the importance of
appearing able in the eyes of others, self-protecting students
seem unable to escape their own fears that they lack the ability
to avert failure should they invest the effort necessary to suc-
ceed. The fact that helplessness, self-handicapping, truancy,
and disengagement were all associated with a heightened fear of
failure suggests that although these behaviors may appear to be
the product of “not caring enough,” they may in fact be con-
sequences of caring too much about the prospect of failure and
what it means. This finding has important implications. Cov-
ington (1992) argued that increasing pressure on students to try
harder in the face of failure is to invite disaster. It is largely
assumed that parents and educators can control student effort by
rewarding those who achieve and punishing the indifferent.
However, this basic policy of intensification may only make
matters worse, if it increases fear of failure among students who
do not believe they are capable of succeeding.
High rates of helplessness, truancy, and disengagement
among self-protecting students may not seem that surprising, as
these strategies can in themselves be forms of self-handicapping
(Riggs, 1992). However, the profile that has emerged for these
students is troubling. Failure acceptance and helplessness have
been of primary concern among many researchers in the field of
psychology (Covington, 1992; Dweck & Wortman 1982). They
have also been viewed largely as a problem of motivation lack:
a disaffected and disinterested state of resignation to poor
performance. The results from the current study paint a some-
what different picture. In both Australia and Japan, self-
protective students reported the highest levels of helplessness
and disengagement from school. Ironically, the seemingly un-
motivated students who reported that they “couldn’t care less
about school” were also the ones most troubled by a fear of
performing poorly. These findings run counter to traditional
portrayals of a cascading model of failure avoidance (Martin &
Marsh, 2003), which present failure acceptance as the ultimate
negative outcome. Instead, it appears that among students low
in success orientation, those who are also low in fear of failure
may actually fair better than their failure-fearing peers. Despite
seeming relatively unmotivated, these students were less likely
to skip class or give up on school, were more engaged in their
studies, and reported performing better academically overall.
Covington (1992) explained that though failure-accepting pupils
are indifferent to school achievement, this lack of involvement is
open to several interpretations. He cautioned that although some
students may display helplessness and passive resistance, others
may naturally search for alternative sources of self-worth. Rather
than making excuses or rejecting school altogether, these students
may instead be focusing on other domains, defining themselves,
for example, by their sporting, social, or extracurricular activities.
In this way, failure-accepting students may in effect be downplay-
ing and redefining their failures in a way that is less threatening to
self-esteem.
Limitations
Although the current project represents one of the largest
cross-cultural studies in this area to date, a number of limita-
tions should be noted. First, the measures used in the current
study to assess fear of failure and success orientation are by no
means the only measures available. Indeed, there is a long
history of debate over how these achievement constructs should
best be assessed (Atkinson & Litwin, 1960; Donnellan, 2008;
Ziegler, Schmukle, Egloff, & Buhner, 2010) and whether they
are in fact orthogonal (Atkinson & Litwin, 1960). The motive to
approach success, for example, has been viewed as a stable
personality trait (n Ach) and as an antecedent to achievement
goals (Atkinson, 1957; McClelland, 1965; McClelland et al.,
1953). It has also been assessed with implicit measures such as
the projective picture-based Thematic Apperception Test (TAT;
McClelland et al., 1953) and semiprojective instruments like
the Achievement Motives Grid (Schmalt, 1999). Goal theorists,
on the other hand, have focused more on the importance of
mastery and learning goals (Martin & Marsh, 2003; Midgley et
al., 2001) and on students’ beliefs, values, and perceived sense
of control (Martin & Marsh, 2003). Consistent with self-worth
theory, success orientation was assessed with a combined mea-
sure of mastery- and performance-approach goals in the current
study (AGQ-R; A. J. Elliot & McGregor, 2001). This method
offers a number of theoretical and practical advantages (for a
review, see Harackiewicz et al., 2000, 2002). We also con-
ducted a series of supplementary analyses using only the mas-
tery items to accommodate concerns others may have with the
inclusion of the performance goal construct (Midgley et al.,
2001). These analyses mostly revealed no significant differ-
ences in our results. It may nonetheless be interesting to exam-
ine alternative measures of success striving and fear of failure
in an effort to replicate and extend our findings.
A second issue relates to translation and cross-cultural com-
parisons. Cross-cultural research frequently suffers from diffi-
culties with inappropriate translations, biased sampling prac-
tices, small or practically insignificant findings, and/or cultural
differences in response styles and participants’ understanding
of core psychological constructs (for a discussion, see Heine,
Buchtel, & Norenzayan, 2008; Matsumoto, Grissom, & Dinnel,
2001; Schmitt, Allik, McCrae, & Benet-Martinez, 2007). In the
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This article is intended solely for the personal use of the individual user and is not to be disseminated broadly.
15
UNDERMOTIVATED OR MOTIVATED TO FAIL?
current study, we made efforts to ensure that our Australian and
Japanese samples were similar with respect to age, gender, and
educational status. Our measures were also carefully translated,
back translated, and assessed for cross-cultural invariance. De-
spite these efforts, we acknowledge that true metric equivalence
is notoriously difficult to obtain in cross-cultural research, and
some are skeptical that it can be obtained at all (Heine, Lehman,
Peng, & Greenholtz, 2002; van de Vijver & Leung, 1997). We
therefore advise caution when interpreting rates of fear of
failure, success orientation, and self-protective behavior in our
Australian and Japanese samples.
On a related note, it is important to recognize that all the
independent and dependent variables used in the current study
were derived entirely from self-reports. Although self-reported
handicapping and disengagement have been validated against
actual behavior (Deppe & Harackiewicz, 1996; Rhodewalt &
Fairfield, 1991; Strube, 1986), it is possible that some students
may unconsciously employ self-protective strategies or may be
disinclined to concede that they adopt them. The present results
must therefore be interpreted with the possibility that higher
rates of self-handicapping, truancy, and student disengagement
exist among these student populations. Future research should
also seek to incorporate data derived from additional sources,
such as academic and absentee records, ratings made by parents
and teachers, and other forms of observational data. Incorpo-
rating multiple data sources would also provide information on
shared method variance, which may serve to bias parameter
estimates.
Finally, it is also important to acknowledge that these find-
ings are based on high school students in classroom contexts
only. It is possible that similar findings may emerge in other
settings (e.g., sport) or with younger children and adults, but
research is still needed in these settings. Developmental
changes may be a particularly interesting avenue for future
research. Midgley et al. (1996) stressed the importance of
attending to developmental differences in self-handicapping
and student disengagement, ase knowing when students start
using these strategies is important if long-term solutions to
these problems are to be found.
Conclusions
Our primary aim in the current studies was to explore the
prevalence of defensive pessimism, self-handicapping, and
helpless attributions in Australia and Japan while also evaluat-
ing the utility of the quadripolar model in predicting different
forms of self-protective behavior. Results from Study 1 and 2
suggest that fear of failure has minimal impact on achievement
outcomes when it is coupled with a strong desire to excel in
class and master the material presented. But, when success
orientation diminishes, fear of failure may hold severe conse-
quences for academic performance and is associated with self-
handicapping, truancy, poorer academic achievement, and even
rejection of school altogether. Our findings were consistent in
two highly distinct cultural settings with the same motivational
profiles emerging for students in Australia and in Japan. These
findings suggest that the quadripolar model holds much promise
as a method for predicting underachievement and student dis-
engagement across cultures.
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