Esteem Threat, Self-Regulatory Breakdown, and Emotional Distress as Factors in Self-Defeating Behavior

  • Baumeister R
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Abstract

Patterns of human self-defeating or self-destructive behavior are examined in relation to several hypothesized causes. Threatened egotism appears to be a major, pervasive cause: Self-defeating responses are especially common when people feel that others may perceive them less favorably than the people desire. Self-regulation failure is also a common element in most self-defeating behavior. Emotional distress is often a precipitating factor. Several causal processes, including foolish risk taking and escapist responses, link emotional distress to self-defeat. Inevitably human life contains suffering, disappointment, and failure. Of all the many forms of suffering to which people are exposed, the most ironic and seemingly avoidable would be self-destruction. No individual person can fully prevent natural disasters, disease, the downturns of the economic cycle, crime, warfare, bad luck, and other evils from afflicting him or her. One seemingly ought, however, to be able to stop oneself from harming and thwarting oneself. Self-destructive behavior holds particular theoretical interest for social scientists because it delineates limits to human rationality. Under the influence of computer metaphors, cognitive science, information processing theory, and economic and materialist analyses, the social sciences of recent decades came to favor a highly rationalistic view of human nature and have only recently begun to move beyond it. The pursuit of enlightened self-interest is one of the defining criteria of rationality. But self-defeating behavior is precisely the thwarting of one's enlightened self-interest, and as such it has helped point the way for social scientists to recognize the limitations of analyzing human behavior as pervasively rational. What then is the nature of self-defeating or self-destructive behavior? The present article emphasizes two key factors that produce such irrationality. One is threatened egotism: Many

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Authors

  • Roy F Baumeister

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