Why Some People Can't Handle Success

Wild success causes elation for many people. But for some it spells anxiety. It's all in how they see themselves.

How people view their abilities in the workplace or classroom impacts how they respond to success and failure, new research reveals. Individuals who think their abilities are set for life (as in "a leopard can't change its spots") experience high anxiety over unexpected accomplishments compared with those who view their capabilities as flexible (think "turning over a new leaf").

"People are driven to feel that they can predict and control their outcomes," said co-researcher Jason Plaks, a social psychologist at the University of Toronto. "So when their performance turns out to violate their predictions, this can be unnerving—even if the outcome is, objectively speaking, good news."

This phenomenon is intuitive among social psychologists but had never been put to a rigorous test.

Good news?

Plaks and Kristin Stecher of the University of Washington surveyed groups of UW students in a series of studies. In one survey, 118 participants answered questions that indicated their type of perspective (fixed or malleable), expectations for test performance and emotional state.

Then participants took three versions of what they thought was an intelligence test. After receiving a stock score (61st percentile) on the first exam, participants got schooled on how to improve their performances before taking another similar test.

For that test, researchers randomly assigned each student a score that had improved, stayed the same or declined relative to the first test. Among students with improved scores, fixed-view individuals reported more anxiety and performed worse on the third test compared with the "supple students."

Plaks suggests the students with steadfast perspectives couldn't handle the success, because it went against their established views.

"On the one hand, it's good news that they [fixed-view participants] have improved a lot," Plaks told LiveScience. "On the other hand, it's bad news in that it violates their view of themselves."

Among participants who showed no change in test scores, those with malleable views reported anxiety and underperformed on the following test compared with their "rigid" counterparts. A real-life example of this behavior might be dieters, Plaks said. "They're trying their best, giving it a good, honest try to lose weight, and it just isn't happening. And that should be especially frustrating for those adopting a malleable perspective," he said.

Mind-bending

Whether a person tends to lean toward the flexible or rigid view is a learned behavior, the researchers figure. That means it can be unlearned or changed, Plaks said.

"Some of my colleagues have isolated socialization patterns and feedback patterns that parents and teachers can give to children that would inculcate you as the fixed view or the malleable view," Plaks said.

If teachers or parents teach children that ability and intelligence are set at birth, this could lead to a grown-up who thinks he or she can't make any headway with hard work or other self-directed strategies. That could be detrimental to a person's professional life.

In the workplace, flexible frames of mind can foster creativity, in that employees will be more likely to try new things and think outside of perceived personal limitations. As the researchers suggest in the October issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, managers and individuals themselves can help to change perspectives in their favor.

"Managers can create a workplace environment, a workplace culture, in which a malleable view of one's abilities is encouraged," Plaks said. "Rather than labeling the workers and putting them into their respective boxes, and kind of implying that that's what you do and that's the limit of your abilities, managers can create an atmosphere in which people are encouraged to try new things without necessarily fear of failure."