Motivation and emotion/Book/2013/Fear of success

Fear of success

What motives underlie the fear of success and how can fear of success be overcome?

Successful athlete

Overview edit

Success and failure

Success and failure is an inevitable part of living life which affects us in more ways than one (Belanger, Lafreniere, Vallerand & Kruglanski, 2013). Fear of success was introduced by Horner in 1968 and it was used to explain sex differences in achievement behaviour (Hyland, Curtis & Mason, 1985). It was also known as the avoidance motive (Mednick & Puryear, 1976) and the concept of motive to avoid success was proposed to explain an unresolved problem in understanding achievement motivation in women and was argued that women saw it as incompatible and fundamentally antagonistic with femininity so therefore most women are motivated to avoid success and also have a disposition to become anxious about achieving success because of expected negative consequences of social rejection and feelings of being unfeminine (Goh & Mealiea, 1984). Fear of success is the strongest in women who are highly motivated to achieve (Mednick & Puryear 1976).

Gender differences edit

Gender differences in the fear of success edit

Successful business women

Research has shown over many years that there are consistent sex differences in aspiration behaviour where males have higher goals relative to past performance then females (Stake, 1976). It is known that much research in achievement motivation has resulted in inferences in males but it does not apply to females (Winchel, Fenner & Shaver., 1974).

In the original study done by Horner, the ‘fear of success’, a form of anxiety, was hypothesised as being uncommon in males. The research consisted of asking female college students to tell a story based on this projective cue; “After first-term finals, Ann finds herself at the top of her medical school class” (Winchel et al., 1974). Over 65% of the subjects had portrayed Ann as anxious, guilty or that the success would have unpleasant consequences such as loss of femininity or social rejection. Male subjects were asked to do the same, only now ‘Ann’ was replaced with ‘John’ in the projective cue. Less than 10% of the subjects expressed negative themes but what was found in the study was that females who expressed fear of success on the projective measure performed worse in a competitive situation rather than a non-competitive situation, whereas most of the males and the minority of females who did not show fear of success, performed better under competitive conditions (Winchel et al., 1974).

There are flaws with the original study as Horner only gave the John cue to males and the Ann cue to females, which makes it impossible to determine whether the negative responses are due to sex of the subject which suggests fear and conflict peculiar to females, or to sex of the actor in the cue which suggests that males and females hold common sex role stereotypes (Winchel et al., 1974). In 1974, Monahan, Kuhn and Shaver continued this study where they got boys and girls between the ages of 10 and 16 to respond to the John and Ann cue in a completely cross design. they had found that both sexes gave more negative responses to the Ann cue which indicates that sex role stereotypes pays a part in the ‘fear of success’ (Winchel et al., 1974). Females had showed anxiety and conflict when they described for the Ann cue where males expressed hostility, but the frequency of negative responses did decline with age and with this study, they had found that fear of success was found more in the responses for John’s cue (Winchel et al., 1974).

Individual differences edit

Individual differences in the fear of success edit

Individuals fear success in different ways, Marshall and Karabenick (1977) measured fear of success in 98 female and 33 male college students using an empirically derived scoring system. The study had the subjects perform tasks alone on male and female sex-typed sets of anagrams and then the subjects were introduced to a male confederate and informed that they had outperformed him on the first set of tasks. They then competed against the male confederate on a second set of sex-type anagrams where they were told that their sex-related personality characteristics would be rated after competing the task (Marshall & Karabenick, 1977).

The results had found that for females, fear of success was significantly related to performance decrement on masculine but not feminine tasks, the individual cues that were used to evoke fear of success imagery differs with the type of fear of success content that was related to performance decrement and there was similar thematic content that was found in both male and female stories. Females were found to have a tendency toward higher fear of success than men, but in the study, sex-matched cues were used therefore the overall levels of fear of success might be a function of varying role expectations of men and women in conjunction with different motive levels (Marshall & Karabenick, 1977). There is however evidence that even though the mean fear of success in the subjects did differ slightly; thematic analysis revealed those women’s reactions to success did invoke affiliative concerns whereas men’s tend to devalue the importance of success (Marshall & Karabenick, 1977). The measure of construction and validation was limited to a specific behavioural criterion situation and that was competitive achievement performance so there was a significant relationship only for women on masculine sex-typed tasks which shows construct validity for fear of success measures (Marshall & Karabenick, 1977).

Cultural and racial differences edit

Cultural and racial differences in the fear of success edit

Hyland and Mason (1985) suggest that there is evidence that sex-inappropriate cues are culturally marked and lack the ambiguity characteristics of other projective tests which draws out culture based rather than motive-based stories in their test subjects. Monahan, Kuhn and Shaver (1974) had conducted a study with children ranged from 10-16 years and had used the cue Ann or John the same as the questions that Horner had conducted but also with follow-up questions like: (1)Describe Ann/John, what is she like? (2) What is the reaction to the news? (3) What do Ann/John and possibly others involved think after hearing the news? (4) What does Ann/John want now? (5) What has Ann/John’s like been like up to this point? Tell about the events leading up to this situation and (6) What does the future hold for Ann/John and those involved with her?

They had noticed that girls who were older of age tended to deny circumstances of the story, foresee bizarre or inappropriate consequences or even remove Ann entirely from the conflictful situation and Monanhan, Kuhn and Shaver (1974) had concluded that experiences related to cultural sex role stereotypes can lead to internal conflict or awareness of potential conflict among adolescent girls. Mednick and Puryear (1976) however did a study on the difference between race and the fear of success and they had found that there are no differences between race and fear of success however there was a significantly lower level of fear of success for white women who were tested in 1971 compared to 1968. Puryear and Mednick (1974) again did a examination on the fear of success in black college women from four different campuses and the study had indicated that the proportion of fear of success found in the Thematic Apperception Test imagery of black women is consistently lower than was found for white women, but the black women who did advocate more black militant attitudes asserted more of an avoidance motive than balck women who did not.

Development of the fear of success edit

Fear of success in primary school students edit

Fearful child

There are sex differences in goal setting which develops in primary school years where children in kindergarten to grade five were asked to choose tasks which varied in difficulty. The older boys were found to choose more difficult tasks to accomplish, but with the younger subjects, there was no difference in task difficulty selection by sex. This suggests that even in the early years of school, boys tend to set themselves higher goals than girls (Stake, 1976).


Fear of success in high school students edit

Winchel el al. (1974) did a study on high school seniors consisting of 252 seniors who attended private Jewish schools in a middle to upper class Brooklyn community and had found that their study did have comparable result to that of Horner’s study and that fear of success was developed in girls during high school where females who had not learnt to avoid success in the presence of male classmates in primary school, do not fear success in high school. For those who attended coeducational schools in primary school, fear of success is more common and is increased by attendance at a coeducational high school (Winchel et al., 1974).

Fear of success in university students edit

Hoffman (1974) did a study on whether the six years after Horner had first done the study of fear of success had an effect on motive to avoid success as during these six years, there were changes in the roles for women and more college women were planning careers and less oriented toward conventional achievement goals. The evidence they had found was that fear of success was more predominant in honor students and suggests that these students are able students and being ‘on top’ is a real possibility and the attitudes towards success was a conflicted quality that also brought out anxiety or contributes to poor performance under certain conditions, however percentages of fear of success between for women was the same as found by Horner in 1965, but college women were more likely to plan careers in 1971 than in 1965 (Hoffman, 1973).

Effects of fear of success edit

Anticipation of success edit

Anticipation of success/negative consequences of success

Not only was success anxiety something that arose in women, they showed poorer performance in competitive tasks rather than completing the same tasks alone which suggests that women do have a motive to avoid success, and that their anticipation of success is accompanied by the anticipation of negative consequences which are in the form of social rejection and loss of femininity (Hoffman, 1974). Hoffman’s (1974) study was undertaken to investigate the aspect of anticipation of success by women that is anxiety producing, where fear of success was coded and anxiety was indicated by stories that showed negative consequences because of success and anticipation of negative consequences and affect because of the success. The study found that there was no new light that was shed on that subject but did confirm that Horner’s original finding that ther fear of success response was conjured when the cue described a less competitive situation (Hoffman, 1974).

Competitive achievement edit

Competitive achievement was something that Horner had ruled out as most likely to arouse fear of success but Peplau (1976) argues that competition is not the critical factor, but rather the possible violation of sex role standards that are associated with some forms of competition. The norm is seen as males having intellectual and occupational superiority, and also that their self-esteem is derived from outperforming females. Women were traditionally taught to ‘look up to’ their husbands as males are seen to be better educated, have higher earnings and a higher occupational status than women, therefore college women find themselves in academic competition with men and may have conflicts with jeopardising their femininity especially if they are excelling and even the concerns of conserving the illusion that males are superior can affect women’s achievement behaviour (Peplau, 1976). Conflicts where most predominant where women needed to compete against their partner where as, if the women is in a team with her partner, her own individual score will not be made public and therefore negative consequences are minimised, and she will be seen as “helping a loved one”, a behaviour that is consistent with the traditional feminine role (Peplau, 1976).

Ego identity edit

Larkin (1987) did a study on the relationship between fear of success and ego identity and the possible influences on fear of success of early psychosocial stages of development specifically in the stage that Erickson called ‘identity versus identity diffusion’. Freud had proposed “wrecked by success” which did not stem from external opposition but occurs after a wish has been fulfilled and also mentioned unresolved oedipal issue in individuals which is; anxiety associated with the early oedipal rivalry is generalised to all competitive situations (Larkin, 1987). Fear of success is base ideas of conflict stemming from internal conflicts and people who are high scorers on fear of success presented performance decrease following success feedback, and were believed to be due to anxiety generated by the experience of success (Larkin, 1987). Many have described someone who fears success as someone who is ambitious but becomes anxious as success approaches, eternalises the reasons for any achievement and belittles any accomplishment. Others view it as preoedipal conflicts including fear of abandonment by the mother which shows in fear of success for females (Larkin, 1987). Parental attitudes towards children’s achievements may influence the development of success related anxieties where another view argues that conflicts that concern achievement links to a failure of development of realistic internal standards which start from the preoedipal period modifying fantasies of authority and extends throughout development of the ego ideal in adolescence (Larkin, 1987).

The study undertaken by Larkin (1987) consisted of 53 female and 49 male adult students aged between 21 and 41. They had measured identity by using the Ego Identity Scale and an interview for identity status proposed by Marcia in 1966. What they had found in the study was that there was a negative correlation between identity and fear of success scores. These scores indicate that fear of success may be part of the explanation in an identity formation problem. It is not clear of what identity processes go awry for individuals who fear success, but the study shows that there is possibility that the conflicts that occur before the crisis of initiative versus guilt, autonomy versus shame and self-doubt, and oedipal conflict may be a part of finding the causation of fear of success (Larkin, 1987).

Locus of control edit

There are social constraints and social definitions of sex-appropriate behaviour that have had effects on achievement motivation in women that can turn into a motive to avoid success and causes anxiety in females especially when they are put in competitive situations against males (Midgley & Abrams, 1974). Striving for achievement is related with internal and external locus of control which suggests that the feeling of internal control of environmental reinforcement contingencies is related to a high degree of achievement motivation (Midgley & Abrams, 1974). Midgley and Abrams (1974) analysis was to used to examine the relationship in women between the motive to avoid success and the feelings of being controlled externally. The results had found that there was an indirect link to achievement motivation and internal-external locus of control. High achievement motivation is generally associated with a sense of high amounts of internal control but Midgley and Abrams (1974) had found that achievement motivation was blocked or lowered by feelings of external control in the situation of arousal of achievement anxieties in young women.

Personal Conflict edit

There is a price to pay for success and for women who achieve in the male world; they may not be able to fulfil their conventional female role. The most common conflicts that women who become highly successful in being a physician, have found themselves missing out on marriage and being deserted by their friends which leads them to live a lonely and miserable life (Puryear & Mednick, 1974). They are not able to have it both ways as achieving their traditional role as a female may stop them from being able to achieve in other areas such as in the ‘male world’ (Puryear & Mednick, 1974). Achievement in intellectually competitive situations is highly associated with competitive situations which associate with anticipation of negative consequences so therefore, due to the conflict that women can face in being successful, they would prefer to avoid achievement and in turn fear success (Puryear & Mednick, 1974).

Competitiveness edit

The fear of success and competitiveness edit

Exposure to competitiveness

There are five factors of fear of success and they are; concern about the negative consequences of success, self-depreciation and insecurity, test anxiety, attitudes toward success in medical school and extrinsic motivation to excel. Of the five factors, concern about the negative consequences of success is the closest to fear of success which is competitive neurosis that results from unfavourable childhood environments in which too much emphasis is placed on competition and winning (Fried-Buchalter, 1992). It is argued that children who are raised in those environments tend to have and intense desire to come first, but coupled with anxiety that the success will lead to hostility and jealousy from peers that leads to the loss of their affection. Metzler & Conroy (2004) state that fear of success has harmful effects on athletes.

Fear of failure and success are regarded as something that is prominent to performance and Conroy, Poczwardowski & Henschen (2001) did a study involving Elite athletes and performing artists in order to explain the nature of cognitive-motivational-relational appraisals that are associated with fears. They had used in-depth interviews with elite athletes and performing artists to conclude that the way you evaluate failure, you cannot simply reverse that to be able to evaluate success, but being able to evaluate performance has more to do with human needs rather than performance goals or goal orientations. There were many dimensions of worries that are associated with both fear of success and failure, from what was reported by participants in the study. This study aimed to help further aid formulation and treatment planning to aid in performance enhancement (Conroy, Poczwardowski & Henschen, 2001).

How to overcome the fear of success edit

Treatments for the fear of success edit

People who suffer from fear and anxiety in the anticipation leading up to an event can suffer great difficulties from handling the situation. There are relaxation therapies and also cognitive therapies that may be able to help reduce fear (Lundgren, Carlsson & Berggren, 2006). In conditioned fear, exposure therapies are popular in the treatment of anxiety disorders and although extinction of the symptoms of the fear may weaken the fear but the fear itself is not unlearned (Rauhut, Thomas & Ayers, 2001). Behavioural fears are also available for treatment of fear in children, but adults seem to minimise the importance of children’s fears in general seeing them as trivial and not serious to normal development (Graziano, DeGiovanni & Garcia, 1979). As mentioned by Larkin (1987), parental attitudes towards children’s achievements influences the development of success related anxieties, therefore to be able to reduce the fear of success, the change needs to be from the parent’s change of attitude towards achievement to reduce the fear of success when the child is developing, however being able to control the anxieties that come with the fear of success through traditional treatments of fears and anxieties may be able to aid in managing and overcoming the fear of success in adults.

See also edit

Fear - What is it, what effects does it have, and how can it be managed?

Culture and the self - How do self-construals vary across culture?

Goal setting - Effective goal setting for achieving success

Anticipation - What is the emotion of anticipation, what is it for, and how can it be managed?

Jealousy - What is it and how can it be managed?

Fear of failure - What motives underlie the fear of failure and how can fear of failure be overcome?

Quiz edit

1 Women feel conflicted due to sex role stereotypes.


2 Girls in grade five set higher goals than boys.


3 Parental attitudes can influence the fear of success.


4 Conflict occurs when women need to compete against their partners.


References edit

Belanger, J, J., Lafreniere, A. K., Vallerand, R. J., & Kruglanski, A. W. (2013). Driven by fear: The effects of success and Failure Information on passionate individuals’ performance. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 104(1), 180-195. doi: 10.1037/a0029585

Conroy, D. E., Poczwardowski, A., & Henschen, K. P. (2001). Evaluative criteria and consequences associated with failure and success for elite athletes and performing artists. Journal of Applied Sport Psychology, 13(3), 300-322. doi: 10.1080/104132001753144428

Fried-Buchalter, S. (1992). Fear of success, fear of failure and the imposter phenomenon: A factor analytic approach to convergent and discriminate validity. Journal of Personality Assessment, 58(2), 368-369. doi: 10.1207/s15327752jpa5802_13

Goh, S. C., & Mealiea, L. W. (1984). Fear of success and its relationship to the job performance, tenure, and desired job outcomes of women. Canadian Journal of Behavioural Science, 8(2), 89-108. doi: 10.1037/h0080779

Graziano, A. M., DeGiovanni, I. S., & Garcia, K. A. (1979). Behavioral treatment of children’s fears: A review. Psychological Bulletin, 86(4) 804-830. doi: 10.1037/0033-2909.86.4.804

Hoffman, L. W. (1974). Fear of success in males and females: 1965 and 1971. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 42(3), 353-358. doi: 10.1037/h0036670

Hyland, M. E., Curtis, C., & Mason, D. (1985). Fear of success: Motive and cognition. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 49(6), 1669-1677. doi: 10.1037/0022-3514.49.6.1669

Larkin, L. (1987). Identity and fear of success. Journal of Counseling Psychology, 34(1), 38-45. doi: 10.1037/0022-0167.34.1.38

Lundgren, J., Carlsson, S. G., & Berggren, U. (2006). Relaxation versus cognitive therapies for dental fear - A psychophysiological approach. Health Psychology, 25(3), 267-273. doi: 10.1037/0278-6133.25.3.267

Marshall, J. M., & Karabenick, S. A. (1977). Validity of an empirically derived projective measure of fear of success. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 45(4), 564-574. doi: 10.1037/0022-006X.45.4.564

Mednick, M. T. S., & Puryear, G. R. (1976). Race and fear of success in college women: 1968 and 1971. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 44(5), 787-789. doi: 10.1037/0022-006X.44.5.787

Metzler, J. N., & Conroy, D. E. (2004). Structural validity of the fear of success scale. Measurement in Physical Education and Exercise Science, 8(2), 89-108. doi: 10.1207/s15327841mpee0802_4

Midgley, N., & Abrams, M. S. (1974). Fear of success and locus of control in young women. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 42(5), 737. doi: 10.1037/h0037051

Monahan, L., Kuhn, D., & Shaver, P. (1974). Intrapsychic versus cultural explanations of the “fear of success” motive. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 29(1), 60-64. doi: 10.1037/h0035708

Peplau, L. A. (1976). Fear Impact of fear of success and sex-role attitudes on women’s competitive achievement. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 34(4), 561-568. doi: 10.1037/0022-3514.34.4.561

Puryear, G. R., & Mednick, M. S. (1974). Black militancy, affective attachment, and the fear of success in black college women. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 42(2), 263-266. doi: 10.1037/h0036126

Rauhut, A. S., Thomas, B. L., & Ayers, J. J. B. (2001). Threatments that weaken pavlovian conditioned fear and thwart its renewal in rats: Implications for treating human phobias. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Animal Behavior Processes, 27(2), 99-114. doi: 10.1037//0097-7403.27.2.99

Stake, J. E. (1976). Effect of probability of forthcoming success on sex differences in goal setting: A test of the fear of success hypothesis, Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 44(3), 444-448. doi: 10.1037/0022-006X.44.3.444

Winchel, R., Fenner, D., & Shaver, P. (1974). Impact of coeducation on “fear of success” imagery expressed by male and female high school students. Journal of Educational Psychology, 66(5), 726-730. doi: 10.1037/h0037477