A Developmental Study of the Cognitive Basis of Performance Impairment After Failure


A study was designed to test the egotism hypothesis against the learned helplessness hypothesis while considering developmental variation in reasoning about ability. The egotism hypothesis states that performance impairment after failure follows from attempts to avoid appearing low in ability. The learned helplessness hypothesis states that this performance impairment occurs as a result of the perception of noncontingency. Second and sixth grade children were assigned either solvable or unsolvable Matching Familiar Figures Task items. Performance on a subsequent anagram task constituted the dependent measure. Performance deficits on anagrams following failure on the Matching Familiar Figures Task appeared for sixth graders only. These deficits occurred when the anagrams were purported to be of moderate normative difficulty but not when they were said to be very difficult. Moreover, these performance deficits were apparent only in those sixth graders who had a mature conception of ability. Sex differences in response to the perception of high difficulty were noted. Further consideration led to the conclusion that although the primary findings demonstrate egotism, the sex differences suggest that learned helplessness may also occur under some circumstances. © 1985 American Psychological Association.

Document Type




Publication Date


Journal Title

Journal of Personality and Social Psychology