Success breeds stress


You know that feeling when you do really well on a midterm and suddenly you’re even more stressed about the final exam? You feel like now that you’ve succeeded, you can’t risk failure the next time. In a way, it doesn’t make much sense. If you’re doing well, shouldn’t your self-confidence peak?

It turns out that stress has a lot to do with expectations. Last year, psychologists from U of T and the University of Washington teamed up to gather evidence from a number of studies that link expectations and stress.

It’s worth mentioning that while stress is linked to expectations, the relationship may not be what you’d expect. The typical scenario involves you being stressed when your expectations aren’t met. Say you decide to lose 10 pounds before Christmas. You begin to fantasize about how great you’ll look going into the new year, but when you realize it’s already only 10 days to Christmas and you haven’t lost any weight—or maybe you’ve even put some on—you start to feel anxious. We’ve all experienced the “time is running out” stress, especially since we know that the less time we have left, the harder it will be to meet our own expectations.

So it’s obvious that when you expect to achieve something, and you don’t, you can get stressed. But what about when you do better than you expected? Why is that stressful?

Psychologists found that people tend to have one of two theories about the fixedness or malleability of personality attributes (like moral character or intelligence). Some people, termed “entity theorists”, believe that attributes are fixed. “Everyone has a certain amount of intelligence,” they would say, “and that amount can’t be changed.” Incremental theorists believe the opposite—that no matter who you are, you can become more intelligent.

So what does this have to do with stress? Well, entity and incremental theorist have been used in studies about stress-related behaviour, like self-sabotage. In the study mentioned above, entity and incremental theorists had widely different results when it came to expectations and stress.

The research team told the test participants the story of Brad, a fictional math geek. For some cruel reason, Brad’s university decides that he must remedy his underdeveloped creative abilities by taking a course in expository writing. After finishing the course, Brad takes a GRE practice test.

The team gave the participants two different endings to the story. In one ending, Brad scores a high mark on the verbal section of the exam. In the other, Brad scores poorly on it.

The entity theorists became anxious when they learned that Brad scored well on the verbal exam. This would mean that there was a change in his abilities: they were no longer confined to math.

In the same vein, the incremental theorists became stressed when they learned that Brad did poorly on the verbal exam.

What happens when we think of ourselves in these terms? The research team wondered what would happen if the test subjects imagined they were in Brad’s place; they predicted that stress levels would go up for both groups.

What entity and incremental theorists have in common is that they both think they can predict the outcome of Brad’s verbal exam and the outcomes of their own endeavours. This tends to give them a false sense of control. When their predictions don’t come true, people become anxious.

And most of the time, their predictions don’t come true. Ray Williams, who writes “Wired for Success”, a column in Psychology Today, explains that our perception of ourselves and our abilities is often “out of alignment” with the world around us. That probably doesn’t come as a surprise.

So sometimes when you do better on an exam, or you get promoted, you may feel like you didn’t earn it and can’t repeat it, which may cause you stress. Psychology bloggers say that the most effective way to battle this sort of stress is by developing your emotional intelligence and managing your emotions. But perhaps it has more to do with how we perceive the world—and what we are capable of.