On knowing when to quit: Task failure, self-esteem, advice, and nonproductive persistence


  • The authors would like to thank Brenda Major, J. Sidney Shrauger, as well as the editor, C. Peter Herman, and two anonymous reviewers for their insightful comments on an earlier draft of this paper.

Requests for reprints should be sent to Roy F. Baumeister, Department of Psychology, Case Western Reserve University, Cleveland, OH 44106.


Past research has found the performance of persons with high self-esteem to improve after failure, especially on tasks for which persistence correlates positively with performance. However, persistence may be nonproductive in some situations. Experiment 1 used a task for which persistence and performance were uncorrelated; subjects high in self-esteem persisted longer but performed worse than did those with low self-esteem, particularly after prior failure feedback. Experiment 2 tested whether differential sensitivity to advice about the efficacy of persistence mediates nonproductive persistence. High self-esteem subjects who received explicit advice against nonproductive persistence on a puzzle-solving task still tended to persist longer on unsolvable puzzles than did low self-esteem subjects. The implications of high self-esteem subjects' tendency to engage in nonproductive persistence are discussed.