Fear of Success

Motivation to achieve, probability of success, task value, consequences of success

DOMAINS: education, gender and women’s studies, sports, fitness/weight loss, psychology

Contributor: Catherine Violette Medeot
School of Information Studies
Syracuse University


Matina S. Horner (1968)


Mainstream acknowledgement of the “fear of success” (FOS) theory originated from M.S. Horner’s doctoral dissertation, which she completed “under the supervision of Prof John Atkinson, known for his Expectancy Value theory of human motivation…Her dissertation dealt mostly with further work on the relationships between the motive to do well or need for achievement [achievement motivation], need for affiliation, performance…and level of aspiration for doing well at such a task [task value, probability of success]” (Tresemer, 1976a, p. 211).

In her research, Horner used a modified Thematic Apperception Test (TAT) that relied on verbal prompts in lieu of visual cues, and which was tailored to the gender of her participants (Horner, 1972). Horner assessed the participants’ negative or positive reactions to the TAT subject’s success, and determined that the 65% of the females who responded negatively did so due to “an anticipation of negative consequences associated with success” (Piedmont, 1988, p. 467). In particular, Horner argued that “women, in general, learn early that success in certain areas (e.g., academic-intellectual) represents deviance from the prescribed social norms and results in social criticism” (Piedmont, 1988, p. 468). Hence, women avoid success in areas where achievement is “inconsistent or in conflict with femininity” (Horner, 1972, p. 158).

Horner’s study became a popular subject but her hypothesis was also controversial because her results were difficult to reproduce. Piedmont (1988) argues that others’ “inconsistent and contradictory results” are due to “misinterpretations of Horner’s theory” (p. 467). Returning to its Expectancy Value theory roots, Piedmont (1988) explains that Horner’s “phenomenon…occurs only with a subsample of women, those with high levels of both FOS and achievement motivation” (p. 488). To include women with low achievement motivation would not yield the same results as they are unlikely to exhibit FOS due to their low desire and ability to succeed in the first place (Piedmont, 1988, p. 472).

Though Horner’s gender role theory is the most well known FOS model, it is not the only one and it also has a major flaw: the exclusion of men. Metzler and Conroy (2004) acknowledge Horner’s role in “placing FS on the psychological map” (p. 90), but claim that FOS can be traced back to as early as “Freud’s observations of male clients who demonstrated neurotic symptoms when faced with the possibility of success” (p. 90). In their discussion of FOS and male/female athletes, Metzler and Conroy call upon Ogilvie’s five observations of why athletes may have “success phobia.” These include:

1. Social and emotional isolation

2. Guilt over asserting themselves in competition

3. Fear of discovering their true potential

4. Anxiety about the possibility of surpassing a previous record established by an admired performer

5. Pressure of constantly having to match or exceed one’s previous best performance (Metzler & Conroy, 2004, p. 90)

This reasoning illustrates negative consequences of success which could affect men and women alike, and can also be inclusive of non-athletes.

Ogilvie’s five reasons and Horner’s explanation of the fear of losing femininity are both possible negative consequences of success. In viewing both sets of consequences within an Expectancy Value framework, a more general explanation of FOS emerges. Expectancy Value theory maintains that an individual will expend effort on a task if she feels confident in her abilities and “values the task and its associated rewards” (R. Small, personal communication, August 30-September 13, 2010). Those high in FOS feel confident in their abilities, and value the task, but fear the consequences of its “associated rewards.” FOS could help explain student behavior at an academic library such as “repeat customers” to the reference desk who claim they still cannot do their own research and citations. Perhaps they fear the “social/emotional isolation” implications of succeeding at these tasks because it might mean that they could feasibly be “on their own” and lose a support system of a librarian. With this in mind, the librarian could stress that achieving a research skill does not mean that support is not available.

REFERENCES ~ Coding Spreadsheet - Web View
  • Eme, R., & Lawrence, L. (1976). Fear of success and academic underachievement. Sex Roles, 2(3), 269-271.
    ABSTRACT: Seventy-eight female and 63 male 9th-grade students were administered the revised Homer fantasy-based measure of fear of success. The point biserial correlation between scores of this measure and academic achievement was not significant.

  • Horner, M.S. (1972). Toward an understanding of achievement-related conflicts in women. Journal of Social Issues, 28(2), 157-175.
    ABSTRACT: The motive to avoid success is conceptualized within the framework of an expectancy-value theory of motivation. It is identified as an internal psychological representative of the dominant societal stereotype which views competence, independence, competition, and intellectual achievement as qualities basically inconsistent with femininity even though positively related to masculinity and mental health. The expectancy that success in achievement-related situations will be followed by negative consequences arouses fear of success in otherwise achievement-motivated women which then inhibits their performance and levels of aspiration. The incidence of fear of success is considered as a function of the age, sex, and educational and occupational level of subjects tested between 1964 and 1971. Impairment of the educational and interpersonal functioning of those high in fear of success is noted and consequences for both the individual and society are discussed.

  • Jackaway, R., & Teevan, R. (1976). Fear of failure and fear of success: Two dimensions of the same motive. Sex Roles, 2(3), 283-293.
    ABSTRACT: Verbal leads were used to elicit TAT responses from 160 male and female high school seniors, under neutral and aroused conditions. These protocols were scored for fear of success (FOS) according to the 1973 revised scoring system developed by Homer, Tresemer, Berens, and Watson (Note 1) and also scored for fear of failure (FOF) according to the Hostile Press Scoring System developed by Bimey, Burdick, and Teevan (1969). Significant positive correlations between the two motive scores were obtained under both neutral and aroused conditions. The lack of independence between the FOS and FOF scores rejects theoretical similarities in the definitions of the motives, as well as considerable overlap in the scoring systems. It was hypothesized that for those people (especially women) whose affiliative and achievement needs are interrelated, FOF and FOS may be nearly equivalent, since fear of social rejection thus becomes tantamount to fear of failure.

  • Kimball, B., & Leahy, R.L. (1976). Fear of success in males and females: Effects of developmental level and sex-linked course of study. Sex Roles 2(3), 273-281.
    ABSTRACT: Horner's "fear of success" test was administered to 303 children between the 4th and 12th grades. There was an increase of fear of success imagery between the 4th and 10th grades and a decrease between 10th and 12th grades. Fear of success was related to sex only during high school, where it was associated with the course of study pursued by students. Thus, in a high school secretarial course, females showed the lowest fear of success while 12th-grade college-prep females showed fear of success higher than secretarial course females and college-prep males. The findings were interpreted as indicating developmental changes in fear of success due to increasing peer affiliation (4th'-10th grades) and sex-linked competitive achievement (high school).

  • Metzler, J.N., & Conroy, D.E. (2004). Structural validity of the fear success scale. Measurement in Physical Education and Exercise Science, 8(20, 89-108.
    ABSTRACT: Fear of success is a dispositional form of anxiety that can have harmful effects on athletes’ motivation and performance; however, empirical research on fear of success in sport has been limited. Zuckerman and Allison’s (1976) Fear of Success Scale (FOSS) has been the most popular fear of success measure used in sport, yet it is laden with theoretical, technical, and psychometric concerns that may limit the validity of scores. This study was designed to evaluate the structural validity of FOSS scores to establish whether existing models of scores are appropriate for people engaged in recreational and intercollegiate athletic pursuits. Confirmatory factor analyses of plausible one-factor and three-factor models did not reveal adequate fit for either model. Recommendations for advancing fear of success measurement are presented.

  • Olsen, N.J., & Willemsen, E.W. (1978). Fear of success: Fact or artifact? Journal of Psychology, 98, 65-70.
    ABSTRACT: Each of 240 high school juniors and seniors wrote stories in response to one of four variations of the story cues used by Matina Horner to measure what has been called “fear of success.” These cues described either Ann or John achieving success in medical school in a situation in which either all of the protagonist’s classmates were men or there were equal numbers of men and women. Six different consequences of the success were assessed. Results indicated that male and female students perceived the depicted success in similar ways and that when the “deviance” aspect of Ann being alone in a class of men was removed, negative outcomes of success were lessened. The common interpretation of these stories as the writers’ projection of their own personalities is challenged.

  • Piedmont, R.L. (1988). An interactional model of achievement motivation and fear of success. Sex Roles, 19(7/8), 467-490.
    ABSTRACT: Over the past 20 years, research on Fear of Success (FOS) has generated many inconsistent and contradictory results. The thesis of this article is that misinterpretations of Homer's (Sex Differences in Achievement Motivation and Performance in Competitive and Non-Competitive Situations, unpublished doctoral dissertation. University of Michigan, 1968) theory are responsible for such findings. Therefore, Horner's theory regarding the motivational dynamics underlying the performance of males and females is reviewed and contrasted with later interpretations. Based on Horner's formulations, a model of FOS and achievement motivation is presented that both accommodates previous research and provides a framework for guiding future research. Empirical findings are presented that support the utility of this model.

  • Piedmont, R.L. (1995). Another look at fear of success, fear of failure, and test anxiety: A motivational analysis using the five-factor model. Sex Roles, 32(3/4), 139-158.
    ABSTRACT:  Perhaps one of the more theoretically engaging areas of motivation research concerned the construct fear of success [M. S. Homer (1968) Sex Differences in Achievement Motivation and Performance in Competitive and Non-Competitive Situations, unpublished doctoral dissertation. University of Michigan]. Although much investigative effort was devoted to it, the research process was plagued with numerous theoretical and technical problems, not the least of which was a consistent inability to discriminate the construct from other related variables such as fear of failure and test anxiety. This report argued that the empirical overlap among these variables suggested the presence of larger motivational constructs. To evaluate this hypothesis, 263 predominantly Caucasian college women completed measures of fear of success, test anxiety, achievement motivation, and fear of failure. Scores on each variable were correlated with markers of the five-factor model of personality that revealed that these scales were factorially complex. A regression analysis showed that it was the personality domains of neuroticism and conscientiousness that were most relevant to these performance-related variables. A preliminary model of motivation was proposed that was based on these two personality domains.

  • Tresemer, D. (1976a). Current trends in research on “fear of success.” Sex Roles, 2(3), 211-215.

  • Tresemer, D. (1976b). The cumulative record of research on “fear of success.” Sex Roles, 2(3), 217-236.
    ABSTRACT: Based on the collected findings of over 100 students assessing “fear of success,” the following questions were addressed (a) Do females show more “fear of success” imagery than do males? (b) Do males respond to a cue depicting an achieving female with more “fear of success” imagery than do females? (c) Have the proportions of “fear of success” imagery elicited by men and women in response to verbal cues changed over the last decade? (d) What are the correlates of “fear of success”? (e) What is the relationship between “fear of success” imagery and performance in different kinds of situations (e.gl, female achievement behavior in competition with men)? The answers seemed crudely to be (a) no, (b) no, (c) decreased, (d) few, and (e) unclear due to the many differences in the designs used.

  • Wood, M.M., & Greenfeld, S.T. (1976). Women managers and fear of success: A study in the field. Sex Roles, 2(4), 375-387.
    ABSTRACT: Reported here is the first stage of a study designed to test Matina Horner’s fear of success (FOS) hypothesis in the field of management. A matched sample of 18 male and 18 female executives wrote stories for TAT-type verbal cues concerned with a successful management career. No significant differences were indicated between sexes in negative imagery, though both expressed anxiety toward success. Implications for Horner’s hypothesis are discussed with respect to changing attitudes and expectations of men and women for each other and their relationships in business. The report concludes that understanding FOS requires research on a broader representation of men and women actually involved in the pursuit of careers via ongoing studies in touch with rapidly changing times.

  • Zuckerman, M., Larrance, D.T., Porac, J.F.A., & Blanck, P.D. (1980). Effects of fear of success on intrinsic motivation, causal attribution, and choice behavior. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 39(3), 503-513.
    ABSTRACT: This study examined the extent to which fear of success moderates effects of choice and task outcomes on intrinsic motivation, causal attribution, and subsequent choice behavior. Subjects worked either on puzzles of their choice or puzzles that were assigned to them and were then informed that they had performed either better or worse than the majority of other subjects. Measures of intrinsic motivation (task engagement during a free-choice period) and of attribution for performance were obtained. Subjects then indicated how much choice they wanted to have over similar tasks that they were going to perform. Finally,subjects completed a fear-of-success and a resultant achievement motivation measure. Results showed that following success, low fear-of-success subjects (in comparison to high fear-of-success subjects), showed higher intrinsic motivation, made more internal attributions, and wanted to have more choice if initially they had been given choice and less choice if initially they had been given no choice.There were no significant differences between low and high fear-of-success subjects following failure. These results were obtained for both males and females and could not be accounted for by resultant achievement motivation that was unrelated to fear of success. Implications of the construct of fear of success are discussed.