The Journal of Social Psychology, 1985, 125 (3), 395-396.

FEAR OF SUCCESS and Level of Aspiration


School of Sociology, University of New South Wales, Australia

PARTICULARLY AS SPELLED OUT on page 207 of their book, Canavan-Gumpert, Garner, and Gumpert (1978) appeared to postulate that the success-fearing person is in conflict over success and tends both to approach it and avoid it. Such a person adopts an intermediate distance from success rather than putting it as far away from himself or herself as possible. This inference bears a striking resemblance to the now rather discredited theory of an association between high achievement motivation and a preference for intermediate levels of risk (Ray, 1982). In the Litwin (1966) ring-toss experiment, one might expect the success-fearing individual to adopt an in-between distance from the peg rather than the far distance that unalloyed fear of success might be expected to lead to. A test of this prediction was made in this study.

Fear of success (FOS) was measured by a scale adapted from the two scales given by Canavan-Gumpert et al. (1978) in the appendix to their book. Because both scales are exceedingly long, 15 items that appear thematically central were chosen. These items were combined in a questionnaire with the Argyle and Robinson (1962) Fear of Failure scale and scales to measure positive motivation toward achievement as described in Ray (1982). A total of 43 female and 56 male undergraduate students at the University of New South Wales answered the questionnaire and took part in the experiment. Other results from the experiment have already been given elsewhere (Ray, 1982), where methodological details may also be found. The dependent variable was the number of rings the subject expected to land on the peg in the last game of a ring toss task. This variable was chosen as the critical one because of Canavan-Gumpert et al.'s criticism that different people might perceive the difficulty of the same task differently.

The reliability (alpha) of the selected FOS items was .80, which suggested that they formed a satisfactory scale. The only significant but low and negative correlation of the FOS scale with other scales was -.20 with the Ray (1980) Success-Orientation scale. This implies that success-fearing persons tended not to seek the praise of others and, hence, is contrary to the Canavan-Gumpert (1978) theory. With the female subjects alone, the same correlation was -.32.

When the subjects were divided into seven groups according to the number of rings they expected to land on the peg, a one-way analysis of variance revealed nonsignificant Fs for all scales. The same result appeared when the data for women were separately analyzed. Those fearing success had no characteristic level of aspiration. There was no significant difference between male and female levels of aspiration, but females gained significantly (p < .05) higher FOS scores. The evidence from the present study, then, is uniformly against the Canavan-Gumpert et al. (1978) view that people who fear success are also attracted by it.


Argyle, M., & Robinson, P. (1962). Two origins of achievement motivation. British Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, 1, 107-120.

Canavan-Gumpert, D., Garner, K., & Gumpert, P. (1978). The success fearing personality. Lexington, MA: D. C. Heath.

Litwin, G. H. (1966). Achievement motivation, expectancy of success, and risk-taking behavior. In J. W. Atkinson & N. T. Feather (Eds.), A theory of achievement motivation. New York: Wiley.

Ray, J.J. (1980) The comparative validity of Likert, projective and forced-choice indices of achievement motivation. J. Social Psychology, 111, 63-72.

Ray, J.J. (1982) Achievement motivation and preferred probability of success. Journal of Social Psychology 116, 255-261.

Received November 14, 1984

Requests for reprints should be sent to John J. Ray, School of Sociology, University of New South Wales, P.O. Box 1, Kensington 2033, Australia.


The Fear of Success items used in the above study are given below. All items except item 5 were scored: Definitely Yes 5, Yes 4, Not Sure 3, No 2 and Definitely No 1. Item 5 was scored 1,2,3,4,5 for the same answers. The scale score is the sum of the item scores

1. Do you feel uneasy being the centre of attention in a group?

2. Do you often keep quiet about good luck you have had so that others won't have to feel envious?

3. Do you sometimes find yourself apologizing for behaviour even though an apology isn't really called for?

4. Do you hate having a fuss made over you?

5. Are you quite comfortable in the role of group spokesman?

6. Do you tend to believe that people who look out for themselves first are selfish?

7. As a child, when you were called on by a teacher, did you often feel your stomach sink, even when you knew the right answer?

8. When you notice that things have been going particularly well for you, do you get the feeeling that it just can't last?

9. Would you rather give in on most issues rather than got into heavy debates with people?

10. Do You sometimis "play down" your competence in front of others so they don't think you are bragging?

11. Do you often feel self-conscious if someone who "counts" compliments you?

12. If someone calls attention to you when you are doing well, do you feel awkward or embarrassed?

13. Instead of celebrating, do you often feel let down after completing an important task or project?

14. When you are praised for something, do you sometimes wonder if you will be able to do as well next time?

15. Do you think that to want something very much is a sure-fire way to end up disappointed?

Replication is one of the cornerstones of science. A new research result will normally require replication by later researchers before the truth and accuracy of the observation concerned is generally accepted. If a result is to be replicated, however, careful specification of the original research procedure is important.

In questionnaire research it has been my observation that the results are fairly robust as to questionnaire format. It is the content of the question that matters rather than how the question is presented (But see here and here). It is nonetheless obviously desirable for an attempted replication to follow the original procedure as closely as possible so I have given here samples of how I presented my questionnaires in most of the research I did. On all occasions, respondents were asked to circle a number to indicate their response.

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