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Failing and feeling bad: how we think about experiencing negative emotions during setbacks


The current research explored appraisals of the negative emotions that arise in the context of setbacks. We proposed that experiencing negative emotions could be appraised as either enhancing or debilitating. Across two studies, we investigated the hypotheses that individuals who perceive experiencing negative emotion to be enhancing, relative to debilitating, would report experiencing less severe negative emotions and engage in more mastery-oriented behavioral strategies after encountering setbacks. In Study 1 (N = 283), we examined initial associations among negative emotion appraisals, severity of emotions experienced, and behavioral strategies. In Study 2 (N = 141), in a preregistered report, we experimentally manipulated negative emotion appraisals to test causal relationships among these constructs. Results supported hypotheses in Study 1. In Study 2, we manipulated negative emotion appraisals but failed to shift self-regulatory processes.

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  1. We note that, to our knowledge, no work within the latter two categories has explored the impact of their respective implicit theories on the severity of negative emotion experienced specifically in the context of encountering a setback in the same way that ‘setback’ is typically conceptualized in the work on general personal and social attributes (e.g., failing to solve a problem on an IQ test). However, we suggest that a ‘setback’ in these two contexts may reasonably be understood as having an unpleasant or unwelcome experience (e.g., experiencing unanticipated distress while watching a film clip).

  2. Participants typically took between 8 and 11 min to complete the survey (M = 642.20 s, Mdn = 530.00 s).

  3. It is interesting to note that results of this model indicated that stronger incremental theories of intelligence predicted more severe negative emotions, β = .19, t = 2.65, p = .009. This finding is unexpected. As discussed in the introduction, incremental theories of general social and personal attributes like intelligence tend to predict less severe negative emotion. Indeed, a large meta-analysis (N = 28,217), revealed this specific relation (n = 1515) to be r = − .23 (Burnette et al. 2013). Considering the convincing sample size of the meta-analysis and evidence to the contrary of what we find here, we are hesitant to speculate further.

  4. The above link will direct the reader to the original OSF pre-registration form. Please note that we submitted an amendment to this pre-registration for the purpose of correcting a typo in regards to a planned analysis. To view the amendment, please click here:

  5. In our OSF preregistration, both hypotheses 2 and 3 are framed as research questions. They were meant to be directional to match Study 1 findings.

  6. We did not reach our target sample size (N = 220) as outlined in our OSF preregistration due to time constraints. That is, the spring semester ended and we no longer had access to the participant pool.

  7. All manipulation materials (i.e., copies of articles and transcriptions of videos) are available for review here: Videos themselves are available from the first author upon request.


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Correspondence to Alexandra D. Babij.

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Appendix A negative emotion appraisals measure

1 2 3 4 5 6 7
Strongly disagree    Neither agree nor disagree    Strongly agree

Please rate the extent to which you agree or disagree with the following statements:

  1. 1.

    The effects of negative emotions are debilitating. (R)

  2. 2.

    Experiencing negative emotion facilitates learning.

  3. 3.

    Experiencing negative emotion depletes my motivation. (R)

  4. 4.

    Experiencing negative emotion enhances my ability to reach my goal.

  5. 5.

    Experiencing negative emotion inhibits my ability to grow as a person. (R)

  6. 6.

    Experiencing negative emotion debilitates my motivation. (R)

  7. 7.

    Experiencing negative emotion hinders my ability to reach my goal. (R)

  8. 8.

    The effects of negative emotion are enhancing.

Appendix B leader information packet

Your leadership task is to deliver instructions to your two followers on how to complete a selection/resume-screening task. Your followers are assuming the role of resume screeners, and you should assume the role of Recruitment Manager for Amidex Corporation.

Only you, as the leader, will receive the instructions for how to complete the task. You will deliver the instructions to your followers via a web cam, which is broadcasting to the other two group members who are online right now. Video conferencing, web chats, and other methods of computer-mediated-communication are becoming increasingly popular in American businesses.

Because of this one-way communication, your followers will not be able to ask questions, and you will not be able to solicit feedback from them. For these reasons, it is important that you are very detailed in your instructions. After listening to you, the two followers will complete the task. Additionally, due to the high correlation between task performance and quality of instruction, their performance on the task will be evaluated by a third-party observer. This will serve as an objective measure of your leadership performance. You will receive this feedback objective score as well as a subjective score and written feedback from both followers evaluating your leadership performance.

In this packet, you will find the following documents:

  1. (1)

    Organizational background

  2. (2)

    Information on your role

  3. (3)

    Instructions for the task

Organization background

Amidex is a multinational organization that manufactures and distributes pharmaceuticals. It employs about 50,000 people worldwide—its top managers are mostly White males. Amidex has announced openings for college graduates in its management training program. It is seeking high potential graduates to be trained for placement in management positions. Any major is appropriate because the training program will be tailored to the interests, aptitude, and work experience of each trainee.

Historically, the Amidex training program has attracted and recruited applicants who have excellent academic achievement records. However, in emphasizing academic accomplishments, the organization has rejected applicants who are not academic stars but who have demonstrated leadership in other areas. The organization has now decided that it wishes to retain a more diverse workforce by recruiting individuals who have demonstrated competency across a wide range of areas. There has been some conflict within the organization about this issue. Some detractors see it as an opportunity to increase the number of minorities in the organization, regardless of how competent they are for the positions. Further, Amidex is in a conservative business. Detractors within the organization believe Amidex could lose their clients if they adopt this new approach to recruitment. However, supporters of the new approach to recruitment emphasize the benefits of recruiting people from diverse backgrounds. Organizations that value diversity are more innovative than their conservative competitors. Amidex is trailing behind their competitors and some senior executives believe this is due to the organization’s reluctance to move with the times. Further, the demographic composition of the American Labor force is changing as the proportions of both women and members of minority groups have steadily increased in recent years. Some senior executives believe that Amidex employees will not be effective at their jobs unless they acquire skills in dealing with culturally different co-workers whom they work with, work for, and supervise.

To achieve the new objective of the organization, Amidex have recruited a number of undergraduates to help identify candidates for their management training program. Other successful organizations have recruited undergraduates to help with recruiting efforts. Students appear particularly adept at identifying applicants with diverse interests, values and personalities.

Information about your role

You joined Amidex 5 years ago and your promotion to Recruitment Manager is a recent event. You joined the organization through its management training program and feel proud that you are in charge of a program that gave you such valuable training and experience. In fact, you believe that without that training you would not have gained such an early promotion. All the usual personnel services such as recruitment, hiring, promotions, training, and contract negotiations are handled through your office. You are in charge of 15 people, 3 of whom were recruited through the management training program.

Task instructions

The goal of this task is for you to deliver instructions to your two followers on how to complete a selection/resume-screening task. Your two followers will view you give your instructions on their own computers via broadcast.

Your followers have each been given a set of 4 resumes and evaluations sheets and need instructions on how to screen the resumes. In addition, you want the recruiters to write a short letter to their top applicant persuading them to join the organization. The followers will have 10 min to complete the task. The resumes are from undergraduate students from other universities. As the recruitment manager, you are required to give clear instructions to the undergraduate recruiters on how to perform the task.

Although the applicant should have a BA/BS by May 2012, the primary concern should be to hire employees whose background suggests they will be effective managers. The undergraduate recruiters need to review each resume to judge whether the applicant meets the requirements. On the evaluation sheet is a list of dimensions. The undergraduate recruiters need to evaluate each applicant on the set of dimensions and provide comments on how the applicant fits or does not fit the dimension. The evaluation sheet contains ratings (on a 1–7 scale) and space for the recruiters to record evidence of how each applicant has demonstrated or failed to demonstrate achievement in this area. Recruiters also need to provide a general evaluation of the candidate. The dimensions stated on the evaluation sheet include:

  • Willingness to work hard (going beyond the minimum required)

  • Innovation (looks for new challenges)

  • Cooperation (working well with others)

  • Leadership potential (influencing others effectively)

  • Versatility (able to adapt to different situations)

Most candidates will have little work experience, so the recruiters need to look for evidence in the college and outside activities of the applicant. Recruiters also select the top two people they feel are most eligible for the management training program. Recruiters should only choose the top two once they have rated all the applicants. The training program is extremely expensive and care needs to be taken in selecting the right applicants for the positions. Then they write a brief letter to the top candidate persuading them to join the organization.

Now prepare your talk for the undergraduate recruiters. Imagine that you have entered the room where the undergraduate recruiters are seated. You need to give actual instructions and guidance to your followers, although you are unable to see them.

Appendix C failure feedback form

Your followers performed BELOW average, scoring in the 61st percentile of those who have participated in this task as followers.

Follower Task Performance Review:

Criteria Follower 1 Follower 2
# of screenings completed 4 of 4—100% 2 of 4—50%
Errors (# of screened applicants approved who did not meet qualifications) 1 0
Selected top 2 applicants 1 of 2—50% 0 of 2—0%
Completed letter to chosen top applicant 0 of 1—0% 0 of 1—0%
Overall follower performance percentile 62nd percentile 60th percentile

You scored BELOW average, scoring in the 63rd percentile of those who have participated in this task as a leader.

Follower Ratings of Leader Instructions (scale of 1(very poor)—7 (excellent)):

CriteriaFollower 1Follower 2
Clarity of instruction33
Consistency of instruction22
Helpfulness of instruction43
Confidence in giving instruction33
Average performance rating:32.75
Overall performance rating percentile63rd percentile

Additional comments from Followers:

  • Follower 1: It seemed like they were trying hard to help, but it wasn’t exactly clear how we were supposed to evaluate the resumes. For example, I didn’t understand the instructions they gave about the ratings at all. And, they were not a very good speaker.

  • Follower 2: I had a hard time following what they were saying. Sometimes one instruction contradicted the other one. I think they needed to tell us what to do with more confidence.

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Babij, A.D., Burnette, J.L. & Hoyt, C.L. Failing and feeling bad: how we think about experiencing negative emotions during setbacks. Motiv Emot 44, 436–452 (2020).

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  • Implicit theories
  • Emotion
  • Appraisals
  • Self-regulation