The present research investigates whether and how learned symbols for failure reduce task performance. We tested the effect of number priming in two countries with different learning histories for numbers. Priming numbers associated with failure (6 in Germany and 1 in Switzerland) were hypothesized to reduce performance. As expected, in Switzerland, priming with the failure number 1 reduced performance (Study 1), whereas in Germany, priming with the failure number 6 impaired performance in analogy tasks (Study 2). Study 2 additionally analyzed the mechanism and showed that the relationship between failure number priming and performance was mediated by evoked avoidance motivation and that dispositional fear of failure moderated this mediation. Copyright © 2013 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.