Contingencies of Self-Worth Definition
The work of theorists like William James, Charles Cooley, and G. H. Mead suggests that self-esteem, because it is a judgment about the self, must be based on some sort of criteria. These criteria can be called contingencies of self-worth. William James suggested that everyone’s self-esteem is a result of how competent they feel. Cooley and Mead suggested that everyone’s self-esteem is a result of being viewed positively by other people. Contingencies of self-worth theory also emphasizes looking at the bases of self-esteem, but it proposes that people may base judgments about their worth on outcomes in any number of different areas or domains. Some people may have contingencies of worth in domains like competency or approval, whereas others may base their worth on outcomes, such as being powerful, physically attractive, or virtuous. Good outcomes in contingent domains lead to high self-esteem, and bad outcomes in contingent domains lead to low self-esteem. For example, some people may have self-esteem that is contingent upon getting good grades in school. For such people, getting a bad grade does more than just put them in a bad mood, it also makes them question whether they are worthy human beings. Someone who is not contingent on academic outcomes would certainly be upset by a bad grade, but his or her self-esteem would not be affected by the grade. The theory allows people to hold more than one contingency of worth, and it allows people to hold some contingencies very strongly and others less strongly. The theory also suggests that some contingencies of self-worth are more adaptive than others. In addition, the theory proposes that people’s contingencies of worth reveal their areas of vulnerability and guide their actions and motivations.
Contingencies of Self-Worth Background
Until recently, most researchers only looked at one dimension of self-esteem: whether it was high or low. Many people in the Western Hemisphere (especially America) believe that having high self-esteem should lead to all sorts of positive outcomes. Researchers, thus, anticipated that high self-esteem would play a role in a variety of positive outcomes like good grades, prosocial behavior, popularity, and a generally happy life. Similarly, they predicted that low self-esteem would play a role in a variety of problems, including eating disorders, antisocial behavior, drug abuse, and a generally unhappy life. Consistent with intuition, self-esteem does play in role in how happy or sad Americans and people from other Western cultures feel. And initially, simple comparisons between self-esteem and variables like drug abuse or grades in school did sometimes show a relationship—although it was always unclear whether self-esteem caused the outcome or vice versa. But, as researchers did more sophisticated analyses, they began to find that the relationships weren’t as strong as originally thought and that self-esteem and some outcomes weren’t causally related to each other at all. For example, they found that self-esteem doesn’t have nearly as much of a relationship with a child’s grades in school as was originally thought. Similarly, factors other than self-esteem seemed to be at the root of problems like drug abuse. Counterintuitive research also suggests that feeling an unwarranted sense of high self-esteem may underlie some antisocial behavior. When challenged, people with this inflated, fragile, and egotistical sort of high self-esteem may become aggressive or violent. In all, the research findings began to suggest that whether self-esteem is high or low doesn’t have much of anything to do with material, tangible life outcomes. In sum, researchers were becoming confused about the importance of level of self-esteem.
Contingencies of self-worth theory propose that self-esteem is important and that we may just need to look at it from a more complex perspective. The theory asserts that simply looking at one dimension of self-esteem (high vs. low) isn’t sufficient. In addition to looking at level of self-esteem, we also need to consider another dimension: contingency of self-esteem. Knowing an individual’s contingencies of worth would provide researchers with a more complete picture of how life events are related to self-esteem. Only events that are relevant to an individual’s contingencies of worth will be related to self-esteem. For example, a child’s grades in school may be very closely related to their self-esteem, if that child holds academics as a contingency of worth. High self-esteem people may, indeed, respond aggressively to challenges—if those challenges are related to their contingencies and if those contingencies involve power or dominance over others.
Contingencies of Self-Worth Evidence
Researchers determine which contingencies of self-worth a person holds by administering a questionnaire. Participants indicate degrees of agreement or disagreement to statements on the questionnaire. For example, one item that measures the academic contingency states: “My self-esteem is influenced by my academic performance.” If we are to rely on participant responses, researchers must provide evidence that the questionnaire is measuring what it claims to measure. Jennifer Crocker and colleagues have done numerous large-scale surveys and smaller studies that have provided just such evidence. For example, how a person scores on the questionnaire has been shown to predict reactions to actual life events. In one study, college seniors were asked to fill out a contingencies of self-esteem scale. Next, they were asked to complete a level of self-esteem scale every time they got either an acceptance or a rejection letter from a graduate school. Not surprisingly, self-esteem increased relative to a baseline score when they received acceptance letters and decreased when they received rejection letters. However, these fluctuations in self-esteem were predicted by the academic contingency. The students who most strongly based their self-esteem on good academic outcomes had the greatest self-esteem reactions to news from the graduate schools. Additional research has demonstrated that grades in college classes affect the self-esteem of those who base their worth on academics more so than those who do not.
Moving beyond simple validation of the concept, additional research is finding that contingencies of self-worth are related to a number of other psychological and behavioral variables. Researchers have studied the role contingencies may play in areas as diverse as sexual pleasure, alcohol consumption, eating disorders, gender role beliefs, ideas about how rigid or changeable intelligence is, attachment styles, academic problems, and financial difficulties. It is important to note that most of this research is correlational in nature, and most of it was conducting using college students as participants. Thus, much more work remains to be done, particularly outside of college student samples.
Implications of Contingencies of Self-Worth
This theory complements other researchers’ ideas about self-esteem. For example, Michael Kernis and his colleagues have suggested that the extent to which a person’s self-esteem fluctuates is highly predictive of his or her tendency to be depressed or aggressive. Contingencies of self-worth theory agrees with that perspective and notes that it will probably be harder to achieve consistently positive results in some contingencies (e.g., approval from others) compared to others (e.g., being a virtuous person). Crocker and her colleagues are, indeed, finding evidence that basing one’s worth on contingencies that depend on external feedback (e.g., approval from others or physical appearance) is related to negative outcomes, such as stress, eating disorders, drug use, and aggression. These findings are quite consistent with the suggestion from self-determination theory that “contingent” self-esteem, in general, is problematic.
Crocker and her colleagues contend that contingencies of self-worth theory can help advance the study of self-esteem by resolving many contradictions in the field (e.g., whether self-esteem is a state of being or a stable trait) and by explaining previously puzzling findings (e.g., the self-esteem of stigmatized individuals).
- Crocker, J., & Knight, K. M. (2005). Contingencies of self-worth. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 14(4), 200-203.
- Wolfe, C., & Crocker, J. (2003). What does the self want? Contingencies of self-worth and goals. In S. J. Spencer, S. Fein, M. P. Zanna, & J. M. Olson (Eds.), Motivated social perception: The ninth Ontario Symposium (pp. 147-170). Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.