Home » Psychobabble! » Contingencies of self worth – pushing your buttons!

Contingencies of self worth – pushing your buttons!

As I have referenced in a few previous post, self esteem has a pretty big impact on our behavior (as well as cognitive dissonance and justification). To be more precise, researchers have started to use the phrase “contingencies of self worth,” to help describe what makes up your self esteem. Simply put, self esteem is how you “generally” feel about yourself, while contingencies of self worth are the parts of your life from which your self esteem is derived. Crocker and Knight (2005) put together a great article about contingencies of self-worth and self-esteem. Most of the information here is a summary of their conclusions. I encourage anyone who has a real interest in the subject to read the source material as it is only 5 pages long!

Lets look at contingencies in action.

Imagine I am playing racquetball one afternoon and a person interrupts my game. He says, “hey, you’re an awful cook and your car is ugly.” Well lucky for me, I do not invest a lot of my time and energy into cooking or making my car look picturesque. So, I just shrug off this random person’s comment because it doesn’t offend me at all. Why? Because he did not touch on any of my contingencies of self worth.

Now a person interrupts my game and asks me, “hey how long have you been playing racquetball.” I reply, “oh about 5 years now, it’s a sport I’ve been enjoying a lot lately.” The person replies, “oh really? Your play style is bad, your footwork is terrible, and you never hit it right. I would have assumed you were just starting. Wow, man, learn to play.” Clearly this would cause me quite a lot of dissonance as it really “pushes my buttons.” The rude interrupter touched on something that was important to me (one of my contingencies of self worth) thus my self esteem drops down.

Reinforcement and self-esteem

When you win, succeed, achieve, etc, you feel good. Your self-esteem improves and you are hoping to continue this pattern of success. If we think about this behaviorally, we engage in a behavior that will lead to reinforcement, it’s as simple as that. But this one dimensional view of bolstering self-esteem is quite harmful. Imagine that one of my contingencies of self worth was winning games of racquetball. I can choose to play against a seasoned opponent with 6 years of experience (one more than myself) or a rookie who learned to play yesterday. If my self-esteem is contingent upon victory, I will not want to challenge myself. Challenging myself has the potential to lead to failure, and failure does not bolster my self-esteem.

Crocker and Knight (2005) refer to pursuing boosts of self-esteem as eating sugar. It gives you a small boost of energy, but it is bad for your health in the long run. With behavior, only worrying about your self-esteem will stunt your social and intellectual growth through fears of rejection and failure. If we view ourselves from a 3rd person perspective, as if we were our own coach, or agent, we would tell ourselves to keep challenging ourselves and refine our abilities. This is so much easier said than done, as we all know.

Justification and Dissonance

So imagine I play racquetball against an opponent with the exact body type that I have, same number of years of experience, and the exact same play style, but the person still beats me by a huge margin. This will cause me a ton of dissonance as the match should have been an even one. So now I have to justify the outcome to reduce my dissonance. Realistically, I have two options of justification.

  1. He outplayed me. Perhaps he gets to practice more often than I do, and has taken a few lessons. I guess I need to train harder, or find a better practice routine. (ego damaging)
  2. I don’t really play racquetball to compete, I just enjoy the game. This guy must not have a life at all and plays it too seriously. What’s his problem? (ego protecting)
In option one, I sacrifice my self-esteem to come to terms with reality. In option two, I give in to my self-serving bias and decide that this person is trying way too hard while I’m simply playing for fun. This protects my self-esteem as racquetball skill is a contingency of my self worth. In most cases, people will go with option two if they are not accustomed to being challenged in order to gain personal growth. I’d like to say I always go with option 1, but every now and then, our tendency to protect our egos will get the better of us.
So with that, we now see how self-esteem, created by contingencies of self worth, interacts with our justification to help reduce the dissonance we experience when something could potentially harm our self image!



  1. WJCuffe says:

    Perhaps it’s my age, but I would have thought your quest for employment (the secondary purpose of this blog) would have been a greater example than playing racquetball. With the lack of feedback and resulting silence of the application process, it is an explicit contingency to self worth that traditionally has been a major factor in men’s view of themselves.

  2. I suppose I’d rather keep it more light-hearted in my examples. If we look at the process of applications with no feedback, it gets sort-of complicated. A lot of the ideas about justification and dissonance come into play.

    A person applies for a job and they feel it’s a great company and they are well qualified. In this example they never hear back, so the applicant’s self-serving bias will typically make them reduce their dissonance with justification which will either target the company or the job application process itself.

    If their justification targets the company, the resulting statement would typically be negative. If their justification targets the application process itself, they may say something like, “there is more to me than what is written on paper, I wish I would get a chance,” or something like that.

    In some cases the applicant may say, “maybe I am doing something wrong.” At this point the applicant will probably review all of their resumes, re-read all of their cover letters, and see if there is something they had said that seemed strange. This threatens our contingencies of self-worth, of course, so we might not see this behavior as often. This could end up being a positive experience as the applicant might begin engaging in self-improvement. As the job search continues on for a while, a job searcher is bound to feel all of these things. Blame the process, blame the employers, blame themselves. It’s just a bit depressing to think about it, so let’s talk more about racquetball =D

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