Contingencies of Self-Worth and the Pursuit of Self-Esteem

Humans have the unique capacity to think about and reflect upon themselves as the object of their own attention.  One consequence of this ability is that individuals tend to evaluate themselves against standards of worth and value.  Contingencies of Self-Worth (CSW) (Crocker & Wolfe, 2001) reflect the degree to which individuals base their self-esteem in specific domains.  Whereas some people may base their self-worth on being academically competent, financially successful, or living up to their moral or ethical standards, others may base their self-worth more on having others’ approval, being in a romantic relationship, or having love and support from their family.

Although CSWs are highly motivating and emotionally rewarding, they often incur costs to the self and to others (Crocker & Park, 2004).  For example, people with high self-esteem become more preoccupied and self-absorbed – and less empathetic, caring, and understanding toward another person’s personal problem – when they highly base their self-worth on academic competence and receive negative feedback in this domain (Park & Crocker, 2005).  Indeed, across a variety of domains and outcomes, research consistently shows that reactions to events depend on how much one’s self-worth is tied to the threatened domain (Park, Crocker, & Kiefer, 2007; Park & Maner, 2009; Park, Sanchez, & Brynildsen, 2011).  For example, contrary to the belief that everyone responds the same way to rejection, only those who strongly stake their self-worth on others’ approval show drops in their state self-esteem and greater feelings of rejection after receiving negative feedback about their likeability, compared to those whose self-worth is less contingent on others’ approval (Park & Crocker, 2008). Overall, when people base their self-worth in domains of contingency, they are more vulnerable to both perceiving threats and responding in ways to cope with the threat (Park, 2010; Park, Naidu, Lemay, Canning, Ward, Panlilio, & Vessels, in press).

Financial Contingency of Self-Worth

Currently, our lab is investigating how basing self-worth on financial success affects motivation, well-being, and interpersonal outcomes.  Across several studies, we find that individuals who base their self-worth on being financially successful experience more anxiety, stress, and financial hassles, even after accounting for effects of financial status, materialism, and financial aspirations.  These individuals experience lower autonomy when reminded of financial insecurities; disengage more from their financial problems; and perceive their financial problems in a more negative light than those who base their self-worth less in this domain (Park, Ward, & Naragon-Gainey, 2017).

Recent research in our lab has examined reasons why people with Financial CSW tend to experience more social disconnection and loneliness (Ward, Park, Naragon-Gainey, Whillans, & Jung, 2020).  In addition, we have examined the role that Financial CSW plays in romantic relationships, finding that those who base their self-esteem on money experience more financial conflicts and disagreements with their romantic partner, which in turn, predicts lower relationship satisfaction (Ward, Park, Walsh, Paravati, & Whillans, 2021).  These findings emerge even after accounting for effects of income and economic pressures, suggesting that there is something unique about basing self-worth on money that is detrimental for relationships.

Our lab is also investigating how and why individuals come to develop financially contingent self-worth in the first place, using theories and insights from social psychology, developmental psychology, and sociology.  This research suggests that individuals who grow up in regions with greater income inequality are more likely to make upward financial comparisons with others, which predicts having greater expectations of the benefits of financial success, which predicts basing self-worth more in this domain, which ultimately predicts lower well-being via feeling dissatisfied with one’s current financial status (Park, Jung, Naragon-Gainey, Ward, Piff, & Whillans, 2020).  Recent research examines how basing self-worth on money relates to perceptions of and usage of time and to experiences of goal conflict and consumer behavior (Park, Ward, Naragon-Gainey, Fujita, & Koefler, 2022).