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Hopes Dashed and Dreams Fulfilled: Contingencies of Self-Worth and Graduate School Admissions.

Jennifer Crocker., Samuel R Sommers., Riia K. Luhtanen. University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. Vol 28 No. 9, September 2002, 1275-1286

This study investigated the effects of staking one's self-worth on academic performance. The researchers hypothesised that people invest their self-worth in particular areas, such as sport or specific tasks, and that this means self-esteem is contingent upon success or failure in these activities.

For the study, participants were grouped into those who based their self-worth upon academic success or failure - the 'high academic contingency group' and those who scored lower on this measure - the 'low academic contingency group'.  As predicted, Crocker et al found those who based their self worth on academic success or failure tended to have lower self esteem than those who invested less.  In addition, the 'high academic contingency group' showed greater fluctuations in self-esteem, compared to the 'low academic contingency group' when receiving both positive and negative feedback regarding academic performance.  Self-esteem increased in response to positive academic feedback, i.e. getting into graduate school, and decreased in response to negative feedback, i.e. not getting in.  Mood also changed over time in the high academic contingency group.

Here are the details of the study:  32 college seniors (12 men and 20 women) applying to masters and doctoral programmes were recruited for 'a project on the graduate school admissions processes'.  This involved completing various pre-test measures i.e. global self- esteem and contingencies of self-worth. At this time, participants were asked to list all the graduate schools to which they were applying.  Pre-test scores were used to predict reactions to success or failure to obtain admission to graduate school programmes.  Participants were instructed to access a web page containing questionnaires, twice a week on a regular schedule of their choosing, for 2 months.  Measures of self-esteem and positive and negative feelings were taken.  In addition to this, if participants had been accepted, rejected or waitlisted, for a graduate school programme, they had applied for, then they were requested to state this.  Post- test measures were taken after the 2 month period.  Again, contingencies of self-worth were taken.  Also, participants were asked to indicate which schools/programmes they had:  not heard back from, been denied admission to, been offered a place in, or been waitlisted for, and which programme, if any, they planned to attend.

The findings were: Self-esteem in the high contingency group was lower than those in the low contingency group.  The former group also experienced significant increases in self-esteem on being accepted to a school programme and significant deflation of self-esteem on receiving rejection from a school, compared to the low academic contingency group.  This supports Crocker et al's theory that when people base their self worth on academic success or failure they experience changes to their self-esteem.  Being accepted onto a graduate programme for the high academic contingency group boosted their self-esteem, causing them to feel great.  Being rejected, on the other hand, caused this same group to experience deflated self esteem, as well as experience more negative feelings.  Those in the low academic contingency group experienced slight but not significant changes.  It was also found that over the two months, those in the high contingency group were more vulnerable than the other group to increasing levels of depression.  

In conclusion, this study provides evidence for the cost of investing one's self-worth in succeeding and failing, and shows that this has an impact on self-esteem and also mood.  These findings suggest that negative mood and self esteem are more strongly related when events are relevant to one's self-worth.  It also provides evidence for the idea that people with unstable self-esteem have a stronger reaction to negative events.  What is most significant is not whether someone has low or high self-esteem but whether they stake their self-worth on success in a particular domain - which, in this case is academic performance.  


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