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From Vulnerability to Resilience. Learning Orientations Buffer Contingent Self-Esteem From Failure

Yu, Niiya, Jennifer Crocker, and Elizabeth N. Bartmess (2004) Psychological Science Vol 15, No12, 801-805

This study seeks to investigate self image and academic performance.  Beliefs about being competent in academia underlie achievement behaviour at school.  When self -worth is contingent on academic success, investing effort in academic endeavour is threatening because failure, combined with effort, suggests a lack of ability.  This study looks at priming subjects with theories of intelligence (self-theories) and the effect this has on learning orientations i.e. what can be learned from the experience, including failure. The theories studied were whether intelligence is believed to be entirely fixed (entity) or malleable (incremental).  The hypothesis is that adopting a learning orientation, i.e. the incremental theory, reduces the vulnerability of self-esteem to failure in domains on which self-worth is contingent. This means that this learning orientation should have a buffering effect on self-esteem when a person is facing failure.  

128 psychology students were recruited and scheduled into groups of 7-10 to take part in a 'personality and comprehension study' using a computer. During the pre-test participants completed measures of contingencies of self-worth using 'contingencies of self-worth' scale, 'state self-esteem' scale, and self theories of intelligence measured by 'theories of intelligence' scale. Participants then sat an exam which comprised of questions covering reading comprehension, quantative comprehension and analytical reasoning.   Participants read a text, priming either an entity or incremental theory of intelligence.  This was embedded in the reading comprehension section of the test.  They then received random feedback of either success or failure i.e. the feedback was not dependent on their actual score.  Self-esteem, depression, anxiety and hostility were also measured.

Contingent self-worth on academic success or failure were not correlated with having an incremental self-theory at pre-test, confirming that contingencies of self-worth and self- theories are distinct constructs.   Priming entity theories resulted in low self-esteem following failure in those with 'high academic contingent self worth', but priming incremental theories reduced the effects of failure feedback on self-esteem.  For participants with a 'low academic contingency of self-worth', self-esteem was lower after failure than after success, but the difference was smaller than the high academic contingency group.  Depression, anxiety and hostility were all significantly higher after failure than after success, among the high academic contingency group who had been primed with the entity theory.  Priming of incremental theory in this same group had no affect on depression or anxiety, whereas hostility increased after failure, though still less than in the entity theory condition.

In conclusion, this study shows that there is an interaction between self-theories and contingencies of self-worth which may lead a person to feel more vulnerable to failure, and that an incremental self-theory buffers self-esteem from failure in a domain on which self-worth is contingent. The findings also refute the idea that entity theories cause contingent self-worth, instead they shape reactions to success or failure.  The evidence suggests that learning orientations served as a buffer particularly among the high academically contingent students whose self-esteem was most vulnerable to failure. Therefore, learning and improving upon incremental theories may aid in the reduction of self-esteem and depression in those most vulnerable.  So, priming students with information which suggests that intelligence is a dynamic and changeable entity may have positive effects on self-esteem and well-being.

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