The proposed research begins with the hypothesis that the importance of self-esteem lies not just in whether it is high or low (i.e., level of self-esteem), but also in people's preoccupation with seeking self-esteem - pursuing the goal to validate the self in domains of self-worth contingency. In the short term, successful pursuit of self-esteem relieves anxiety and increases feelings of safety, security, and superiority. These benefits, however, are short-lived and may come at a high price to the self and to others. The proposed studies explore the following hypotheses 1) threats in domains of contingent self-worth trigger the goal of self-validation, which in turn triggers reactions (thoughts, emotions, and behaviors) that undermine learning, autonomy, and relatedness, and self-regulation; 2) these reactions threats in domains of contingent self-worth trigger self-validation goals in others; 3) learning goals (in which performance outcomes are viewed as a means to learning), and goals that include what is good for the other as well as the self can undo or diminish the effects of threats in domains of contingent self-worth on learning, relatedness, autonomy, and self-regulation; 4) over time, self-validation goals trigger by actual or anticipated threats in domains of self-worth contingency undermine mental health, leading to increases in symptoms of depression, anxiety, disordered eating, and narcissism. Seventeen laboratory experiments examine the effects of actual and anticipated threats in domains of contingent self-worth on self-validation goals and thoughts, emotions, and behavior. Two daily report studies examine how threats in domains of self-worth affect self-validation goals and learning, relatedness, autonomy, and self-regulation in daily life, and also examine in students at risk (mildly depressed, anxious, eating disordered, and narcissistic students) whether threats in domains of contingent self-worth lead to a spiraling of symptoms over time. A 4-year longitudinal survey examines the long-term costs of self-validation goals in domains of contingent self-worth for the mental health of college students. This research has the potential to transform our understanding of the importance of self-esteem in daily life, and for mental health; if the predictions are confirmed, it will show that the importance of self-esteem lies not (only) in whether we have it or not, but in how the pursuit of self-esteem, by attempting to prove our worth and value in domains of contingency, undermines the fundamental human needs for learning, relatedness, autonomy and self-regulation, and ultimately mental health. ? ?

National Institute of Health (NIH)
National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH)
Research Project (R01)
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Special Emphasis Panel (ZRG1-SPIP (01))
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Kozak, Michael J
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University of Michigan Ann Arbor
Schools of Arts and Sciences
Ann Arbor
United States
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