Wolfe, C. , Knight, K.,  Buck, D.,  Liwski, N. & Somers, M. (2003, February). Dispositional rumination as a mediator of the negative relationship between trait self-esteem and contingencies of worth dependent on external, interpersonal feedback. Poster presented at the 4th annual meeting of the Society for Personality and Social Psychologists, L.A., California.

Abstract

Previous research has found that many contingencies of worth, particularly those in which self-esteem depends on how others evaluate you, are negatively correlated with trait self-esteem. The current research found that a tendency toward dispositional rumination partially mediated the negative correlations between approval from others as a contingency of worth and trait self-esteem, and physical appearance as a contingency of worth and trait-self-esteem. Ninety-nine students from a small liberal arts college completed the following scales: appearance and approval from others as contingencies of worth, the Rosenberg trait self-esteem scale, and the rumination subscale from Trapnell & Campbell’s (1999) Rumination-Reflection Questionnaire. Results indicated negative relationships between each contingency of worth and trait self-esteem. Results also indicated positive relationships between each contingency of worth and rumination. Two separate hierarchical regression analyses indicated that the overall beta weight for the contingency of worth (approval from others or appearance) decreased when rumination (a significant predictor in both instances) was added to the equation. Further, two simple Sobel tests (Baron & Kenny, 1986) indicated that both mediational paths were statistically significant. This partial mediation may arise because externally controlled feedback is often subject to ambiguity or misinterpretation, and may often be absent or perceived as negative. Rumination has been shown to prolong distress (Nolen-Hoeksema, 1993). Thus, ruminating about tenuous feedback related to one’s worth may result in chronically lower levels of trait self-esteem. Limitations of these preliminary findings and future directions are discussed.

 

Introduction

              The theory of contingencies of worth is a contemporary view of self-esteem that posits that an individual stakes his or her worth as a person in one or more domains, and that his or her trait self-esteem is largely a product of outcomes in that domain (Crocker & Wolfe, 2001).  Examples of domains that have been studied are: physical appearance, approval of others, competition, God’s love, family support, school competency, and virtue (Crocker, Luhtanen, Cooper, & Bouvrette, 2001).  The contingencies of worth theory works to resolve many of the seemingly contradictory findings in self-esteem research (Crocker & Wolfe, 2001).

A few of the domains of worth studied have been shown to have consistently positive correlations with trait self-esteem (e.g. God’s love, virtue).  These domains of worth appear to be dependent primarily upon feedback that is relatively stable and/or internally controlled.  Thus, it may be easier for persons with these contingencies to create situations that allow for stable, positive feedback.  On the other hand, several of the domains of worth have consistently shown a negative correlation with trait self-esteem (e.g. physical appearance and approval from others).  Feedback in these domains of worth would seem to be based heavily on feedback from others.  Feedback dependent on these external or interpersonal sources may consistently be ambiguous or negative (Crocker & Wolfe, 2001).  Thus, persons with these contingencies find themselves at the mercy of their social surroundings and, more often than not, will be faced with ambiguous or slow to emerge feedback that is interpreted as being negative.

              Trait rumination measures the tendency of an individual to ruminate or “re-hash” events or feedback in his or her head (Trapnell & Campbell, 1999).  The current study will examine the relationship between trait rumination, contingencies of worth, and trait self-esteem.  Individuals who do not simply base their worth on domains in which feedback relies on external sources, but who also tend to ruminate about that feedback, may be particularly likely to suffer from the effects of negative, ambiguous or absent feedback.  Chronic rumination has been shown to be related to lower self-esteem and even depression (Nolen-Hoeksema, 2000).  Rumination may explain the consistent negative correlation found between trait self-esteem and certain external contingencies of worth.  It is expected that trait rumination will mediate the relationship between the external contingency of worth and trait self-esteem.

Method

Ninety-nine college students from a small liberal arts college in the Midwest completed the following scales as part of a larger survey:  appearance and approval from others as contingencies of worth (Crocker, Luhtanen, & Bouvrette, 2001), the Rosenberg trait self-esteem scale (Rosenberg, 1965), and the dispositional rumination subscale from Trapnell & Campbell’s (1999) Rumination-Reflection Questionnaire.  Fifty-eight participants were female and forty-one were male.  The appearance subscale of the contingencies of worth scale includes items such as “When I think I look attractive, I feel good about myself.”  The approval from other subscale of the contingencies of worth scale includes items such as “I can’t respect myself if others don’t respect me.”  The Rosenberg trait self-esteem scale contains items such as, “I take a positive attitude toward myself.”  The contingencies of worth and Rosenberg trait self-esteem scales are both anchored at 1 (disagree strongly) and 7 (agree strongly) on a 7-point Likert scale.  An example item from the rumination scale is: “I always seem to be rehashing in my mind recent things I’ve said or done.”  Participants responded on a four-point Likert-type scale anchored at “never” and “always.”

Discussion

Research has indicated a consistently negative relationship between appearance and trait self-esteem and approval from others and trait self-esteem. This relationship may exist because externally controlled feedback, dependent on other people, is always subject to ambiguity, misinterpretation, irrelevant factors, and may be slow in coming. Particularly for those participants predisposed to rumination, the result may be a great deal of self-focused attention in a domain in which positive outcomes are not necessarily forthcoming.  Carver & Scheier’s (1990) work suggests that self-focused attention in such circumstances will be an aversive experience.  Nolen-Hoeksema (1993) showed that rumination prolonged the aversive experience by prolonging a person’s distress.   Together these studies show that people who consistently focus attention on their likeability or physical appearance may have a difficult time satisfying those contingencies and may find their adverse feelings about those contingencies prolonged by rumination.  

The current research is only a small step toward an explanation for the negative relationship between trait self-esteem and these contingencies. The current study did not, for example, explore the more reflective type of self-focus proposed by Trapnell and Campbell (1990). In the present research, rumination only partially mediated the relationships and, while statistically significant, the degree of mediation was modest at best. It is clear that there is more to the negative correlations than rumination. And, of course, the relationships found in the present work are correlational in nature, and the analysis very basic. It is extremely likely, for example, that the relationship between rumination and each contingency of worth is a reciprocal one.  We would argue that one’s contingencies of worth strongly shape a person’s goals and their thoughts (Wolfe & Crocker, 2002).  Seeking approval from others and judging one’s physical attractiveness (from a social comparison perspective) would cause people to direct attention to the self – the likeability of the psychic self or the actual physical.  Wood and her colleagues (Wood, Saltzberg, Neale, et al., 1990) found that self-focused attention was associated with a ruminative response style. Thus, those who base their worth on these contingencies may be particularly likely to engage in rumination. 

Despite being a small step in the research program, the present research nonetheless represents an interesting step.  Given rumination’s consistent link to depression, the present research lends support to the notion that some contingencies of worth may serve as liabilities rather than assets (Crocker & Park, 2003).  Other interesting questions emerge regarding an individual’s “portfolio” of (multiple) contingencies, and the degree to which one is consciously aware of the outcomes which impinge on trait self-esteem.

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