Current Projects

The Costly Pursuit of Self-Esteem
Transcending the Self by Affirming Important Values
Egosystem and Ecosystem Motivational Perspectives
Consequences of Compassionate and Self-Image Goals for Relationships
Consequences of Compassionate and Self-Image Goals for Mental Health
Consequences of Compassionate and Self-Image Goals for Learning
Effects of Compassionate and Self-Image Goals on Self-Regulation
Egosystem and Ecosystem Perspectives and Devalued Identities

Research in the Self and Social Motivation Lab explores how people create what they experience—for better or worse. We find that people often create what they don't want—emotional distress, relationship problems, lack of progress toward important goals—when they pursue self-esteem or attempt to construct desired images of themselves. Fortunately, our research also shows that people can create what they do want—psychological well-being, supportive relationships, and progress toward important goals—when they pursue compassionate goals or goals that transcend the self. We view people as the architects of their lives, constructing their emotional, interpersonal, and achievement experiences, creating the reality they experience. Within this broad framework, we have several programs of research.

The Costly Pursuit of Self-Esteem

This research examines the consequences of pursuing self-esteem--trying to prove or demonstrate that one satisfies contingencies of self-worth (Crocker, Luhtanen, Cooper, & Bouvrette, 2003; Crocker & Park, 2004; Crocker & Wolfe, 2001). Our research shows that in areas where people invest self-esteem (e.g., academic success, appearance), they are highly vulnerable to failure or setbacks (Crocker, Sommers, & Luhtanen, 2002; Crocker, Karpinski, Quinn, & Chase, 2003), adopt self-validation goals (Park & Crocker, 2008; Niiya & Crocker, 2009), and self-handicap when success is uncertain (Niiya, Brook, & Crocker, 2009). We also examine whether learning orientations (e.g., mastery goals, incremental theories of ability, learning from failure goals) provide a solution to the costs of contingent self-worth. Early studies (Niiya, Crocker, & Bartmess, 2004; Niiya & Crocker, 2007) suggested that incremental theories of intelligence and mastery goals buffer contingent self-worth from failure; these learning orientations seem to protect people with contingent self-worth from the negative emotional consequences of failure. However, our more recent research suggests that when people with contingent self-worth have learning orientations, they remain ego-involved in success and failure (Niiya & Crocker, 2008). Mastery goals and incremental theories alter the conditions under which people with contingent self-esteem are vulnerable to failure—they are vulnerable when they exert effort and still fail.

Transcending the Self by Affirming Important Values

Previous research has repeatedly shown that writing about an important value, compared to writing about an unimportant value, reduces defensiveness in response to self-threatening information. For example, studies have shown that writing about important values increases coffee drinkers' acceptance of information about the negative health effects of drinking coffee. These findings are usually interpreted as evidence that affirming the self reduces defensiveness. Researchers have assumed that writing about important values boosts self-images, self-esteem, or mood, suggesting that people need to feel good about themselves before they can accept potentially threatening information. However, 20 years of research has produced almost no evidence that these boosts to the self account for the effect.

We found that writing about important values induces positive, other-directed feelings such as love and connection, which account for greater acceptance of threatening information (Crocker, Niiya, & Mischkowski, 2008). Study 1 showed that writing about an important value increased feelings of love and connection compared to a control condition. Study 2 replicated this effect, and showed that loving and connected feelings, but not positive or negative self-directed feelings, completely accounted for the effect of the values-affirmation manipulation on smokers' acceptance of information that smoking harms health. These studies, in concert with previous research, suggest that values-affirmation reduces defensiveness via transcending the self, rather than self-integrity (i.e., self-worth or self-images). This research supports a growing body of research suggesting that caring about others or about something larger than the self has beneficial effects.

Egosystem and Ecosystem Motivational Perspectives

Research in the Self and Social Motivation Laboratory focuses on two distinct motivational perspectives on the relationship between self and others—egosystem and ecosystem perspectives—and the interpersonal goals they inspire—self-image goals and compassionate goals (Crocker, 2008; Crocker, Olivier, & Nuer, 2009).

Like a camera lens zooming in on the self, people with an egosystem perspective focus on themselves and their own needs and desires. They view the relationship between the self and others as competitive or zero-sum--one person's gain is another's loss. They evaluate and judge people, including themselves, and they expect evaluation and judgment from others. They are concerned with the impressions others hold of them, leading to self-consciousness and social anxiety. They focus on proving themselves, demonstrating their desired qualities, validating their worth, and establishing their deservingness. In this framework people prioritize their own perceived needs over those of others. Constructing, inflating, maintaining, and defending desired self-images becomes a means to satisfy their needs by convincing others of their value and worth. Consequently, people with an egosystem motivational perspective tend to have self-image goals.

In biology, an ecosystem is a community of species together with its physical environment, considered as a unit. In a healthy ecosystem, the species fulfill each others' biological needs for nutriments, oxygen, carbon dioxide, light and shade, etc., creating an often delicate balance of mutually interdependent life. Harm to one element of the ecosystem can negatively affect all species in the ecosystem. We draw on the biological notion of an ecosystem as a metaphor for a perspective in which the self is part of a larger whole, a system of separate individuals whose actions nonetheless have consequences for others, with repercussions for the entire system, that ultimately affect the ability of everyone to satisfy their fundamental needs. Like a camera lens aimed at the self but zoomed out, people with an ecosystem motivational perspective see themselves and their own needs and desires as part of a larger system of interconnected people (and other living things), who also have needs and desires. We propose that with an ecosystem perspective, people view the relationship between the self and others as non-zero-sum, because the well-being of the system depends on the well-being of each of its parts, and harm to one part ripples through the system, ultimately affecting the self. With an ecosystem perspective people prioritize the needs of others, not out of virtue or self-sacrifice, but because they understand these connections and consequently care about the well-being of others. They feel clear and connected to others. Consequently, people with an ecosystem perspective tend to have compassionate goals.

Consequences of Compassionate and Self-Image Goals for Relationships

Compassionate goals can create supportive relationships, and self-image goals can undermine them. In a longitudinal study, we found that students with chronic compassionate goals experienced increases in perceived available social support in the first semester of college (Crocker & Canevello, 2008, Study 1). These effects were attenuated by self-image goals; when students' had higher chronic self-image goals, their compassionate goals no longer predicted changes in support and trust across the semester. In a study of freshman roommates, we found that students' (actors') chronic compassionate goals predicted increases in their roommates' (partners') reports of social support they received from the actor, which predicted increases in the social support partners gave back to actors, which predicted increases in the support that actors reported receiving, but only when actors did not have self-image goals (Crocker & Canevello, 2008, Study 2). When actors had high chronic self-image goals, their compassionate goals did not predict changes in partners' reports of support given and received. In sum, when students had high compassionate goals and low self-image goals, they gave more support to roommates and roommates felt supported. As a result, roommates gave support in return, which made students feel supported. Through their own goals, students created or undermined the supportiveness of their roommate relationships.

We also examine the effects of compassionate and self-image goals on:

  • Responsiveness to relationship partners, and consequent relationship quality (Canevello & Crocker, 2010)
  • Others’ regard for the self and own self-esteem (Canevello & Crocker, in press)
  • Beliefs about growth in close relationships (Canevello & Crocker, in press)
  • Zero-sum perspectives on close relationships, and their consequences for emotion (Crocker, Canevello, & Liu, in preparation)
  • Change in anxious and avoidant attachment to relationship partners (Canevello, Granillo, & Crocker, under review), and
  • Communication in relationships (Canevello & Crocker, in preparation)

Consequences of Compassionate and Self-Image Goals for Mental Health

Research in the lab also examined the effects of compassionate and self-image goals for anxiety and depression. We found that when people have self-image goals they become more anxious and depressed, whereas when people have compassionate goals they become less anxious and depressed over time (Crocker, Canevello, Breines, & Flynn, 2010). We examined both intrapsychic and interpersonal explanations for these findings.

Intrapsychically, compassionate goals appear to reduce depression and anxiety in part because they foster meaning in life, especially goal clarity, whereas self-image goals appear to increase depression and anxiety in part because people with these goals feel pressured.

Interpersonally, people with compassionate goals both give and receive more support; giving support uniquely predicts decreases in symptoms of anxiety and depression over time. Controlling for support given, receiving support does not predict decreased symptoms.

Consequences of Compassionate Goals for Learning and Growth

Another project currently underway explores the connection between compassionate and self-image goals and achievement goals of college students. Students with compassionate goals develop increasingly learning-oriented achievement goals and the motivation to grow (Mischkowski, Crocker, & Canevello, in preparation).

Effects of Compassionate and Self-Image Goals on Self-Regulation

Two longitudinal studies suggest that “hot” ego-involved emotion undermines self-regulation, whereas “warm,” positive, other-directed emotion facilitates self-regulation (Moeller, Crocker, Canevello, in prep). We propose that compassionate goals to support others predict positive other-directed emotions about an important self-regulatory goal, which enhance self-regulation, which subsequently predicts progress on that self-regulatory goal. Conversely, self-image goals to construct and defend desired self-images predict negative affect, which negatively predicts self-regulation, thereby undermining goal progress. A second study extended these results beyond self-report, demonstrating that positive other-directed emotions about an important goal predicted objective improvement on a vocabulary test of difficult GRE words one week later. Taken together, these results suggest that compassionate goals might foster better self-regulation by activating a warm , not a hot , self-regulatory system, which might offer a more sustainable way to pursue important self-regulatory goals (Moeller, Crocker, & Canevello, in preparation).

Egosystem and Ecosystem Perspectives and Devalued Identities

Compassionate and self-image goals might particularly affect the experience of people with devalued or negatively stereotyped identities. Because many people have negative stereotypes about groups such as people with a past mental illness, gays and lesbians, and African-Americans, egosystem perspectives and self-image goals may be particularly problematic for members of these groups. On the other hand, ecosystem perspectives and compassionate goals might help people with devalued identities create supportive relationships and accomplish their most cherished goals (Crocker & Garcia, 2006; Crocker, Garcia, & Nuer, 2008; Garcia & Crocker, in press).

In her dissertation, Julie Garcia examined the effects of disclosing a mental illness or stigmatized sexual orientation on post-disclosure emotions. She found that people who disclose for ecosystem reasons disclose more and have improved well-being (Garcia & Crocker, 2008).

We are currently investigating the effects of compassionate and self-image goals on academic, social, and emotional outcomes of African-American freshmen at a predominantly White university. Preliminary findings indicate that compassionate goals have salutary effects for African-American students, whereas self-image goals have detrimental effects.