Competence and Self-Worth
Some theorists have proposed that human beings have a basic need for competence—a need to believe that they can deal effectively with their environment (Boggiano & Pittman, 1992; Connell & Wellborn, 1991; Reeve, Deci, & Ryan, 2004; R. White, 1959). To achieve this sense of competence, children spend a great deal of time engaged in exploring and attempting to gain mastery over various aspects of their world. This need for competence may have evolutionary significance: It pushes growing children to develop ways of dealing more effectively with a variety of circumstances and thus increases their chances of survival (R. White, 1959).
One motivation theorist has proposed that one of people’s highest priorities is protecting their general belief that they are good, capable individuals—something he calls self-worth (Covington, 1992). Occasionally, people seem more concerned about maintaining consistent self-perceptions, even if those self-perceptions are negative (Cassidy, Ziv, Mehta, & Feeney, 2003; Hay, Ashman, van Kraayenoord, & Stewart, 1999). By and large, however, positive self-perceptions do appear to be a high priority.
Other people’s judgments and approval play a key role in the development of a sense of competence and self-worth, especially in children’s early years (Harter, 1999). Another important factor is regular success in daily activities, especially those that are new and challenging (N. E. Perry, Turner, & Meyer, 2006; Reeve et al., 2004). Learners who take on and master challenges experience considerable pleasure, satisfaction, and pride in their accomplishments (Csikszentmihalyi & Nakamura, 1989; Shernoff, Knauth, & Makris, 2000; A. G. Thompson & Thompson, 1989; J. C. Turner, 1995).
But consistent success isn’t always possible, of course. In the face of very difficult tasks, an alternative way to maintain self-worth is to avoid failure, because failure gives the impression of low ability (Covington, 1992; Covington & Müeller, 2001; Urdan & Midgley, 2001). Failure avoidance manifests itself in a variety of ways: Learners might refuse to engage in a task, might minimize the task’s importance, or might set exceedingly low expectations for performance (Covington, 1992; Harter, 1990; A. J. Martin, Marsh, & Debus, 2001).
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