Another variable relevant to personal and situational interest is self-worth (or self-esteem), which concerns individuals’ affects, emotions, or feelings about themselves or evaluations of themselves. At the beginning of this chapter, Ms. Duncan invoked self-esteem as an explanation for some students’ motivational problems. Self-worth should not be confused with individuals’ perceptions of their own competence or self-efficacy, which are cognitive appraisals or beliefs about the self. Self-worth is a more affective or emotional reaction to the self. It can mean taking pride in yourself and your behavior, feeling good about yourself and accomplishments, and having a general positive image of yourself. In addition, self-worth is usually a more diffuse and less specific reaction to the self than a specific appraisal of personal ability to do a specific task or of competence in a specific domain (Harter, 1985a, 1990). Accordingly, if Matt believed that he was not very good at tennis (a low perception of tennis competence), this would not necessarily influence his overall positive or negative feelings toward himself as a person, as long as tennis was not that important to him. Harter (1985a, 1990) proposed that self-worth can be linked differentially to a number of different domains across the life span rather than linked to all domains in a global and diffuse fashion.

This distinction is often lost in the popular views of self-esteem, not just in schools but in many domains of life, much to the detriment of our understanding of motivation and how self-beliefs can play a role in influencing behavior. For example, on many TV talk shows or in popular self-help books, high self-esteem is offered as a panacea for problems. Poor or low self-esteem is seen at the root of problems such as child abuse, spousal abuse, substance abuse, weight or body image problems, marital infidelity, delinquency, personal unemployment, criminality, learning problems, and personal unhappiness and depression. It then follows that increasing self-esteem will result in remediation of these problems. As Lazarus (1991) noted, this logic leads people to believe that they will avoid these problems by rehearsing simple positive statements about the self (i.e., “I’m a good person, student, or worker.”) or having others give them the same type of noncontingent positive feedback. This view is simplistic in the face of the complexity of these problems (Crocker & Wolfe, 2001).

Reflecting the emphasis it receives in our popular culture, some educators subscribe to this simplistic view. Teachers are often afraid to say anything negative to students about their performance because they believe it will hurt the students’ self-esteem. There are schools and classrooms that engage in self-esteem programs whereby children are asked to chant positive statements about themselves in order to enhance self-esteem (see Ms. Duncan’s comments at the beginning of this chapter) or teachers are directed to give unconditional positive feedback to all students. In contrast to these popular but misleading views of self-esteem, Covington (1992, 1998; Covington & Beery, 1976) proposed a model of self-worth based on current theories of student motivation. He has developed a program of empirical research that helps us understand self-worth in school contexts.