Self-Worth Theory (Covington – 1976)

The self-worth theory of achievement motivation (Covington & Beery, 1976; Covington, 1984) assumes that the highest human priority is the search for self-acceptance and that “one’s worth often comes to depend on the ability to achieve competitively” (Covington, 1998, p. 78):

In our society there is a pervasive tendency to equate accomplishment with human value—put simply, individuals are thought to be only as worthy as their achievements. Because of this, it is understandable that students often confuse ability with worth….In essence, then, self-worth theory holds that, psychologically speaking, school achievement is best understood in terms of maintaining a positive self-image of one’s ability, particularly when risking competitive failure. (Covington, 1998, p. 78).

From Covington’s explanation of the interplay between human value and accomplishment we gain the perspective that two factors, achievement and ability, dominate as the ultimate value in the minds of many school children, and that this perspective likely carries into adulthood. The self-worth model emphasizes feelings of worthlessness that arise from “the disclosure of incompetency ” (Covington, 1984, p. 8).  The four main elements of this model are (a) ability, (b) effort, (c) performance, and (d) self worth, arranged in a causal structure as shown in Covington (1984, p. 8). In this model ability represents one’s self-perception of ability. His model is a directed graph in which ability, performance and effort are linked to self-worth and ability and effort are also linked to performance.

The basic assumption of the self-worth model is that multiple factors influence one’s sense of self worth. Its fundamental premise is that “one’s sense of worth depends heavily on one’s accomplishments” (Covington, 1984, p. 8). This is represented in the model by the performance –> self worth link. This implies that unless a person is, or can become, successful at some valued activity, he or she “will be cut off from a major source of self-esteem” (p. 8). However, the fact that performance isn’t the only path to self-worth implies that self-worth might also be derived from one’s perception of their own ability (brilliance) or through the efforts of hard work (diligence). As Covington put it in general terms, “human beings tend to embrace success no matter how it occurs” (p. 8), but there are exceptions. People will sometimes reject credit for their successes if they feel they cannot repeat them. Also, success resulting from remedial assistance is not always valued in the same way that successes based solely on one’s own efforts are. Covington, however, expressed a view that despite such exceptions, “humans do typically discount factors that might qualify or discredit their successes and cast their failures in the best possible light (Baumeister & Jones 1978; Covington & Omelich 1979c; Sigal & Gould 1977)” (p. 8).

The model also shows the direct and indirect influences of self perceptions of ability and the expenditure of effort on one’s sense of worth. “Mere perception of high ability can sometimes come to imply worthiness, even in the absence of solid accomplishments” (Covington, 1984, p. 9), however, “it is within [the instrumental linkage of ability -> performance -> worth] that the value of ability ultimately resides, since typically an individual’s sense of worth cannot long rest solely on a reputation for intelligence” (p. 9). Thus, what really counts is achievement and “ability is valued as its chief causal agent” (p. 9).

Effort is also a direct sense of self worth, since a strong effort is sometimes rewarded, and it is generally recognized that hard work is a necessary component of successful performance. However, Covington (1984) described effort as “a double-edged sword” (p. 10). On the one hand, effort in school is necessary to “avoid teacher punishment and personal feelings of guilt” (p. 10. On the other hand, trying hard “puts the student at risk” (p. 10) because “a combination of high effort and failure also leads to suspicions of low ability….[which] triggers humiliation and shame” (p. 10).

Covington (1984) described two self-serving strategies to avoid failure: excuses and the assurance of success. Excuses include, for example, the setting of unrealistically high goals and procrastination—both of which allow the student to “fail with honor” (p. 12). Other examples of excuses in the school classroom include (from Covington, 1998): not studying (p. 16); responding vaguely (p. 84), not trying (p. 85); avoiding work that is not absolutely required (p. 85); doing as little as possible (p. 85); remaining silent (p. 85); outright refusal (p. 85); false effort (p. 85); giving the outward appearances of understanding, while not really understanding (p. 85); a pensive, quizzical look to give the impression that one is too busy thinking to be interrupted (p. 85); asking questions whose answers are already known (p. 85); copying from a neighbors’ paper, and perhaps adding a unique touch (p. 85), and the public admission of some minor personal weakness or handicap to avoid disclosing intellectual inadequacy, also known as, “the academic wooden leg” (p. 89).

Strategies for the assurance of success include setting standards for success at such a modest level that the likelihood of failing is very low, and avoiding failure by succeeding (Covington, 1984, p. 12). The latter strategy is often favored by bright students who succeed through a combination of intelligence and hard work. However, because it is used as a defense strategy to avoid failure, they “often remain doubtful of their abilities despite an enviable record of accomplishments” (p. 12). This type of person is referred to by Covington as an “overstriver” (p. 12). Another success-guaranteeing strategy listed by Covington (1998) is academic cheating (p. 92).

Temporary relief by these failure avoiding strategies is “illusory, since their repeated use will finally destroy the will to learn” (Covington, 1984, p. 12). Better alternatives, Covington suggests, are “the use of noncompetitive learning structures whenever possible [e.g., cooperative learning, individual goal setting, and contract learning]” (p. 16) and “to encourage additional sources of worth beyond the mere possession of ability” (p. 17). He (1998) also suggests that “we must be weary of blaming the failure of students to learn simply on a lack of motivation” (p. 16):

The absence of behavior—docility, passivity, and listlessness—is surely just as motivated as is a lively abundance of behavior. According to the self-worth analysis, the reluctant learner who may refuse to study is already motivated, driven by circumstances to protect his or her self-esteem. (Covington, 1998, p. 16)

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