Often, people think about their self-worth/self-confidence/self-esteem/self-efficacy/self-worth in ways which seem really strange from a simplistic decision-theoretic perspective. (I'm going to treat all those terms as synonyms, but, feel free to differentiate between them as you see fit!) Why might you "need confidence" in order to try something, even when it is obviously your best bet? Why might you constantly worry that you're "not good enough" (seemingly no matter how good you become)? Why do people especially suffer from this when they see others who are (in some way) much better than them, even when there is clearly no threat to their personal livelihood? Why might you think about killing yourself due to feeling worthless? (Is there an evo-psych explanation that makes sense, given how contrary it seems to survival of the fittest?)
There might be a lot of diverse explanations for the diverse phenomena. I think providing more examples of puzzling phenomena is an equally valuable way to answer (though maybe those should be a comment rather than an answer?).
This seems connected to the puzzling way people constantly seem to want to believe good things (even contrary to evidence) in order to feel good, and fear failure even when the alternative is not trying & essentially failing automatically.
Some sketchy partial explanations to start with:
- Maybe there is a sense in which we manage the news constantly. It could be that we have a mental architecture which looks a lot like a model-free RL agent connected up to a world model, being rewarded for taking actions which increase expected value according to the world-model. The model-free RL will fool the world-model where it can, but this will be ineffective in any case where the world-model understands such manipulation. So things basically even out to rational behavior, but there's always some self-delusion going on at the fringes. (This only has to do with the observation that people sometimes try to make themselves feel better by finding arguments/activities which boost self-esteem, not with other weird aspects of self-esteem.)
- There's a theory that, in order to be trustworthy bargaining partners, people evolved to feel guilty/shameful when they violate trust. You can tell who feels more guilt/shame after some interaction with them, and you can expect these people to violate trust less often since it is more costly for them. Therefore feelings of guilt/shame can be an advantage. Self-worth may be connected to how this is implemented internally. So, according to this theory, low self-worth is all about self-punishment.
- Previously, I thought that self-worth was like an estimate of how valuable you are to your peers, which serves as an estimate of what resources you can bargain for (or, how strong of a bid can you successfully make for the group to do what you want) and how likely you are to be thrown out of the coalition.
- Now I think there's an extra dimension which has to do with simpler dominance-hierarchy behavior. Many animals have dominance hierarchies; humans have more complicated coordination strategies which involve a lot of other factors, but still display very classic dominance-hierarchy behavior sometimes. In a dominance-hierarchy system, it just makes sense to carry around a little number in your head which says how great (/terrible) a person you are, and engage in a lot of varying behaviors depending on your place in the hierarchy. Someone who is low in the hierarchy has to walk with their tail between their legs, metaphorically, which means displaying caution and deference. Maybe you have trouble talking to people because you need to show fear to your superiors.