Aaron T. Beck CBT Research

Application of Self-Esteem to the Theory of Modes: A Summary (Parts 1 & 2)

Brittany, John, BA & Aaron T. Beck, MD

This post contains parts one and two of a three part article. Please see the introduction.

Part 1: Self-Esteem and Overview of the Model

In the original cognitive model by Beck (1964), the schemas initiate the processing of experiences and follow the pathway of cognition → affect + motivation → behavior. In our new model, we propose that a subset of cognitions regarding changes in self-esteem effect the emotional response, motivation, and subsequent behaviors. Depending upon the extent to which the self-esteem is altered, the everyday adaptive behaviors may turn maladaptive, or in some cases, result in negative syndrome associated with psychosis.

There are four prominent domains which serve as a pathway to action—gain, loss, threat, and offense (Beck, Finkel, and J. Beck, 2020). When in the adaptive mode behavior is adaptive, but when in a maladaptive state, these four domains can contribute to the onset of a disorder, depending on how the meaning of external events interact with the self-esteem, along with other factors (biological, social, genetic, etc.).

Application of Self-Esteem to the Theory of Modes: A Summary

The gain mode consists of experiences of pleasure from an event and the anticipation of future satisfaction (cognition). The anticipation of satisfaction frequently leads to a craving for the object or activity. Satisfaction of the craving provides further drive toward a hedonic activity. The loss mode has a pathway in the opposite direction of the gain mode; expectation or experience of sadness and a desire to withdraw. The threat mode activates the flight apparatus and consists of anxiety and desire to avoid the situation. This is a protective factor as self-esteem thus remains intact. The wronged mode shows a perception of being abused and subsequent anger. This mode consequently involves a wish to retaliate to reduce the anger or equalize the balance of power.

Part 2: Cognitive Bias and the Modes

Cognitive bias is not exclusive to populations of people with mental health conditions, but instead are part of the cognitive errors of everyday life. In fact, positively-biased inferences of ambiguous situations are a common phenomenon in well-adapted individuals (Hirsch and Mathews, 2000). In a usual setting, cognitive bias aids people in interpreting situations in a way that is favorable to the self (Blaine and Crocker, 1993), thus boosting the self-esteem and motivating personal productivity. However, there is a wealth of research that links negative cognitive biases to the emotional disorders, taking different pathways for each disorder (Mathews and MacLeod, 2005; Dietel, Möllmann, and Bürkner, 2021). The individual’s overreactions that are part of their disorder appear to be a progression from their usual biases. We posit that cognitive biases serve as a protective factor for self-esteem but when biases become exaggerated, maladaptive cognitions begin to arise.

As stated above, there are four major modes of interpretation that impact self-esteem: gain, loss, threat, and offense. Each major mode follows the bidirectional pathway of cognition: change in self-esteem → affect + motivation → behavior → maladaptation. Repetitive activation of a particular mode can lead to an excessive and prolonged reaction such as are found in a number of psychiatric conditions, including substance use disorders, anxiety disorders, depressive disorder, or aggressive reactions. There is a continuum from the adaptive exaggeration (bias) of the adaptive thinking though the errors of everyday life to the maladaptive reactions (disorder).

The gain mode is sensitive to rewards and is activated by a positive cognition increasing the self-esteem such as “I will likely get the promotion.” There is a positive affect in response to the cognition which increases motivation for engagement to continue, as the reward-seeking behavior promotes the cycle of positive cognitions and increased self-esteem. In cases of exaggerated gain, this cycle becomes maladaptive, as the pleasure-seeking behavior becomes excessive. This pattern of behavior may be observed in individuals who are prone to workaholism, mania, or the addictions.

The loss mode is the opposite of the gain and is activated by a negative cognition such as “No one likes me anymore,” or “I’m a failure,” decreasing the self-esteem. In response, there is a negative affect and the motivation for disengagement to protect further devaluation of self-esteem. The motivation to disengage results in the behavior of withdrawal, isolation, and avoidance. If the perceived loss is exaggerated and the self-esteem plummets, the withdrawal behavior will persist and become maladaptive, as in the case of depression.

The threat mode is characterized by cognition of a challenge which threatens the self-esteem. Threat to self-esteem produces the affect of fear and a motivation to protect the self-esteem. The resulting behavior is to avoid or escape the situation. When avoidance behavior occurs, the individual is rewarded, at least momentarily, by the maintenance of self-esteem. In cases of exaggeration of threat, the degree of relief (i.e., reward of self-esteem maintenance) is higher, and this perpetuates the cycle of threat to self-esteem → avoidance, which is seen in individuals with social anxiety disorder.

When the offense mode is activated by an interpretation of an event as a violation, the self-esteem is vulnerable and/or a sense of vulnerability is activated. The affect is anger combined with a motivation to secure the self-esteem or to eliminate the threat. The resulting behavior may be an aggressive verbal or physical action.  The exaggeration of an offense leads to a significant drop in self-esteem and a significant degree of anger.  To punish the perceived offender and to equalize the relationship, the resulting behavior is a counterattack. This behavior restores the insult to self-esteem. This sequence is demonstrated in individuals with aggressive disorders who have patterns of retaliation after minor slights.


John, B., Beck, A. T. (2021, June 24). Application of Self-Esteem to the Theory of Modes: A Summary. Beck Institute for Cognitive Behavior Therapy.

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