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Maintaining and Enhancing Self-Esteem

15 February, 2016 - 10:55

As we saw in our earlier discussion of cultural differences in self-esteem, in at least some cultures, individuals appear motivated to report high self-esteem. As we shall now see, they also often actively seek out higher self-worth. The extent to which this is a universal cultural pursuit continues to be debated, with some researchers arguing that it is found everywhere (Brown, 2010), while others question whether the need for positive self-regard is equally valued in all cultures (Heine, Lehman, Markus, & Kitayama, 1999).

For those of us who are actively seeking higher self-esteem, one way is to be successful at what we do. When we get a good grade on a test, perform well in a sports match, or get a date with someone we really like, our self-esteem naturally rises. One reason that many of us have positive self-esteem is because we are generally successful at creating positive lives. When we fail in one domain, we tend to move on until we find something that we are good at. We don’t always expect to get the best grade on every test or to be the best player on the team. Therefore, we are often not surprised or hurt when those things don’t happen. In short, we feel good about ourselves because we do a pretty good job at creating decent lives.

Another way we can boost our self-esteem is through building connections with others. Forming and maintaining satisfying relationships helps us to feel good about ourselves. A common way of doing this for many people around the world is through social networking sites. There are a growing number of studies exploring how we do this online and the effects that it has on our self-worth. One common way on Facebook is to share status updates, which we hope that our friends will then “like” or comment on. When our friends do not respond to our updates, however, this can negatively impact how we feel about ourselves. One study found that when regular Facebook users were assigned to an experimental condition where they were banned from sharing information on Facebook for 48 hours, they reported significantly lower levels of belonging and meaningful existence. In a second experiment, participants were allowed to post material to Facebook, but half of the participants’ profiles were set up by the researchers not to receive any responses, whether “likes” or comments, to their status updates. In line with predictions, that group reported lower self-esteem, level of belonging, level of control, and meaningful existence than the control group who did receive feedback (Tobin, Vanman, Verreynne, & Saeri, 2014). Whether online or offline, then, feeling ignored by our friends can dent our self-worth. We will explore other social influences on our self-esteem later in this chapter.

Research Focus: Processing Information to Enhance the Self

Although we can all be quite good at creating positive self-esteem by doing positive things, it turns out that we often do not stop there. The desire to see ourselves positively is sometimes strong enough that it leads us to seek out, process, and remember information in a way that allows us to see ourselves even more positively. Sanitioso, Kunda, and Fong (1990) had students read about a study that they were told had been conducted by psychologists at Stanford University (the study was actually fictitious). The students were randomly assigned to two groups: one group read that the results of the research had showed that extroverts did better than introverts in academic or professional settings after graduating from college; the other group read that introverts did better than extroverts on the same dimensions. The students then wrote explanations for why this might be true. The experimenter then thanked the participants and led them to another room, where a second study was to be conducted (you will have guessed already that although the participants did not think so, the two experiments were really part of the same experiment). In the second experiment, participants were given a questionnaire that supposedly was investigating what different personality dimensions meant to people in terms of their own experience and behavior. The students were asked to list behaviors that they had performed in the past that related to the dimension of “shy” versus “outgoing”—a dimension that is very close in meaning to the introversion-extroversion dimension that they had read about in the first experiment. Figure 3.8, shows the number of students in each condition who listed an extroverted behavior first, and the number who listed an introverted behavior first. You can see that the first memory listed by participants in both conditions tended to reflect the dimension that they had read was related to success according to the research presented in the first experiment. In fact, 62% of the students who had just learned that extroversion was related to success listed a memory about an extroverted behavior first, whereas only 38% of the students who had just learned that introversion was related to success listed an extroverted behavior first.

Figure 3.8 Enhancing the Self  

Sanitioso, Kunda, and Fong (1990) found that students who had learned that extroverts did better than introverts after graduating from college tended to list extroverted memories about themselves, whereas those who learned that introverts did better than extroverts tended to list introverted memories. It appears that the participants drew from their memories those instances of their own behavior that reflected the trait that had the most positive implications for their self-esteem—either introversion or extroversion, depending on experimental condition. The desire for positive self-esteem made events that were consistent with a positive self-perception more accessible, and thus they were listed first on the questionnaire. Other research has confirmed this general principle—people often attempt to create positive self-esteem whenever possible, even it if involves distorting reality. We tend to take credit for our successes, and to blame our failures on others. We remember more of our positive experiences and fewer of our negative ones. As we saw in the discussion of the optimistic bias in the previous chapter about social cognition, we judge our likelihood of success and happiness as greater than our likelihood of failure and unhappiness. We think that our sense of humor and our honesty are above average, and that we are better drivers and less prejudiced than others. We also distort (in a positive way, of course) our memories of our grades, our performances on exams, and our romantic experiences. And we believe that we can control the events that we will experience to a greater extent than we really can (Crocker & Park, 2004). Once again, though, there are some important cultural differences to note with people in individualistic cultures pursuing these self-enhancing strategies more vigorously and more often than those from more collectivistic backgrounds. Indeed, in a large-scale review of studies on self-enhancement, Heine (2004) concluded that these tactics are not typically used in cultures that value interdependence over dependence. In cultures where high self-esteem is not as socially valued, people presumably do not feel the same need to distort their social realities to serve their self-worth. There is also considerable personal diversity in the tendency to use self-enhancement. Stable differences between individuals have been uncovered in many studies across a range of self-enhancing strategies (Hepper, Gramzow, & Sedikides, 2010; John & Robins, 1994; Kwan, John, Kenny, Bond, & Robins, 2004).