Optimal self esteem
Psychlopedia -- Key concepts -- Concepts associated with wellbeing -- Optimal self esteem
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Many individuals maintain their self esteem is high. They perceive themselves as competent and likeable (Tafarodi & Swann, 1995). Nevertheless, in some instances, their self esteem, mood, and temperament are fragile. They become especially, and unduly, distressed in response to difficulties, such as criticisms. In other words, some individuals seem to demonstrate a fragile self esteem. Kernis (2003) developed a framework that differentiates four conceptualizations of this fragility.
To illustrate, some individuals, if asked directly, maintain they regard themselves as worthy and successful. However, some of these individuals do not like anything that is associated with themselves, such as their name or initials. These individuals tend to be defensive or even prejudiced.
Kernis (2003) summarized four measures or protocols that differentiate fragile from optimal self esteem. These four measures include contingent versus true self esteem, Unstable versus stable self esteem, self enhancement biases, and implicit versus explicit self esteem.
Contingent versus true self esteem
One dichotomy, which differentiates fragile and optimal self esteem, was formulated by Crocker (2002; Crocker & Wolfe, 2001). In particular, Crocker distinguished contingent and true self esteem. Specifically, the self esteem of some individuals depends on whether they fulfill a set of arbitrary standards: academic prowess, social approval, physical attraction, divine acceptance, and power (Crocker & Wolfe, 2001). In other words, the self esteem of these individuals is contingent upon their achievements in various domains.
A contingent self esteem provokes a host of problems. First, these individuals feel motivated to prevail in each of these domains--even if these pursuits do not align with their core, enduring values. As a consequence, they often do not experience a sense of engagement or enjoyment, which can compromise their wellbeing (Deci & Ryan, 1985, 1995). In addition, when they receive negative feedback, and their sense of achievement is thus thwarted, they experience intense negative emotions (for a review, see Kernis, 2003).
In contrast, some individuals instead pursue activities that align with their core, enduring values. These individuals experience positive attitudes towards themselves, called a true self esteem, whenever they engage in these key pursuits. They do not experience the problems that a contingent self esteem can provoke (Deci & Ryan, 1985, 1995).
Unstable versus stable self esteem
Self esteem, if contingent upon the achievements of individuals, might vary erratically across time. In response to victories or triumphs, self esteem might escalate dramatically. In the aftermath of failures or errors, however, self esteem might dissipate. Either as a consequence of these contingencies, or because of other factors, the self esteem of some individuals varies dramatically across time--called an unstable self esteem (Kernis, Jadrich, Stoner, & Sun, 1996). The self esteem of other individuals is less erratic and more stable instead.
When self esteem is unstable, individuals are more sensitive to positive or negative feedback (Kernis, Paradise, Whitaker, Wheatman, & Goldman, 2000. In response to negative events, their mood dissipates rapidly. In response to positive events, their mood improves exponentially (Greenier, Kernis, Whisenhunt, Waschull, Berry, Herlocker, & Abend, 1999). They also tend to be more defensive (Kernis, Greenier, Herlocker, Whisenhunt, & Abend, 1997).
The concept of self compartmentalization can accommodate these findings. In particular, throughout their life, individuals assume a variety of identities: a parent, friend, accountant, and footballer, for example. Some of these individuals recognize that all of their identities correspond to both positive and negative qualities. They might perceive themselves as a caring and understanding--but an anxious and protective--parent, for example. Other individuals conceptualize some of their identities as almost entirely positive and other identifies as almost entirely negative, called a compartmentalized self structure. The self esteem and mood of these individuals thus varies dramatically, depending on which identity as salient (Zeigler-Hill & Showers, 2007).
This instability might also coincide with other traits and behaviors. When the self esteem of individuals is varied, they might become cognizant of apparent contradictions in their personality. They might perceive themselves as confident in some settings, but awkward in similar, but distinct, contexts. These contradictions diminish their certainty of themselves, undermining self clarity (Campbell, 1990). This awareness of acute strengths and weaknesses is also known as self ambivalence; individuals who report this ambivalence are also very sensitive to positive and negative feedback (Riketta & Ziegler, 2007).
Self concept clarity
A stable self esteem is one of three key features of self concept clarity, as defined by Campbell (1990). Specifically, in addition to stability, self concept clarity represents the extent to which individuals perceive their qualities as consistent with one another as well as unambiguous or certain. For example, if the strengths and limitation of individuals seem to contradict each other, self concept clarity is regarded as limited. Furthermore, if individuals are not certain of their strengths and limitations, self concept clarity is also low. When self concept clarity subsides, self esteem diminishes as well (Campbell, 1990). Clarity of self concept is also inversely related to feelings of inadequacy, negative affect, and life satisfaction as well (Usborne & Taylor, 2010).
Self clarity has also been shown to enhance relationship quality. In one study, conducted by Lewandowski, Nardone, and Raines (2010), participants completed a series of measures. Specifically, self concept clarity, relationship satisfaction, relationship commitment, inclusion of others in the self (see self expansion model), and self esteem were all measured. Self concept clarity was indeed associated with both satisfaction with relationships and commitment to romantic relationships. Furthermore, both inclusion of others in the self, in which people feel their identity overlaps considerably with their partner, and self esteem mediated these relationships.
In the second study, participants completed the same measures. However, before they completed these measures, self concept clarity was manipulated (cf., Setterlund & Niedenthal, 1993). That is, participants indicated the extent to which various adjectives, such as logical or friendly, describe their personality. Subsequently, to impede clarity, some participants were asked to identify three times in which they exhibited traits they do not usually demonstrate. For example, if they did not rate themselves as logical, they were asked to describe three times in which they behaved in a logical manner. Conversely, to enhance clarity, some participants were asked to identify three times in which they exhibited traits they do demonstrate. Self clarity, even when manipulated, was still associated with inclusion of the self in others and self esteem, which in turn was related to relationship satisfaction and commitment.
These findings imply that two mechanisms might underpin the association between self concept clarity and relationship quality. First, if self concept clarity is elevated, individuals are more certain of which qualities they have yet to acquire. They can, therefore, more readily determine which qualities in their partner they need to complement these shortfalls. That is, using the parlance of self expansion, they can determine which attributes in their partner they would like to integrate with their own self concept. Nevertheless, because of their clarity, they are still cognizant of their own attributes, ensuring they maintain a sense of personal identity. Accordingly, they feel a stable connection to this person, enhancing relationship quality.
Second, if self concept clarity is elevated, individuals usually experience a strong self esteem. Because of this strong self esteem, they do not misconstrue the behaviors of their partner. They do not, for example, construe attempts to offers assistance as patronizing; their relationships remain intact.
Self esteem uncertainty and preference for quantitative information about themselves
When individuals are not certain about their qualities and attributes, they seek quantitative, rather than qualitative, information about themselves. They would like to know their precise IQ or attract a sizeable income, both of which are quantitative, rather than be informed they are clever or successful. Specifically, when individuals experience this uncertainty about themselves, they seek clarity and precision. Quantitative information fulfills this need (Rothschild, Landau, & Sullivan, 2011).
Rothschild, Landau, and Sullivan (2011) conducted a series of studies that substantiate these arguments. In one study, participants first completed a measure that assesses the extent to which they prefer clarity, certainty, and precision, called preference of structure (see also need for closure). Second, they wrote an essay about modernization.
Next, participants completed a task that was designed to impede or to fulfill the need for clarity. Some participants completed a card matching task. They received one card as well as four alternatives, each with a diversity of shapes in various colors. Their task was to decide which of the four alternatives matched the first card. After each trial, they received feedback. Unbeknownst to participants, this feedback was random. Hence, the participants could not be certain why they answered some trials correctly, undermining their clarity. Other participants completed a different task. They needed to copy a line drawing in a set time. After each trial, they also received random feedback as to whether they completed this task on line. This feedback provided some clarity, however, because at least participants thought they understand why some of the feedback was positive.
Finally, participants received feedback about the essay. That is, they were told their essay had been subjected to a computer analysis. Some participants received quantitative information, such as "You scored 85% on use of grammar". Other participants received qualitative information, such as "Writing sample shows a good grasp of grammatical structure with some errors". They were then asked to specify the extent to which they liked the feedback.
As hypothesized, if participants reported an elevated need for clarity and completed the matching task, they were more likely than other individuals to like quantitative rather than qualitative feedback. Presumably, these participants seek certain and precise information about themselves. If they do not receive such feedback, they will then seek quantitative and precise diagnostics on other tasks.
Rothschild, Landau, and Sullivan (2011) replicated this study as well, after introducing some amendments. For example, the second study showed that certainty of self esteem mediated this relationship. That is, if participants reported an elevated need for clarity and completed the matching task, they conceded they were not certain about their self esteem. This uncertainty correlated with a preference for quantitative information. The final study also replicated this study. As this study showed, if people were told they failed on these tasks, representing a form of clarity, they no longer sought quantitative information.
Awareness of the true-self
When individuals feel they can access true knowledge about themselves, they tend to be more satisfied with their decisions, as shown by Schlegel, Hicks, Davis, Hirsch, and Smith (2013). That is, if people feel they know which characteristics, attributes, or roles define who they really are--characteristics, attributes, or roles they may sometimes conceal--they feel their decisions are more likely to be suitable.
To reach decisions, people need to understand their actual needs, preferences, and inclinations. They utilize these characteristics about themselves to decide which of various alternatives to choose. If people are not aware of their needs, preferences, and inclinations, they recognize they might not be able to reach suitable decisions. They may choose alternatives that do not align to their priorities. Consequently, whenever individuals feel they are not attuned to their needs, preferences, and inclinations, they become more inclined to doubt their decisions. They feel less convinced by their choices.
Schlegel, Hicks, Davis, Hirsch, and Smith (2013) conducted a series of studies that verify these arguments. In one study, some participants were instructed to write 10 characteristics or roles that epitomize who they really are: their true self. Other participants were instructed to write 10 characteristics or roles that correspond to how they behave in everyday life, even if such behaviors diverge from who they really are: their actual self. They indicated the extent to which they perceived this task as easy. Next, they specified the degree to which they were satisfied with two previous major decisions, before specifying their mood and self-esteem. The perceived ease with which they could describe their true self was positively associated with decision satisfaction, after controlling mood and self-esteem. However, the perceived ease with which they could describe their actual self was not associated with decision satisfaction.
Other studies extended these results. For example, in one study, participants completed some questions each day. To assess perceived access to true self-knowledge, the individuals were asked whether "It is easy for me to think of who I really am". In addition, they were asked how satisfied they felt about specific choices, such as their decision to enroll at this university. Again, perceived access to true self-knowledge was positively associated with decision satisfaction.
When access to true self-knowledge was manipulated, the same pattern of results was observed. In this study, participants were asked to identify 5 or 18 characteristics that epitomize their true self. Because 18 characteristics are difficult to identify, this condition should diminish perceived access to the true self. Consistent with this claim, attempts to identify 18 characteristics did indeed diminish satisfaction with decisions. Finally, other studies showed that satisfaction with decisions increases the degree to which individuals feel they can access their true self.
Sense of self
Conceptually, self concept clarity is similar to a concept called strong sense of self (Flury & Ickes, 2007). In particular, some individuals are not certain of their future goals and personality as well as often shift their feelings, opinions, and values, especially if their social group expresses different attitudes. They perceive the beliefs and feelings of other individuals as more important than are their own, called a weak rather than strong sense of self. In addition, if their sense of self is weak, they often recognize their existence is fragile.
This disturbance in their identity tends to coincide with facets of borderline personality disorder (Flury & Ickes, 2007), such as fear of abandonment, unstable relationships, depression, anxiety, and chronic feelings of emptiness. In particular, individuals who report a weak sense of self had sometimes received support and assistance, but also often felt rejected or abandoned, by parents, teachers, or friends. To fulfill the needs of these figures, these individuals would often adjust their goals and personality, compromising their sense of identity.
Self enhancement biases
A compartmentalized self structure enables individuals towards orient their attention to their strengths, disregarding their limitations. That is, individuals could amplify the salience of identities that correspond to positive attributes only. This self enhancement bias can, at least momentarily, increase the self esteem of individuals.
Various measures have been developed to assess the inclination of some individuals to shift their attention from limitations to strengths, called a self enhancement bias (see social desirability bias). Self enhancement biases tend to coincide with defensive reactions (see Kernis, 2003). These individuals, for example, tend to inflate their positive qualities in response to negative feedback (e.g., Schneider & Turkat, 1975).
Causes of self enhancement biases
When income inequality is substantial, self enhancement seems especially pronounced (Loughnan et al., 2011). That is, in nations in which the wealthiest 10% or 20% of individuals earn most the wages, individuals feel particularly motivated to compete with one another. They know that outperforming each other could significantly change their lives. To motivate themselves to compete, they shift their attention from their limitations and failures to their strengths and achievements. They will, therefore, tend to overrate themselves.
Loughnan et al. (2011) uncovered some findings that verify this claim. In this study, the researchers sought participants from 15 nations: Belgium, Estonia, Germany, Hungary, Italy, Spain, Peru, the United States, Venezuela, China, Japan, Singapore, South Korea, South Africa, and Australia. Participants were asked to estimate whether they were greater or less than average on various traits, such as extraversion and agreeableness. In addition, the Gini index--a measure of income inequality--as well as the level of individualism and power distance of each nation (see Hofstede measures of culture) were collated.
Income inequality was positively associated with self enhancement. This relationship persisted even after individualism and power distance were controlled. Income inequality was a stronger predictor of self enhancement than was individualism or power distance.
Implications of self enhancement biases
When individuals overestimate their performance or qualities, their ability to perform well in the future often deteriorates. Kim, Chiu, and Zou (2010) proposed a model to explain this possibility. Specifically, these individuals may sense the possibility they have overestimated or inflated their qualities. They are, therefore, unwilling to receive information that could assess their performance or ability; that is, they want to maintain this inflated perception. Consequently, they deliberately sabotage their performance, to ensure they can ascribe any failures to mitigating factors. They might, for example, complete tasks in distracting environments or refrain from practice.
Kim, Chiu, and Zou (2010) undertook a series of studies that confirm this account. In one study, for example, participants who did not perform well on a mathematics task were, however, instructed they had greatly exceeded average. Hence, they momentarily experienced an inflated perception of themselves. Afterwards, when granted an opportunity to complete another task, they preferred to perform this activity in a noisy rather than quiet room; that is, they granted themselves an opportunity to ascribe failures to noise rather than ability.
The second study was similar, except these participants also showed a reluctance to practice the task in advance. Subsequent studies showed this inflated perception compromised subsequent performance and even impeded wellbeing.
Implicit versus explicit self esteem
Traditionally, self esteem was assessed explicitly. That is, respondents would answer direct questions such as "I am a worthwhile person". Over the past few decades, however, indirect or implicit measures of self esteem have emerged (e.g., Farnham, Greenwald, & Banaji, 1999; Hetts, Sakuma, & Pelham, 1999). The principal rationale of these measures is straightforward: If individuals experience a high self esteem, they should exhibit positive attitudes towards anything they associate with themselves (Bosson, Brown, Zeigler-Hill, & Swann Jr., 2003). Several measures have been developed to assess self esteem implicitly (see Bosson, Swann, & Pennebaker, 2000, for a review), such as:
Some individuals report a high explicit self esteem but demonstrate a low implicit self esteem (e.g., Kernis, Abend, Goldman, Shrira, Paradise, & Hampton, 2005). These individuals also tend to be defensive in response to adverse feedback (e.g., Bosson, Brown, Zeigler-Hill, & Swann Jr., 2003; Epstein & Morling, 1995; Kernis, 2003) as well as discriminate against other ethnicities (Jordan, Spencer, & Zanna, 2005). This disparity between explicit and implicit self esteem, therefore, also seems to reflect a fragile self esteem (for more information about the consequences and determinants of this discrepancy, see implicit and explicit self esteem).
However, Schroder-Abe, Rudolph, and Schutz (2007) argued that congruence between implicit and explicit self esteem, rather than merely elevated implicit self esteem, curbs anger and improves mental health. In one study, to measure implicit self esteem, participants completed the implicit association test. In addition, they completed an explicit measure of self esteem. Finally, they complete a measure of anger and anger expression, including items like "I could explode but I do not let anybody notice".
When explicit self esteem was high, implicit self esteem was negatively related to this feeling of anger that needs to be suppressed. That is, both high explicit and implicit self esteem seemed to curb anger. In contrast, when explicit self esteem was low, implicit self esteem was positively related to these feelings of anger. In this instance, high implicit self esteem, which deviates from the low explicit self esteem, seemed to provoke anger (Schroder-Abe, Rudolph, & Schutz, 2007). In a subsequent study, this incongruence between explicit and implicit self esteem predicted a depressive attributional style-the inclination to ascribe failures, but not achievements, to internal, stable, and global attributions like "I am hopeless".
According to Schroder-Abe, Rudolph, and Schutz (2007), any disparity between explicit and implicit self esteem indicates these two distinct representations of the self have not been integrated appropriately. The deliberate plans that emerge from explicit self esteem might not align to the preferences that emerge from implicit self esteem. Individuals often experience disappointment and frustration as a consequence. They experience a sense of dissonance, uncertain about their perceptions of themselves as well.
Determinants of fragile self esteem
Avoidance of emotions and intuitions
Several scholars argue that individuals are more inclined to experience a fragile self esteem if they disregard their emotional, intuitive experiences. In a study conducted by Jordan, Whitfield, and Zeigler-Hill (2007), some participants were encouraged to trust their intuition; they were informed that intuitive judgments tend to be accurate. In these participants, explicit and implicit self esteem tended to be high correlated. In contrast, other participants were encouraged to disregard their intuition; they were told that intuitive judgments tend to be misleading. In these participants, explicit and implicit self esteem were negative related to one another.
This pattern of findings is consistent with the proposition, submitted by Jordan, Whitfield, and Zeigler-Hill (2007), that individuals do experience an intuitive sense of whether they are worthy or not. This intuitive sensation governs their implicit self esteem. If they disregard this intuition, however, their explicit self esteem will diverge from their implicit self esteem.
Consistent with this argument, Kernis (2003) maintained that children who are encouraged to reject their subjective experiences might develop a fragile self esteem. That is, some children are, inadvertently, encouraged to neglect their emotional experience. They might be instructed to refrain from crying, for example, and thus dismiss their dejected state. This neglect of their emotional, intuitive experience might foster a discrepancy between their explicit and implicit self esteem. Furthermore, this neglect does not enable individuals to pursue their core, intuitive values--which can thwart the evolution of a true self esteem (Deci & Ryan, 1985, 1995).
Similarly, Kernis (2003) argued that individuals who do not reflect upon their private mental states, manifested as limited levels of private self consciousness (Fenigstein, Scheier, & Buss, 1975), might also experience a fragile self esteem. Again, without these reflections, individuals might disregard their intuitive attitudes towards themselves or neglect their core values and needs.
Finally, as Kernis (2003) maintained, individuals who shun disclosure and intimacy to other individuals might also be more likely develop a fragile self esteem. These individuals might suppress their emotional experiences.
Biased attention, memories, and interpretation
Some individuals are more susceptible to biases (Stanovich & West, 1998, 2008). Indeed, Stanovich and West developed a series of questions to assess the susceptibility of individuals to biases. Individuals who recognize their beliefs and attitudes might not have been the same had they been raised by different parents, for example, are less inclined to exhibit biases. According to Kernis (2003), individuals who are susceptible to biases, and thus do not challenge their assumptions, might be more likely to exhibit self enhancement biases.
Clarity of social identity
When the social or cultural identity of individuals is ambiguous and uncertain, individuals are not as certain of their personal qualities, traits, and motivations. Self concept clarity--which entails stability of self esteem--diminishes, compromising the wellbeing of individuals (Usborne & Taylor, 2010). Specifically, when individuals consider their qualities and traits, they need to compare themselves to some benchmark or norm. For example, to perceive themselves as intelligent, they need to feel they are more gifted than some standard. According to Taylor (1997, 2002), individuals will often compare themselves to the standards or norms of their social or collective identity. If they are not certain to which groups they belong, they cannot compare themselves to a definitive standard or norm. Their self clarity diminishes.
Similarly, McAdams (2006) maintained that social norms, historical events, and cultural underpinnings infuse the life stories and personal identities of individuals. If their cultural identity is uncertain and ambiguous, these life stories also seem incoherent.
As the clarity of their personal identity diminishes, wellbeing dissipates as well. Indeed, according to Erikson (1968), a personal sense of coherence--the feeling that identity is enduring--is perhaps the key to psychological adjustment. Indeed, Campbell (1990) found that self concept clarity, representing the extent to which individuals perceive their qualities as stable, consistent with one another, and unambiguous, is related to self esteem.
Usborne and Taylor (2010) conducted some research to demonstrate the importance of clarity in cultural or social identity. First, participants completed a scale that assesses the clarity of cultural identity. Typical items include "In general, I have a clear sense of what my cultural group is", "My beliefs about my cultural group often conflict with one another". (reverse scored), or "If I were asked to describe my cultural group, my description might end up being different from one day to another day"(reverse scored). Thus, like self concept clarity, cultural identity clarity also comprises three features: the defining features of their culture is unequivocal, these features or characteristics are consistent with each other, and this identity as stable over time. In addition, participants completed a measure of self concept clarity and self esteem.
In this study, clarity of cultural identity was positively related to clarity of self concept, which in turn was associated with self esteem. Subsequent studies showed this clarity of self concept was inversely related to feelings of inadequacy, negative affect, and life satisfaction as well (Usborne & Taylor, 2010). This pattern was observed in individuals who often adopt two distinct cultures, such as Aboriginal Canadians and Chinese North Americans.
According to Usborne and Taylor (2010), Aboriginal cultures should be granted sufficient autonomy to embrace their norms and customs. This opportunity might instill a sense of clarity that, ultimately, improves the well-being of members. Individuals who identify with more than one culture, such as Chinese Americans, should be granted opportunities to understand the meaning of this bicultural identity (for a similar perspective, see Schwartz, Montgomery, and Briones, 2006).
Kernis (2003) characterized four manifestations of fragile and optimal self esteem. Nevertheless, as Kernis concedes, these various manifestations do not always correlate with each other--although the associations across measures does warrant further research (see Zeigler-Hill, 2006, for a relevant study).
The counterfeit self
Gino, Norton, and Ariely (2010) introduced the concept of a counterfeit self. In short, according to Gino, Norton, and Ariely (2010), individuals sometimes engage in behavior that feels contrived or phony. They might, for example, wear counterfeit products--replica products of prestigious brands. Consequently, they feel inauthentic. This feeling then increases the sensitivity of individuals to inauthentic behavior: They often behave unethically and perceive other people as unethical as well.
In one of the studies, published by Gino, Norton, and Ariely (2010), participants wore either authentic or counterfeit sunglasses. Later, participants completed a numerical task and then transcribed their own performance on a piece of paper. Relative to other participants, individuals who wore the counterfeit sunglasses were more likely to inflate their actual performance.
In a subsequent study, participants answered a series of questions about the behavior of other people. They were, for example, asked to report the extent to which people they know would engage in unethical acts, such as return clothes after wearing the garments. They were also asked to estimate the likelihood that various statements, like "Sorry I'm late; the traffic was terrible", are usually lies. Compared to other participants, individuals who believed they wore counterfeit sunglasses were more likely to assume that people, in general, tend to be unethical. A final study showed that feelings of inauthenticity, as measured by questions like "Right now, I feel out of touch with the real me", mediated these associations (Gino, Norton, & Ariely, 2010).
A possible implication of this finding is that job applicants are especially likely to distort their responses to questions if they feel inauthentic. Wearing a suit they do not own could, theoretically, amplify this tendency.
Self-esteem and anger
According to Kuppens, Van Mechelen, Smits, De Boeck, and Ceulmans (2007), a threatened self-esteem is not the only appraisal that underpins anger. In addition, these authors identified three other key appraisals that often coincide with anger. First, when individuals feel that one of their goals has been obstructed, they experience a burst of anger, especially if this goal is still feasible, consistent with the frustration-aggression hypothesis. Second, when people feel the behavior of another person is responsible for some problem, anger is more likely than other emotions such as shame. Third, if people feel that a situation is unfair and unjust, anger is likely as well.
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Created by Dr Simon Moss on 13/08/2009
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