Self-Esteem: Tied to Others' Opinions?

Low Self-Esteem Can Be Normal Reaction To Disapproval

May 30, 2003 -- Is your self-esteem affected by others' opinions? It sure is, according to a new study, which shows that virtually everyone -- no matter what they say -- cares what people think of them.

We all know people who steadfastly deny that their self-esteem isn't based on the opinions of others, says Mark R. Leary, PhD, psychologist at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, N.C. His study appears in the current Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin.

Psychologists have noted that people in Western cultures "underestimate the degree to which their behavior is affected by their concerns with preserving face and avoiding embarrassment," he writes.

Other researchers have speculated that a person's low self-esteem or high self-esteem actually helps determine how another person feels about them -- whether they dislike or like them.

Leary and his colleagues set out to determine what was true. In two experiments, they tested the effects of social approval and disapproval on 36 college students.

First, each student completed a questionnaire that measured low or high self-esteem. Then, each filled out another questionnaire about themselves -- describing personal information like the loneliest time in their lives and their happiest childhood memory.

Others in the group read these personal accounts, then decided: Would they want to know that person better, based on this information?

Then, after learning if people liked them or not, each person revealed how this news affected them. Did being liked, approved, or accepted make a difference? Did they feel low self-esteem or high self-esteem?

In the second experiment, Leary changed things a bit. At the outset, he asked people to evaluate how they thought their self-esteem would be affected by others' approval or disapproval.

He then led them through the same series of exercises -- the questionnaires, the personal accounts, the revelations regarding "liking" or "disliking," the self-evaluation -- and how all this ultimately affected their self-esteem.

The upshot of it all? Even those who strongly denied caring about others' approval were indeed affected by it: Disapproval created twinges of low self-esteem.

"The results of this study show that social approval and disapproval affect virtually everyone's feelings about themselves, even those individuals who steadfastly and adamantly claim that their feelings about themselves are not affected by other people's evaluations," says Leary in a news release.

"People underestimate the degree to which they are influenced by others," he says. "It's hard to know why, but part of it may be the American ideal of marching to your own drummer. We grow up thinking we shouldn't be affected by what others think."

The study helps remind us that perfectly healthy people -- with perfectly healthy self-esteem -- are still affected by what others think, he says. Occasional feelings of low self-esteem are only normal.

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SOURCES: May 2003 Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. News release, Wake Forest University.
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