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This research paper explores some of the processes associated with evaluative response to one’s own self. Evaluation refers to a response registering the idea feeling that some aspect of one’s world is good or bad, likeable or dislikable, valuable or worthless. It is one of our most fundamental psychological responses. Indeed, research on the psychology of meaning has revealed that evaluation is the single most important aspect of meaning. Evaluative responses are fast; there is evidence that we have an evaluation of some things even before we are completely able to recognize them. Evaluative responses are sometimes automatic—we do not set out to make them and we often cannot turn them oﬀ. Moreover, evaluation often colors our interpretation of situations. For example, ambiguous actions of people we like are interpreted more benevolently than the same actions of people we do not like. An evaluative response attached to the self is often termed self-esteem and we will use the terms self-esteem and self-evaluation interchangeably.
1. Individual Diﬀerences In Self-Evaluation
There are literally thousands of studies reported since the 1950s measuring self-esteem and comparing persons who are high with persons who are low on this dimension. Most frequently, self-esteem is assessed by self-report. One of the most popular measures (Rosenberg 1965) consists of ten items like ‘I am a person of worth’ followed by a series of graded response options, e.g., strongly agree, agree, disagree, strongly disagree. Such measures have proven to be reliable and valid. However, they are subject to the same general criticisms of any self-report measure: Scores can be distorted by the tendency to agree with an item regardless of its content and the tendency to try to create a favorable impression. Moreover, there may be aspects of one’s self-evaluation that are not easily accessible to conscious awareness. To address some of these concerns ‘implicit’ measures of self-esteem are currently being explored (Greenwald and Banaji 1995). Most of these measures work by priming the self, i.e., making the self salient, and then measuring the impact of self-salience on other evaluative responses. For example, when the self is primed, the more positive the self-evaluation the faster one should be in making other positive evaluative judgments. As of this writing, implicit measures of self-evaluation show great promise but it is still unclear what impact such measures will have on our ultimate understanding of self-evaluation.
Individual diﬀerences in self-evaluation have been associated with a variety of psychological traits. For example, compared to persons with low self-esteem, persons with high self-esteem tend to achieve more in school, be less depressed, better adjusted, less socially anxious and more satisﬁed with life, etc. Going through this research almost leads one to draw the conclusion that all the good things in life are positively associated with self-esteem. Indeed, the intuition that high self-esteem is good is so compelling that the state of California even put together a task force to promote self-esteem. There are, of course, many arguments for the positive impact of self-esteem. However, most of the studies rely on correlational methods. Correlational methodology makes it diﬃcult to know if self-esteem is a cause or an eﬀect of these other variables. For example, it may be that high self-esteem leads to school achievement but it may also be that school achievement improves self-esteem. It may also be that the correlation between achievement and self-esteem is not causal at all; each may be caused by the same third variable, e.g., general health.
Recent research is beginning to correct the simple view of self-esteem as always ‘good.’ For example, it may be persons who are high in self-esteem rather than persons who are low in self-esteem that are most likely to be aggressive (Baumeister et al. 1996). Why? Persons high in self-esteem have more to lose when confronted by failure or a personal aﬀront. Related to this suggestion is the observation that self-esteem may be stable in some persons but unstable in others. Stability of self-esteem is consequential (Kernis and Waschull 1995). Persons whose self-esteem is high on the average but whose self-evaluation ﬂuctuates over time score higher on a hostility measure than persons who are high in self-esteem but whose self-evaluation is stable. Perhaps it is persons who aspire to feel positive about themselves but are unsure of themselves that tend to ﬂuctuate in their self-evaluation and to respond aggressively to threats to self-esteem.
2. Self Motives
The idea that persons strive to maintain a positive self-evaluation is obvious. It is not diﬃcult to notice that people respond positively to success and compliments and negatively to failure and insults. They tend to seek out persons who respect their accomplishments and situations in which they can do well. In spite of the obviousness and ubiquity of a self-enhancement motive, at least two other motives have captured some research attention. One is the motive for self-knowledge, i.e., a self-assessment motive, and the other is a consistency or self-veriﬁcation motive.
Feeling good about ourselves can take us only so far. It is also important to have accurate knowledge about the self. Leon Festinger (1954) suggested that we have a drive to evaluate our abilities and opinions. Indeed, we seem to be fascinated by information about ourselves. We want to know what others think of us. We go to psychotherapists to learn more about ourselves. We are even curious about what the stars have to say about our lives (note the popularity of horoscopes). Systematic research has varied the diagnosticity of experimental tasks, i.e., the extent to which we believe the task is truly revealing of our abilities. Under some conditions, for example, when certainty is low or when we are in a particularly good mood, we prefer diagnostic feedback to ﬂattering feedback. Thus, there is evidence for the self-assessment motive.
Another motive that has received some research attention is the tendency to verify one’s current view of the self (Swann 1990). According to this point of view, people are motivated to conﬁrm their self-view. They will seek out persons and situations that provide belief consistent feedback. If a person has a positive view of self, he or she will seek out others who also evaluate them positively and situations in which they can succeed. Note that this is exactly the same expectation that could be derived from a self-enhancement point of view. However, self-veriﬁcation and self-enhancement predictions diverge when a person has a negative view of self. The self-veriﬁcation hypothesis predicts that persons with a negative self-view will seek out others who also perceive them negatively and situations that will lead to poor performance. There is some evidence for the self-veriﬁcation prediction. On the other hand, neither the self-assessment motive nor the self-veriﬁcation motive appears to be as robust as the self-enhancement motive (Sedikides 1993).
As noted above, self-enhancement processes are frequent, easy to observe, and robust. William James and a host of contemporary workers have focused on particular mechanisms by which self-evaluation is aﬀected. For example, James suggests that threats to self-esteem are stronger if they involve abilities on which the self has ‘pretensions’ or aspires to do well. Others have noted that feelings of success and failure that aﬀect self-evaluation often come from comparison with other persons. Still other investigators have shown the impact of self-enhancement on cognition. For example, the kinds of causal attributions people make for their own successes and failures are often self-serving. Persons tend to locate the causes of success internally (due to my trying, ability) and the causes of failure externally (due to bad luck, task diﬃculty). The self-enhancement mechanisms proposed in the psychological literature have been so numerous and so diverse that the collection of them has sometimes been dubbed the ‘self zoo.’ However, three general classes of mechanism encompass many of the proposed self-enhancement protection mechanisms: Social comparison, inconsistency reduction, and value expression.
3.1 Social Comparison
One large class of self-enhancement mechanisms concerns social comparisons. The Self-Evaluation Maintenance (SEM) model (Tesser 1988), for example, proposes that when another person does better than we do at some activity, our own self-evaluation is aﬀected. The greater our ‘closeness’ to the other person (through similarity, contiguity, personal relationship, etc.) the greater the eﬀect on our self-evaluation. Being outperformed by another can lower self-evaluation by inviting unﬂattering self-comparison, or it can raise self-evaluation, a kind of ‘basking in reﬂected glory’. (Examples of basking are seen in statements like, ‘That’s my friend Bob, the best widget maker in the county.’) The relevanceof the performance domain determines the relative importance of these opposing processes. If the performance domain is important to one’s self-deﬁnition, i.e., high relevance, then the comparison process will be dominant. One’s self-evaluation will be threatened by a close other’s better performance. If the performance domain is unimportant to one’s self-deﬁnition, i.e., low relevance, then the reﬂection process will be dominant. One’s self-evaluation will be augmented by a close other’s better performance. Thus, combinations of relative performance, closeness and relevance, are the antecedents of self-esteem threat or enhancement.
The assumption that people are motivated to protect or enhance self-evaluation, combined with the sketch of how another’s performance aﬀects self-evaluation, provides the information needed to predict self-evaluation maintenance behavior. An example: Suppose Nancy learns that she made a B on the test. The only other person from Nancy’s dormitory in this chemistry class, Kaela, made an A . This should be threatening to Nancy: Kaela outperformed her; Kaela is psychologically close (same dormitory); and chemistry is high in relevance to Nancy who is studying to be a doctor. What can Nancy do to reduce this threat and maintain a positive self-evaluation? She can change the performance diﬀerential by working harder herself or by preventing Kaela from doing well, e.g., hide the assignments, put the wrong catalyst in Kaela’s beaker. She can reduce her psychological connection to Kaela, e.g. change dorms and avoid the same classes. Alternatively, she can convince herself that this performance domain is not self-relevant, e.g., chemistry is not highly relevant to the kind of medicine in which she is most interested. Laboratory experiments have produced evidence for each of these modes of dealing with social comparison threat to self-evaluation.
3.2 Cognitive Consistency
The number of variations within this approach to self-evaluation regulation is also substantial. An example of this approach is cognitive dissonance theory (Festinger 1957). According to dissonance theory, self-esteem is threatened by inconsistency. Holding beliefs that are logically or ‘psychologically’ inconsistent, i.e., dissonant, with one another is uncomfortable. For example, suppose a student agrees to a request to write an essay in favor of a tuition increase at her school. Her knowledge that she is opposed to a tuition increase is dissonant with her knowledge that she agreed to write an essay in favor of a tuition increase. One way to reduce this threatening dissonance is for the student to change her attitude to be more in favor of a tuition increase.
Note that social comparison mechanisms and consistency reduction mechanisms are both self-enhancement strategies, yet they seem to have little in common. Threat from dissonance rarely has anything to do with the performance of another, i.e., social comparison. Similarly, inconsistency is generally irrelevant to an SEM threat, whereas other’s performance is crucial. Attitude change is the usual mode of dissonance threat reduction; on the other hand, changes in closeness, performance, or relevance are the SEM modes.
3.3 Value Expression
The notion that expressing one’s most cherished values can aﬀect self-esteem also has a productive history in social psychology. Simply expressing who we are, aﬃrming our important values seems to have a positive eﬀect on self-evaluation. According to self-aﬃrmation theory (e.g., Steele 1988), self-evaluation has at its root a concern with a sense of global self-integrity. Self-integrity refers to holding self conceptions and images that one is ‘adaptively and morally adequate, that is, as competent, good, coherent, unitary, stable, and capable of free choice, capable of controlling important outcomes, and so on’ (Steele 1988, p. 262). If the locus of a threat to self-esteem is self-integrity then the behavior to reduce that threat is self-aﬃrmation or a declaration of the signiﬁcance of an important self-value. Again, note that as a self-enhancement strategy, aﬃrming a cherished value is qualitatively diﬀerent from the SEM behaviors of changing closeness, relevance or performance or the dissonance behavior of attitude change.
3.4 Putting It All Together
We have brieﬂy described three classes of self-enhancement mechanisms: Social comparison, cognitive consistency and value expression. Each of these mechanisms is presumed to regulate self-evaluation, yet they are strikingly diﬀerent from one another. These diﬀerences raise the question of whether self-evaluation is a unitary system or whether there are three (or more) independent self-evaluation systems. The goal of the self-enhancement motive is to maintain positive self-esteem. If there is a unitary self-evaluation system, the various self-evaluation mechanisms should substitute for one another. For example, if behaving inconsistently reduces self-evaluation then a positive social comparison experience, being part of the same system, should be able to restore self-evaluation. On the other hand, if there are separate self-evaluation systems then a positive social comparison experience will not be able to restore a reduction in self-evaluation originating with inconsistent behavior. One would have to reduce the inconsistency to restore one’s self-evaluation. Recent research favors the former interpretation. At least under certain circumstances, the three self-enhancement mechanisms are mutually substitutable for one another in maintaining self-evaluation. In short, self-evaluation appears to be a unitary system with multiple processes for regulating itself (Tesser et al. 1996).
4. The Origins Of Self-Evaluation
Psychologists have only recently begun to think about the origins of the self-enhancement motive. One line of research suggests that the self-enhancement motive grows out of an instinct for self-preservation coupled with knowledge of our own mortality. Although we as individuals may not live on, we understand that the culture of which we are a part does live on. ‘Immortality’ comes from our connection with our culture. Self-evaluation is a psychological indicator of the extent to which we are connected and acceptable to our culture and, hence, an index of our own ‘immortality’ (Pysczynski et al. 1997). Another line of work builds on the observation that evolution has predisposed us to be social, gregarious animals who are highly dependent on group living. We wish to maintain a positive self-esteem because self-esteem is a kind of ‘sociometer’ that indicates the extent to which we are regarded positively or negatively by others (Leary et al. 1995). Also taking an evolutionary perspective, the SEM model builds on the sociometer idea in two ways. It suggests that groups diﬀer in the power they have to aﬀect self-esteem. Compared to psychologically distant groups, psychologically close groups are typically more consequential to our well being and they have greater impact on our self-esteem. The SEM model also suggests that division of labor is fundamental to groups to maximize eﬃciency and to avoid conﬂict. Consequently, self-evaluation is more sensitive to feedback regarding the self’s own niche in the group. See Beach and Tesser (in press) for discussion.
Self-evaluation has a productive history in psychology. Individual diﬀerences in self-esteem tend to be correlated with a number of positive attributes such as school achievement, general happiness, and lack of depression. There is a strong tendency for people to maintain a positive self-esteem but there is also evidence of motives for self-accuracy and for self-veriﬁcation. At least three processes aﬀect self-evaluation: social comparison, cognitive consistency, and value expression. Although these processes are qualitatively diﬀerent from one another, they are substitutable for one another in maintaining self-esteem. Self-enhancement is thought to have evolutionary roots in the individual’s connections to groups.
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