National Geographic

The bigger the ego, the harder the fall – how self-awareness buffers against social rejection

Blogging on Peer-Reviewed Research We all know them – supremely confident, arrogant people with inflated views of themselves. They strut and swagger, seemingly impervious to critical opinions, threats of failure or the glare of self-awareness. You may be able to tell that I don’t like such people very much, which is why new research from Sander Thomaes from Utrecht University makes me smirk.

Thomaes found that people with unrealistically inflated opinions of themselves, far from proving more resilient in the face of social rebuffs, actually suffer more because of it. Some psychologists hold that “positive illusions” provide a mental shield that buffers its bearers from the threats of rejection or criticism. But according to Thomaes, realistic self-awareness is a much healthier state of mind.

He studied a group of 206 children aged 9-12, a point in life when popularity and acceptance among your peers seems all-important. Every child rated how much they liked each one of their classmates on a scale from zero (not at all) to three (very much). They also predicted the rating that each classmate would give them. The two scores were only moderately related to one another (a correlation of 0.52), and the difference between them provided a measure of each child’s self-awareness. Kids with inflated egos had positive differences while those with negative scores thought worse of themselves than their peers did had.

Two weeks later, Thomaes brought back all the children for an experiment. They were told that they would be taking part in the Survivor Game -an online popularity contest where groups of four players had to complete a personal profile, and a panel of peers would vote out the person they liked the least. The game was a front – in reality, half of the children were randomly told that they were least liked and voted out, while the other half were simply told that this dishonour had befallen someone else.

Before and after the ‘game’, Thomaes assessed the children’s mood by asking them to rate themselves on a score of 1-4 against eight different negative emotions -angry, nervous, ashamed, sad, irritated, anxious, down and embarrassed. The differences between the ‘before’ and ‘after’ scores revealed how harshly the children had taken the outcome of the fake game.

 If it’s true that positive illusions buffer people against social threats, then children with the most inflated views of themselves should have been most resilient to being disliked by the panel of peers. This wasn’t the case. The children in the control group, who weren’t rejected, didn’t feel any worse after the game than before it. But among the rejected children, those who had judged themselves most realistically were the least bothered, while both children who thought too well or too poorly of themselves experienced the biggest negative mood swings.

The results are clear – people (or at least, children) with the most exaggerated views of their popularity have further to fall emotionally when their social status is challenged. As Thomaes says, “These results support the view that distorted self-views promote emotional vulnerability and that realistic self-views promote emotional resilience.” It’s better to deal with the reality, bite though it may, than to whitewash over it with an ultimately vulnerable facade.

Reference: Thomaes, S., Reijntjes, A., Orobio de Castro, B., & Bushman, B. (2009). Reality Bites-or Does It? Realistic Self-Views Buffer Negative Mood Following Social Threat Psychological Science DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-9280.2009.02395.x

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There are 29 Comments. Add Yours.

  1. abb3w
    July 7, 2009

    “My dear Watson,” said he, “I cannot agree with those who rank modesty among the virtues. To the logician all things should be seen exactly as they are, and to underestimate one’s self is as much a departure from truth as to exaggerate one’s own powers. When I say, therefore, that Mycroft has better powers of observation than I, you may take it that I am speaking the exact and literal truth.” – Sherlock Holmes in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s “The Greek Interpreter”

  2. Stace
    July 7, 2009

    Fascinating! I always had a feeling that might be the case, but it’s wonderfully fulfilling to find that it’s actually been studied :)

  3. george.w
    July 7, 2009

    Why does Sarah Palin keep coming to mind as I read this?

  4. Ed Yong
    July 7, 2009

    Is it because your brain hates you?

  5. Toaster
    July 7, 2009

    I’m curious as to whether anything has been done measuring the relationship between self-effacing humor, self-image, and social resilience.
    Do you know of anything?
    The article cited above makes me wonder what the effect of helicopter parents (e.g., extant mid-90s culturally dominant meme: “EVERYONE IS SPECIAL AND YOU CAN’T BE WRONG FOR BEING YOURSELF!!!!!!!!!!!ZOMG!”) is upon their childrens’ ability to cope with reality. I’ve seen far too many of my young peers unable to cope with the responsibilities and complexities of adult life, and it may well be that this is the direct long-term effect of ego-inflating parents and educational methods. Although, of course, anecdote =/= evidence.

  6. L
    July 7, 2009

    This experiment may have serious consequences for some of the subjects.

  7. NeuroWhoa
    July 7, 2009

    This is seriously interesting. The subject of my Masters thesis was about the emotional impact of social rejection/exclusion. Now this study has a fantastic new angle; the impact of positive illusions on preventing loss of esteem (and many other things). Brilliant!

  8. James F
    July 7, 2009

    I would love to see the recruitment process for the study. WANTED: supremely confident, arrogant people with inflated views of themselves….

  9. Zach Miller
    July 7, 2009

    Yeah, I also wonder if the “everyone gets a medal, even the losers” social meme is partially to blame here. Awesome study, too. And yeah, Sarah Palin keeps coming to mind (I do live in AK). Her ever-inflating cranium may yet lift her to a Senate seat, though I’d be very surprised if Alaskans put her in office there.

  10. Eva
    July 7, 2009

    Is it possible that the inflated self-esteem is a result of the vulnerability? If you go about with an inflated view of yourself, you don’t have to deal with thoughts of your inadequacy – until you are challenged, that is. CHildren who are emotionally resilient would form a realistic view of themselves, because they are fine with the strong emotions rejection (or the threat of it) evokes.

  11. DRK
    July 7, 2009

    Jeez, what a rotten thing to do to a bunch of kids.

  12. becca
    July 7, 2009

    “both children who thought too well or too poorly of themselves experienced the biggest negative mood swings. ”
    Ok, I think we’ve missed something huge here. If you think ‘too poorly’ of yourself, and you have that notion ‘corrected’, your mood deteriorates. Why is that?
    Are 9-12 year olds who think poorly of themselves already sensitized to rejection? Were they reporting things as bad as they could be, but still privately hoping it wasn’t really that bad? Or is it simply that finding out other people’s views of you don’t match up with your own self-image is intrinsically distressing? I think it breaks down one’s faith in one’s ability to understand the social world; which is distressing regardless of one’s ego.

  13. Stephanie Z
    July 7, 2009

    Becca, the kids who thought too poorly of themselves didn’t get a result they hadn’t predicted with their own self-ratings, so I don’t think it’s a mismatch issue.
    There is a good chance that they’re sensitive to rejection, though. Attending disproportionately to or improperly weighting prior rejection by their peers (“I can’t play right now” becomes “She hates me”) could lead to them assuming their peers dislike them more than is actually the case.

  14. Lilian Nattel
    July 7, 2009

    I also wondered whether this was an ethical study to do on children. The results are interesting. I liked the Conan Doyle quote in the first comment. It would be interesting to follow up this study with more analysis on what makes for an ability to be realistic about oneself and what leads to both deflation and inflation, same factors or otherwise? I’d also like to know whether that realistic awareness of self carries out to a more realistic awareness of the world around. (I also had to laugh about the comment on Sarah Palin and the reply!)

  15. NoGurus
    July 7, 2009

    I think the difference here can be explained in terms of internal self-worth vs. external self-worth. The popular kids often have an external view of themselves, which is always unstable because it is determined by others, and not by what they think of themselves. The view equates to I am well-liked, therefore I am special. When not well-liked, their opinion of themselves go down. The realistic kids on the other hand, have an internal process that says I like myself well enough no matter what others think. This is a very resiliant approach to life because one’s opinion of oneself is always under internal control, and is not determined by what others think. It is a much healthier approach to life, substantive and durable, and likely to attract others of substance. I have been on both sides of this fence in my life, and I much prefer to travel the less popular route away from the crowd, the latest fad or trend, group think, and towards a few substantial interests and friends that will last for the long haul.

  16. Ed Yong
    July 7, 2009

    For the various people who questioned the ethics, bear in mind that “Participants were thoroughly debriefed.” So no child was left walking away thinking that everyone hated them.

  17. G Felis
    July 7, 2009

    I am reminded of a somewhat different phenomenon, wherein what one might call second order illusions of inflated worth really do provide a protective benefit. That is, people’s opinions that their children are altogether brilliant and wonderful and in every way much better than other people’s children is an illusion which protects the little monsters from being throttled… (Of course, even if one adheres to this theory, one’s own children are genuinely little angels and not little monsters at all!)

  18. abb3w
    July 7, 2009

    Ed Yong: For the various people who questioned the ethics, bear in mind that “Participants were thoroughly debriefed.”
    So were those in the Milgram Experiments, but those nonetheless are considered a benchmark for ethically questionable psychology experiments. (Admittedly, not to the plutonium standard nadir set by the “Quiet Rage” Stanford Prison experiment, but that’s not saying much.)

  19. Rick S
    July 7, 2009

    “These results support the view that distorted self-views promote emotional vulnerability and that realistic self-views promote emotional resilience.” To reiterate what Eva said, don’t these results also support the view that emotional vulnerability promotes distorted self-views, and emotional resilience supports realistic self-views? Correlation is not causation. To draw the conclusion that trying to help someone develop a more realistic self-view will make them less emotionally vulnerable is not justified, and might well do more harm than good.
    The study seems to suggest that realistic self-image correlates with emotional resilience, but before I accept that it “promotes” it, I’d want to know how that causation was established.

  20. Simon
    July 8, 2009

    What a surprise, the ‘everybody is a winner, give them a prize for trying’ egalitarianism we suffer in todays society based on dubious psycho babble can be positively dangerous.
    Remember Col Jessup in a Few Good Men, “You can’t handle the truth”, truth is a powerful tool when dealing with reality. It is also interesting to me as an ex serviceman that military personnel who have been awarded their countries highest decorations for extraordinary acts of courage & self sacrifice are often those quiet, self effacing people who wouldn’t stand out in a crowd yet somehow are able to find extraordianry depths of resillience & capacity for action in themselves when necessary. Surely they can’t have a low opinion of themselves!

  21. Nathan Myers
    July 8, 2009

    Child abuse for science has a long and distinguished history.

  22. Marc Abian
    July 8, 2009

    For the various people who questioned the ethics, bear in mind that “Participants were thoroughly debriefed.” So no child was left walking away thinking that everyone hated them.

    Poor naive Ed. In juvenile social sciences this is code for “were given atomic wedgies”.

  23. Ed Yong
    July 8, 2009

    Re: juvenile social sciences. I cite you this paper from 1958 where a bunch of children were trapped in fridges, essentially to see what would happen. Over two hundred hapless kids were imprisoned in fridges and the authors’ deadpan description of their plight is brilliant.

    “Success in escaping was dependent on the device, a child’s age and size and his behavior.”
    “Some children had curious twisting and twining movements of the fingers or clenching of the hands.”
    “One-third of the children emerged unruffled, about half were upset but could be comforted easily, and a small group (11%) required some help to become calm.”
    “A number of children still talked about the tests, some with pleasure, a few with resentment.”

    And thankfully, the study gave us this mind-boggling insight:

    “An important result of the behavior study was the finding that, when entrapped, children most often try to escape either by pushing on the door through which they entered the enclosure, or by manipulating a knob release as they would a doorknob. Relatively few children pushed against the back, sides or ceiling of the enclosure.”

    SCIENCE!

  24. Mark Tyrrell
    July 8, 2009

    The fact that kids who predicted worse than the actual outcome had lower mood (after a surprisingly positive outcome) doesn’t surprise me at all. I think the need to be right ties in to the very human need for a sense of control in life.
    It can be difficult to be denied an: “I told you so!” even if it’s connected to a negative outcome; a question of “better the devil you know…”

  25. DC Elzinga
    July 8, 2009

    Fascinating and I share your dislike of egotists.
    But I question the causal conclusions. An alternative interpretation: people with better social self-awareness respond more finely to negative social indicators. People with worse social sense respond more coarsely (i.e. wider swings).

  26. Zach Miller
    July 8, 2009

    Ed, that fridge study is AWESOME.

  27. Shaun
    July 8, 2009

    At the risk of asking an obvious question: what if a lot of the kids were actually just aware of how popular they were in their peer group? If this study had been done on me in a workplace where I didn’t get on with anyone, upon hearing I was the least popular I would have thought “fair enough”. If I was in a workplace where I did get on with everyone, and the survey said that I was the least popular, I’d feel bad. Not because of an inflated sense of self worth, but because I felt lied as I was under the (correct) impression that I was well liked.

  28. Candid Engineer
    July 8, 2009

    Somehow I am quite satisfied knowing that all of the horrid egomaniacs I’ve encountered will be feeling badly about themselves at some point of another. Really interesting study.

  29. abb3w
    July 8, 2009

    Ed Yong: I cite you this paper from 1958
    Maybe it’s just that it’s a study about refrigerators, but DAMN…. that’s both Cool and Cold. Plus, epic: a higher rate of success being associated with fewer years of education attained by mother and father combined. I’m going to have to pass that example along to others.
    Contrariwise, merely because you can turn up sociological monstrosities from the 1950s-1960s does not make the current work a shining beacon.

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