Some people walk around this planet thinking so highly of themselves that their feet barely touch the ground. Others think so low of themselves that they hardly ever lift their chins. And according to a new study, both sorts of people are in for a world of hurt.
A short research report in the journal Psychological Science investigated the effects of having a distorted self-view, whether too high or too low. The study focused on the self-views of children, ages ranging from nine to 12 years, all of whom were asked to rate how much they liked each of their classmates. Then they were asked to predict the ratings they would receive from each of their classmates. For the purpose of the study, self-view distortion was defined as the difference between the actual and perceived status.
A couple of weeks later, the children were asked to participate in an Internet popularity contest called “Survivor Game,” in which the least liked person is voted out of the group by a panel of peer judges. Just before the game, the mood of each participant was measured with questions like, “How do you feel right now, at the present time?” They were asked to rank eight adjectives (including: angry, nervous, sad, irritated, embarrassed) on a scale of 0 (not at all) to 4 (very much).
Participants then filled out a personal profile describing themselves, and were, without their knowledge, randomly assigned to one of two contest groups: (1) receive threatening feedback during the game (i.e. “you are the least likable person”), or (2) receive non-threatening / neutral feedback (i.e. “your opponent is the least liked”). Afterward, mood of each participant was measured again.
The results: subjects whose self-views were initially inflated were emotionally crushed when they received threatening feedback during the game. Same thing happened to those with deflated self-views. No such effect was found for non-threatening feedback. The graph below shows just how significant the effect was; note that for the most inflated and most deflated self-views (+3 and -3 respectively), the mood swing is the most extreme.
This is interesting because it directly contradicts the notion that inflated self-views serve the function of protecting against the emotional impact of social threats (a.k.a. positive illusion theory, which suggests that the illusion of control is an adaptive function). The findings of this study make a strong case that the exact opposite is true: inflated self-views increased, rather than decreased, emotional distress after threatening feedback.
Granted, this was a study of children who have had less life experience that tends to temper self-view. But when you look around any office or social club, bar, etc., it’s easy to pick out exactly the same self-view inflation and deflation represented by these nine to 12 year olds. Not to veer too cynical, but I’m thinking these results aren’t far off the mark for the adult world as well as the elementary and middle school worlds, and no less important.