Welcome back! One of the challenges with having a good understanding of the self is that we tend to also become aware of our own shortcomings. For many of us, this realization can be quite uncomfortable and may lead to reduced self-esteem. Social psychologists have studied what this realization does to our psyche and the cognitive strategies that we use to protect our self-esteem.
Mark Twain once said, “the worst loneliness is to not be comfortable with yourself.” Self-enhancement is the process through which we protect our positive view of ourselves and defend our self-esteem. Essentially, if we notice discrepancies between who we actually are as people and who we want to be, it creates psychological discomfort. Therefore, we will often resort to mental tricks and behavioral strategies to reduce this discomfort. These will be explained in more detail next.
First, we tend to use selective attention for self-enhancement. With respect to self-enhancement, selective attention is the process of focusing more heavily on positive information about us and overlooking negative information. Basically, when it comes to our own self-concept, we tend to “wear rose-colored glasses.” All of us will attend to and remember information that is positive (Pool et al., 2016), but this is even more pronounced among people with higher self-esteem. Conversely, most of us are biased toward ignoring negative information about ourselves. Unfortunately, this also makes it more difficult for us to truly understand our faults, learn from them, and to grow as people.
Another strategy we rely on is the self-serving bias. This bias refers to the tendency for human beings to attribute our failures to external causes (e.g., blame someone else), but to attribute our successes to internal causes (e.g., I succeeded because of my skill) (Miller & Ross, 1975). For instance, when students receive good grades in school, they are more likely to attribute this success to internal factors like intelligence. However, poor academic performance is more likely to be blamed on external factors (e.g., the tests were too difficult) (McAllister, 1996). Worse still, when something goes wrong with other people, we tend to place the blame on their internal causes rather than looking for possible external causes for what happened. This is referred to as the fundamental attribution error. Although the self-serving bias can help to safeguard our self-esteem, it can hurt us in other ways, such as not truly understanding our actual abilities, contributing to conflict with other people, and interfering with our psychological growth, to name just a few.
Not only are we prone to using these cognitive strategies, but we are also likely to behave in ways that can protect our self-esteem. One common strategy is basking in reflected glory. This involves intentionally associating with other people or groups who are considered successful or prestigious. For example, let’s say the goal of a high school freshman is to be seen as popular, she would likely benefit from becoming friends with someone who is already considered to be popular in school. In a classic experiment, psychologist Robert Cialdini and colleagues (1976) found that college students were more likely to wear the jersey of their school football team if they just won a game than if they lost. Students were also more likely to say “we” won to further affiliate themselves with the team and to bask in their glory. In the end, though, the positive feelings we receive from basking in reflected glory tends to be short-lived and cannot sustain our self-esteem in the long run.
Finally, people will also use self-handicapping as a way to protect their self-esteem against the possibility of an anticipated failure. These are a group of behaviors that we use to self-sabotage our own performance. On the surface, this sounds strange. Why would anyone intentionally ruin their own performance on a task? The answer is simple so that we don’t feel that we are to blame if things go badly. Our self-esteem remains intact because we can find an excuse for our performance.
For example, at one time or another, most of us engage in procrastination. We know that we have to finish a task, and that the time required to complete it may be limited, yet we still put it off. If things don’t go so well when we do finish the task, we can blame our poor performance on the fact we procrastinated rather than on something a little more personal to us (e.g., our intelligence). Other self-handicapping behaviors include excessive use of alcohol, drug use, and making excuses. People who are already depressed and those who have high neuroticism, narcissism, or perfectionism are especially likely to self-handicap (Curtis, 2017).
That brings us to the end of this lesson on self-enhancement. In the next lesson, we are going to discuss self-presentation and impression management strategies. See you tomorrow!
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