Esteem-Threatening Events

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From the standpoint of sociometer theory, events that threaten self-esteem have their effects not because they challenge self-esteem per se but rather because they raise the specter of relational devaluation and rejection. Leary et al. (1995, Study 1) provided direct evidence that events that lower self-esteem are those that people assume might lead others to reject them. Participants were given a list of behaviors that varied in social desirability, such as “I donated blood,” “I lost my temper,” and “I cheated on my boyfriend or girlfriend.” They went through the list once and indicated how they thought other people would react toward them if they performed each behavior (1 = many people would reject or avoid me; 5 = many people would accept or include me). Later, they went through the list again and indicated on bipolar adjective scales how they would personally feel about themselves (e.g., good-bad, valuable-worthless) if they performed each behavior. The canonical correlation between participants’ ratings of others’ reactions vis-a-vis inclusion-exclusion and their own feelings about themselves was .70, and the order of the two sets of ratings was virtually identical. These data suggest that how people feel about themselves (i.e., their state self-esteem) after behaving in particular ways is a function of how they think others will react.

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