Brian Milstone '10 and Caroline Pierce '10 Examine Self-Complexity

Caroline Pierce '10 and Brian Milstone '10
Caroline Pierce '10 and Brian Milstone '10
It's hard to imagine that a single human being occupies an enormous number of social spheres. Typically, a person who is relatively humble will feel that he assumes only a few roles in his immediate community. He might also be modest in determining the number of ways he can describe himself –Volunteer? Artist? Athlete? Entrepreneur? The degree to which a person can identify and differentiate his numerous roles and traits is called self-complexity. Brian Milstone '10 and Caroline Pierce '10 predict that low self-complexity yields low self-esteem, and could lead to a greater likelihood of depression. 

With Associate Professor of Psychology Jennifer Borton, the two rising seniors hope to categorize what types of people tend to suppress negative self-referent thoughts, and level of self-complexity is one of the factors they will consider. Borton has already discovered that suppression of negative self-referent thoughts causes those same thoughts to re-introduce themselves later on, but their presence is stronger and more potent. Therefore, self-esteem plunges more rapidly than if the same person had accepted those negative thoughts in a healthy and respectful way. 

In their experiments, the students will attempt to label participants according to what type of negative self-esteem they possess; in other words, they will distinguish those who don't have an overtly low self-esteem from those who show distinct signs of fragile self-esteem. Fragile self-esteem has three variants – unstable, contingent, and defensive. Unstable self-esteem oscillates unexpectedly and quickly, contingent self-esteem is dependent on certain domains of a person's life, and defensive self-esteem is a combination of high-explicit (conscious) and low implicit (unconscious) self-esteem.

The researchers hope to explore the effects fragile self-esteem and self-complexity have on thought suppression. They also want to see if the data they plan to collect results from a sole negative thought, or if the reemergence of that one thought causes many other thoughts to become much more conspicuous. Their findings could indicate who suffers from low self-esteem and why. A major tenet of the project is that self-esteem is not black-and-white; rather, an assortment of factors pile on top of one another to create a self-esteem that is highly individualized. 

"Whenever you hear about self-esteem, it's always whether it's high or low. That's it," said Milstone. "But this entire line of research is saying, 'Hold on!' There's much more to self-esteem [even if] explicitly, it seems high. Someone with defensive self-esteem is going to think and act like they have high self-esteem, when really, since they don't have high implicit self-esteem, they might have bad outcomes." 

Although they are currently in the midst of coming up with a procedure, the students know that their research will require them to conduct one major experiment. By reading various articles online, they will decide on a test that they think will most effectively produce the quality results they are looking for. One candidate is the Stroop Task, which tests a person's ability to look at a word and say what color it is. Presumably, a person with a lower self-esteem will take more time to identify the color if the word has a negative connotation, or they might go as far as to say the word itself rather than its color. 

Milstone's and Pierce's research this summer is only one portion of a larger study, and thesis students in the fall may expand on it. Their project will complement Borton's work and strengthen its case. In addition, the two students will build upon a recent graduate's senior thesis which was also centered around self-esteem. They will continue to analyze the series of five-minute audio tapes that were left over from this project. These tapes contain reactions from students who were given negative feedback on an intelligence test. Milstone and Pierce will listen to the way each participant talks and determine how the smoothness or anxiety in their voices reflects or confirms what type of self-esteem most they most accurately personify. 

Both students are considering graduate school in psychology. Pierce likes the many options available to her because of her chosen major. "I found that it is a field that is really applicable to many careers after school," Pierce said. "The subject matter is really interesting and you can apply it to all parts of your life." 

After taking Introduction to Psychology course with Visiting Instructor of Psychology Kelly Landry, Milstone became more interested in the field of social psychology. He took a few more psychology courses, detected a serious interest, and the rest was history. 

When she is not in the Science Center, Pierce enjoys photography, running, cooking, and is an enthusiastic member of HEAG (Hamilton Environmental Action Group), HOC (Hamilton Outing Club), and HAVOC (Hamilton Association for Volunteering, Outreach, and Charity). Like Pierce, Milstone often spends time in the kitchen concocting delectable treats. He also participates in many intramural sports, HAVOC, and Greek life.
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