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Psychology Majors Explore Self-Esteem and Ego Threat

This summer, psychology majors Barbara Singhakiat ’17, Leah Pranschke ’17 and Jaclyn Zingman ’18 are conducting social psychology research under the supervision of Professor of Psychology Jennifer Borton. Their work examines reductions in working memory following ego threat in people with defensive self-esteem.

Defensive self-esteem (DSE) has been defined as simultaneously having high explicit (conscious) but low implicit (subconscious) self-views. Explicit self-views are assessed via standard questionnaire measures, whereas implicit self-views are assessed via a reaction time measure that computes the speed with which people pair positive concepts with self-related words.

People with DSE respond negatively to ego threats that challenge someone’s sense of self and self-esteem, such as doing poorly on a task, by lashing out at others or by engaging in defensive processes, such as suppressing failure-related thoughts. People with secure self-esteem (high explicit and high implicit) do not show these negative responses to ego threat.

This summer, the researchers set out to test the hypothesis that ego threat might bring about a reduction in working (short-term) memory in people with defensive self-esteem, perhaps because they would over-focus on the threat and be less able to pay attention to the task at hand. A similar process has been shown to occur among people experiencing stereotype threat.

“We designed an experiment that consists of four parts: explicit and implicit self-esteem measurements and two different working memory tasks,” Zingman explained. “We asked people to complete an explicit self-esteem questionnaire online and then come to the lab to complete the rest of the experiment.” Participants completed a first working memory measure and were randomly assigned to receive either high or low score on it. Then they completed a second working memory measure in which they had to memorize a sequence of letters while simultaneously calculating simple math problems. Participants with DSE who had gotten an initial low score were expected to perform more poorly on this second test than were participants with secure self-esteem.

Contrary to their predictions, the group’s results indicated that people with DSE performed significantly better, not worse, on working memory tasks under ego threat than did participants with secure self-esteem. While further explanations are to be examined in the future, the research group proposes that the results differed from what is found in stereotype threat research because people with DSE don’t believe that others expect them to fail, and therefore their motivation to perform well following threat is more easily translated into success.

“The most fun thing that happened during research,” Pranschke said, “was hearing people’s reactions to the true purpose of our study. We couldn't tell anyone it was about self-esteem beforehand, so getting to tell them afterwards and seeing how interested they were in our use of false feedback was fun.”

The team learned and used a variety of skills during the research, including running sophisticated statistical analyses and using creativity to explain, using past research as a guide, their unexpected results.

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