People often refer to individuals as having either high self-esteem or low self-esteem. This one-dimensional approach, however, neglects an important consideration in self-esteem assessments — the distinction between implicit and explicit self-esteem. Explicit self-esteem refers to an individual’s conscious evaluation of his or her own self-worth, while implicit self-esteem refers to an individual’s unconscious self-evaluation.

When individuals have high explicit self-esteem but low implicit self-esteem, they are considered to have ‘defensive self-esteem.’ This summer, Abby Quirk ’16, Becca Rees ’16 and Rohan Arcot ’16, under the guidance of Associate Professor of Psychology Jen Borton, are researching defensive self-esteem and its effect on autobiographical memory.

As Quirk stated, “[people with defensive self-esteem] are very fragile because although they walk around feeling good about themselves, they have many subconscious insecurities.” These subconscious insecurities can ultimately decrease emotional well-being.

The students are investigating whether defensive self-esteem relates to specific autobiographical memories. They hypothesized that people with defensive self-esteem would fixate on memories of shameful moments more so than memories of proud moments.

In order to test their hypothesis, Quirk, Rees and Arcot first used an Implicit Association Task to measure participants’ implicit self-esteem and the Rosenberg Self-esteem Scale to measure participants’ explicit self-esteem. Then participants were asked to describe a time they felt ashamed and a time they proud. Finally, they answered questions about these memories, including the emotions they evoked and the perceived accessibility of the memories.

The student researchers found that participants with defensive self-esteem reported their shameful memories as more accessible and as feeling subjectively closer than did participants with secure self-esteem. “We think this is because the shameful event threatens individuals’ fragile self-esteem, so they are more immediately able to remember the event than people with secure self-esteem, who don’t dwell on the event,” they explained. This finding was particularly exciting because, as Quirk noted, “Self-esteem and memory aren’t generally considered to be related.”

Quirk originally became interested in the topic after taking Autobiographical Memory with Professor of Psychology Azi Grysman last semester. She is glad to have the chance this summer to put to use a lot of the information she learned in his class, especially the different methods of evaluating memory (e.g. coding, self-report).

Rees also articulated her enthusiasm for the project, noting, “It’s a really interesting area to study because even though some people assume high self-esteem is more advantageous, these people with defensive self-esteem may be experiencing some maladaptive traits.” For example, Quirk, Rees and Arcot explained that previous studies have shown people with defensive self-esteem to be more likely to exhibit poor self-control and display discriminatory tendencies after receiving negative feedback.

Quirk, Rees and Arcot hope their research this summer will contribute to the literature on defensive self-esteem and help psychologists better understand the link between self-esteem and memory.

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