This summer, Hamilton’s labs were busy with research across nearly all scientific disciplines — not least among them psychology. For six weeks earlier this summer, Grace Kupka ’22, Elisa Matson ’23, Jennifer Klix ’24, and Sophie Maniscalco ’23 worked with Professor of Psychology Jennifer Borton on two projects, both related to the concept of defensive self-esteem.
Hometown: Syracuse, N.Y.
High school: Solvay High School
Defensive self-esteem, which has been a focus of Borton’s own research, refers to when someone has “high explicit or conscious self-esteem and low implicit or unconscious self-esteem,” said Kupka. In other words, the term indicates that a person's sense of self-worth is fragile and not built on a strong foundation, in contrast with people whose self-esteem is secure (high explicit and high implicit self-esteem). The team’s work this summer, said Matson, was meant to replicate and extend (Borton’s) past research on the subject.
Hometown: San Anselmo, Calif. High school: Marin Academy
The first project built on a study that began in September 2019, examining how defensive self-esteem might influence people's autobiographical memory — the recollection of personal events that contribute to identity and one’s sense of self. Study participants completed some measures online ahead of time, then came to the laboratory to complete the measure of implicit self-esteem, report three personal memories, and complete a questionnaire assessing different components of those memories. “They would rate a bunch of different qualities associated with that memory: how close in time it feels, how vivid it feels … a lot of memory-related questions,” Kupka explained. As expected, those with defensive self-esteem rated memories of shameful events (but not of proud or sad events) as more emotionally intense than did those with secure self-esteem, consistent with the idea that they are threatened by indications of possible failure.
The second project, which will continue into this academic year, focuses on the sensitivity to rejection experienced by people with defensive self-esteem. Borton’s team will be looking to see if defensive self-esteem, in contrast to secure self-esteem, would tend to make someone more aware of a “rejecting” facial expression during a computerized attention task.
Majors: Psychology, Mathematics
Hometown: : Bedford, N.Y.
High school: Byram Hills H.S.
This summer, work on the second, newer project mostly took place in the planning phase. The team ran a pilot study on some possible stimuli that will eventually be used in this new project, said Matson. This study helped them gauge at which point a certain expression, when digitally morphed with a “neutral” facial expression, should be discernible to participants. People with defensive self-esteem are expected to be sensitive to even very subtle rejecting expressions.
Defensive self-esteem is a relatively new concept in psychology, noted Kupka, and one on which Borton has been working for a while. Just looking at explicit self-esteem alone, she added, fails to account for the differences between people with defensive and secure
Majors: Psychology, Hispanic Studies
Hometown: Brookline, Mass.
High school: Brookline High School
self-esteem, both of whom would answer “yes” to the question: “Do you have high self-esteem?” “We’re looking into the individual differences,” Kupka said.