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The Christmastime Self-Esteem Paradox

By Shankar Vedantam
Monday, December 10, 2007

Social psychologist William B. Swann once had a group of married people evaluate their spouses even as their spouses evaluated them. People with high self-esteem, the psychologist found, felt closer to their partners when they received positive evaluations. People with low self-esteem, however, felt closer to their partners when they were evaluated negatively.

In another study, Swann found that when people with low self-esteem were asked to choose between a positive and a negative evaluator, they often preferred the negative evaluator.

And finally, in a new study published in the Academy of Management Journal, Swann and others found that while people with high self-esteem prefer to work in companies that treat them fairly, those with low self-esteem do not feel more committed to organizations with high levels of fairness: If anything, their commitment increased when organizational fairness decreased.

Since as many as one in three people have the kind of low self-esteem that Swann studies, his research can easily be misconstrued to mean that large numbers of people prefer to be treated badly. That would be a misreading of the research: People with low self-esteem are just as likely to be hurt by pointlessly negative feedback as those with high self-esteem. Still, his findings have a number of counterintuitive implications for this time of year.

Swann's research suggests that the conventional wisdom about end-of-year performance evaluations and the general good cheer demanded by the Christmas season might have paradoxical effects for many people. Managers who offer inaccurately glowing reports in the hope of encouraging employee loyalty may discover that employees with low self-esteem feel less loyal afterward, And high expectations of goodwill, charity and bonhomie at Christmastime can cause these types of people not to feel better about themselves, but worse.

"There is a tendency for people to suspend disbelief during the Christmas period and pretend everything is wonderful even if it is not," said Swann, a professor at the University of Texas at Austin.

"There are times when people say, 'If I have to smile at this person who happens to be an in-law, I am going to barf,' " he said. "People don't like to trade in falsity. People don't like to be treated positively if they know it is not heartfelt. If people are coming across as inauthentic and forcing you to come across as inauthentic in return, that can be enormously stressful."

Swann's work has centered on an idea known as self-verification theory. All people carry around an image of themselves that tells them who they are, whether they are good-looking or average-looking, for example, or clever at math, or kind and thoughtful or largely self-centered. Inasmuch as people want to be recognized for the things they are good at, Swann's work suggests many people also want honest acknowledgments of their flaws, and that when these flaws are minimized or wished away, people end up feeling worse rather than better.

"Our self-views are guideposts to know what to do in life. They play a central role in telling us how to act and feel and what to expect," he said. "We don't want those guideposts to be questioned."

Beth Morling, a psychologist at the University of Delaware, said her own work on self-verification theory has shown that people want feedback that verifies how they see themselves, but is also slightly more positive than the way they see themselves.

"If I think I'm an 8 on my looks, I like to hear from others that I'm a 9," she said. "That feels good to me. But if somebody told me I'm a 10, then it feels too discrepant; our interactions might be awkward later on, and I don't feel well understood."

An employee with low self-esteem may think of himself as deserving only a 2 on a performance evaluation scale of 1 to 10. Morling's point is that a 3 would be nice, but getting a 9 would tell the person his manager is playing some kind of game.

Swann said he started thinking about the issue when he was a counselor at a camp for underprivileged children. One kid would go around irritating everyone, and Swann noticed that he seemed almost reassured when he elicited negative reactions.

The psychologist emphasized that there is a difference between a person with low self-esteem and a masochist. Someone with a low self-image doesn't seek to be hurt, but prefers reality to illusion. The message of his research, Swann added, is not to be cruel to people but to be honest with them, even when such honesty tramples on sentiments around Christmas.

"It is like the stress produced by living a lie and knowing other people are forcing their lies on you," he said of many Christmas family dramas. "There is disjunction between what you know to be true and the scripts you are acting out in the context of these familial issues."

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