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Implicit and explicit self esteem

Author: Dr Simon Moss

Overview

Individuals often maintain they feel confident and worthy. Nevertheless, other subtle measures indicate they may doubt themselves and actually feel unworthy. Individuals who do not like their initials or name, for example, feel a subtle, almost unconscious, sense of doubt that compromises their resilience and wellbeing.

Measures of implicit self esteem

Traditionally, self esteem has been assessed explicitly. That is, respondents answered direct questions such as "I am a worthwhile person".

Over the past few decades, however, indirect or implicit measures of self esteem have emerged (e.g., Farnham, Greenwald, & Banaji, 1999& Hetts, Sakuma, & Pelham, 1999). The principal rationale of these measures is straightforward: If individuals experience a high self esteem, they should exhibit positive attitudes towards anything they associate with themselves (Bosson, Brown, Zeigler-Hill, & Swann Jr., 2003). Several measures have been developed to assess self esteem implicitly (see Bosson, Swann, & Pennebaker, 2000, for a review& for an additional measure, see Vahey, Barnes-Holmes, Barnes-Holmes, & Stewart, 2009), such as:

Evaluating priming

To illustrate an evaluative priming measure, for example, Pelham and Hetts (1999) developed a technique that can be utilized to assess implicit self esteem. First, individuals complete a series of questions that evoke reflections about themselves, such as to what extent do "Other people value (your) abilities and opinions" or "(are you) very sensitive to (your) inner thoughts and feelings". These questions are intended to prime the self.

Next, participants receive a series of word fragments, such as -ice or -ate. Participants are asked to form three words from each fragment. Some of the fragments can form positive words, such as nice. Other fragments can form negative words such as hate. If implicit self esteem is high, when the self is primed, positive concepts should become more salient. Participants should, for example, specify nice before the alternative answers. However, they should specify hate after the alternative answers. Although this procedure has been utilized by researchers, the internal consistency tends to be low, below .50 (Bosson, Swann, & Pennebaker, 2000& Jordan, Whitfield, & Zeigler-Hill, 2007).

Affective priming

To illustrate a related technique, called affective priming (e.g., Back, Krause, Hirschmuller, Stopfer, Egloff, & Schmukle, 2009), participants are exposed to primes, often pictures, that correspond to either themselves or other individuals. A photograph of the participant or someone else might be presented, sometimes subliminally. After the prime, a word, such as honest or mean appears. Participants then indicate whether this word is positive of negative.

Some participants recognize positive words more rapidly--and negative words less rapidly--after stimuli that represent themselves appear. This pattern of observations implies they might perceive themselves positively, which represents an elevated level of implicit self esteem.

Implicit self esteem, as measured by affective priming, has also been shown to correlate negatively with gaze avoidance (Vandromme, Hermans, & Spruyt, 2010). In one study, participants undertook a computer task, while their face was filmed by a camera. Next, participants undertook two affective priming tasks. In one task, one of eight pictures of faces, four of the participant and four of someone else with similar levels of attractiveness, were the primes. That is, one of these pictures appeared briefly. Then, 250 ms later, another positive or negative picture appeared. Participants had to name the item in this picture as rapidly as possible. If implicit self esteem is high, participants recognize positive items more rapidly after pictures of their face. The second priming task was the same except the primes were the name of this participant or the name of someone else.

Finally, while the instructions were presented, the duration over which the participant maintained eye contact with the experimenter was assessed. The number of times the participants shifted their gaze from the experimenter was also counted. In general, both measures of implicit self esteem were negatively associated with the tendency of participants to shift their gaze and terminate eye contact.

Consequences of implicit and explicit self esteem

Defensive behavior and a low implicit self esteem

Some individuals report a high explicit self esteem but demonstrate a low implicit self esteem (e.g., Kernis, Abend, Goldman, Shrira, Paradise, & Hampton, 2005). These individuals also tend to be defensive in response to adverse feedback (e.g., Bosson, Brown, Zeigler-Hill, & Swann Jr., 2003& Epstein & Morling, 1995& Kernis, 2003) as well as discriminate against other ethnicities (Jordan, Spencer, & Zanna, 2005). This disparity between explicit and implicit self esteem, therefore, seems to reflect a fragile self esteem (see also optimal self esteem).

Procedures that amplify implicit self esteem tend to curb these defensive reactions. For example, in a study conducted by Baccus, Baldwin, and Packer (2004), some of the participants were exposed to their personal details, such as their name, alongside positive pictures. This protocol instills positive associations with the self, which increases implicit self esteem (for a similar procedure, see Dijksterhuis, 2004). After implicit self esteem escalated, individuals subsequently became less aggressive and defensive.

Lupien, Seery, and Almonte (2010) also showed that a low implicit self esteem, when combined with a high explicit self esteem, provokes defensive responses. In particular, participants who demonstrate this pattern exhibit self handicapping behavior. That is, when they engaged in a task that putatively assesses their intelligence, they preferred to listen to distracting music at the same time. Consequently, they could, in essence, ascribe limitations in their performance to distractions in the environment instead of personal inability.

Defensive behavior and incongruence between explicit and implicit self esteem

However, Schroder-Abe, Rudolph, and Schutz (2007) argued that congruence between implicit and explicit self esteem, rather than merely elevated implicit self esteem, curbs anger and improves mental health. In one study, to measure implicit self esteem, participants completed the implicit association test. In addition, they completed an explicit measure of self esteem. Finally, they complete a measure of anger and anger expression, including items like "I could explode but I do not let anybody notice".

When explicit self esteem was high, implicit self esteem was negatively related to this feeling of anger that needs to be suppressed. That is, both high explicit and implicit self esteem seemed to curb anger. In contrast, when explicit self esteem was low, implicit self esteem was positively related to these feelings of anger. In this instance, high implicit self esteem, which deviates from the low explicit self esteem, seemed to provoke anger (Schroder-Abe, Rudolph, & Schutz, 2007). In a subsequent study, this incongruence between explicit and implicit self esteem predicted a depressive attributional style--the inclination to ascribe failures, but not achievements, to internal, stable, and global attributions like "I am hopeless".

According to Schroder-Abe, Rudolph, and Schutz (2007), any disparity between explicit and implicit self esteem indicates these two distinct representations of the self have not been integrated appropriately. The deliberate plans that emerge from explicit self esteem might not align to the preferences that emerge from implicit self esteem. Individuals often experience disappointment and frustration as a consequence. They experience a sense of dissonance, uncertain about their perceptions of themselves as well.

Individuals who are not sensitive to their implicit self esteem may experience a range of problems. They might, for example, unduly expose themselves to contexts that evoke negative feelings about themselves (Dentale, Martini, De Coro, & Di Pomponio, 2010).

Borderline personality disorder and incongruence between explicit and implicit self esteem

Vater, Schroder-Abe, Schutz, Lammers, Claas-H., and Roepke (2010) showed that a discrepancy between implicit and explicit self esteem is associated with borderline personality disorder. That is, an elevated explicit self esteem, but low implicit self esteem--as well as a low explicit self esteem but elevated implicit self esteem--were positively related to this disorder, but not to depression.

In particular, Vater, Schroder-Abe, Schutz, Lammers, Claas-H., and Roepke (2010) showed that such discrepancies between explicit and implicit self esteem are associated with specific symptoms. First, these discrepancies were positively related to autoaggression, such as suicidal thoughts and other forms of self harm, as well as impaired self perception. Such behaviors or tendencies are assumed to be primed by a sense of internal tension, doubt, uncertainty, or contradiction, corresponding to the discrepancies between implicit and explicit self esteem.

Narcissism and incongruence between explicit and implicit self esteem

A variety of studies have examined whether explicit self esteem, implicit self esteem, or both are related to narcissism, in which individuals perceive themselves as special and entitled, becoming especially aggressive or upset when their status or competence is challenged. The results of these studies have generated mixed findings. Generally, narcissism tends to coincide with high explicit esteem and low implicit self esteem, although this pattern is not universal.

To illustrate Gregg and Sedikides (2010) reported a study in which participants completed the narcissistic personality inventory and the Rosenberg measure of self esteem. They also completed three activities to gauge implicit self esteem: the implicit association task, the name letter test, and the go-no go task. In general, narcissism was not associated with explicit self esteem, but was negative associated with two measures of implicit self esteem: the name letter task, provided that all the letters in the name instead of merely the initials were included in the calculation, and the go-no go task.

According to Gregg and Sedikides (2010), some individuals may be criticized whenever they depict themselves positively. Positive associations with themselves might be inhibited, compromising their implicit self esteem. These negative experiences might evoke some of the symptoms of narcissism, however.

Several complications have been uncovered. As Sakellaropoulo and Baldwin (2007) demonstrated, when narcissism was primed--that is, when narcissistic individuals reflected upon their special qualities--they were more inclined to perceive their initials as unlikeable but attractive. According to Sakellaropoulo and Baldwin (2007), these individuals thus tend to perceive themselves as low on communal dimensions but high on agentic dimensions. Perhaps, narcissistic individuals are reinforced whenever they perceive themselves as defiant and independent.

Antecedents of incongruence between explicit and implicit self esteem

In some people, explicit self esteem and implicit self esteem diverge markedly. In other people, explicit and implicit self esteem are similar. A prevailing conclusion is that, provided individuals can readily utilize and understand their emotional or intuitive states, explicit self esteem and implicit self esteem will tend to be congruent. That is, implicit self esteem is experienced as a subtle intuition or feeling. Individuals who can access these intuitions or feelings can derive their explicit self esteem from implicit representations (Dentale, Martini, De Coro, & Di Pomponio, 2010& Jordan, Whitfield, & Zeigler-Hill, 2007).

Alexithymia

Several studies have been conducted to confirm these arguments. In one study, conducted by Dentale, Martini, De Coro, and Di Pomponio (2010), participants first completed the Rosenberg scale to gauge their explicit self esteem. They also completed an implicit association test to measure their implicit self esteem. Finally, the Toronto Alexithymia Scale was administered, to measure the extent to which individuals experience difficulties identifying and describing their emotional states (see also measures of emotional intelligence).

If individuals reported elevated levels of alexithymia, representing an impaired capacity to identify and describe personal feelings, explicit self esteem was not associated with implicit self esteem. In contrast, if individuals did not exhibit this deficiency, explicit self esteem was positively associated with implicit self esteem.

Trust in intuition

Similarly, in another study, some participants were encouraged to trust their intuition (Jordan, Whitfield, & Zeigler-Hill, 2007). That is, they were informed that intuition is trustworthy rather than misleading. Other participants were encouraged to disregard their intuition. Explicit self esteem was positively associated with implicit self esteem when intuition was trusted but negatively associated with implicit self esteem when intuition was neglected (Jordan, Whitfield, & Zeigler-Hill, 2007). In short, neglect of emotions or intuition seems to amplify the dissociation between explicit self esteem and implicit self esteem.

Indeed, Pelham, Koole, Hardin, Hetts, Seah, and DeHart (2005) showed that explicit self esteem and implicit self esteem are more likely to be correlated positively in women than in men. Conceivably, this finding can be ascribed to the observation that women tend to be more intuitive and thus more cognizant of their implicit self esteem (for conflicting findings, however, see Riketta, 2005).

One of the limitations of some previous research, however, was that intuition was not assessed implicitly. For example, people may claim to deliberate carefully but actually utilize their intuition or vice versa.

To overcome this problem, Shimizu and Pelham (2011) developed an implicit test of intuition. Specifically, participants were asked to rate the extent to which they liked various icons, such as a smiley face, heart, or star. The two key icons were a smiley face and a heart. Over time, individuals develop positive associations with these icons. If individuals utilize their intuition, and thus are sensitive to these associations, they should evaluate these two icons favorably. If individuals deliberate carefully, however, some other thoughts might intervene, and the two icons might not necessarily be evaluated as favorably.

Consistent with this possibility, if individuals evaluated the smiley face and heart positively, and thus presumably invoked their intuition, a one item measure of explicit self esteem was highly related to a name letter measure of implicit self esteem (see the name letter effect). Furthermore, as evidence of validity, this measure of intuition indicated that women are more intuitive than men.

The second study was similar, except responses to positive words instead of merely icons were also considered to gauge intuition. This measure of intuition also increased the association between explicit and implicit self esteem, even after controlling gender and explicit measures of intuition.

Meditation

As Koole, Govorun, Cheng, and Gallucci (2009) demonstrated, meditation also increases the congruence between explicit self esteem and implicit self esteem, as gauged by the name letter task. Presumably, when individuals meditate, they become more aware of their intuitive attitudes towards themselves. These accessible intuitive attitudes, manifested in measures of implicit self esteem, are also more likely to guide explicit self esteem as well.

This finding also explains one of the benefits of meditation. Specifically, because meditation increases the congruence between explicit self esteem and implicit self esteem, individuals might be less likely to experience a sense of inner conflict or uncertainty.

Accessibility of attitudes

For some individuals, their attitudes about themselves--about whether they perceive themselves favorably or unfavorably--are particularly accessible. If asked whether they feel worthy or unworthy, these individuals respond almost immediately. For other individuals, their attitudes about themselves are not as accessible. Their responses to these questions are delayed.

As Lebel (2010) demonstrated, if individuals can readily access their attitudes about themselves, measures of implicit self esteem and explicit self esteem tend to be correlated with each other. In contrast, if individuals cannot readily access their attitudes about themselves, measures of implicit self esteem and explicit self esteem tend to be uncorrelated with each other.

To illustrate, in one study, participants completed the Rosenberg Self Esteem scale. They also completed the implicit association task to gauge implicit self esteem. If individuals responded rapidly to the Rosenberg Self Esteem scale, explicit self esteem was positively associated with implicit self esteem (Lebel, 2010).

Presumably, if individuals cannot access their attitudes about themselves, other considerations are more likely to shape their deliberations during the explicit measure of self esteem. This explicit self esteem, therefore, will diverge from the implicit self esteem.

Social desirability

Explicit self esteem can be biased by a range of erratic factors, such as a motivation to be perceived favorably. Consistent with this possibility, when individuals are asked to respond honestly, explicit self esteem is more likely to be correlated with implicit self esteem (Olson, Fazio, & Hermann, 2007).

Similarly, as Koole, Dijksterhuis, and van Knippenberg (2001) discovered, either rapid responses to explicit questions, or a concurrent task, also increased the association between explicit and implicit self esteem, as measured by the Name letter test. Presumably, when responses are rapid, or a concurrent task needs to be undertaken, individuals are more inclined to derive their explicit answers from the intuitive evaluations of themselves. Individuals cannot invoke other cognitive processes, such as attempts to portray themselves positively.

Distinct facets of self-esteem

Many researchers have debated whether or not implicit self-esteem measures and explicit self-esteem measures actually gauge distinct facets. Indeed, some researchers even maintain that implicit self-esteem measures gauge distinct facets from each other.

This possibility was substantiated by Back, Krause, Hirschmuller, Stopfer, Egloff, and Schmukle (2009). This study showed the explicit self-esteem and two measures of implicit self-esteem--affective priming and an implicit association task--were uniquely related to the same criterion: degree to which participants maintain eye contact.

According to Back, Krause, Hirschmuller, Stopfer, Egloff, and Schmukle (2009), explicit self-esteem primarily depends on the extent to which people are exposed to explicit statements about themselves. People who, for example, are often told they are great are more likely to report a high explicit self-esteem.

Implicit self-esteem, however, may depend on other experiences. For example, after expressing positive feelings about themselves, some people may receive approval& their friends might smile or nod, for example. Therefore, these positive feelings about themselves may be reinforced. Affective priming may gauge these reinforced positive feelings.

In contrast, some people may often receive approval or be exposed to other positive cues, when the self is salient--for example, when they express a very personal opinion. Over time, they associate the self with positive concepts. The implicit association task may gauge these positive associations.

Determinants of implicit self esteem

In response to threat, the implicit self esteem of some individuals tends to rise. In one study, conducted by Rudman, Dohn, and Fairchild (2007), some individuals were rejected from peers--a form of social threat. Subsequently, they became more likely to sign their signature with large letters, which is an implicit measure of self esteem.

Psychometric properties

Correlations across measures of implicit self esteem

Generally, the various measures of implicit self esteem do not correlate highly with one another (see Bosson, Swann, & Pennebaker, 2000, for a review). Several researchers have attempted to explain the low, and sometimes negligible, relationships between various measures of implicit self esteem. These explanations tend to maintain that distinct measures represent different systems (e.g., Fazio & Olson, 2003& Gawronski & Bodenhausen, 2007).

To illustrate, according to Back, Krause, Hirschmuller, Stopfer, Egloff, and Schmukle (2009), implicit self esteem, when gauged by the affective priming task, represents the extent to which individuals develop an association between themselves and positive affective states. If individuals are rewarded whenever they express or feel positive feelings about themselves, this association gradually evolves. If, for example, they are praised whenever they extol their virtues, implicit self esteem, as measured by the affective priming task, tends to improve.

In contrast, as Back, Krause, Hirschmuller, Stopfer, Egloff, and Schmukle (2009) maintain, implicit self esteem, when gauged by the implicit association test, represents the extent to which individuals associate positive concepts with themselves. If individuals, when focused on themselves, are exposed to positive descriptions, such as "great", and rewarding contexts, these associations evolve. That is, they learn to associate desirable concepts with their personal character, which shapes their performance on the implicit association test.

Finally, Back, Krause, Hirschmuller, Stopfer, Egloff, and Schmukle (2009) maintains that explicit self esteem corresponds to propositional representations. To illustrate, individuals might deliberate over feedback, such as praise or support. The conclusions that emerge from these deliberations ultimately impinge on explicit measures of self esteem.

Consistent with this framework, Back, Krause, Hirschmuller, Stopfer, Egloff, and Schmukle (2009) found these distinct measures of self esteem all predicted whether or not individuals expected they would be liked and respected by colleagues. Each of these predictions remained significant even after the other measures of self esteem were controlled& each measure, thus, seems to represent distinct, rather than redundant, systems.

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Last Update: 7/17/2016