The bigger the ego, the harder the fall – how self-awareness buffers against social rejection

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We all know them – supremely confident, arrogant people with inflated views of themselves. They strut and swagger, seemingly impervious to critical opinions, threats of failure or the glare of self-awareness. You may be able to tell that I don’t like such people very much, which is why new research from Sander Thomaes from Utrecht University makes me smirk.

Thomaes found that people with unrealistically inflated opinions of themselves, far from proving more resilient in the face of social rebuffs, actually suffer more because of it. Some psychologists hold that “positive illusions” provide a mental shield that buffers its bearers from the threats of rejection or criticism. But according to Thomaes, realistic self-awareness is a much healthier state of mind.

He studied a group of 206 children aged 9-12, a point in life when popularity and acceptance among your peers seems all-important. Every child rated how much they liked each one of their classmates on a scale from zero (not at all) to three (very much). They also predicted the rating that each classmate would give them. The two scores were only moderately related to one another (a correlation of 0.52), and the difference between them provided a measure of each child’s self-awareness. Kids with inflated egos had positive differences while those with negative scores thought worse of themselves than their peers did had.

Two weeks later, Thomaes brought back all the children for an experiment. They were told that they would be taking part in the Survivor Game -an online popularity contest where groups of four players had to complete a personal profile, and a panel of peers would vote out the person they liked the least. The game was a front – in reality, half of the children were randomly told that they were least liked and voted out, while the other half were simply told that this dishonour had befallen someone else.

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Before and after the ‘game’, Thomaes assessed the children’s mood by asking them to rate themselves on a score of 1-4 against eight different negative emotions -angry, nervous, ashamed, sad, irritated, anxious, down and embarrassed. The differences between the ‘before’ and ‘after’ scores revealed how harshly the children had taken the outcome of the fake game.

 If it’s true that positive illusions buffer people against social threats, then children with the most inflated views of themselves should have been most resilient to being disliked by the panel of peers. This wasn’t the case. The children in the control group, who weren’t rejected, didn’t feel any worse after the game than before it. But among the rejected children, those who had judged themselves most realistically were the least bothered, while both children who thought too well or too poorly of themselves experienced the biggest negative mood swings.

The results are clear – people (or at least, children) with the most exaggerated views of their popularity have further to fall emotionally when their social status is challenged. As Thomaes says, “These results support the view that distorted self-views promote emotional vulnerability and that realistic self-views promote emotional resilience.” It’s better to deal with the reality, bite though it may, than to whitewash over it with an ultimately vulnerable facade.

Reference: Thomaes, S., Reijntjes, A., Orobio de Castro, B., & Bushman, B. (2009). Reality Bites-or Does It? Realistic Self-Views Buffer Negative Mood Following Social Threat Psychological Science DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-9280.2009.02395.x

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