Modeling differential responses to chronic and situational ego threat
Heppner, Whitney Lane
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Ego threats, such as social rejection, yield powerful effects on people's cognitions and behaviors. Two findings in particular appear to be somewhat contradictory: socially rejected individuals exhibit greater attention to self by some measures (e.g., Crocker, Lee, & Park, 2004) and greater avoidance of self by others measures (Heatherton & Baumeister, 1991; Twenge et al., 2003). Cognitive models of various clinical disorders such as social phobia (Amir et al., 1998) and anxiety (Bradley et al., 1998) offer a resolution to these apparently contradictory findings in the self-esteem threat literature by positing two separate pathways through which individuals respond to threatening stimuli: attentional vigilance toward the stimuli followed by avoidance of the threatening stimuli. The current study attempted to apply such a clinical vigilance-avoidance model to individuals' responses to self-esteem threats. To test this model, participants received randomly assigned success or failure feedback on a purportedly important cognitive functioning task (an acute ego threat). Next, participants completed a lexical decision task (LDT) containing success- and failure- and task-related words (measuring attention to potentially threatening stimuli). Then participants explored a supposed personality profile outlining ten each of their positive and negative qualities (an opportunity to avoid self-relevant information). In addition, I examined a constellation of individual difference measures that described an individual with fragile feelings of self-worth (a kind of chronic ego threat). Primary results supported an attentional vigilance to task-related words for one marker of chronic ego threat (contingent self-esteem). Additional analyses revealed a pattern of results for individuals with highly contingent self-esteem indicative of vulnerable, fragile feelings of self-worth. Discussion centers on how the current findings suggest avenues for future research exploring alternative mechanisms through which fragile self-esteem may develop and be maintained.