Last week I presented research that evaluated the efficacy of positive self-statements (a form of affirmations) for changing self-esteem. Contrary to their reputation in pop-culture, Joanne Wood and colleagues found that positive self-statements backfire for participants low in self-esteem. When these participants repeated the statement “I am lovable” throughout a study session, they ended up being in a worse mood, and reporting even lower self-esteem than if they didn’t use the affirmation at all. While neither the role of motivation, nor the long-term impact of repeating positive self-statements were assessed (thanks readers for addressing these points in the comments last week), this study gave at least preliminary evidence that positive self-statements may not be an effective strategy for changing self-esteem. So what is?
Over the next few weeks, I’d like to present you with a variety of intervention studies that have been successful in boosting self-esteem. These studies use a range of approaches (some surprising), yet they all have one thing in common. They’re subtle. They don’t knock participants over the head with outrageous information. Telling someone that they’re lovable when they just don’t feel it, doesn’t seem to work. Here’s what does…
Study 1: Reframing Compliments
Denise Marigold, a professor at Renison University College, conducted an intervention study to change the way individuals with low self-esteem think about compliments from their romantic partners, and by extension boost self-esteem (Marigold, Holmes, & Ross, 2007). According to Marigold, individuals with low self-esteem 1) play down the importance of their partner’s compliments in order to avoid the hurt and pain it will cause them if it turns out that their partner does not really love them after all, and 2) worry that these compliments reflect partner’s expectations, expectations that they might not be able to live up to, thereby increasing the chance of rejection when the truth about them comes out. This inability to accept compliments in a healthy way then serves as a perpetuating factor in their vulnerability in that none of the “good stuff” gets inside. Marigold believed that overcoming the tendency of low self-esteem individuals to distrust compliments from their partner would help them feel better about themselves and thus boost their self-esteem.
So what do individuals with low self-esteem do when they think about a compliment from their partner?
Marigold suspected that they focus on its concrete features – such as when it happened and what was said; as an isolated event in the past that doesn’t signal anything beyond that moment. She believed that getting these individuals to think about compliments in an abstract manner – that is to focus less on the details and more on the significance of their partner’s words, might help them feel more confident about their partner’s sentiments and thus better about themselves.
Across a series of studies Marigold’s participants were assigned to think about a past compliment from their partner in one of a few ways. In one condition she asked participants to describe the event without directing them to think about it one way or another. This was a check to see what participants do spontaneously when they think about their partner’s compliments. In another condition, participants were directed to think about a past compliment from their romantic partner in concrete terms – what exactly their partner said, details about where they were at the time, what they were doing, what they were wearing etc. This was supposed to mimic what individuals with low self-esteem tend to do naturally when they receive compliments from their partner. In another condition participants were directed to think about a past compliment from their partner in abstract terms - why their partner admired them, what the compliment meant to them and its significance for their relationship. This was the compliment reframing condition.
What's the verdict?
First, in the no instructions condition (again measuring what participants do spontaneously when they think about a past partner compliment) participants with low self-esteem tended to describe the compliment in more concrete terms than abstract terms and described the event as being more in the past than participants with high self-esteem. This supports Marigold’s theory that individuals with low self-esteem see compliments as isolated events in the past with little significance.
Marigold found that when participants with low self-esteem thought about the compliment in an abstract manner, they felt happier about the compliment. They felt more secure in their relationship, and by extension felt more positive about their relationship. Even more…their self-esteem increased!!! These results largely held when participants were followed up two to three weeks after they did the initial compliment reframing. They even perceived their partner as behaving more positively toward them in the time between the compliment reframing and the follow-up assessment. Pretty striking, right!?
So why these powerful results?
Why did thinking about a compliment from an abstract perspective boost self-esteem in this study, and not backfire like with positive affirmations? Remember, when participants are presented with feedback that is overly discrepant with their own self-views it activates a search for reasons why or why not that feedback is true. When participants in the positive affirmations study were asked to repeat “I am lovable” it seemed to make them think about why they might not be lovable so they ended up feeling bad.
Marigold’s manipulation was more sneaky. Her abstraction instructions subtly implied to participants that the compliment WAS meaningful and significant. “Explain why your partner admired you. Describe what it meant to you and its significance for your relationship.” That their partner does admire them - that the compliment was significant for their relationship was assumed by the instructions. It denied participants the opportunity to refute the compliment and provided these individuals with a safe situation to think about what the compliment meant and thus enjoy it.
Whatever your self-esteem, reframing compliments in more abstract terms, thinking about their significance for you and your relationship, is a great way to feel good, and an important reminder to trust in your partner. More successful interventions to come!
Have you had difficulty trusting in partner’s compliments? Why else might have Marigold gotten such positive results?
Marigold, D., Holmes, J., & Ross, M. (2007). More than words: Reframing compliments from romantic partners fosters security in low self-esteem individuals. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 92 (2), 232-248 DOI: 10.1037/0022-3522.214.171.124