Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Why you might not like when others like you

Take a moment to think carefully about the answers to these questions:

Do you prefer when others dislike you?
Do you feel bad when you get positive feedback?
Do successes make you anxious?
Do you choose romantic partners that think poorly of you?

For many of you, these questions seem absurd, the answer a resounding no to all of them. Others, however, may be less sure. Why? Although common wisdom tells us that as humans we want, strive, and desperately need positive feedback from the social world, an intriguing psychological theory, backed by convincing experimental research, says that this is not always the case.

Self-verification theory, the brainchild of Bill Swann at the University of Texas, Austin, posits that despite the desire for social approval and praise people also have a deep-seated need to be seen in ways consistent with their self-views (see Swann, 1997 for review). This works well for individuals with positive self-views such as those with high self-esteem. These individuals like themselves, think that they are lovable, competent, and worthy and want others to see them favorably as well. Not surprising, right?

The theory gets more interesting, however, when considering individuals with negative self-views, such as those with low self-esteem or depressive symptoms. These individuals don't like themselves very much, and may consider themselves unlovable, incompetent or unworthy. Although you may be thinking that a person with such a negative self-image should be the most motivated to seek out positive feedback, self-verification theory argues to the contrary. It says that these individuals prefer that others see them just as unfavorably as they see themselves. What the heck?!

Why do people seek feedback that is consistent with negative self-views? According to the theory this consistency engenders a sense of prediction and control in the world. The individual can anticipate how others are going to treat them, if others will like them, how others will behave. Knowing what to expect, even if it’s something negative, allows the individual to prepare accordingly, and thus to feel in control in social situations. It also allows the individual to feel like they know themselves well, and that is reassuring.

So how does this self-verification motive play out?
Researchers have done some amazing work mapping out self-verification in the lab and in real life. In one series of studies depressed individuals were found to prefer that their friends and romantic partners view them in unfavorable ways. Moreover, in an experimental setting, these individuals preferred to interact with an evaluator who rated them negatively rather than an evaluator who rated them positively. Even more, they subsequently rated this negative evaluator more favorably after the interaction (Swann et al., 1992).

If you consider yourself someone with high self-esteem, you may be thinking that this theory isn’t applicable to you. Researchers have found, however, that people seek self-verifying feedback not just with respect to their overall self-worth, but in specific domains (like intelligence, personality, and attractiveness). For example, although I consider myself a reasonably likable person, I believe that I’m a terrible dancer. In fact I’m pretty confident about it. Nonetheless, I still beeline to the dance floor when one of my favorite songs comes on. One night when I was out with friends someone I just met commented on my moves. “You can dance!” they kept saying. I immediately believed something was off about this person and avoided them for the rest of the night. Self-verification!

What happens when feedback fails to confirm self-views?
Sometimes individuals can’t control the type of feedback that they receive. What happens then? One study found people were more likely to withdraw from spouses who saw them more or less favorably than they saw themselves (Ritts & Stein, 1995). Other studies have shown that individuals experience anxiety when they are faced with, and can not avoid, feedback that is in strong contradiction to their self-views (Pinel & Swann, 1996). This is called disintegration anxiety, and is characterized by a feeling that something is terribly wrong (just like in my dancing debacle).

Still skeptical? Doesn’t everyone like positive feedback?
Self-verification theory does not argue that positive feedback isn’t tempting for those with negative self-views. The theory posits that all individuals are initially drawn to positive feedback. Individuals with negative self-views, however, then compare this positive feedback to their own self-views. It is only during this later phase that preference for congruent feedback emerges. Researchers have found that this comparison process (juxtaposing feedback to self-views) requires energy or effort. If you deprive people of this energy, for example by making them do a difficult task (like rehearsing a novel phone number), individuals with negative self-views prefer positive feedback just like everyone else (Swann, 1990).

Why is this important?
These findings demonstrate that individuals with low self-esteem or depressive symptoms are crafting a world around them solely composed of the negative. Sadly, the failure to capitalize on positive feedback can be seen as a perpetuating factor in their vulnerability; it prevents these individuals from using positive feedback as a reason to change their negative self-views or as a springboard for confidence and positive functioning in future situations.

Can anything be done to change these negative reactions 
to positive feedback?
One interesting intervention showed that asking participants to think about a compliment their partner gave them in an abstract manner (rather than just the details) implied the compliment was meaningful and resulted in increased self-esteem even in those with negative self-views (Marigold, Holmes, & Ross, 2007).  In another study participants were given feedback that they had personality traits, both positive and negative, that fit with many partners and were thus in high demand (Murray et al., 2005). Again, participants with negative self-views responded with a boost in self-esteem. Together these findings suggest that changing reactions to positive feedback is possible, but requires subtly implying the value of an individual in a way that does not contradict self-views overtly.

In sum, self-verification theory says that individuals want to be seen in ways consistent with their self-views, be they positive or negative in valence. This motivation has strong implications for the ways vulnerable individuals react and respond to social feedback. Knowledge of self-verification motives can be used to more successfully interact with others, and to design effective interventions for improving the way we react to the positive in life.

Can your remember any moments when you were uncomfortable with positive feedback? What do you think about self-verification theory?

Here's the review article:
Swann, W. (1997). The Trouble with Change: Self-Verification and Allegiance to the Self Psychological Science, 8 (3), 177-180 DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-9280.1997.tb00407.x


  1. This makes sense! I feel like its common for people to discount or deny compliments they receive. Perhaps this is because they don't want to appear as if they think really highly of themselves?

  2. Hi Emily-
    Thanks for commenting! Although I'm not familiar with specific research on this topic, I agree with you. I think the desire to appear modest is definitely relevant to these processes. Perhaps the vulnerable individuals I described see themselves as modest or not vain. As they don't want others to misunderstand who they are, perhaps they demonstrate this modesty by showing preference for negative over positive feedback. If anyone is familiar with research on this topic please chime in!

  3. I love this topic, Anna. Really interesting, and it made me think about how I do this myself.

    However, I don't believe you're a terrible dancer. Thanks for keeping me around anyways.

  4. Hi Parmita-
    Thanks for reading (and commenting). I won't let self-verification rear its ugly head. Instead, I say thank you for the kind compliment!!!