Low self-esteem doesn’t just impact the way people perceive negative events – it can actually take a toll on health, a new study co-authored by a Loyola Marymount University professor has found.
Máire Ford, an assistant professor of psychology at Loyola Marymount University, and Nancy Collins, a professor of psychology at UC Santa Barbara, conducted a study that measured how people with varying levels of self-esteem react to rejection. Not only were those with lower self-esteem (as determined by a questionnaire) more likely to negatively interpret rejecting events, but they also reacted physiologically by producing more stress hormones than people with higher levels of self-esteem.
“The main implication is that an individual’s self-esteem can act as a lens through which they interpret their environment, subsequently affecting not only their thoughts and their feelings, but their health as well,” Ford said.
In the study, participants prepared for an online chat with an attractive member of the opposite sex, whom they believed to be in the next room. In fact there was no other participant in the study. Participants saw a picture and bio of the other individual. They also believed that the other individual was viewing their picture and reading about them. But immediately before the online chat, the experimenter delivered the news that the other participant opted to leave the study.
“High self-esteem people were very resilient when they learned that the other person discontinued participation in the study. They just figured the other person was busy or had other things to do.” Ford said. “In contrast, low self-esteem people took it personally. They felt more rejected, and were more likely to conclude that the other participant canceled the chat because of something about them.”
In addition to having participants fill out questionnaires, researchers took saliva samples throughout the experimental session in order to check cortisol levels. Cortisol is a hormone produced by the body as part of the stress response, and overtime too much cortisol can have a negative impact on health.
The researchers found that those with lower levels of self-esteem had higher levels of cortisol in their saliva in response to the ambiguous rejection by the false other participant. That means their bodies reacted more intensely to the stress of rejection.
“There is a cumulative wear-and-tear theory with regard to cortisol reactivity,” Ford said. “If you are continually mounting a stress response, it wears down the body. Chronically high levels of cortisol are associated with heart disease, decreased immune function, memory deficits, and depression, to name just a few things.”
Although the study was not designed to recommend any particular treatment or course of action for individuals with low self-esteem, Ford says, “Perhaps if we could make people with low self-esteem aware of the biases they use when processing social events, we could encourage them to make more benign interpretations and minimize their stress response in these situations.”
The paper is titled “Self-esteem Moderates Neuroendocrine and Psychological Responses to Interpersonal Rejection” and was published in the March 2010 edition of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.