What's The Problem With Feeling On Top Of The World?


STEVE INSKEEP, HOST: Now let's turn to a thought experiment. Imagine you're riding one of those glass elevators that takes you to the top of a skyscraper. You go higher and higher. The view gets better. The cars on the ground, the people down there look puny like ants. Researchers say if you imagine this, it can make you feel unaccountably better about yourself. It briefly raises your self esteem. But researchers also say this feeling can be bad for you.

NPR's social science correspondent Shankar Vedantam is here to explain why. Hi, Shankar.

SHANKAR VEDANTAM, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: Okay. So what's going on in that thought experiment?

VEDANTAM: Well, I hate to sound like a curmudgeon, Steve, but apparently feeling great can have a down side, and the down side turns out to be performance, the amount of effort you're willing to expend when you're presented with a challenge. So a group of researchers ran this interesting experiment.

Max Ostinelli at the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee and his colleagues David Luna and Torsten Ringberg, they asked people to imagine elevating, in some way, elevating on an elevator or taking off in a plane, going up in a balloon. And when people imagined soaring into the sky, they experienced this small boost in self esteem. They felt good.

But then the researchers gave the volunteers a series of challenges. They asked them to solve math problems or puzzles or questions from the SAT or GMAT, and they found that the people who had had their self esteem boosted did worse on these problems. I spoke to Max Ostinelli and asked him what was going on. Here's what he said.

MAX OSTINELLI: When we boost self esteem in this way, people are motivated to maintain their self esteem, so they say, well, I'll withdraw from the task.

INSKEEP: Withdraw from the task, meaning that they don't even try anymore to succeed?

VEDANTAM: That's exactly right. They had less perseverance when it came to difficult challenges. And what this work suggests is that this kind of self esteem is very fragile. When you get a boost like this, you subconsciously start to get defensive. You withdraw from a challenge because you're afraid that if you take on an actual challenge, this fragile bubble of self esteem can pop.

INSKEEP: Did they also ask people to imagine going down in that elevator?

VEDANTAM: They did, Steve. And what they found was exactly the opposite. People now worked harder. In fact, the performance gap between the group that had had their self esteem artificially diminished and artificially boosted, the performance gap was a whopping 20 to 30 percent. Here's Ostinelli again.

OSTINELLI: Once self esteem is threatened, then people are motivated to recover it. It looks like they're working harder to prove themselves.

VEDANTAM: So what Ostinelli is finding, Steve, is that when people feel like their self esteem has been damaged or threatened in this kind of way, they have this motivation to try and say let me try and get back to where I was and they end up working harder as a result to try and get back to where they were before. And there's this very interesting real world application of the result.

Ostinelli asked his volunteers to try and compare a bunch of cell phone plans. The plans all varied in terms of price and quality and convenience and so forth, and again, what he found was that the volunteers who had had their self esteem artificially boosted, they ended up being worse consumers. Whereas the volunteers who had had their self esteem artificially suppressed, they put in much more effort. They ended up finding the best deals.

INSKEEP: Obviously this is of interest if you're a parent and you're thinking about the self esteem of your kids and the performance of your kids, by the way. It's interesting if you're an employer, you're thinking about your employees. So what are the implications here? If I want people to do better, I should walk around telling them I don't really like their performance very much?

VEDANTAM: You know, we've had these self esteem wars going back several decades, Steve. You know, 50 or 60 years ago, people thought you should actually be mildly critical of those around you to get the best out of them. And perhaps the last 20 years we've gone to the other extreme where we've over-praised people to some extent. Now, there is a kind of self esteem that is actually much more resilient and that's the kind of self esteem that's obtained by actually accomplishing something really difficult.

And I think what we really want to do is to focus on that kind of self esteem. How do you get people to feel good about themselves, justifiably.

INSKEEP: Challenge people and then be honest about what they do when they're challenged.

VEDANTAM: Exactly. And match praise and criticism to meet the facts and not sort of over-praise or be overly critical.

INSKEEP: Shankar, this interview has been really - okay.

VEDANTAM: Thanks, Steve. I'll try and do better next time.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's science correspondent Shankar Vedantam. As always, you can follow him on Twitter @HiddenBrain. You can follow this program @MorningEdition and @NPRInskeep.