FOCUS ON RESEARCH SelfEsteem and the Ultimate Terror
541 Social Inﬂuences on the Self not seem sensible, but upward social comparison can create optimism about improving our own situations (Buunk & Oldersma, 2001). We may tell ourselves “If they can do it, so can I!” Or we might tell ourselves that the superior performer is not really similar enough to be in our reference group, or even that the ability in question is not that important to us (Alicke et al., 1997). An unfavorable comparison of your own status with that of others can produce relative deprivation—the belief that whatever you are getting, it is less than what you deserve (Brehm, Kassin, & Fein, 2005). The concept of relative deprivation explains why a movie star who receives $5 million per ﬁlm feels abused if a costar is receiving $10 million. It also explains the far more common situation in which employees become dissatisﬁed when they see themselves as underpaid or underappreciated in comparison to their coworkers (Feldman & Turnley, 2004). Relative deprivation can create depression and anxiety (Taylor & Lobel, 1989), and when large groups of people experience relative deprivation, political unrest may follow. The turmoil usually starts after the members of an oppressed group experience some improvement in their lives and begin to compare their circumstances with those of people in other groups (Worchel et al., 2000). This improvement brings higher expectations about what they deserve. It is likely, for example, that resentment over U.S. prosperity and global inﬂuence plays a role in creating the hatred that leads some people to engage in terrorist attacks against the United States. W FOCUS ON RESEARCH hy is self-esteem so important to so many people? An intriguing answer Self-Esteem and the to this question comes from the terror management theory proposed by Jeff Ultimate Terror Greenberg, Tom Pyszczynski, and Sheldon Solomon. This theory is based on the notion that humans are the only creatures capable of thinking about the future and realizing that we will all eventually die. Terror management theory suggests that humans cope with anxiety, including the terror that thoughts about death might bring, by developing a variety of self-protective psychological strategies. One of these is the effort to establish and maintain high self-esteem (Greenberg, Pyszczynski, & Solomon, 2003; Pyszczynski et al., 2004). ■ What was the researchers’ question? In one series of experiments, Greenberg and his colleagues (1992) asked whether high self-esteem would, in fact, serve as a buffer against anxiety—speciﬁcally, the anxiety brought on by thoughts about death and pain. ■ How did the researchers answer the question? relative deprivation The sense that one is not getting all that one deserves. About 150 students at several North American universities participated in one of three studies, each of which followed a similar format. The ﬁrst step was to temporarily alter the participants’ self-esteem. To do so, the researchers gave the students feedback about a personality or intelligence test they had taken earlier in the semester. Half the participants received positive feedback designed to increase their self-esteem. The other half received feedback that was neutral—it was neither ﬂattering nor depressing. (Measurement of the students’ self-esteem showed that the positive feedback actually did create higher self-esteem than the neutral feedback.) In the next phase of each experiment, the researchers used either a ﬁlm about death or the (false) threat of a mild electric shock to provoke some anxiety in half the participants in the positive-feedback group and half the participants in the neutral-feedback group. The amount of anxiety created was measured by the participants’ self-reports or by monitoring galvanic skin resistance (GSR), a measure of perspiration in their skin that reﬂects anxiety-related physiological arousal (Dawson, Schell, & Filion, 2000).