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FOCUS ON RESEARCH SelfEsteem and the Ultimate Terror

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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).
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