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


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

SHANKAR VEDANTAM, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: OK, 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 results. Ostinelli asked his volunteers to try and compare a bunch of cellphone 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, and 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: (Laughter) 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 - uh, OK.

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

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

Shankar Vedantam is the host and creator of Hidden Brain. The Hidden Brain podcast receives more than three million downloads per week. The Hidden Brain radio show is distributed by NPR and featured on nearly 400 public radio stations around the United States.