A Threat to One's Ego

xhan's picture

On a daily basis, people suffer both large and small events that are likely to threaten their self-esteem. Events that encompass criticism, rejection, and failure are likely to shake people's faiths in themselves, at least temporarily.  Yet instead of reducing their distress over these actions, individuals typically attempt to justify them. They change some relevant belief or attitude to make their actions seem less self-contradictory and to reduce their feelings of foolishness. Yet, precisely what causes this change still can be difficult to determine(Greewald and Ronis, 1978).

                          Although self-esteem theories differ, they commonly assume that self-esteem defense mechanisms function to regulate negative emotions caused by threats to self-worth(e.g., Fires & Frey, 1980; Leary & Baumeister, 2000; Mehlman & Snyder, 1985: Pyscocnzynski et al., 2004; Stelle, 1988; Stephan & Gollwitzer, 1981; Tesser, 1988). One means of warding off threat concerns compensatory cognitions, includes self-affirmation (e.g., Steele, Spencer & Lynch, 1993). The "fluid compensation" principle(Steele, 1988) posits that people can recover from threat in one domain(e.g. a failed exam) by emphasizing their positive qualities in a different domain(e.g., close relationships). Similarly, Tesser (2000) argued that threatened people draw on alternate sources of self-esteem and that this process can proceed effortlessly, without conscious awareness.            

            The most recent and inclusive revision of dissonance theory (Wicklund & Brehn, 1976) states that to feel dissonance a person must perceive personal responsibility for the bad effects of a dissonant act. As Greenwald and Ronis(1978) noted, this statement excludes several examples of dissonance-provoking inconsistencies that Festinger originally used to define the theory, One of these is that "if a person were standing in the rain and yet could see no evidence that he was getting wet, these two cognitions he was getting wet, these two cognitions would be dissonant with one another" (Festiner, 1957). Any inconsistency that threatens ego functioning should arouse dissonance. Stelle and Liu differ from Festinger, however, in believing that the motivating aspect of such inconsistency is not the inconsistency but its threat to ego functioning.

            Yet Steele&Liu argue that the motivating aspect of inconsistency is not the inconsistency but its threat to ego functioning (Steele&Liu, 1983). Pittman and Pittman(1908) supports this theory. Many attribution theorists assumed that people make causal attributions about their own and other people’s behavior automatically( e.g., Heider, 1958; Jones&davis, 1965). Yet Pittman and Pittman argue that the tendency to make such attributions increased substantially when subjects experience a loss of control over their environment. These authors believe that this increase in attribution serves as an attempt to “restore a threatened sense of control”, to regain a sense of being able to cope effectively. In this manner, both causal attributions about behavior and consistency seeking following dissonant behavior may be attributed, at least impart from ego function: to sustain a sense of self as good, stable and powerful(Steele and Liu, 1983).

            Can an experience that simply affirms a valued aspect of the self eliminate dissonance and its accompanying cognitive changes? Steele and Liu strived to test this question in three experiments. In the first experiment, some subjects were allowed to affirm an important, self-relevant value (by completing a self-relevant value scale) immediately after having written unrelated dissonant essays and prior to recording their attitudes on the post measure. Other subjects underwent an identical procedure but were selected so that the value affirmed by the scale was not part of their self-concept. The value scale eliminated dissonance-reducing attitude change among subjects for whom it was self-relevant but not among subjects for whom it was not self-relevant. This occurred even though the value scale could not resolve or reduce the objective importance of the dissonance-provoking inconsistency. Study 2 showed that the self-affirmation effect was strong enough to prevent the reinstatement of dissonance. Study 3, testing generalizability replicated the effect by using a different attitude issue, a different value for affirmation, and a different measure of dissonance reduction. These results imply that a need for psychological consistency is not a part of dissonance motivation and that salient, self-affirming cognition may help objectify our reactions to self-threatening information.

             Aronson's (1968, 1999) self-consistency theory maintains that dissonance results when behavior is inconsistent with one's self-concept.  This theory suggests that individuals with high self-esteem will experience greater dissonance than individuals with low self-esteem because dissonance-inducing events such as bad choices or being stood-up are at greater variance with high-than low-esteem. Steele's(1988) self-affirmation theory, in contrast, maintains that dissonance results not from either self-inconsistencies or from cognitive inconsistencies, but rather, from threats to one's self-image. According to this theory, individuals with high self-esteem will experiences less dissonance than individuals with low self-esteem because high-esteem individuals normally have more self resources to draw upon in the fact of self-image threats. 
        According to self-consistency theory, high-esteem individuals should experience more conflict in dissonance-arousing situations than low-esteem individuals.  Assuming that self-inconsistency, is the driven force in dissonance motivation, it follows that the possibility of a bad choice, would be more inconsistent with the self-concept of high-esteem individuals than with that low-esteem. And as a result, high-esteem individuals should display greater alternatives than lows. This is also known as a self-discrepancy effect (Arson et al, 1995). On the other hand, self-affirmation theory predicts that high-esteem individuals will experience less dissonance than individuals with low- esteem.  High-esteem individuals have positive self-concepts because they have large reservoirs of positive information and thoughts regarding the self. Assuming that a threatened sense of self-integrity is the driving force in dissonance, it follows that high-esteem individuals would have greater resources to drawn from than those with low-esteem. Thus, high-esteem individuals should display a smaller spread of alternatives following a difficult choice. This is also known as the self-affirmation effect. There have been strong evidence that supports self-affirmation theory over self-consistency theory.    

             In order to address these inconsistencies, Stone and Cooper(2001) have proposed a quaisi- integration between self-affirmation theory and self-consistency theory, the self-standards model of cognitive dissonance. Stone and Cooper propose that people's self-concepts are flexible enough to produce either a self affirmation effect or a self-discrepancy affect depending on the situation. The self can serve as a buffer to self-threats or a standard that one may or may not live up to. Stone and Cooper propose that if a study's manipulations remind participants of positive self-attributes that are irrelevant to the dissonance in question, then the self should serve as resource and high-esteem individuals should display less dissonance-reducing behavior than low-esteem individuals, a self-affirmation effect. On the other hand, if a study's manipulations remind participants of positive self-attributes that are relevant to the dissonance in question, then the self should serve s a standard and high-esteem individuals should display more dissonance-reducing behavior than low-esteem individuals, a self-discrepancy effect. 
              Recent evidence suggests that some forms of simple mood enhancement such as alcohol, or Phenobarbital may be sufficient to reduce dissonance. Although this view is not definitely established, it might be reasoned that the self-affirmation procedure eliminated dissonance not by affirming the self-concept but by simply enhancing the self-concept but by simply enhancing subjects' moods. This is, the self-affirmation manipulation may have reduced dissonance in the same way as alcohol, for example, by directly enhancing affect. Research also suggests that dissonance processes are an aspect of general ego functioning. In a recent review of the ego concept in psychology, Greenwald(1980)  reviewed evidence showing that the ego presses us to enhance the self's power( by seeing the self as more central to evens than it is), its goodness(by perceiving the self selectively as the cause of good outcomes), and its stability(by reconstructing the past to eliminate conflicts with the present). In essence, the ego “imposes a belief on the way we perceive, think about, and remember ourselves: We are powerful, good, and stable”. Information that threatens this belief causes anxiety and urges us to form a different interpretation to fit our beliefs. Any inconsistency that threatens ego functioning should arouse dissonance. 

            Recently, Pittman and Pittman(1980) reported evidence supporting an interpretation of causal attributions that is similar to our interpretation of dissonance processes. A number of attribution theorists have assumed that people make causal attributions about their own and other people's behavior more or less automatically(e.g., Heider, 1958; Jones & Davis, 1965). Pittman and Pittman found, however, that the tendency to make such attributions increased substantially when subjects had just experienced an unrelated loss of control over their environment. These authors interpreted this increase in attribution as a subject's attempt to restore a threatened sense of control, to regain a sense of being able to cope effectively .In this way then, both causal attributions about behavior and consistency seeking following dissonant behavior may emanate, at least in part, from the same ego function: to sustain a sense of one's self as good, powerful, and stable. When this sense is not threatened, people seem able to observe without explanation and to contradict themselves without justification.

            Steele & Liu's analysis also brings to light additional means of dissonance reduction that may be used frequently in real life. Festinger initially reasoned that dissonance reduction always involved change in the elements of the stimulus inconsistency-a change in one or more of the dissonant cognitions or the addition of new cognitions that would either resolve the inconsistency or reduce its specific importance. As noted, more recent research has shown that directly soothing the unpleasant feelings of dissonance(with drugs such as Phenobarbital or alcohol) or misattributing the unpleasantness to other sources could also reduce dissonance. To this list of dissonance reducers, the present research adds activities that affirm the self. Because the disturbing thing about dissonant behavior is its ego threat, any self-affirming activity may reduce dissonance even when it does not resolve or dismiss the particular provoking inconsistency.  Thus activities such as therapy, prayer, conversation with supportive friends, etc that frequently do not resolve or dismiss the specific causes of our stresses can diminish their effects.

References

Aronson, E. The Theory of Cognitive Dissonance: A Current Perspective. New York: Academic Press, 1969.

Blank, G. & Blank, R. Ego Psychology: Theory & Practive. New York: Columbia University Press.

Brehm, J.W., & Cohen, A.R. Explorations in Cognitive Dissonance. New York: Wiley, 1962.

Festinger, L. A Theory of Cognitive Dissonance. Evanston III: Row, Peterson, 1957.

Kohut, H. The Restoration of the Self. New York: International Universities Press.

 

 

Comments

Paul Grobstein's picture

Ego psychology, conflict, self-esteem and the brain

It would be interesting indeed to try and rephrase some of this in terms of brain concepts we've been developing this semester.  "Dissonance" means mismatch or conflict between expectation and input?  The "self" means the I function's picture of who one is?  And "self-esteem" is .... the level of agreement between that and the unconscious?  the I-function's evaluation of itself? .... ?

Post new comment

The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly.
randomness