This study was designed to investigate the effect of the level and stability of self-esteem on self-referent vs. other-referent feedback recall and to determine which of the opposed self-concept motives, self-enhancement or self-verification, will prevail in adolescents with certain type of self- esteem. In a between-subjects experimental design, 450 high school graduates and freshmen were randomly assigned to a self-referent task (n = 230) or other-referent task (n = 220) and their self-esteem was measured by repeated administration of the RSE scale. After personality and cognitive ability test, participants in a self-referent task were presented with a bogus feedback which consisted of statements that described a specific positive or negative behavior that one is likely to do. Participants in the other-referent received the same information, but relating to an unknown person. Memory was tested on a surprise free recall task. Findings confirm preferential processing of self-related information, i.e. self-reference effect, regardless of valence and content-related domain of feedback. Participants in self-referent condition also showed better recall of positive than negative personally relevant feedback, regardless of their self-esteem stability or self-esteem level. However, interaction of self-esteem level and self-esteem stability was significant, but its effect was relatively small.
Self-concept and self-esteem are at the core of psychology as a scientific discipline whose goal is to explain human behavior and hence are the most widely studied constructs in psychology (Trzesniewski et al., 2003; Donnellan et al., 2011; Tomas & Oliver, 1999). Self-concept encompasses an individuals’ beliefs of what kind of person one is, what kind of person one wants to become, and what ones’ opportunities are in life. These beliefs have direct implications on behavior, motivation, emotional experience, processing feedback from the environment, and thus also on relationships with other people. Self-esteem refers to the degree to which these self-beliefs reflect value and self-acceptance, i.e. it reflects an individual’s attitude towards their own person. While high self-esteem implies self-respect, low self-esteem implies selfdissatisfaction. Thus, it is expected that self-esteem will affect the way people process information about themselves.
We are all confronted every day with feedback on how our environment sees us. Whether it is by our parents, peers, friends, teachers or business colleagues, people from our environment largely determine how we see ourselves. As our cognitive capacity is limited, in cognitive processing of everyday feedback we are guided by various biases imposed on us by our desires and needs, i.e. self-motives. Thus, we try to fit the information we receive from the environment into our existing self-concept in a way that will satisfy our needs - for acceptance, for high self-esteem, for control etc. Thus, some people will be more affected by bad experiences or negative feedback and will be very inclined to believe it, while others, although equally or even less successful, will “silence” the criticism and remember only praises and positive experiences. In other words, we are armed with various mechanisms that defend us against unpleasant cognitions and/or protect our existing selfimage. For example, individuals confronted with identity threat (i.e. negative feedback) can spontaneously resort to autobiographical recall of mastery experiences as a way to maintain or enhance their self-esteem (Tavitian-Elmadjian et al., 2020). Which mechanism will prevail in a situation might depend on our self-esteem as a reflection of satisfaction with the image we have of ourselves.
Researchers should focus on exploring other potential moderators that may be more important than self-esteem (e.g. anxiety, dysphoria etc.). Furthermore, whether or not some negative evaluative information will be considered a threat might also depend on the perceived modifiability of the trait in question. We pretested the feedback to refer to central traits but did not confirm that these traits are perceived as (un) modifiable. This is closely connected to the self-improvement motive so future studies should focus on the self-improvement motive as it could change one’s orientation drastically. Additionally, research suggested that self-protection is flexible and strategic, i.e. that people recall selfthreatening feedback when it has ramifications for long-term relationships well (Green et al., 2009) so future research should also consider the source of the feedback. We believe that these findings have important implications for feedback-seeking literature in management and organisational psychology.