Fragile high self-esteem and defensiveness: Defensive responses as a function of defensiveness goal activation and reduced working memory capacity
Lupien, Shannon P.
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The benefits of high self-esteem (HSE) are limited, such that it has been associated with an array of defensive responses. Research indicates that this defensiveness may be an attempt to counter self-doubt that is activated specifically for individuals with fragile HSE during situations that are particularly concerning and important for validating fragile self-views (i.e., situations that allow for the ability to demonstrate excellence). I hypothesized that the self-doubt experienced by fragile HSE people during these situations leads to a reduction of executive resources (i.e., working memory capacity; WMC), thereby lessoning the ability to regulate defensiveness goals that are automatically activated during these situations in order to guide behavior towards the demonstration of excellence and the validation of self-views. Specifically, because people with fragile HSE have a tendency to respond more defensively than those with secure HSE, it is likely that these individuals have developed defensiveness goals that are automatically activated during specific situations and therefore dictate defensive behaviors to a greater extent. However, because those with fragile HSE do only tend to respond defensively in specific situations (i.e., situations particularly relevant for validating self-views, allowing for the demonstration of excellence in which performance is uncertain), they are likely able to otherwise regulate these activated defensiveness goals allowing for goal pursuits that are more socially acceptable and have greater compatibility with long-term HSE maintenance. Thus, I propose that the self-doubt experienced during situations that allow for the demonstration of excellence limits executive resources, thereby affecting the ability to regulate defensiveness goals that have been activated by the situation. In other words, reduced executive resources during situations that have been shown to elicit self-doubt should be a key factor in the ability to regulate defensiveness goals that are automatically activated for those with fragile HSE. The current studies investigated the role of activated defensiveness goals and executive resources for defensive responding among individuals with fragile HSE during situations that allow for the demonstration of excellence. The pattern of results in Study 1 was in a direction consistent with hypotheses, such that when a defensiveness goal was activated (vs. not), individuals tended to behave more defensively if they also had depleted executive resources, relative to non-depleted resources. However, this key difference was not statistically significant, thus providing limited evidence for WMC as an important factor in defensiveness goal regulation. Studies 2 and 3 also provided limited evidence of the moderating effects of self-esteem fragility and situations particularly relevant for validating self-views for defensiveness goal activation and lower WMC. Specifically, Study 2 demonstrated that for individuals with fragile HSE, reading about an upcoming test that could identify individuals with extremely high ability resulted in greater automatic activation of defensiveness goals--indicated by scenario responses--as compared to reading about a test described as identifying extremely low ability. However, this effect was significant for only one measure of fragility, a small subset of outcome variables, and only after taking into account order effects. For a conceptually similar lexical-decision-task measure, results did not support hypotheses. Individuals with fragile HSE indicated faster response latencies to defensive versus neutral words when the test was described as identifying extremely low as opposed to extremely high ability. The results of Study 3 were in a pattern partially consistent with hypotheses, such that being faced with a test described as identifying extremely high versus low ability, which previously has been shown to activate self-doubt, led people with fragile HSE to exhibit marginally lower executive resources than those with secure HSE. However, this effect was unexpectedly driven by those with secure as opposed to fragile HSE and also emerged for only one measure of fragility. Together, the current studies provide little evidence for the role of executive resources in the ability to regulate automatically activated defensiveness goals during situations particularly relevant for validating self-views for individuals with fragile HSE.