People low in self-esteem store their partner's positive and negative traits in functionally different memory categories, whereas people with high self-esteem more often integrate positive and negative information into one cohesive picture, creating a more positive overall image of their partner, according to an article in the April issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (Vol. 90, No. 4).
In the study, the researchers had 70 undergraduates complete a self-esteem questionnaire. They then watched a computer screen flash positive or negative personality traits in either an alternating or nonalternating order. The participants pressed one of two keys as quickly as possible to indicate whether the trait words applied to their roommate. They then repeated the task to indicate whether the words applied to their computer.
When researchers asked the participants to make alternating positive and negative judgments about people, those low in self-esteem slowed down making their judgments, suggesting that they store their positive and negative judgments in separate areas of their memory. However, there was no change in speed when they rated their computer's qualities. The alternating traits had no effect on the judgment speed of participants high in self-esteem, suggesting that those participants almost always functionally integrate both positive and negative information in a single area in their memory, regardless of whether they are judging people or inanimate objects.
In another trial, the researchers asked 537 undergraduates to complete questionnaires assessing their self-esteem, how threatened they are by their partners' flaws and how much they integrate positive and negative thoughts about their partners. Participants with low self-esteem were less likely to integrate information about their partner than those with high self-esteem. Moreover, participants with low self-esteem felt more threatened by their partner's foibles.
According to the researchers, the results suggest that people low in self-esteem are more likely to report seeing their relationships as primarily good or bad at a given point in time, as well as more likely to report experiencing changes in perceptions of their partners over time than people high in self-esteem.
The findings may have important clinical implications in that clinicians could simultaneously work with clients on boosting their self-esteem and balancing their perceptions of their partners, says lead researcher Steven Graham, PhD, a psychology professor at Carnegie Mellon University.