Looking Down on Others Equals Low Self-Esteem

Prejudice and bad-mouthing makes us feel better about ourselves

What’s the easiest way to determine who has low self-esteem? If they’re women, get them drunk and offer them free worthless trinkets to flash you. That’s the joke in an episode of the TV show Arrested Development, where the Bluths are watching a Girls Gone Wild parody called Girls With Low Self-Esteem. Thankfully, you don’t need a bucket of beads or a gallon of Long Island iced tea to determine who has low self-worth. All you have to do, according to new research, is find the people with the biggest prejudices.

When people feel badly about themselves, they’re more likely to bad-mouth those who are different from them, says a study published in the journal Psychological Science.

According to co-author of the study, Jeffrey Sherman of the University of California, Davis, people stereotype and have prejudice because it buoys their ego. “When we feel bad about ourselves, we can denigrate other people, and that makes us feel better about ourselves,” said Sherman in a written statement.

For their study, the researchers asked near equal numbers of white and Asian participants, along with a few Hispanics participants, to take a test known as the Implicit Association Test (IAT), which reveals people’s subconscious beliefs. To do so, subjects are shown images of positive or negative words intermixed with images of black and white people. Volunteers are first asked to push the “E” key for either black faces or negative words and the “I” key for white faces or positive words. In the second part of the test, the groupings are reversed, and participants must associate positive words with black faces and negative words with white faces. Those who have negative associations with black people will find this second portion of the test more difficult, especially if they feel bad about themselves. 

But Sherman and his team wanted to take their findings one step further and find out whether people with low self-esteem are truly more prejudiced, or if they simply have a harder time suppressing their feelings.

So they then asked volunteers to complete a nearly impossible test that requires creative thinking. No one got more than two questions correct. Half of the participants were told their scores and that the average score was nine. The other half were told that their test would be graded later. The researchers then had everyone take the IAT test; those who felt badly about their test scores showed more implicit prejudice.

What their study revealed is that people who feel bad about themselves show greater prejudice not because they are less likely to suppress those feelings, but because they’re zeroing in on their negative thoughts. After all, people who feel badly about themselves are more likely to dwell on negative thoughts in general.

According to Sherman, people might be able to correct their mudslinging ways by being mindful about your sense of self-worth. “When you feel bad about yourself and catch yourself thinking negatively about other groups, remind yourself, ‘I may be feeling this way because I just failed a test or something,’” he says.

Advice that might also come in handy the next time you find yourself face to face with a string of Mardi Gras beads and a Girls Gone Wild consent form. 

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