Evaluating anything is a process of gathering information about its positive and negative qualities, until one of those outweighs the other. Once the scale starts leaning towards one side (say, we get lots of information from a friend that going to Mexico would be nice), processing information that aligns with that particular view gets easier. We spend more time researching resorts in Cabo than Australia.
When we get a hunch / opinion, we start thinking that we know all there is to know—so we selectively pay attention to the things that back us up, even when we’re not aware of it. This information fits into the filing system that our brain already has in place, so it grabs our attention more easily. That’s why the first pieces of information we get about something have such a stronghold: they set the stage for everything else we learn.
The most important thing we ever learn about is how much other people seem to value us.
Are we worthy? Are we good? Are we going to be loved no matter what happens, or do we have to do something in particular to be loved?
We’re the one species on earth that can survive anywhere, provided that we’re with other people. Our survival depends on being accepted by others. Being certain that you’ll always have a spot at the table of the people you care about profoundly affects how we interact with the world.
In the fundamental paper,“The Need to Belong,” Leary and co-author Roy Baumeister suggest that belonging to groups is the most fundamental human motivation. Even people who prioritize achievement and power tend to do so in order to be acknowledged and respected by others.
Having a secure, stable high self-esteem is like constantly wearing a protective backpack against the inevitable ups and downs of life, signaling“I’m a good person, and things are going to be okay.”
How does this play out in interactions?
157 students made a three-minute video introducing themselves that they were told was for a dating service, and took tests measuring their self-esteem and personality traits. After recording the intros, seven research assistants (who had no idea what their test scores were) rated the students’ videos.
The only tests that reliably predicted how the raters ultimately rated the students’ introductions—warm, likely to generate interest—were self-esteem and extraversion.
In a follow-up study, researchers recruited hundreds of students to take more personality and self-esteem tests. This time, they made those students recruit people they knew socially to answer a series of questions about those students: what’s your friend’s self-esteem like? Is he neurotic, conscientious? With this second test, the results got bigger: the correlation between the target’s self-esteem and how their self-esteem was rated by others was .44, a match so strong that researchers suggest that our self-esteem can be detected by others.
Our self-esteem is a barometer of how much we’ve internalized social acceptance. A healthy self-esteem broadcasts a signal to the world: hey! Other people have already evaluated me, and they like me! They really, really like me!
A healthy, stable self-esteem gives us permission to be ourselves.