The motivation to defend oneself against negative self-views
The self-protection motive is the motivation to defend oneself against negative self-views (for a review, see Alicke and Sedikides 2009). It is a form of self-evaluation motive that is related to avoidance motivation (i.e., the desire to avoid undesirable outcomes; see entry on “Avoidance Motivation”; Elliot and Mapes 2005). The self-protection motive is aimed at avoiding negativity in one’s self-views, as opposed to the self-enhancement motive, which aims at promoting positivity in one’s self-views (see entry on the “Self-Enhancement Motive”). People often engage in self-protective mechanisms to avoid falling below their subjective standards in a host of domains (e.g., moral conduct, academic standing, athletic ability). The self-protection motive is believed to be driven by the overarching desire to protect and maintain self-esteem and is activated when an event threatens one’s positive self-views. Threats to positive self-views cause numerous judgmental biases and self-protective psychological responses.
When people encounter undesirable or potentially damaging information about themselves (e.g., they are criticized or perform poorly on an exam) or when they experience a social rejection, they may feel threatened. As a result, self-protection strategies may be employed to minimize the negative self-views that could be caused by threatening information (Arkin 1981). Often people respond defensively to perceived threats to their self-views. Defensiveness occurs when people deflect negative or undesirable feedback. They may do so by attributing negative feedback to external sources or discounting the validity of negative feedback. Eventually they may misremember or selectively forget negative feedback. Other self-protection strategies include making excuses to deflect the negative implications of negative outcomes, minimizing shortcomings or vices, retreating from threatening situations, misremembering unfavorable information about oneself, and avoiding situations in which one might fail. Thus, people often reject negative information about themselves which may constitute defensive denial (as opposed to psychological acceptance). As Alicke and Sedikides (2009) note, self-protection is much like damage control. That is, the self-protection motive is particularly sensitive to threat and is primarily activated when events threaten one’s self-image. People’s self-protective responses are enacted to avoid a loss of self-esteem.
The self-protection motive may even be elicited when people’s dominant worldviews (i.e., their dominant belief systems or characteristic ways of understanding the world) are threatened; people may work to maintain the integrity of the self-system in response to such threats (e.g., Pyszczynski et al. 2004). According to terror management theory, all people grapple with the recognition of their own ultimate mortality. High self-esteem may signal to people that they are living up to the standards of their dominant worldviews (i.e., the standards that define what it means to be a “good” person), which may confer a sense of real or symbolic immortality on the individual. Threats to people’s dominant worldviews, or reminders of their mortality, may thus threaten people’s self-esteem, and in response, people may engage in a variety of self-protective strategies that can restore self-esteem or reassert the validity of one’s worldviews. In this way, the self-protective motive may even buffer existential concerns.
In this entry, we first describe three specific self-protective strategies that people engage in selective memory, self-serving biases, and self-handicapping. Then we focus on personality traits and attributes that relate to the self-protective motive. Finally, we consider whether the self-protection motive causes desirable or undesirable outcomes.
People may engage in a variety of self-protective strategies to maintain their self-esteem in the face of threatening information. A complete review of all of the self-protective strategies that have been studied is beyond the scope of this encyclopedia entry, but we consider three prominent strategies.
Memory is a particularly important domain for the self-protective motive (Sedikides 2012; Skowronski 2011). People avoid attending to, encoding, and remembering unfavorable information about themselves, causing them to exhibit selective memory for self-relevant information. There are numerous ways people selectively attend to information about themselves. For example, mnemic neglect is the tendency for people to selectively remember positive information after receiving feedback that is actually mixed, containing both positive and negative information about oneself (e.g., Sedikides and Green 2009). The mnemic neglect model suggests that people process and encode positive self-relevant information more extensively than negative self-relevant feedback. It is important to note that this effect is moderated by the self-relevance of the traits and the modifiability of the traits implicated by the feedback. Researchers have found that people misremember negative feedback more when it is pertinent to traits (e.g., trustworthy, modest) that are described as unmodifiable or stable, as compared to traits that are described as more malleable or modifiable (Green et al. 2005). This is likely due to negative feedback about stable traits being perceived as more threatening to the self, compared to feedback about more malleable traits, which can presumably be improved over time.
Similar to mnemic neglect, the fading affect bias refers to the fact that the negative affect associated with an autobiographical memory fades faster than the positive affect associated with the same memory (Ritchie et al. 2006). In addition, when people receive evaluatively ambiguous information about themselves, they filter it in such a way that they remember it as flattering (Taylor and Crocker 1981).
The self-serving bias refers to the tendency to deny responsibility for negative outcomes (which is a form of self-protection) and to take credit for positive outcomes (a form of self-enhancement; see entry on the “Self-Enhancement Motive”). Upon receiving a failing grade, for example, a student may note that the multiple choice questions were poorly worded or that the instructor did a poor job teaching the material. In contrast, if the student did well on the exam, she might view the multiple choice questions as clearly worded and the instructor as considerably more competent. In this way, the attributions people make for their outcomes are typically self-serving: They blame personal failures on external causes (e.g., task difficulty, bad luck, other people,) rather than internal causes (e.g., ability, preparation). Through this attributional bias, people may construe negative self-relevant information as inaccurate, as unimportant, as invalid, or as coming from an incompetent source in order to protect their self-image.
The self-protection motive may also cause self-handicapping (see entry on “Self-Handicapping”). Self-handicapping is a frequently self-defeating strategy, whereby people preemptively imagine or create barriers to their own success. By doing so, they buffer themselves from the negative implications of potential failure, because the failure can be blamed on the barrier itself and not attributed to a lack of ability. For example, a student may choose to socialize instead of studying the night before a final exam, or an athlete may decide to skip basketball practice the week before a big playoff game. These self-handicapping behaviors protect the individuals’ self-esteem in the event that they fail because they provide excuses for the negative outcomes. Interestingly, self-handicapping behaviors can also provide a boost to self-esteem in the event that people succeed (e.g., perform well on their final exam or in the playoffs) because they can claim to have succeeded despite the barriers they created, accentuating the perception that they have strong abilities.
There are numerous other self-protective strategies people employ. People engage in social comparisons that can help to minimize the negative implications of failure, for example. Learning that others have failed the same task as you can be comforting and reduce the negative implications of failure for oneself. Research has found that people tend to perceive rates of failure as greater for tasks that they have failed themselves (Agostinelli et al. 1992). All of these responses are posited to be caused by the self-protective motive becoming activated in response to threat. The motivational goal of all of these responses may be to avoid loss of self-esteem; this may be accomplished by not encoding negative self-relevant information in the first place, attributing failure to external causes, or selectively acting in ways that can mitigate the implications of a negative outcome.
Individual Differences that Affect the Self-Protection Motive
Although the self-protective motive is believed to be relatively fundamental, different individuals may exhibit it to differing degrees. For some people, the self-protective motive may be stronger, and they may be more sensitive to rejection or threat. They may thus be more likely to respond to threats with self-protective reactions.
An important individual difference for self-protection is self-esteem. Individuals with low self-esteem tend to prioritize self-protection compared to their high self-esteem counterparts, who focus more on self-enhancement (Tice 1991; Wolfe et al. 1986). This is because individuals with low self-esteem strive to protect and maintain the little self-esteem they do have. Low self-esteem individuals are concerned with protecting their public image and tend to be more focused on avoiding failure, whereas high self-esteem individuals are more concerned with enhancing their public image and appearing superior to others (Baumeister et al. 1989). For example, low self-esteem individuals self-handicap to protect themselves from failure to a greater extent than do high self-esteem individuals (Tice 1991). Even in close relationships, low self-esteem individuals prioritize self-protection goals which direct them away from potential rejection or situations where they may have to trust their romantic partner (Murray et al. 2008).
Additional Individual Differences
Additional personality traits, particularly those linked to rejection sensitivity, are also related to self-protection strategies. People who are highly neurotic (i.e., prone to experiencing negative affect) are highly sensitive to threats and display more self-protective reactions (Schneider 2004). Neuroticism is closely associated with low self-esteem, and thus, it may be unsurprising that individuals who are high in neuroticism display stronger self-protective motives (Judge et al. 2002). Perfectionism is also associated with stronger self-protective motives as maladaptive perfectionism is defined as the desire to achieve exceedingly high, sometimes unattainable, goals (e.g., Dickinson and Ashby 2005). Research demonstrates that perfectionists see failure when, objectively, none exists and they display many self-protective responses.
Costs and Benefits of Self-Protection
Given that the self-protection motive may prevent loss of self-esteem, researchers have been interested in the ways in which self-protection is adaptive or maladaptive. As might be expected, there are some psychological costs associated with self-protection (e.g., Sedikides 1999; Sedikides and Luke 2007). Self-protection, for example, predicts depression, anxiety, and neuroticism, although it is unclear whether these are causes or consequences of self-protection. In addition, self-protection may make people less likely to learn from their mistakes and improve in the future. In addition, engaging in self-protective behaviors in one’s romantic relationships can lead relationship partners to feel unsatisfied and undermine relationships. For example, after experiencing a relationship threat or a conflict with one’s romantic partner, people’s self-protective responses may lead them to distance themselves from their partner or label the relationship as unimportant or less valuable (e.g., Marigold et al. 2007; Murray et al. 2003). These reactions are destructive within the relationship and often erode relationship satisfaction.
The self-protection motive is associated with broader overarching avoidance motivations. People engage in a variety of self-protective responses to avoid viewing themselves negatively. The self-protection motive operates largely situationally in response to threats to one’s positive self-views. When people are unsuccessful or feel interpersonally rejected or excluded, they may be motivated to protect their self-views from the negative implications of these outcomes. They do so through a variety of self-protective reactions which range from misremembering negative information to attributing negative outcomes to external causes and distancing themselves from negative events. Such tendencies may be more typical of individuals who are particularly sensitive to self-threats and negative outcomes, such as individuals with low self-esteem and those who are highly neurotic.
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