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Fleeing Low Self-esteem

September 16, 2009
by Kiki Namikas
A painting "Nighthawks" by Edward Hopper

The primal “fight or flight” response ensured the survival of our earliest ancestors, but for today’s socially anxious folks, it may do more harm than good. A new study by assistant professor of psychology Özlem Ayduk and graduate student Anett Gyurak finds that people with low self-esteem have a stronger than normal reaction to rejection, which triggers the adrenalin-pumping “fight” or “flee” response.

The test subjects were shown emotionally charged paintings while being subjected to sporadic loud noises; a startle-probe measured their responsive eye-blinks. They were also asked to fill out the Rosenberg 10-item questionnaire—the standard scale used to determine low and high self-esteem. All participants blinked more strongly when shown negative images such as dead animals and mutilated bodies, but those with low self-esteem blinked most forcefully when faced with rejection themes, such as the isolated figures in Edward Hopper’s paintings.

The study also found that low self-esteemers who scored high on their ability to concentrate toned down their knee-jerk reactions to perceived threats over time. This indicates that developing one’s focus may reduce hypersensitivity to rejection and disapproval cues.

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