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Things Are Not Always What They Seem

Things Are Not Always What They Seem

How selective perception and cognitive dissonance attribute to low self-esteem

Often when mental health is discussed, the concept of self-esteem is also part of the conversation and for good reason.  The vast majority of articles published on self-esteem argue that high self-esteem is positively correlated with psychological well-being. However, we don’t need a research article to tell us that low self-esteem can lead to poor psychological outcomes. In my private practice, almost every client I have ever worked with, regardless of his or her primary problem, has asked to work on increasing self-esteem. Despite this, understanding why poor self-esteem leads to negative life choices and instability with mental health is not always known or discussed. Many people attribute staying in abusive relationships, avoiding job interviews, or simply being unable to accept a compliment to low self-esteem. What is it about feeling unconfident or less secure that actually leads to these negative outcomes? And how can people work on this? There are a couple reasons that stem from the concepts of cognitive dissonance and selective perception that can provide a contemporary answer.


What is self-esteem anyway? Simply, self-esteem is a global evaluation of worth. It is a judgment of how good and valuable we feel as an individual. Based on how we judge ourselves over time, we will develop a core sense of how likable or lovable, worthy, efficacious, or impactful we think we are or how we believe people see us. Once we have developed a positive or negative core sense of who we are and how we believe the world sees us, this theory will begin to impact our emotional reactions and behaviors for a variety of situations. For example, someone who feels a core sense of unlovability may experience more intense emotional responses during relationship turbulence and have a lower tolerance for rejection than someone who is secure about feeling like a lovable person. The issue not only leads to unlovability unnecessarily, or that this behavioral sequelae can impact relationships negatively; it is that these core beliefs are so difficult to restructure. This is because our neurochemistry makes it hard to develop new theories and to see the world clearly with objectivity once a theory has been established.  If we have the thought or the belief that we are inherently unlovable, despite many examples of the opposite, we still may hold this believe this belief.


One of the reasons why our beliefs about the world and ourselves are so hard to restructure relate to the findings in the field of cognitive psychology. Generally speaking, the human body often works hard to keep a state of homeostasis, which includes regulating or maintaining consistency in our thoughts. Cognitive psychology, posits that people favor information that is consistent with their own theories. This is because if someone has two competing beliefs (ie. I believe in living a healthy lifestyle while I also enjoying smoking cigarettes), the discord in thought puts the body in an aversive state called dissonance which is uncomfortable and therefore motivates the person to reconcile the two beliefs. This typically happens through rationalizing the thoughts (ie. reminding yourself that your grandmother smoked every day and lived past 80 years old) or changing your behavior (stop smoking so your health belief can remain unchallenged).


Another way the brain retains consistency in thinking is through selectively attending to data that confirms one’s theory. Because the brain uses shortcuts to quickly sift through an overwhelming amount of information experienced on a daily basis, the brain saves time by consuming information through a theory driven, top down filter. People seek out, notice, and interpret data that specifically reinforces their beliefs while avoiding information that disconfirms or would provide competing thoughts. It is important to point out that most of this is happening under the surface of consciousness, or without any awareness. For example, if I have a simple theory that silver cars get in more accidents than any other color, my brain will likely pay more attention, for longer periods of time, attending more selectively, and have better recall of memories for the times I saw a silver car getting into an accident. This selective exposure or attention provides distorted information that creates a confirmation bias leading us to believe in our theories even more robustly. Additionally, the brain may also create alternative theories when inconsistent information to the original theory is observed (i.e witnessing a red car in an accident instead of a silver car). I may think, “Well a young man was driving the red car in the rain, men are more likely to drive more recklessly thus increasing the likelihood for an accident” to explain why I saw a red car crash instead of a silver car – allowing the belief that silver cars are more dangerous cars to be retained. This is the brain’s way of keeping theories consistent and unfortunately hinders the development of new theories by observing new data and correcting old beliefs.


So how does this relate to self-esteem and psychological wellbeing? The brain’s tendency to keep theories consistent and having the propensity to selectively seek out information to retain original theories can be very detrimental for someone who struggles with a negative core sense of self. It is generally understood that all people have different theories about themselves, which contributes to their self-esteem. If someone has the theory or belief that they are ugly or unattractive, it will be very uncomfortable to receive a compliment. The compliment comment creates dissonance with the theory of “I am ugly.” People react to feeling uncomfortable by producing a thought like “she’s just being nice” whichs quickly rejects the comment and reduces the dissonance while allowing the original idea of “I am ugly” to thrive.  This pattern can happen in a number of situations. If someone has the theory, “I am unintelligent,” no matter how many good grades this person receives, they will focus longer on the bad grades, have better memory recall for the bad grades, and therefore believing they always get bad grades. They may automatically assume they got lucky when they received a high mark from a teacher. All of this can be largely attributed to the selective perception and cognitive dissonance theories. It also is noteworthy to highlight that if someone is doing this process of rejecting positive information and attending to negative experiences longer while having negative self-theories, it is very clear that this person is certainly going to struggle with building more self-esteem.


This pattern also contributes to the maintaining variables in different diagnoses.

When a client has an eating disorder or struggles with significant negative body image, he or she often has a theory about their body. For example, some theories can include: “I am fat,” I am the fattest person in my friend group,” and “everyone is thinner than me.” Regardless of the validity of these statements, clients are often unconsciously selectively attending to only thin people in the room, they spend more time looking at thin people (so they encode these people deeper in their memories), they expose themselves to thin people more often (ie. following models on Instagram), and they ignore normal-weighted or heavier people in their vicinity. Even if there is a friend that they observe to be of normal weight or heavier, their brains will often come up with a theory like “well she’s funny and well-liked so it doesn’t matter if she is thin.” This cognitive perceptual pattern directly inhibits the ability to overcome thinking variables in depression, anxiety, eating disorders, addiction, and certainly thwarts the ability to gain and improve self-esteem.


This information can be easily utilized to gain better habits to improve self-esteem. In the manual for Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy-Enhanced for Eating Disorders, by Dr. Christopher Fairburn, there is a module where clients are asked to go out in the world and actively compare their bodies to every 3rd person on the street, instead of allowing the brain’s cognitive errors to distort the data. Once a client uses more random sampling when they compare, they realize that they are not the fattest person in the room. In addition to getting accurate information to shift negative theories, one should also be open to the uncomfortable feelings when receiving information that is inconsistent with the theories about yourself. It is helpful to expect and to assume you will feel uncomfortable when a kind man pursues you romantically when you feel unworthy or when a person compliments you when you feel unattractive; however, the key to change is to accept these experiences. By avoiding them, you do not give your brain an opportunity and the time it needs to change. Last, it’s helpful to know that theories cannot change over night. Keeping a victory journal and recording small successes can provide consistent black and white documentation that there is actually evidence that you are smart, attractive, or whatever you fear to be untrue. And after practicing this over time, you can actually restructure your theories or beliefs and ultimately achieve high self-esteem.




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