Who cares what others think? Everyone, says WFU study

Mark LearyPractically everyone cares what people think of them, including those who insist they are not affected by others’ opinions, suggests new research by a Wake Forest University psychology professor.

“The results of the study show that social approval and disapproval affect virtually everyone’s feelings about themselves, even those individuals who steadfastly and adamantly claim that their feelings about themselves are not affected by other people’s evaluations,” said Mark Leary, chair of Wake Forest’s psychology department and lead author of the study.

Leary’s research was published in the May issue of the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin.

He conducted two experiments that compared the effects of social approval and disapproval on participants who said that their self-esteem is affected by how other people evaluate them and on participants who said their self-esteem is not affected by the feedback they get from others.

Participants, all college students, completed a pretest to measure self-esteem at the beginning of the study. Then, the participants filled out questionnaires about themselves and received either positive or negative feedback about whether others in their group would like to get to know them better based on that information. The researchers then evaluated how the participants felt about themselves and the degree to which that depended on how much other people liked, approved or accepted them.

Leary made one important change in a second experiment. During the pretest session, conducted weeks in advance, he described for the participants the specific situation that would be used for the experiment and asked them to evaluate how they thought their self-esteem would be affected in those circumstances.

Both experiments showed that approval and disapproval affected participants equally regardless of their beliefs about whether or not their self-esteem would be affected.

“People underestimate the degree to which they are influenced by others,” said Leary, the author of “Interpersonal Rejection” and seven other books. “It’s hard to know why, but part of it may be the American ideal of marching to your own drummer. We grow up thinking we shouldn’t be affected by what others think.

“What is useful about this study is to remind us that perfectly healthy people with perfectly healthy self-esteem are still affected by what others think.”

Categories: Faculty, Research