It’s often said that we can’t love others unless we love ourselves. According to a new study, this may be true, but perhaps in a different way than we expect — while our reported self-esteem doesn’t predict changes in our implicit, or underlying, feelings about a significant other, our implicit attitudes about ourselves do.
Research has suggested that self-esteem influences how people behave in their relationships: Those with higher self-esteem believe that their partner views them positively and so are more inclined to work at their relationships. In other studies, however, self-esteem didn’t seem to predict relationship satisfaction down the road.
Psychological scientist James K. McNulty of Florida State University and colleagues wondered whether using implicit measures rather than explicit reports of self-esteem and partner evaluations might clear up these discrepancies.
“From an empirical standpoint, measures of implicit self-evaluation are less sensitive to the self-presentational biases that may contaminate measures of explicit self-evaluation,” write McNulty and colleagues. “And like implicitly measured self-evaluations, implicitly measured relationship evaluations appear to be less susceptible to such biases.”
The researchers analyzed data from 56 newlywed couples who were part of a larger study of newlywed couples. The participants filled out a questionnaire and then attended a lab session in which they completed a task measuring implicit attitudes about themselves and their partners. They completed additional questionnaires every 6 months and came back to the lab to repeat the implicit measures task 3 years after the initial session.
The implicit measures task was designed to examine underlying attitudes that people may hold outside of their conscious awareness and control. The participants viewed an image — either a row of asterisks or a photo of themselves, their spouse, or an attractive stranger of the opposite sex — which appeared on a screen for a fraction of a second. The image was then followed by a positive or negative word that participants had to categorize as quickly as possible.
The idea is that if we have a positive association with ourselves or with a significant other, it will take less time to categorize the word that follows if it’s also positive. Likewise, it should be easier to identify a negative word after seeing a photo of someone we don’t like. Even if we report a positive attitude toward someone on a questionnaire, this test can reveal whether we might have other thoughts and feelings about the person that we’re not consciously aware of.
The researchers found that participants’ self-esteem as reported on the questionnaires was not associated with changes in how they viewed their spouses. On the other hand, participants’ implicit self-esteem did predict long-term changes: Those who showed higher self-esteem on implicit measures showed less decline in their implicit, but not explicit evaluations of their spouses over their first 3 years as a married couple.
McNulty and colleagues conclude that along with bolstering an age-old notion, the findings provide additional support for theories that link self-esteem with greater trust and intimacy in relationships.
McNulty, J., Baker, L., & Olson, M. (2014). Implicit self-evaluations predict changes in implicit partner evaluations. Psychological Science. DOI: 10.1177/0956797614537833