Thursday, March 08, 2007

Damage & Baggage - Does it Mean Your Relationships Are Doomed?

From Po:

One of prevailing assumptions we have about the stability of marriage & relationships is this: if you had some bad shit in your past, especially your childhood, you're not going to do as well in relationships as a grown up. Psychologists call this the Theory of Enduring Vulnerabilities. All marriages are likely to endure stressful events, and the way we react to those events is partly regulated by the way those stressful events echo childhood difficulties.

To state this more plainly, the more baggage you bring in to a marriage increases the risk your marriage won't last. People with fewer enduring vulnerabilities should have a better capacity to adapt - and deal - and communicate; people with more enduring vulnerabilities will not handle problems as well.

So that's the theory.

The counter-theory might be something like this: the more baggage you've had to deal with, the better you got at dealing/communicating/adapting. This learned response from said baggage cancels out its detrimental legacy. Our psychological scars might open up vulnerabilities, sure, but they also bring us awareness and attentiveness. We're seasoned. We'll handle problems fine.

So you might not think this theory/counter-theory could ever be tested, but in fact it has.

This theory was indeed recently put to a quite interesting test, in a well-managed study by researchers at Ohio State University. Ten years ago, they put 90 newlywed couples into a study, interviewing them extensively. Ten years later, they followed up, to learn who was divorced, and who was still married, and how satisfied they were in their marriage. So it measured both marital stability (divorce?) and marital satisfaction (happy?). For what it's worth - and this is an important caveat - these 90 newlywed couples began their marriage very satisfied and happy. They were blissful newlyweds, with very positive outlooks. None was dealing with any form of mental illness (the couples had been screened for that). This would partly explain why, ten years out, only 17 of the 90 couples had divorced. (The national average, for first marriages, predicts that 33% would divorce in ten years).

So these researchers were looking for models that could predict who would divorce, and who might be unhappy in marriage. They were checking for everything, from how these couples argued to their heartrates to their hormone levels. In their extensive interviewing, they applied the model of Enduring Vulnerabilities. They counted how many stressors (baggage) each person brought to the marriage, and how severe they were. What they found was surprising. Enduring Vulnerabilities was not a predictor. People with more baggage did not fare worse in marriage, either for the likelihood of divorce, or for the likelihood of being unhappily married.

So if that's not a predictor, what is?


The best predictor of future divorce and unhappiness was the presence, shortly after marriage, of elevated stress hormones when arguing - epinephrine, norepinephrine, and cortisol.

To make this clear, imagine two newlywed couples. Both tell you how happy they are to be married. Both believe, equally, they're in this til death do them part. To all appearances, they are equally enthusiastic.

The researchers then basically provoked a fight. The couple chose a topic of some contention between them, and they discussed it for half an hour. During this argument (if it got that heated), the researchers were occasionally checking their hormone levels through a blood draw. The couples who stressed out a lot, during that argument, were the ones who were divorced or unhappy ten years later.

For what it's worth, the reseachers also watched how the couples argue, and employed a scoring system that kinda measures whether couples arguments turn negative and get nasty. This turned out not to be a predictor, any more than enduring vulnerabilities. So a couple can get testy and mean-spirited on the outside (in what they say to each other), but the real predictor is how much stress they're going through on the inside (measured by their hormones).

Saturday, March 03, 2007

"You're Ruining My Self-Esteem!" – Part 3

From Ash:

So picking up right where we left off yesterday – on Dr. Jennifer Crocker's work on the price unwittingly paid by people who pursue a positive self-esteem / self-image – Crocker is building upon the scholarship of Carol Dweck, Edward Deci and Richard Ryan (scholars leading work relating to intrinsic vs. extrinsic motivation that we discussed in an earlier post) and others.

And she has found another twist in those who are invested in self-esteem. For those who become invested in maintaining their self-image (similar to Dweck's findings with younger students) – the confirmation they need to affirm that image increasingly comes from external sources. For example, the school-defined student doesn't define himself by the knowledge he's accumulated, but rather by the grades and accolades he has been given by faculty and peers. A student who thinks that her looks are a lot of who she is becomes dependent on keeping up with fashions set by others, and people telling her that she's pretty.

In other words, people who are attached to a label often become dependent on outside sources to tell them if they are living up to that label or not. Self-image becomes self-worth – but that self-worth is defined by someone else's terms, not one's own.

That's bad enough, but what makes this even worse is that external validations are inherently temporary – different grades come out with every assignment, fashions change with each magazine cover – and suspect. And of course, the more dependent these people become on those external validations, the more competitive, more frantic, they become. (Which is sort of where Crocker becomes an intersection between Dweck's research and that of Deci and Ryan.)

So now, in light of all that, consider Roy Baumeister's team's meta-analysis of self-esteem studies. Before their review, scholars (and many others) had operated on the assumption that building self-esteem lead to increased achievement at school, in careers, in romantic relationships. But that turned out to be completely unsupported by the research.

Now, it turns out that there is sometimes – but not always – a relationship between self-esteem and achievement.

Boosts in achievement can increase self-esteem. But a boost in self-esteem doesn't cause anyone increase his achievement. On the contrary, it's a one-way street.

In fact, if you try to drive backwards on this route – start at self-esteem to end up at achievement – you get just as far as you would on a real one-way road. Seriously.

Efforts to boost self-esteem caused college students' grades to go down, not up. Convicted wife-batterers actually beat their wives more after they'd gone to classes to boost their self-esteem. Women with high-self-esteem are more prone to have casual sex, and less likely to use birth control.

I don't want this to be an advice post – I'm not in any way a psychologist and don't pretend to be one – but I think the clearest way to show how this would actually play out in an adult's life would be a hypothetical. I'll take me. Say I want to feel better about myself, want to look better, and attract more guys, so I decide to go to the gym. The research says each of my three reasons for going to the gym have set me up for failure.

Because my success will be determined by other people, not me– and there's always going to be someone hotter than me in the mirror in the stationery bike room, and there's no guarantee about the dates either. So I'm probably not going to feel better about myself, no matter how much I work out – could end up feeling even worse than I did before. And I'm going to have to go off the work-out deep-end to compete with the Xena-types, or more likely, I'll just give up entirely, thinking I'm just no good at this and genetically-doomed to flab.

The better course would be for me to decide to exercise for its health benefits. Increasing my stamina, strength, etc., are goals I can set and meet on my own – no third party judgment needed. Now, by doing that for a while, I may actually improve my appearance, maybe a guy over at the weights will flirt with me. But if those don't happen, I still know the worth of going, I haven't lost my motivation. And maybe, I will eventually feel better – physically and emotionally.

So, is it possible to have a healthy self-esteem? Sure, why not. But the problem is it can't be the direct goal that a person is actually going for. Rather than working on building self-esteem, work on building persistence through setting goals that you hit . . . and miss. . . . Self-esteem apparently will hitch a ride somewhere along the way.

Gosh, almost makes me want to find a gym . . . .


Friday, March 02, 2007

"You're Ruining My Self-Esteem!" – Part 2

From Ash:

News stories on the problem of inflated self-esteem are hitting the wire faster than I can keep up with them, and you probably have seen at least one of these by now, so I won't specifically comment on the SDSU report (at least I get a copy of the report itself), other than to say that I love Jean Twenge's mentioning little kids being taught to sing, to the tune of Freres Jacques: "I am special, I am special, Look at me." Sent shivers up and down my spine.

But it ties in nicely with what I wanted to write about today and tomorrow. According to the University of Michigan's Dr. Jennifer Crocker, who runs the Institute for Social Research's Contingencies of Self-Esteem Lab, the problem isn't whether or not someone has high self-esteem or low self-esteem.

The real problem is the energy people devote into maintaining or boosting the level of self- esteem they have.

Crocker has described this as "the costly pursuit of self-esteem."

In her research, Crocker has come to a conclusion that tracks Dweck's very closely. That is, essentially, that when people spend their lives trying to achieve positive self-esteem, they pursue only that which builds their esteem levels. And, accordingly, they jettison anything that won't promote their self-esteem.

And that means developing a self-image of what they're good and bad at – they chase the labels they identify with, and they can't deal with any threat to those labels. (You can see how this equates almost exactly with Dweck's fifth graders. It's all about image-maintenance.)

In one of my favorite of the Crocker studies, she found that college-students who define themselves by their academic status spend more time studying than those who define themselves less by their grades – but there's no evidence that they get better grades. They just study more. There is actually evidence that those who define themselves by academic standing may even do worse: by the end of the school term, they report being more stressed, and having a greater number of conflicts with their professors and peers.

Her other research on college students has found that these students drop-out of classes they might not do well in. They also find it more difficult to pick a major or field – they're afraid to commit to something because they're afraid of not succeeding.

In other words, when their entire self-worth is defined by their academic transcript, they aggressively try to defend it – to the point that they start shooting themselves in the foot.

Tomorrow, more on how the costly pursuit of self-esteem plays out, and then Po and I are going to start on some new topics we've been working on.