Sociometer Theory

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General

Sociometer theory was developed by Mark Leary and his colleagues (1999) in order to explain the functions of self-esteem. Self-esteem is often over attributed and misperceived in society as the driving force behind many behaviors. They proposed, however, that self-esteem evolved to monitor one’s social acceptance and is used as a gauge for avoiding social devaluation and rejection.

What is Sociometer Theory?

In general, people are highly motivated to protect their self-esteem and to increase it through their thoughts and actions (Leary 1999). A sociometer, as proposed by Leary and his colleagues, is a measure of how desirable one would be to other people and this is influenced by one’s self-esteem. This measure may be made in a variety of terms such as team member, relationship partner, employee, colleague or numerous other ways. Sociometer theory is useful in explaining why people are so concerned with self-esteem. Self-esteem measures the traits you have according to how socially acceptable they are and how these qualities integrate you into society. This measurement helps to guide people through their social interactions on a daily basis. A more complex version of this theory is known as terror management theory which states that having self-esteem helps protect people from the fear of death so people are constantly searching for ways to enhance their self-esteem in order to avoid thoughts of dying.

Defining Self-Esteem

Self-esteem can be defined as how favorably someone evaluates himself or herself (Baumeister, 2008). There have been several different proposals as to what the true function of self-esteem is and it is generally believed that people have an inherent need to feel good about themselves, which is why self-esteem becomes so important. From the perspective of humanistic psychologists (Leary 1999, Leary 2000), self-esteem is the relationship between one’s real self and one’s ideal self, feeding off of favorable behaviors. Other theorists propose that having a high self-esteem motivates people to achieve their goals because self-esteem is subjective to the adequacy with which one acts, with high self-esteem leading to further coping with certain circumstances and low self-esteem leading to further avoidance (Leary 1999). The theory from the ethological perspective (Leary 1999) proposes that self-esteem developed as way for a person to remain dominant in relationships since dominance has traditionally led to favorable partners and reproduction practices. Finally, terror management theory (Leary 1999) is one of the more controversial in the theories of the function of self-esteem, proposing that self-esteem protects people from the fear that can arise from the prospect of death.

Sociometer Theory

Since many of the other theories on self-esteem have some difficulties in fully explaining the purpose of self-esteem, sociometer theory was proposed as a new perspective on the topic in order to help better answer the questions that other theories have left unanswered. Leary (1999) proposes that self-esteem is a gauge that monitors interactions between people and sends signals to the person to keep them in check with how socially acceptable their behaviors are. This theory is based off of the notion that all humans have an inherent desire to have interpersonal relationships and to maintain these in a productive manner. The drive for interpersonal relationships has been developing since the beginning of the human species, since those in groups had the best survival and highest chances of reproducing. People have evolved to have a psychological gauge for sensing signals from these interactions concerning how well their behaviors are integrating them into society and how much they are being accepted or rejected (Anthony 2007, Leary 2003). The value of a person’s relationships is often derived from other’s reactions to the individual and this has a great influence on the sociometer, which is sensitive to the slightest change in these perceptions. When a person’s behaviors are causing a decrease in their evaluation as an individual, the sociometer signals them to become aware of this threat to their acceptance in society, driving them to address the issue. According to Leary (1999), there are two distinctions commonly made in self-esteem: state self-esteem and trait self-esteem. State self-esteem refers to the fluctuation in a person’s feelings about themselves as a result of how they perceive others are currently valuing their relationship. Self-esteem is raised or lowered based on positive or negative feedback. Trait self-esteem, conversely, refers to the sense a person has about the type of person who is generally valued and accepted by others. This is sometimes referred to as the resting state for the sociometer because this is how the person feels when relational information is absent (Leary 1999).

Influences of Self-Esteem on Behavior

Sociometer theory also serves as an explanation for much of human behavior and important questions often asked about self-esteem (Anthony 2007). It is often believed that the self-esteem motive is to maintain or even increase self-esteem (Leary 1999). However, sociometer theory explains that the true function of self-esteem is to minimize the chances of rejection in society (Anthony 2007, Leary 1999). When people behave in ways to protect their self-esteem, they are also acting in the way in which they feel their relation value to others can be increased. Sociometer theory also explains why events known by groups of people have much more profound effects on self-esteem than those only known by an individual. A large body of research has shown that low self-esteem has an influence on psychological and personal problems such as depression, substance abuse, teenage pregnancy, academic failure, and criminal behavior. However, self-esteem is often overly attributed for these occurrences and the actual relationship is much weaker (Leary 1999). High self-esteem can result in problems as well. Sociometer theory explains that these problems are not due to low self-esteem but instead low relational evaluations or even rejection from others. Self-esteem and the psychological or behavioral problems occur at the same time as a co-effect, not one causing the other. The problems attributed to low self-esteem can be a result of interpersonal rejection and further cause difficulties in relating to others and maladaptive behaviors to become accepted. Enhancing self-esteem isn’t necessarily beneficial to a person either. Evidence does show that increases in self-esteem can lead to positive psychological changes, but it is really a change in how people view their value. When positive things happen for a person, people feel an increase in the gauge of how socially acceptable they are.

Conclusions

Leary (1999, 2000) developed sociometer theory in order to bring answers to many of the questions about the role of self-esteem on a person’s behaviors and beliefs. It expresses that often too much attention is given to self-esteem as the cause of certain psychological and personal problems. It is true that self-esteem has an involvement in many psychological processes but it is more in the form of providing continuous feedback to the person on how they are performing in society. People often become too focused on self-esteem as the full picture of how a person operates rather than it being a measure of outside forces. Interpersonal relationships and social acceptance have a much more profound influence on a person’s overall opinion of themselves and their overall well being than is often thought.

References

Social acceptance and self-esteem: Tuning the sociometer to interpersonal value. Anthony, Danu B.; Holmes, John G.; Wood, Joanne V. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 2007 Jun Vol 92(6) 1024-1039

Mark R. Leary (1999) Making Sense of Self-Esteem Current Directions in Psychological Science 8 (1) , 32–35 doi:10.1111/1467-8721.00008

Anthony, D. B., Wood, J. V., & Holmes, J. G. (2007). Testing sociometer theory: Self-esteem and the importance of acceptance for social decision-making. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 43(3), 425-432.

Leary, M. (2000). The nature and function of self-esteem: Sociometer theory. Burlington: Elsevier.

Leary, M. R. (2003). Interpersonal aspects of optimal self-esteem and the authentic self. Psychological Inquiry, 14(1; 1), 52.

Baumeister, R.F. & Bushman, B. (2008). Social Psychology and Human Nature (1st Edition). Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.


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