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Feature

Kathleen Vohs

According to U professor Kathleen Vohs, our level of self-esteem has little bearing on the way we act in most situations.

How self-esteem impacts business

By Erin Peterson

From eNews, February 23, 2006

High self-esteem has long been considered a virtue in American culture. The trait is encouraged in students, celebrated among executives, and expected in celebrities. But is it really a good thing?

Carlson School consumer marketing expert Kathleen Vohs suggests that sometimes high self-esteem has its drawbacks. Vohs has conducted several studies on self-esteem and discovered that while high self-esteem may make us feel good, it isn't a panacea. Sometimes, it may make us behave badly. A better understanding of self-esteem can help us build product marketing strategies and manage our employees better. With an extensive background in psychology, Vohs joined the Carlson School in the fall as an assistant professor of marketing. She is applying her understanding of psychological science to business issues in order to advance new areas of marketing research.

Exploding the self-esteem myth In their article, "Exploding the Self-Esteem Myth," Vohs and three colleagues from around the country did a literature review which suggested that many of the outcomes that have been linked to high self-esteem-everything from achievement in school to lower rates of teen pregnancy-may not be caused by high self-esteem at all. The article was published in the November 2005 issue of Scientific American Mind.

While there are a number of reasons to promote high self-esteem in people (these people tend to be better at initiating relationships with others, for example), there are also reasons we may not want to consider high self-esteem an unmitigated advantage. "There's a tradeoff," says Vohs. "High self-esteem people are very good at repairing themselves after a difficult situation, and low self-esteem people tend to do very well in interpersonal interactions in similar circumstances."

Our level of self-esteem has little bearing on the way we act in most situations, says Vohs. However, threatening situations can cause people with high self-esteem to act rudely or selfishly. These reactions may have an impact on everything from the way they're perceived by others to what they buy in a store. "Having an awareness of these patterns is very important to protecting yourself and your relationships," says Vohs. "By understanding how people with high and low self-esteem react to different situations, it's possible to avoid-and to help others avoid-situations that might have negative consequences." Knowing these differences can help managers and marketers do their work as effectively as possible.

Understanding the buying patterns of people under threat People with low self-esteem might not be more altruistic overall, but when they feel threatened, they may seem to be. According to a study by Vohs, people who show low self-esteem under threat are more likely to buy for others in a retail environment, while high self-esteem people are likely to buy for themselves.

Understanding people's motivations may help advertisers and store owners market their wares effectively, says Vohs. It's easy to see the way that marketers direct their marketing to high self-esteem people by encouraging them to buy for themselves. "For example, you can recall the McDonald's 'You deserve a break today' campaign a few years ago," says Vohs. A gym that wants to appeal to both groups during the high-stress holidays and New Year's-resolution period might have two distinct campaigns: "Do it for you" for high self-esteem people, or "Do it for him or her" for low self-esteem people.

The role of self-esteem in managing employees In one study, Vohs found that after high self-esteem people are told that they have done poorly on an intelligence test, they act arrogant, unfriendly, and uncooperative around others shortly afterwards. Low self-esteem people who receive the same news, on the other hand, are perceived as friendly and likeable afterwards.

Counterintuitive? Maybe, but Vohs says it can be described in economists' terms: a non-loss frame versus a gain frame. A low self-esteem person is "constantly trying to stave off threats of being rejected," says Vohs, hence the friendliness. While a high self-esteem person is trying to repair any internal damage by acting more self-centered.

On a practical level, says Vohs, that might mean that managers who have staff members with high self-esteem might want to make sure that they haven't scheduled an important client meeting after a performance review that involves the employee receiving some criticism.

She emphasizes that such differences in behavior among people of various self-esteem levels come into play only in threatening situations, not in typical everyday interactions.

"In the absence of threat, high self-esteem people and low self-esteem people are perceived as equally likeable: they have similar leadership ability, and are rated as similar in attractiveness," says Vohs. "But threat activates all sorts of processes within high self-esteem and low self-esteem people." Knowing which members of your staff have high self-esteem and low self-esteem can help you put them in situations where they'll succeed.