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Self-Doubt and Self-Esteem: A Threat from within

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The impact on self-esteem of activating self-doubt was investi- gated in three studies. Individuals with enduring high self- doubt were expected to be more threatened by an experimental induction of self-doubt (modeled on the ease of retrieval para- digm) than individuals low in enduring self-doubt, and their self-esteem was predicted to decline. The predictions were sup- ported when self-esteem was measured postexperimentally (Experi- ment 1) and when it was measured both pre- and postexperimentally (Experiment 2). There was no comparable loss in self-esteem for individuals low in self-doubt. A third experiment explored the phenomenology of low-self-doubt individuals and replicated the finding that their level of self-esteem was unaffected by the induc- tion designed to produce doubt.
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PERSONALITY AND SOCIAL PSYCHOLOGY BULLETIN
Hermann et al. / SELF-DOUBT AND SELF-ESTEEM
Self-Doubt and Self-Esteem: A Threat From Within
Anthony D. Hermann
Geoffrey J. Leonardelli
Robert M. Arkin
The Ohio State University
The impact on self-esteem of activating self-doubt was investi-
gated in three studies. Individuals with enduring high self-
doubt were expected to be more threatened by an experimental
induction of self-doubt (modeled on the ease of retrieval para-
digm) than individuals low in enduring self-doubt, and their
self-esteem was predicted to decline. The predictions were sup-
ported when self-esteem was measured postexperimentally (Experi-
ment 1) and when it was measured both pre- and postexperimentally
(Experiment 2). There was no comparable loss in self-esteem for
individuals low in self-doubt. A third experiment explored the
phenomenology of low-self-doubt individuals and replicated the
finding that their level of self-esteem was unaffected by the induc-
tion designed to produce doubt.
Uncertainty about one’s ability in performance situa-
tions suggests the prospect of failure and can prompt
defensive, protective behavior. Self-handicapping is a
good example of this class of self-protective actions (e.g.,
Arkin & Baumgardner, 1985; Arkin & Oleson, 1998;
Berglas & Jones, 1978, Higgins, 1990). In the landmark
study, Berglas and Jones (1978) found that individuals
who faced doubts about their ability sought a handicap
to their performance, protecting themselves from the
attributional implication that a failure, if it occurred,
would reflect a clear lack of ability.
More recently, it has been found that some individuals
who harbor doubts about their abilities, but who also
have particularly strong concerns about performing suc-
cessfully, adopt a related but opposite strategy of over-
achieving (Arkin & Oleson, 1998; Oleson, Poehlmann,
Yost, Lynch, & Arkin, 2000). The Subjective Over-
achievement Scale (SOS) was recently developed (Oleson
et al., 2000) to assess both individual differences in self-
doubt and concern with performance outcomes. The
Self-Doubt Subscale was designed to “capture a general
sense of feeling uncertain about one’s competence”
(p. 500). For subjective overachievers, who score high on
both subscales (self-doubt, concern with performance),
self-doubt and fear of failure inspires the expenditure of
effort to ensure successful outcomes. While exhibiting
quite different behaviors, self-handicappers and over-
achievers share the experience of self-doubt, which is
thought to inspire their distinct, but related, coping
styles. In sum, the evidence suggests that people such as
self-handicappers and overachievers engage in behav-
iors designed to protect themselves from failure, or at
minimum the self-attributional implications of failure,
when motivated by feelings of self-doubt about ability.
The Link Between Self-Doubt and Self-Esteem
A typical assumption is that these protective behaviors
are linked to notions of competence and self-worth. As
Jones and Berglas (1978) put it, “Each [the handicapper
and the overachiever] is fearful that failure will implicate
competence. Each has an abnormal investment in the
question of self-worth” (p. 205). More recently, research
has shown that engaging in a protective behavior, such as
self-handicapping, appears to be associated with self-
esteem maintenance. For instance, after a failure, partic-
ipants who claimed self-handicaps had higher self-esteem
than those who did not claim self-handicaps (Feick &
Rhodewalt, 1997). Thus, feelings of self-worth do appear
395
Authors’ Note: The authors acknowledge with much gratitude the ef-
forts of several research assistants who helped with various portions of
the data collection and analysis: Dan Miller, Bill Preston, Tiffany
Wheeler,Yolonda Haynes, Jarrod Williams, and Ann Marie Altman. Ap-
preciation is also extended to Michael Walker for statistical advice, to
Zakary Tormala for commenting on a previous draft of this article, and
to the members of the Arkin Lab group for their thoughtful commen-
tary. Communications should be addressed to Anthony Hermann, De-
partment of Psychology, Ohio State University, 1885 Neil Ave Mall,
Columbus, OH 43210-1222; e-mail: hermann.15@osu.edu, or to Rob-
ert M. Arkin, Department of Psychology, Ohio State University, 1885
Neil Ave Mall, Columbus, OH 43210-1222; e-mail: arkin.2@osu.edu.
PSPB, Vol. 28 No. 3, March 2002 395-408
© 2002 by the Society for Personality and Social Psychology, Inc.
to be at stake when facing the prospect of failure (if it can
be attributed to oneself). More generally, this research is
consistent with conclusions made elsewhere; namely,
that as doubt associated with one’s important abilities
increases, global self-esteem decreases (e.g., Pelham,
1991; Pelham & Swann, 1989).
Self-doubt and self-esteem are moderately (and nega-
tively) correlated (e.g., correlations range from –.44 to –
.68; Oleson et al., 2000). However, it is important to keep
in mind that although low self-esteem tends to accom-
pany self-doubt, the two are conceptually distinct: Self-
doubt refers to how certain a person feels about impor-
tant abilities, whereas self-esteem refers to a global evalu-
ation of oneself as a person. For example, an individual
can have a negative global evaluation of his or herself
(e.g., low self-esteem) but either be certain or uncertain
about specific and global competencies. Threat to one“s
basic self-esteem should emerge when one has uncer-
tainty about abilities that are important and favorably
evaluated (e.g., Pelham, 1991; Pelham & Swann, 1989).
Thus, the evidence suggests that feelings of self-doubt
pose a threat to self-esteem. Indeed, it seems likely that
those chronically high in self-doubt, as evidenced by
their greater propensity to engage in self-protective behav-
ior, are especially likely to interpret self-doubt as threat-
ening. It also follows that unless steps are taken to set
aside or alleviate the feelings of doubt, self-esteem may
be damaged and decline. The question posed here is
whether this threat to self-esteem, and any ensuing dam-
age and decline in self-esteem, is actually greater for indi-
viduals who are enduringly high in chronic feelings of
self-doubt about their competence.
Internal and External Threats to Self-Esteem
It is important here to distinguish globally between
two sources of threat to self-esteem. Often, individuals
see threats to their self-worth as originating from exter-
nal sources. The prospect of a public failure is prototypical:
it looms as a threat because its implications signify not
only to one’s self but also to others that the individual is
incompetent (Jones, 1989). Both self-handicapping and
overachievement, and other protective mechanisms (e.g.,
withdrawal from the situation), can deflect the signifying
implications of the outcome and protect and maintain
self-esteem. One long-term cost, however, is an enduring
feeling of self-doubt. Doubts sustained by such protec-
tive steps set aside the threat but also undermine the
diagnosticity of one’s performance. Similarly, the shy
individual can avoid social rejection by making no over-
tures but remains enduringly dubious about his or her
social acceptability. However, this is the cost that self-
doubters seem willing to absorb to ensure that the imme-
diate, short-term threat to self-esteem is neutralized.
A threat that is self-generated and strictly internal
presents a different set of alternatives for the self-doubter.
Introspection (Duval & Wicklund, 1972), recall of past
experiences (e.g., Bem, 1967), prediction of future per-
formance (Bandura, 1997), meta-cognitions (e.g., Mischel,
1998), and other self-generated cognitions that elicit
self-doubt cannot be deflected behaviorally. Thus, the
usual protective steps taken by the individual high in self-
doubt are rendered ineffective and the threat cannot be
dismissed and ultimately may affect self-esteem.
Meta-cognitions, those judgments we make about our
judgments (Jost, Kruglanski, & Nelson, 1998), are capa-
ble of having a potent impact on self-evaluation. To illus-
trate, consider a person’s certainty in his or her self-eval-
uation as a musician. If heroic effort is spent to generate
support for that self-evaluation, and the effort is salient
and weighted heavily in one’s judgment, it is plausible
that features of the self-evaluation as a musician (e.g., tal-
ented, gifted, enjoying potential) may be undermined
by the meta-cognitive cues. The present research is con-
cerned with such meta-cognitive sources of information,
particularly those associated with self-reflection while
performing a task. The prediction is that because it may
be difficult or impossible to set aside or alleviate feelings
of doubt stimulated by meta-cognitive cues, self-esteem
is likely to be damaged or decline, at least temporarily,
when meta-cognitive cues to feelings of self-doubt are
elicited.
Retrieval Difficulty: An Internal Threat to Self-Esteem?
One particularly subtle and compelling meta-cogni-
tive cue, recall difficulty, has recently been investigated
by Schwarz and his colleagues (Schwarz, 1998; Schwarz,
Bless, Strack, Klumpp, Rittenauer-Schatka, & Simons
1991). The essential finding is that the experience of
recall difficulty exerts an effect on self-judgments even
when the content of the information recalled exerts its
own influence in an opposite, contrary direction. Spe-
cifically, Schwarz et al. (1991) used a clever methodology
to investigate the psychological processes underlying the
use of the availability heuristic (Tversky & Kahneman,
1973). The availability heuristic is a mental shortcut peo-
ple often use in which a judgment is based on “the ease
with which instances or associations come to mind”
(Schwarz et al., 1991, p. 208). Schwarz et al. (1991) noted
that the literature has been unclear whether “ease” refers
to the number of instances available in memory or to the
perceived difficulty of recalling them and argued that
the latter matters most. They maintained that this is par-
ticularly so when the two types of information are in con-
flict. In the study, participants rated themselves less asser-
tively after they were instructed to recall 12 examples of
their own assertive behavior than after recalling 6 exam-
396 PERSONALITY AND SOCIAL PSYCHOLOGY BULLETIN
ples. Conversely, participants rated themselves as more
assertive after they were instructed to recall 12 examples
of unassertive behavior than after recalling 6. Partici-
pants in these experiments tended to neglect a great
deal of relevant information in their memories in favor
of paying attention to a meta-cognitive cue, the difficulty
retrieving that information.
Applied to self-doubt, the Schwarz et al. (1991) find-
ing suggests that retrieval of instances of self-confidence
should, ironically, lead individuals to feel less confident
(more doubtful) when they have difficulty in retrieving
the examples. This effect of the meta-cognitive cue might
be equally potent for individuals predisposed to experi-
ence self-doubt and those not so predisposed. However,
consistent with our theorizing, an alternative hypothesis
is that individuals with high levels of enduring self-doubt
might be hypersensitive to retrieval difficulty compared
to those low in self-doubt and thus find it more threaten-
ing. Therefore, we expected that after an experience of
retrieval difficulty, the self-esteem of individuals high in
self-doubt would decrease, whereas the self-esteem of
individuals low in self-doubt would not.
EXPERIMENT 1
The following experiment was designed to test this
hypothesis and consisted of a retrieval condition (two
examples, eight examples) ×self-doubt (continuous)
between-participants design. An interaction was predicted:
The self-esteem of individuals high in self-doubt was
expected to be lower after recalling eight examples of
self-confidence than after two examples, whereas the
self-esteem of individuals low in self-doubt was expected
to be unaffected by the number of examples recalled.
Such an interaction would be consistent with the idea
that individuals high in self-doubt are threatened by
retrieval difficulty but individuals low in self-doubt are
not (even when the perceptions of recall difficulty are
the same for individuals high and low in self-doubt).
That is, all participants, regardless of their level of self-
doubt, should find the eight-example task to be more dif-
ficult than the two-example task, even though only indi-
viduals high in self-doubt will be threatened by it. How-
ever, a second possible explanation for the interaction
on self-esteem exists: Perhaps retrieval condition could
affect the perceptions of difficulty for individuals high in
self-doubt but not for individuals low in self-doubt. Here,
a Retrieval Condition ×Self-Doubt interaction would be
evident not only on self-esteem but also on difficulty. The
following experiment was designed to test both hypothe-
ses by including measures of self-esteem and perceived
difficulty.
Method
PARTICIPANTS
The study included 123 students who participated in a
computer administered study titled “Confidence Training”
and received partial credit in their introductory psychol-
ogy class. Data from three participants were discarded
because they failed to follow instructions.
PROCEDURE
Participants were randomly assigned to recall either
two or eight examples of self-confidence. Afterward,
they completed self-report measures. All materials were
presented via a software program designed to conduct
psychological experiments (Jarvis, 1998). In each of 15
sessions, between 6 and 12 participants sat at individual
computer stations. Participants were informed that the
purpose of the experiment was to develop materials for
use in a counseling program designed to train clients to
build self-confidence. Ostensibly to help develop realis-
tic training scenarios, participants were asked to “list two
(eight) events in your life, which led you to feel confi-
dent about your ability to perform in some important
area of your life.” A screen with either two or eight text
boxes then appeared and participants were instructed to
type a brief description of no more than 250 characters
for each event.1
Next, students were asked to complete some general
questions, purportedly to explore students’ interest in
the training program. First, they were prompted to rate
themselves on confidence and uncertainty using 10-
point scales (e.g., 1 = not at all uncertain,10=extremely
uncertain). Following Schwarz et al.’s (1991) procedure,
these ratings were included to verify that retrieval diffi-
culty was influencing ratings of confidence. Participants
then completed the Rosenberg Self-Esteem Scale (RSE)
(Rosenberg, 1965), the Self-Doubt Subscale of the Sub-
jective Overachievement Scale (SOS-SD) (Oleson et al.,
2000), and a manipulation check that involved rating
how difficult it was to generate the requested number of
examples (1 = not difficult at all,10=extremely difficult).
Finally, participants were thoroughly debriefed.
RSE. This 10-item scale (Rosenberg, 1965) is designed
to measure global self-evaluation (e.g., “On the whole, I
am satisfied with myself”). Participants responded to
these items on a 6-point Likert scale (1 = disagree very
much,6=agree very much). After reversing the scores for
the negatively worded items, ratings were summed yield-
ing a potential range of scores from 10 (very low self-
esteem)to60(very high self-esteem). Internal consistency
was strong (α= .90).
Self-Doubt Subscale. This eight-item subscale of the
SOS-SD (Oleson et al., 2000) is designed to measure
Hermann et al. / SELF-DOUBT AND SELF-ESTEEM 397
chronic individual differences in self-doubt about one’s
ability to perform important tasks (e.g., “As I begin an
important activity, I usually feel confident in the likely
outcome”). Participants responded to these items on the
same 6-point scale used for the RSE. After reversing the
negatively worded items, ratings were summed yielding a
potential range of scores from 8 (very low self-doubt)to48
(very high self-doubt). The scale exhibited adequate inter-
nal consistency (α= .84).
Results
Hierarchical regression analyses were conducted to
determine whether scores on the Self-Doubt Subscale
moderated the impact of retrieval condition (i.e., the
number of self-confidence examples recalled) on self-
esteem. Following standard procedures (Cohen & Cohen,
1983), self-doubt scores and retrieval condition were
entered first (to test for main effects) and the product of
the two was entered next (to test for interaction effects).
To simplify interpretability of the regression analysis
(Aiken & West, 1991), self-doubt scores were centered
(i.e., the sample mean was set equal to zero). Retrieval
condition was dummy-coded: 0 for two examples and 1
for eight examples (Aiken & West, 1991). The interac-
tions were plotted using the predicted means for each
retrieval condition at levels of self-doubt one standard
deviation above and below the mean of the Self-Doubt
Scale for high and low self-doubt participants, respec-
tively. All analyses were conducted and all graphs were
constructed in this manner, unless specified otherwise.
MANIPULATION CHECK
Analyses of participants’ ratings of retrieval difficulty
yielded a predicted main effect of retrieval condition (β=
.30, p< .001), as well as a main effect of self-doubt (β=
.37, p< .001), but no interaction (β= .03, p= .80). As
expected, recalling eight examples of past self-confi-
dence was judged as more difficult (M= 4.87, SD = 2.59)
than retrieving two examples (M= 3.37, SD = 2.15). In
addition, as level of chronic self-doubt increased, so did
perceived difficulty of retrieving examples.
SELF-ESTEEM
Analyses of participants’ scores on the RSE revealed
main effects of self-doubt (β= –.76, p< .001) and retrieval
condition (β= –.13, p= .03), but these effects were quali-
fied by the predicted interaction (β= –.23, p= .01). As
illustrated in the first panel of Figure 1, retrieval condi-
tion had little effect on the self-esteem scores of those
participants with relatively low self-doubt but those high
in self-doubt reported lower self-esteem after having to
recall eight examples. Simple effect analyses conducted
to assess retrieval condition differences for those high
and low in self-doubt separately (Aiken & West, 1991)
confirmed this interpretation; these analyses revealed
no difference in retrieval condition for low-self-doubt
participants (β= .02, p= .79) but a reliable difference
among high-self-doubt participants (β= –.28, p< .01).
After recalling eight examples, the self-esteem of individ-
uals high in self-doubt was lower than after recalling two
examples.
Difficulty ratings and self-esteem. To verify that perceived
difficulty was associated with the observed changes in
high-self-doubt participants’ self-esteem, we performed
similar analyses on participants’ self-esteem scores but
substituted difficulty ratings for the retrieval condition
variable. Self-esteem scores were again submitted to a
hierarchical regression analysis, but with the following
predictors: self-doubt, difficulty, and the Difficulty ×Self-
Doubt interaction term. Analysis yielded a significant
self-doubt main effect (β= –.72, p< .01), which was quali-
fied by a significant Difficulty ×Self-Doubt interaction
on self-esteem (β= –.26, p= .03). Simple slope analysis
(Aiken & West, 1991) indicated that at low self-doubt,
perceived difficulty was uncorrelated with self-esteem
(β= .06, p= .50) but that at high self-doubt, perceived dif-
ficulty was negatively correlated with self-esteem (β= –.19,
p= .02). As shown in the right panel of Figure 1, much
like retrieval condition, perceived difficulty only had an
impact on the self-esteem of those high in self-doubt;
those high-self-doubt participants who reported high
difficulty also reported lower self-esteem.
SELF-RATINGS
Confidence. Analyses of participants’ self-ratings on the
dimension of confidence yielded only a main effect of
self-doubt (β= –.57, p< .001) and no interaction. As par-
ticipants’ self-doubt scores increased, they rated them-
selves as less confident.
Uncertainty. Analyses of participants’ self-ratings of
uncertainty, however, yielded a main effect of self-doubt
(β= .34, p< .001) and a marginally significant interaction
of self-doubt and retrieval condition (β= .24, p= .08).
Simple effect analyses indicated that at low self-doubt,
uncertainty decreased as number of examples increased
(β= –.12, p= .35), but at high self-doubt, uncertainty
increased as number of examples increased (β= .20, p=
.12), although neither simple effect was significant. Sim-
ple slope analyses revealed that self-doubt scores pre-
dicted uncertainty self-ratings in the eight-example con-
dition (β= .46, p< .001) but not in the two-example
condition (β= .15, p> .25). Uncertainty increased as self-
doubt increased but only after participants recalled eight
examples of past self-confidence (see Figure 2).
CONTENT QUALITY: AN ALTERNATIVE EXPLANATION
Although it is clear that difficulty was associated with
the effects found on self-esteem, an alternative explana-
tion is possible. Perhaps the Retrieval Condition ×Self-
398 PERSONALITY AND SOCIAL PSYCHOLOGY BULLETIN
Doubt interaction could be explained by differences in
the quality of the content recalled (Schwarz et al., 1991).
Individuals high in self-doubt who recalled eight exam-
ples may have reported relatively lower self-esteem because
their examples were less convincing than those they pro-
duced in the two-example condition than the examples
produced by low-self-doubt participants.
Coding for content quality. Schwarz et al. (1991) ruled
out the possibility that decreasing quality of example
content could account for the effect by having inde-
pendent judges rate the content quality of the last two
examples (p. 198). Following Schwarz et al.’s procedure,
this alternative explanation was examined by first having
two independent judges rate the last two examples gen-
erated by all of our participants. Specifically, judges
rated the events on “the level of confidence about abili-
ties each event exhibits” (i.e., the two examples in the
two-example condition and the last two examples in the
eight-example condition) using a 9-point scale (1 = not at
all confident,9=extremely confident). Interjudge reliability
was much lower than expected, r(119) = .54, p= .001. As a
result, each judge’s ratings were submitted separately to
regression analysis. However, because analysis revealed
no differences on judges’ ratings, only the analysis of
average judges’ ratings will be presented to simplify
presentation.
Content quality analyses. First, regression analyses were
conducted to determine if self-doubt and retrieval con-
dition interacted to predict the judges’ ratings. Analyses
yielded only a significant retrieval condition main effect
(β= –.33, p< .001). The judges’ rating of confidence in
the last two examples recalled in the eight-example con-
dition (M= 6.64, SD = 1.17) was lower than the content
quality ratings of the two examples recalled in the two-
example condition (M= 7.31, SD = .67).
Because retrieval condition had an impact on the
judges’ perceptions of the examples’ quality, a new set of
analyses was conducted to investigate whether the qual-
ity of the examples also interacted with self-doubt to pre-
dict participant’s self-esteem. Thus, self-esteem scores
were again submitted to a hierarchical regression analy-
sis, but with the following predictors: self-doubt, judge’s
content quality ratings, and the Content Quality ×Self-
Doubt interaction term. Analyses revealed only a main
effect of self-doubt (β= –.75, p< .001). The interaction
term was not significant (β= .01, p= .82). Recalling more
examples led to poorer examples, but this decline in
quality due to retrieval condition was not moderated by
self-doubt. Thus, although recalling more examples led
to both higher difficulty ratings and poorer examples for
all participants, the drop in self-esteem observed in high-
self-doubt participants was associated only with the per-
ceived difficulty of the task.
Discussion
Participants high in self-doubt appeared to have been
particularly sensitive to recalling eight examples of self-
confidence. They appear to have taken the retrieval diffi-
Hermann et al. / SELF-DOUBT AND SELF-ESTEEM 399
Figure 1 Predicted means of self-esteem as a functionof retrievalcondition and self-doubt(left panel) and difficultyand self-doubt(right panel):
Experiment 1.
Figure 2 Predicted means of the uncertainty ratings as a function of
retrieval condition and self-doubt: Experiment 1.
culty they experienced to heart, and their self-esteem
dropped. This, of course, transpired despite the fact that
they were engaged in an activity that ostensibly could
have boosted their self-regard. Under the same condi-
tions, however, participants low in self-doubt appeared
not to generalize any difficulty they may have experi-
enced with the retrieval task to an evaluation of their
core self, even though they reported that it was harder to
recall eight than two examples of confidence. Indeed,
there was no indication that low-self-doubt participants
were adversely affected by recalling eight examples at all.
Altogether, the evidence is consistent with the hypoth-
esis that people high in self-doubt are more threatened
by retrieval difficulty than are individuals low in self-
doubt. The evidence on self-esteem and perceived diffi-
culty was inconsistent with the two alternative hypothe-
ses. First, the interaction on self-esteem was inconsistent
with the notion that the retrieval condition would influ-
ence the self-esteem of all individuals, regardless of level
of self-doubt. Second, all individuals reported relatively
greater difficulty after recalling eight than two examples,
and this effect was not moderated by self-doubt. Thus,
this retrieval condition main effect is inconsistent with
the notion that the retrieval condition produced the
experience of difficulty only for participants high in self-
doubt. Together, then, the evidence on these measures
supports the idea that participants high in self-doubt
find self-doubt more threatening than participants low
in self-doubt.
ALTERNATIVE EXPLANATIONS
Analysis, however, also revealed a self-doubt main
effect on difficulty; the task was more difficult for individ-
uals high in self-doubt than for individuals low in self-
doubt. Plotting the predicted means on the difficulty rat-
ings revealed that low-self-doubt participants, on aver-
age, rated recalling eight examples well below the mid-
point of the 10-point scale (M= 3.8). This main effect
suggests an alternative explanation for the Retrieval
Condition ×Self-Doubt interaction on self-esteem. Per-
haps participants low in self-doubt did not experience a
sufficient level of difficulty to affect their judgments and,
in turn, their self-esteem was not affected. To address this
concern in the second study, the difficulty of the “diffi-
cult condition” was raised by increasing the number of
examples participants were asked to recall from 8 to 12.
In this way, we could examine whether a more difficult
task would produce a similar drop in self-esteem for low-
self-doubt participants.
In addition, attempts were taken in the second experi-
ment to clarify the nature of the interaction. We argue
that recalling eight examples of confidence for high-self-
doubt participants resulted in a drop in their self-esteem.
It is important to note, however, that it remains a possi-
bility that the observed interaction is the result of an
increase in self-esteem for those recalling two examples
instead of a decrease in self-esteem for high-self-doubt
participants recalling eight examples. Recalling two exam-
ples may affirm self-worth for high-self-doubt individu-
als, but recalling eight examples may induce multiple
processes, such as self-affirmation and difficulty in
retrieval, which cancel each other out, resulting in no
change in self-worth. In Experiment 2, we sought to rep-
licate our basic findings and to address this alternative
interpretation. The RSE was, therefore, administered in
Experiment 2 both before and after the manipulation to
assess change in self-esteem and shed additional light on
our findings.
EXPERIMENT 2
This experiment consisted of a retrieval condition (2
examples or 12 examples) ×self-doubt (continuous)
between-participants design. We predicted that individ-
uals high in self-doubt would show no change in their
self-esteem after recalling two instances of their confi-
dence but would experience a decrease in their self-
esteem after recalling 12 instances of their confidence.
However, because participants low in self-doubt are not
threatened by issues regarding their level of compe-
tence, we predicted that their self-esteem would not
drop even in the face of the subjective experience of
retrieval difficulty.
Method
PARTICIPANTS
The study originally included 122 students but 1 indi-
vidual was dropped for completing the materials incor-
rectly (resulting N= 121).
PROCEDURE
The procedure was identical to that of Experiment 1
with the following five exceptions. First, the SOS-SD (β=
.86) was administered (as part of a survey supposedly
given for another researcher) shortly before the experi-
mental variable was manipulated. This provided for a
measure of chronic self-doubt that was truly independ-
ent of the experimental manipulation. Second, the RSE
was administered both before (as part of the same sur-
vey; β= .90) and after (β= .91) the induction, and third,
the self-ratings of uncertainty and confidence were elim-
inated. This provided the opportunity to analyze self-
esteem change in the most direct and maximally sensi-
tive way and to determine under which conditions self-
doubt was associated with such change. Fourth, partici-
pants were asked to recall 12 examples of self-confidence
rather than 8 to increase the subjective experience of dif-
ficulty in that condition, especially for the low-self-doubt
participants. Last, the quality of the examples was assessed
400 PERSONALITY AND SOCIAL PSYCHOLOGY BULLETIN
not only by independent judges but also by the partici-
pants themselves. This enabled us to determine whether
the participants’ subjective ratings of quality, as well as
the objective quality, of the examples were associated
with self-doubt and changes in self-esteem.
Results
MANIPULATION CHECK
As in Experiment 1, hierarchical regression analysis
was used to determine the impact of self-doubt and
retrieval condition on the manipulation check and our
dependent measure. Analyses of participants’ rating of
retrieval difficulty yielded a main effect of retrieval con-
dition (β= .31, p< .001) and a main effect of self-doubt (β=
.18, p= .04) but no interaction (β= .17, p= .18). On aver-
age, retrieving 12 examples of past self-confidence was
perceived as more difficult (M= 6.5, SD = 2.2) than
retrieving 2 examples (M= 5.1, SD = 2.5). As in Experi-
ment 1, self-doubt had an independent impact on diffi-
culty ratings; as level of chronic self-doubt increased, so
did perceived difficulty of retrieving examples.
SELF-ESTEEM CHANGE
RSE pretest scores were subtracted from RSE posttest
scores, and this difference score was used as a measure of
self-esteem change. The difference score was submitted
to the same hierarchical regression analyses as were the
other dependent measures. Analysis revealed a margin-
ally significant main effect of self-doubt (β= –.30, p=
.06). As self-doubt increased, self-esteem decreased. How-
ever, the predicted interaction of retrieval condition and
self-doubt qualified the effect (β= –.32, p= .02). The pre-
dicted means are plotted in the left panel of Figure 3.2
For individuals high in self-doubt, retrieval condition
produced a marginally significant difference (β= –.24,
p= .06). As is evident in the left panel of Figure 3, individ-
uals high in self-doubt reported lower self-esteem after
retrieving 12 examples of past confidence than after
retrieving 2. This difference was reversed for individuals
low in self-doubt who reported marginally higher self-
esteem after retrieving 12 examples than after 2 (β= .19,
p= .12).
Of primary interest, however, was whether self-esteem
changed from baseline (i.e., if change was different from
zero). After recalling two examples, no self-esteem change
was evident for individuals either high or low in self-
doubt (ts < .73, ps > .46). After recalling 12 examples,
however, individuals high in self-doubt experienced a
decrease in self-esteem, and it was significantly different
from zero, t(116) = –1.95, p= .05. Furthermore, individu-
als low in self-doubt experienced an increase in self-
esteem after recalling many examples, and this increase
was also different from zero, t(116) = 2.67, p< .01.
Clearly, the interaction between self-doubt and retrieval
condition on self-esteem stems from changes in self-
esteem subsequent to recalling 12 examples of past
confidence.
Effects unique to self-doubt? Although we had already
controlled for preexperimental self-esteem scores when
we calculated our change scores, because measures of
self-doubt and self-esteem are correlated, it is possible
that the effects on postexperimental self-esteem are
explained equally well by participants’ preexperimental
self-esteem scores as by their level of self-doubt. To verify
that the Retrieval Condition ×Self-Doubt interaction on
posttest self-esteem was associated uniquely with self-
doubt, we created a new individual difference predictor.
We retained the residuals when predicting SOS-SD scores
with the RSE (which represents the unique variance of
self-doubt: USD) and then submitted the variables to our
standard set of regression analyses to determine whether
USD interacted with retrieval condition to predict post-
experimental self-esteem. Analyses for USD revealed
only the predicted interaction (β= –.30, p= .01), indicat-
ing that the effect holds for self-doubt with the variance
associated with self-esteem partialed out.
Difficulty ratings and self-esteem. As with Experiment 1,
we explored the role of perceived difficulty. In Experi-
ment 1, an interaction between difficulty and self-doubt
indicated that the self-esteem of individuals high in self-
doubt decreased as difficulty increased but that difficulty
was unrelated to self-esteem of individuals low in self-
doubt. To determine whether this interaction was repli-
cated, self-esteem difference scores were submitted to
analysis, with difficulty and self-doubt as main effect pre-
dictors and Difficulty ×Self-Doubt as the interaction pre-
dictor. The predicted means presented in the second
panel of Figure 3 indicate a pattern similar to the Retrieval
Condition ×Self-Doubt interaction on self-esteem change.
At low self-doubt, self-esteem increased as difficulty
increased; at high self-doubt, self-esteem decreased as
difficulty increased. Analysis revealed, however, that the
interaction was not significant (β= –.10, p= .28).
To gain more power in detecting the effects of self-
doubt and perceived difficulty on participants’ self-esteem,
the data from Experiments 1 and 2 were combined and
reanalyzed. A dichotomous study factor was included in
the analysis to examine whether some difference other
than statistical power (Cohen, 1988) could account for
the difference between Experiments 1 and 2. Posttest
self-esteem scores were submitted to analysis in a full-
factorial three-way hierarchical regression analysis, with
perceived difficulty and self-doubt as continuous between-
participant predictors and the study factor as a categori-
cal predictor. Self-esteem scores, instead of difference
scores, were analyzed because only posttest self-esteem
scores were collected in the first experiment.
Hermann et al. / SELF-DOUBT AND SELF-ESTEEM 401
Analysis yielded a significant self-doubt main effect
(β= –.74, p< .001), which was qualified by a Difficulty ×
Self-Doubt interaction (β= –.10, p= .02). Simple effects
tests indicated that at low self-doubt, difficulty was
uncorrelated with self-esteem (β= .06, p= .31); however,
at high self-doubt, difficulty was negatively correlated
with self-esteem (β= –.13, p= .04). No significant effect
of the study factor was evident, whether alone or as a
moderator of some other factor.
CONTENT QUALITY
Judges’ ratings. In Experiment 1, judges’ ratings of
quality did not interact with self-doubt to predict partici-
pants’ self-esteem. For this study, we again examined
judges’ perceptions of the examples’ quality and fol-
lowed the same procedures to do so. Interjudge reliabil-
ity was higher than in the first study, r(121) = .77, p< .001;
the two judges’ ratings were thus averaged together to
create one measure. Analyses revealed, as in Experiment
1, a marginally significant main effect of retrieval condi-
tion (β= –.17, p= .07). The judges rated the last two items
in the 12-example condition as exhibiting lower confi-
dence (M= 6.56, SD = 1.29) than the 2 items in the two-
example condition (M= 7.00, SD = 1.37). This main
effect was, however, qualified by a marginally significant
interaction of self-doubt and retrieval condition (β=–
.23, p= .09). Simple effects tests revealed that for individ-
uals high in self-doubt, judges’ ratings of confidence
decreased as number of examples recalled increased (β
= –.32, p= .01); however, for individuals low in self-doubt,
judges’ ratings of confidence were not associated with
number of examples recalled (β= –.01, p= .94).
This interaction on judges’ content quality ratings was
not observed in Experiment 1 but may be the result of a
harder task used in the “difficult” retrieval condition in
this study (i.e., using 12 examples instead of 8). Given
this marginal interaction, it seems more likely that in this
study, poorer examples in the difficult condition may
have been responsible for the interaction between
retrieval condition and self-doubt on self-esteem
change. Support for this alternative explanation
requires that the judges’ ratings of quality be positively
correlated with self-esteem change if content quality is
truly accounting for the Retrieval Condition ×Self-
Doubt interaction on self-esteem change. However, con-
tent quality was uncorrelated with self-esteem change,
r(121) = .09, p= . 33. Thus, judges’ ratings of content
quality could not account for the Retrieval Condition ×
Self-Doubt interaction.
Participants’ ratings. In this study, in addition to the
judges’ ratings after the fact, participants also rated their
own examples. Specifically, participants rated the level
of confidence they experience in the last two examples
they generated using a 9-point scale (1 = not at all confi-
dent,9=extremely confident) after completing the depend-
ent measures. There was some evidence that judges’ and
participants’ ratings of quality differed; correlation of
the two quality ratings indicated only a moderate rela-
tionship between the two ratings, r(121) = .31, p< .01.
Thus, it is possible that subjective ratings of quality would
be associated with participants’ change in self-esteem,
where judges’ ratings were not.
Analysis of participants’ ratings of quality yielded only
a main effect of self-doubt (β= –.23, p= .01). Regardless
of the retrieval condition participants were in, the per-
ceived quality of the examples recalled decreased as self-
doubt increased. No other effects emerged. Thus, partic-
ipants’ perceptions of quality could not account for the
interaction between retrieval condition and self-doubt.
402 PERSONALITY AND SOCIAL PSYCHOLOGY BULLETIN
Figure 3 Predicted means of self-esteem change, adjusted for pretest self-esteem, as a function of retrieval condition and self-doubt (left panel)
and difficulty and self-doubt (right panel): Experiment 2.
Discussion
As observed in Experiment 1, participants high in self-
doubt reported lower self-esteem after recalling a rela-
tively difficult number of examples of past self-confi-
dence. In addition, this effect was observed to be an
actual decrease in self-esteem, clarifying the nature of
differences observed among high-self-doubt participants
in Experiment 1. Rather than receiving a boost from
recalling 2 examples, those high in self-doubt suffered a
loss in self-regard after recalling 12. Furthermore, regres-
sion analyses indicated that this drop in self-esteem was
not the result of a decline in the quality of the examples
high-self-doubt participants recalled; rather, the interac-
tion of difficulty and self-doubt on self-esteem substanti-
ates the notion that individuals high in self-doubt are
threatened by difficulty produced by recalling examples
of one’s confidence.
In sharp contrast to high-self-doubt participants, indi-
viduals low in self-doubt reported higher self-esteem
after recalling 12 examples of their confidence. More-
over, recalling a large number of examples served to con-
solidate and boost their already positive self-regard. This
boost for low-self-doubt participants was not observed in
Experiment 1 and may result from the increased sensitiv-
ity in measurement afforded by a pretest/posttest design
or from the larger number of examples (up from 8 to 12)
that participants recalled in this study. Regardless, it is an
indication that under some conditions, the self-esteem
of those low in self-doubt may be bolstered by recalling
memories of self-confidence.
POSSIBLE ALTERNATIVE EXPLANATIONS
One alternative explanation to our assertion that low-
self-doubt participants did not experience threat when
recalling a difficult number of examples stems from
what is known about self-affirmation among those high
in self-esteem. Those high in self-esteem (by definition)
have more positive self-concepts and are also better able
to fend off threats to the self by affirming their positive
attributes and values (Steele, Spencer, & Lynch, 1993). It
may be that those low in self-doubt (who are also likely to
be high in self-esteem) experienced a threat when recall-
ing 12 examples but were better able to cope with this
threat through affirming themselves by focusing on their
positive attributes. Although this notion of “self-affirma-
tion after a threat” is consistent with the boost in self-
esteem observed in low-self-doubt participants, this expla-
nation seems unlikely given that the interaction of retrieval
condition and self-doubt remained when self-esteem was
partialed out of the self-doubt predictor. Furthermore,
we observed no indication of a threat in any post-
experimental dependent measures for those low in self-
doubt, all of which suggests that the observed effects on
self-esteem were uniquely related to self-doubt and that
those low in self-doubt were not threatened by the
manipulation.
However, a nagging possibility remains that loss of
self-esteem after difficulty recalling examples of self-con-
fidence may be a universal sort of phenomenon, and a
retrieval task of sufficient difficulty could induce individ-
uals low in self-doubt to feel less confident and thus
experience decreased self-worth. The predicted means
for the difficulty ratings made by participants high and
low in self-doubt suggest that participants high in self-
doubt found recalling 12 examples to be very difficult
(M= 7.3), whereas those low in self-doubt still rated the
task below the midpoint of the 10-point scale (M= 5.3). If
this task was made more difficult (i.e., if the number of
examples of individuals had to recall was increased),
then individuals low in self-doubt may begin to experi-
ence retrieval difficulty, feel their level of self-confidence
drop, and experience a self-esteem drop as well.
At the other extreme, individuals low in self-doubt
might be immune to the effects of retrieval difficulty on
their self-concept. When retrieving examples of self-con-
fidence, they may always give greater credence to the
content of the examples retrieved regardless of the diffi-
culty involved. If the content of events recalled is indica-
tive of what these individuals value and experience (i.e.,
their self-confidence), then retrieving examples of past
confidence may affirm their self-concept and boost self-
esteem. The number of examples recalled might then
have a linear relationship with the self-regard for low-
self-doubt participants despite the difficulty that may be
involved; as the number of examples increases, so does
their self-esteem until some asymptotic level is reached.
A third prediction—one that stems more directly
from our notion that retrieval difficulty is a threat only to
high-self-doubt individuals—would be that when retrieval
difficulty is sufficiently strong, it affects the specific self-
judgments of low-self-doubt individuals but does not
generalize to their global self-evaluation. It may be that
the self-concept of low-self-doubt participants is indeed
malleable, but because they lack the investment in pre-
serving perceptions of their abilities, they do not inter-
pret undesirable self-concept shifts as implicating their
core self. In this case, low-self-doubt participants would
be expected to rate themselves as less confident after
recalling a difficult number of confidence examples but
their self-esteem would not change.
A third experiment was designed to focus exclusively
on low-self-doubt participants and to explore the impact
of retrieval cues on their self-esteem by using a paramet-
ric extension of the experimental manipulation used in
Experiments 1 and 2. Participants in the following study
were asked to retrieve 8, 12, 16, or 20 examples of past
self-confidence. As such, we could attempt to find a point
at which the task became difficult for low-self-doubt par-
Hermann et al. / SELF-DOUBT AND SELF-ESTEEM 403
ticipants and to assess the impact of this difficulty on
their self-esteem. Extending the manipulation this way
also afforded the opportunity to treat the independent
variable as a continuous variable, increasing the power
of the analysis and creating the opportunity to test for
linear and curvilinear (i.e., quadratic and cubic) trends.3
Experiment 3, then, was designed to investigate the phe-
nomenology associated with low self-doubt.
EXPERIMENT 3
Method
PARTICIPANTS
The study included 57 students who participated for
partial credit in an introductory psychology class. Partici-
pants were selected to participate based on their score on
the SOS-SD administered as part of a mass prescreening 6
to 8 weeks prior to the experiment. Only those partici-
pants in the lowest quartile of the Self-Doubt Scale distri-
bution (scores < 22) were recruited. Participants also
completed the Self-Doubt Scale again at the end of the
experiment. Two participants were removed from the
data set because their postexperiment self-doubt scores
were more than one standard deviation above the mean
of the entire population (M= 25.6, SD = 7.2); thus, they
could no longer reasonably be considered in the low-self-
doubt category.
PROCEDURE
The procedure was essentially the same as that used in
Experiment 2, the primary difference being the number
of examples participants were asked to recall and describe.
Participants were randomly assigned to one of four con-
ditions in which they had to recall 8, 12, 16, or 20 exam-
ples of confidence. The following dependent measures
were included: (a) a self-rating of confidence, (b) a self-
rating of uncertainty, and (c) the Rosenberg Self-Esteem
Scale, which was measured both before and after the
retrieval manipulation (αpre = .64, αpost = .68).
Results
MANIPULATION CHECK
As expected, perceived difficulty increased as the
number of examples recalled increased; mean difficulty
ratings for 8-example (M= 3.8, SD = 2.3), 12-example
(M= 4.5, SD = 2.8), 16-example (M= 4.4, SD = 2.5), and
the 20-example (M= 5.9, SD = 2.2) conditions were con-
sistent with predictions. Trend analysis yielded a signifi-
cant linear trend of retrieval condition on difficulty,
t(50) = 2.03, p= .02; quadratic and cubic trends were not
significant. In addition, the 20-example condition was
finally successful in leading individuals low in self-doubt
to report average difficulty ratings above the midpoint of
the scale (i.e., 5.9 > 5.5). In sum, the manipulation was
successful at increasing the perceived difficulty of the
task for individuals low in self-doubt to a point at least
exceeding the midpoint of the 9-point scale.
SELF-ESTEEM CHANGE
To determine whether low-self-doubt participants’ self-
esteem changed as a function of the retrieval condition,
pretest self-esteem was subtracted from posttest self-
esteem, and this difference score was submitted to trend
analysis, with retrieval condition as a between-partici-
pants factor.4Neither linear nor curvilinear trends yielded
significant differences on self-esteem change, ps > .66.
However, difference scores for the whole sample were
significantly different from zero, F(1, 49) = 63.17, p<
.001. Self-esteem increased (Mchange = 5.4, SD = 11.0), but
the number of examples did not moderate this increase
(see Figure 4).
SELF-RATINGS
On confidence ratings, trend analysis indicated a sig-
nificant linear trend of number examples, t(50) = 2.29, p=
.01. The ease of retrieval effect was evident; as number of
examples increased, individuals reported that their self-
confidence decreased (see Figure 4). On uncertainty, no
effects were significant, ps > .10.
CONTENT ANALYSIS
Two independent judges rated the last two examples
every participant generated following the procedure
used in previous studies. Interjudge reliability was ade-
quate, r(54) = .64, p< .001; ratings were thus averaged
together and then submitted to trend analysis. No trend
was significant. Instead, the confidence exhibited by
examples across conditions (M= 5.8, SD = 1.3) was
slightly higher than the midpoint of the 9-point scale.
The quality of the last examples in each condition was
equivalent and the confidence expressed in the exam-
ples remained relatively high overall.
Discussion
The results of Experiment 3 yield insight into the phe-
nomenology of low-self-doubt individuals who confront
both fairly easy and fairly difficult retrieval tasks. The evi-
dence shows clearly that it was difficult for them to recall
20 examples of self-confidence. Furthermore, this mag-
nitude of subjective difficulty was sufficient to produce
the ease of retrieval effect (Schwarz et al., 1991). Spe-
cifically, these low-self-doubt participants did experience
a decrease in confidence but did not when the task was
less difficult (e.g., eight instances).
It is interesting to note that self-ratings of confidence
were influenced by retrieval condition in this study but
uncertainty self-ratings were influenced by retrieval con-
dition in Experiment 1. One possible reason for this dif-
ference across studies is that individuals high and low in
404 PERSONALITY AND SOCIAL PSYCHOLOGY BULLETIN
self-doubt are schematic (Markus, 1977) on different
dimensions. Whereas individuals high in self-doubt may
be schematic about uncertainty, individuals low in self-
doubt may be schematic about confidence. As a result,
ratings of confidence and uncertainty may have been dif-
ferentially affected because these groups differ on dimen-
sions in which they typically evaluate themselves.
Nonetheless, the self-esteem of individuals low in self-
doubt was unaffected by the retrieval condition. As
observed in Experiments 1 and 2, the self-esteem of low-
self-doubt participants did not decrease under the con-
ditions that produced a decrease for those low in self-
doubt (e.g., recalling 8 and 12 examples). Indeed, there
was an overall increase, regardless of experimental con-
dition, in the self-esteem reported by these low-self-
doubt participants. Together, the confidence ratings
and the self-esteem findings suggest that individuals low
in self-doubt may be better at deflecting threats to their
positive self-regard. Even when they experience a decrease
in confidence, albeit a small one, this does not translate
into any loss in feelings of self-worth.
GENERAL DISCUSSION
Collectively, the findings in these three experiments
show that the self-worth of individuals high in self-doubt
is more vulnerable to the threat posed by a situational
induction of doubt than is the case for individuals low in
self-doubt. In the first two experiments, the task of retriev-
ing a large number of examples of past self-confidence,
ironically, produced a decline in reports of global self-
esteem. Yet, this loss in self-esteem was present only for
individuals high in self-doubt at the outset. The irony, of
course, is that those with high self-doubt could have
taken advantage of the content of the information embed-
ded in the 8 (Experiment 1) or 12 (Experiment 2) exam-
ples of self-confidence they generated. Had they focused
on the content, instead of the properties of the retrieval
experience, their self-esteem might have been shored up
rather than assaulted. Their self-doubts might have been
assuaged rather than fueled. Instead, it appears that indi-
viduals high in self-doubt are quite sensitive to cues that
contribute to furthering feelings of doubt and which in
turn threaten self-esteem.
Individuals low in self-doubt exhibited the opposite
tendency; that is, they appeared to be affected by the
content of the examples they generated and their self-
esteem was unaffected by other properties of the retrieval
experience. Specifically, individuals low in self-doubt
reported an increase in self-esteem after recalling many
examples of their confidence and they rated themselves
as more certain, not less certain (Experiment 1), after
recalling many examples. Even when the ease of retrieval
effect was clearly produced successfully among individu-
als low in self-doubt (Experiment 3), they still experi-
enced an increase in self-esteem. In short, the self-regard
of low-self-doubt individuals showed no signs of being
threatened by the very same procedures that posed a
clear threat and had a clear detrimental impact on the
self-regard of participants high in self-doubt.
The Relationship Between Self-Doubt and Self-Esteem
The present findings shed light on the dynamic rela-
tionship between self-doubt and self-esteem. It has been
observed that people who experience self-doubt chroni-
cally may have an “abnormal investment in the question
of self-worth” (Jones & Berglas, 1978, p. 205). To use
Crocker’s terminology (Crocker & Wolfe, 2000), their
feelings of self-worth are contingent. Those with self-
doubt about competence (Jones, 1989) may find that
their feelings of self-worth are often called into question
because of the centrality of that dimension to their every-
day lives. And their feelings of overall self-worth appear
to be contingent on information that bears on their
judgments of competence (Crocker & Wolfe, 2000). As a
result, those high in self-doubt are likely to find that their
self-worth hinges on cues that either (a) contribute to
their feelings of doubt or (b) tend to set self-doubts
aside.
Consequently, in circumstances where cues to compe-
tence are not present, or are irrelevant, doubt about
one’s overall worth should not be piqued and no threat
to self-esteem is present. Self-esteem should remain fairly
stable. However, where cues to competence abound,
which is probably quite often, people who characteristi-
cally experience doubt are likely to experience a threat
to self-esteem. Often, the threat can be managed. In the
case of self-handicapping and many other self-esteem
maintenance ploys, one’s self-esteem is protected when
the threat, inspired by the arousal of self-doubt, is set
Hermann et al. / SELF-DOUBT AND SELF-ESTEEM 405
Figure 4 Predicted means for standardized self-esteem change and
standardized confidence ratings, adjusted for pretest self-
esteem, as a function of retrieval condition for individuals
low in self-doubt: Experiment 3.
NOTE: Standardized self-esteem change scores have been adjusted so
that 0 equals no change.
aside. However, when this is not possible, a temporary
decline in self-esteem should be observed. This is what
was found in the present experiments.
By contrast, individuals with little or no self-doubt
appear to lack that abiding over-investment in the ques-
tion of self-worth. Their judgments of self-worth are sta-
ble, less contingent on temporary events, and they should,
therefore, find it easier to shrug off information that is
negative and that, otherwise, might be damaging to self-
esteem. Individuals low in self-doubt simply do not seem
to entertain the idea that their ability is in question. Con-
sequently, it is exceedingly rare to draw them into ques-
tioning their feelings of self-worth. A subtle cue, such as
the properties of the retrieval experience, may simply go
unnoticed. Or, if noticed, the properties of the retrieval
experience (i.e., ease or difficulty) receive little or no
weight. Persons low in self-doubt appear to focus their
attention squarely on the content of their thinking rather
than on these other cues. Unlike high-self-doubt individ-
uals, who are quite sensitive to cues that contribute to
furthering feelings of doubt, low-self-doubt individuals
are oblivious to them.
The Self-Perpetuating Nature of Self-Doubt
Although more speculative, the present findings sug-
gest reasons why feelings of self-doubt might be self-per-
petuating. The meta-cognitive processes that serve as a
cue to feelings of self-doubt are probably a common
experience. Individuals high in self-doubt may spend a
good deal of time thinking about their level of confi-
dence, recalling both past and present illustrations. One
item on the SOS-SD scale is, “I often wish that I felt more
certain about my strengths and weaknesses.” Endorsing
that statement may mean that much time in ones’ daily
life is spent considering one’s level of ability, driven by
feelings of uncertainty about it. The positive correlation
between a recent scale measuring ruminative tendencies
(Trapnell & Campbell, 1999) and the SOS-SD suggests
this may be the case.5
Intuitively, it would be no surprise if individuals high
in self-doubt were found to spend inordinate amounts of
time dwelling on their competence shortcomings. More
interesting, though, effort spent trying to think of them-
selves possessing strengths in ability could have precisely
the same effect. The intrusion of feelings of doubt,
thoughts about the properties of the retrieval process,
and so forth all could contribute to exacerbating self-
doubt and damaging feelings of self-esteem. And, when
self-esteem erodes, even temporarily, this too might con-
tribute directly to feelings of self-doubt.
In sum, a maladaptive cycle of self-doubt may be
inspired both by the behavioral and thinking styles of
individuals with high self-doubt. Self-doubt is implicated
in a wide array of self-esteem maintenance strategies,
such as self-handicapping (e.g., Harris & Snyder, 1986),
where the goal of the act is to obscure the causes of
behavior. Rather than risk the certainty that one’s lack of
ability is the cause of failure, it is preferable to obscure
the link between performance and behavior by introduc-
ing causal ambiguity. The causal ambiguity should sus-
tain self-doubt. The present findings suggest that people
high in self-doubt also may contend with another, inter-
nal source of ambiguity in their lives. Even when think-
ing about one’s strengths, rather than shortcomings,
self-doubt may make cues about properties of the think-
ing process salient. This too would seem to contribute to
sustaining self-doubt.
The Breadth of the Impact of Meta-Cognitive Cues
The present findings raise questions about the speci-
ficity versus generality of the impact of meta-cognitive
cues. In the present studies, difficulty in retrieval had a
more far-reaching and global impact than research has
been designed to reveal to date. Until now, research
using this paradigm has shown how retrieval difficulty
affects an individual’s judgment in the same domain in
which the information is recalled (Schwarz, 1998). For
instance, in the original study, recalling examples of
assertiveness or unassertiveness affected participants’
self-judgments on the same dimension, assertiveness-
unassertiveness (Schwarz et al., 1991). Recalling many
health risk behaviors can affect perceptions of risk
(Rothman & Schwarz, 1998), generating many reasons
to use public transportation affects attitudes about pub-
lic transportation (Waenke, Bless, & Biller, 1996), and so
forth. In the present studies, recalling examples of self-
confidence not only affected the self-perception of uncer-
tainty but also influenced global feelings of self-worth.
That retrieval difficulty can influence not only specific
self-evaluations but global ones as well opens the door to
considering how properties of one’s thinking can play a
role in forming and sustaining identity beyond specific
judgments, on specific dimensions, where the self-evalu-
ation change is temporary. To illustrate, a belief about
the effectiveness of one’s memory for certain events
could have either no impact, an impact on a restricted
range of similar events that require recall (e.g., Strack &
Forster, 1998), or might generalize to judgments about
one’s capacity for recall in general. Consider the absent-
minded professor trying to recall where his or her car is
parked. If youthful, the professor’s lapse might be taken
simply as an indication of a specific instance of being lost
in thought. If much older, however, the professor’s lapse
might lead him or her to question his or her capacity for
recall and, perhaps, overall mental functioning.
406 PERSONALITY AND SOCIAL PSYCHOLOGY BULLETIN
Conclusion
The present studies shed some light on the experi-
ence of self-doubt and suggest some interesting hypothe-
ses about how it might be sustained in daily life. There is
already evidence that self-doubt is implicated in behav-
ioral strategies (e.g., self-handicapping) that are designed
to protect self-esteem but that do so at the cost of sustain-
ing self-doubt. It is particularly problematic to manage a
threat to self-esteem when it is generated internally, how-
ever. Meta-cognitive cues that provoke feelings of self-
doubt may be more readily noticed by high-self-doubt
individuals, who are particularly sensitive to such cues,
than by low-self-doubt individuals, who are not. The
result is that their feelings of doubt are underscored.
Ultimately, their feelings of self-worth are shaken, at least
temporarily. In turn, losses in self-esteem may contribute
to feelings of self-doubt about one’s competence. These
dynamics help explain the co-occurrence of self-doubt
and shaky levels of self-esteem already reported in the
literature.
NOTES
1. Pretesting revealed that students could spontaneously and with-
out extraordinary effort generate a median of five confidence exam-
ples from their past. Consistent with Schwarz’s procedures (personal
communication, May 26, 1998), the easy and difficult conditions were
set at the median minus 50% and the median plus 50%, respectively.
2. Because posttest scores have a tendency to regress toward the
mean of the distribution, difference scores are typically negatively cor-
related with the pretest scores (Cohen & Cohen, 1983). To correct for
this artifact, pretest Rosenberg Self-Esteem Scale (RSE) scores were
entered as a covariate and were found to be negatively correlated with
the difference score (β= –.22, p< .05). The predicted means presented
in Figure 2 are adjusted for the variance accounted for by pretest self-
esteem.
3. Curvilinear versions of the first two hypotheses are also possible.
Perhaps self-esteem may increase but will asymptote or begin to decrease.
The following design provided a test for these curvilinear predictions.
4. As in Experiment 2, pretest self-esteem was entered as a covariate
to control for regression to the mean (see Note 2). As expected, it
accounted for a significant portion of the variance, F(1, 50) = 184.86,
p< .001.
5. A recent correlational study of 646 student participants (Leonardelli,
1997) indicates that the Self-Doubt Subscale of the Subjective
Overachievement Scale (SOS-SD) and the rumination subscale of
Trapnell and Campbell’s (1999) Rumination-Reflection Questionnaire
are positively correlated (r= .50, p< .001).
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408 PERSONALITY AND SOCIAL PSYCHOLOGY BULLETIN
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