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Acceptance is in the eye of the beholder: Self-esteem and motivated perceptions of acceptance from the opposite sex

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Social risk elicits self-esteem differences in signature social motivations and behaviors during the relationship-initiation process. In particular, the present research tested the hypothesis that lower self-esteem individuals' (LSEs) motivation to avoid rejection leads them to self-protectively underestimate acceptance from potential romantic partners, whereas higher self-esteem individuals' (HSEs) motivation to promote new relationships leads them to overestimate acceptance. The results of 5 experiments supported these predictions. Social risk increased activation of avoidance goals for LSEs on a word-recall task but increased activation of approach goals for HSEs, as evidenced by their increased use of likeable behaviors. Consistent with these patterns of goal activation, even though actual acceptance cues were held constant across all participants, social risk decreased the amount of acceptance that LSEs perceived from their interaction partner but increased the amount of acceptance that HSEs perceived from their interaction partner. It is important to note that such self-esteem differences in avoidance goals, approach behaviors, and perceptions of acceptance were completely eliminated when social risk was removed.
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Acceptance Is in the Eye of the Beholder: Self-Esteem and Motivated
Perceptions of Acceptance From the Opposite Sex
Jessica J. Cameron
University of Manitoba
Danu Anthony Stinson
University of Victoria
Roslyn Gaetz and Stacey Balchen
University of Manitoba
Social risk elicits self-esteem differences in signature social motivations and behaviors during the relationship-
initiation process. In particular, the present research tested the hypothesis that lower self-esteem individuals’
(LSEs) motivation to avoid rejection leads them to self-protectively underestimate acceptance from potential
romantic partners, whereas higher self-esteem individuals’ (HSEs) motivation to promote new relationships
leads them to overestimate acceptance. The results of 5 experiments supported these predictions. Social risk
increased activation of avoidance goals for LSEs on a word-recall task but increased activation of approach
goals for HSEs, as evidenced by their increased use of likeable behaviors. Consistent with these patterns of
goal activation, even though actual acceptance cues were held constant across all participants, social risk
decreased the amount of acceptance that LSEs perceived from their interaction partner but increased the
amount of acceptance that HSEs perceived from their interaction partner. It is important to note that such
self-esteem differences in avoidance goals, approach behaviors, and perceptions of acceptance were com-
pletely eliminated when social risk was removed.
Keywords: self-esteem, goals, motivated perception, acceptance, relationship formation
Initiating relationships is an inherently perilous process. Success
could lead to the formation of new social bonds, but failure could
result in a painful rejection experience. Therein lies the rub:
Although people are highly motivated to seek new relationships
that will satisfy their need to belong (Baumeister & Leary, 1995;
Reis, Collins, & Berscheid, 2000), they are equally, if not more
strongly, motivated to avoid the pain that accompanies rejection
(Leary, 2004; MacDonald & Leary, 2005).
Individuals vary in their propensity to err on the side of seeking
belonging or avoiding rejection (e.g., Gable, 2006; Gable, Reis, &
Elliot, 2000). In particular, self-esteem seems to act as an inter-
personal guidance system, influencing people’s signature social
motivations and behaviors (e.g., Anthony, Wood, & Holmes,
2007; Leary, 2004; Murray, Derrick, Leder, & Holmes, 2008;
Murray, Holmes, & Collins, 2006). Individuals with higher self-
esteem (HSEs) are particularly motivated to seek rewarding social
relationships, whereas individuals with lower self-esteem (LSEs)
are particularly motivated to avoid the pain of rejection. In the
present research, we investigate the influence of self-esteem on
people’s signature social motivations and behaviors by examining
people’s perceptions of acceptance from novel opposite-sex inter-
action partners. As we detail shortly, in this social context, we
propose that LSEs’ signature social motivations cause them to
cautiously underdetect acceptance from their interaction partner,
whereas HSEs’ signature social motivations cause them to opti-
mistically overdetect acceptance. Ultimately, we argue that LSEs’
and HSEs’ differing signature social motivations and behaviors
serve to maintain their self-esteem by causing them to perceive,
and perhaps even experience, the very rejection or acceptance that
they anticipate.
Self-Esteem and Signature Social Motivations
Chronic feelings of higher or lower self-esteem influence one’s
interpersonal beliefs and social behaviors. For example, LSEs
believe that they are less valuable interaction partners than do
HSEs (e.g., Leary, Tambor, Terdal, & Downs, 1995), have less
confidence in their romantic partners’ regard (Murray, Holmes, &
Griffin, 2000), and anticipate less acceptance from novel interac-
This article was published Online First July 12, 2010.
Jessica J. Cameron, Roslyn Gaetz, and Stacey Balchen, Department of
Psychology, University of Manitoba, Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada; Danu
Anthony Stinson, Department of Psychology, University of Victoria, Vic-
toria, British Columbia, Canada.
Jessica J. Cameron and Danu Anthony Stinson made equal contributions
to this work. This research was funded by Social Sciences and Humanities
Research Council of Canada (SSHRC) Grant 410-2005-0103 to Jessica J.
Cameron and by Ontario Graduate Scholarships and an SSHRC Post-
Doctoral Fellowship to Danu Anthony Stinson. We thank Jeremy Cone,
Larisa Cornelius, Melanie Damphousse, Tara Galaugher, Jackie McGinnis,
Lisa Reddoch, Kelley Robinson, Lindsay Schaefer, Sara Spragge, Lauren
Unik, and Libby Whittington for their help conducting this research.
Studies 1 and 2 were part of Stacey Balchen’s and Roslyn Gaetz’s under-
graduate honors theses, respectively. We also thank John Holmes, Sandra
Murray, and Joanne Wood for their helpful comments on an early draft of
this work.
Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Jessica J.
Cameron, Department of Psychology, University of Manitoba, Winnipeg,
Manitoba, Canada, R3T 2N2. E-mail: cameron2@cc.umanitoba.ca
Journal of Personality and Social Psychology © 2010 American Psychological Association
2010, Vol. 99, No. 3, 513–529 0022-3514/10/$12.00 DOI: 10.1037/a0018558
513
tion partners (Anthony et al., 2007). In accordance with these
pessimistic social expectations, LSEs’ signature social motivation
and behavior reflects a self-protective style aimed at limiting the
pain of anticipated rejection (e.g., Anthony et al., 2007; Baumeis-
ter, Tice, & Hutton, 1989; Heimpel, Elliot, & Wood, 2006; Murray
et al., 2006). In contrast, HSEs’ social confidence acts as a psy-
chological insurance policy that allows them to adopt a risky, but
potentially rewarding, relationship-promoting interpersonal style
aimed at fostering closeness with others.
The different social motivations of LSEs and HSEs are perva-
sive, occurring in diverse social contexts such as social comparison
(e.g., Wood, Giordano-Beech, Taylor, Michela, & Gaus, 1994),
seeking self-relevant feedback (e.g., Bernichon, Cook, & Brown,
2003), group-joining behavior (e.g., Anthony et al., 2007), and
within romantic relationships (e.g., Murray et al., 2006). Recent
research by Murray et al. (2008) provides an explanation for such
self-esteem differences: The risk of rejection automatically acti-
vates both the motivation to seek belonging and the motivation to
protect the self from the pain of rejection, creating a fundamental
approach–avoid conflict that must be resolved. Given their de-
pleted reserves of self-worth and pessimistic social expectations,
LSEs’ signature strategy is to override belongingness needs in
favor of self-protection. In contrast, given their psychological
insurance policy against the pain of rejection and their optimistic
social expectations, HSEs’ signature strategy is to override self-
protective needs in favor of seeking belonging. Although Murray
et al. tested their model within the context of ongoing romantic
relationships, we suspect that these basic risk-regulation processes
operate similarly in any social context where the risk of rejection
is salient (see Anthony et al., 2007).
In the present research, we examine self-esteem differences in
signature social motivation and behavior in a totally new social
domain: the initiation of new romantic relationships. Given the
high level of risk that is inherent to first-meeting situations, we
expect that LSEs’ and HSEs’ markedly different interpersonal
styles will be abundantly clear in this context.
Self-Esteem and Social Motivations During
Relationship Initiation
It is presumable that self-esteem differences in social motivation
are evident at many different points in the relationship-initiation
sequence. In the present research, we choose to focus our attention
on the very first step in the initiation process: detecting a potential
romantic partner’s acceptance. Although people are remarkably
adept at detecting verbal and nonverbal acceptance or rejection
cues (Downey & Feldman, 1996; Gardner, Pickett, & Brewer,
2000; Leary et al., 1995; Tooby & Cosmides, 1996), social moti-
vation can still bias the processing of social information (Strach-
man & Gable, 2006). Hence, we suggest that people’s perceptions
of social cues are often biased by their signature social strategies
for dealing with interpersonal risk.
When the risk of rejection is present, LSEs’ signature social
strategy is to override their connectedness motivation, causing
their self-protective motivation to become paramount (Murray et
al., 2008). In relationship-initiation situations, we suggest that this
self-protective motivation causes LSEs to become particularly
cautious when assessing a potential interaction partner’s social
cues. Perceiving acceptance when it is not actually present, termed
afalse alarm in signal-detection terms (Gable, Reis, & Downey,
2003; Green & Swets, 1966), could lead to social embarrassment,
disappointment, and hurt feelings. LSEs’ self-protective motiva-
tion should cause them to try to avoid these negative outcomes at
all costs, even if that cost is overlooking acceptance cues that are
actually present. Thus, we propose that when the risk of rejection
is present, LSEs will show a perceptual bias that causes them to
underdetect acceptance cues from their interaction partner.
In contrast, when the risk of rejection is present, HSEs’ signa-
ture strategy is to override their self-protective motivation, causing
their connectedness motivation to become paramount (Murray et
al., 2008). In relationship-initiation situations, we suggest that this
connectedness motivation causes HSEs to become particularly
optimistic when assessing a potential interaction partner’s social
cues. Overlooking acceptance when it is actually present, termed a
miss in signal-detection terms (Green & Swets, 1966; Gable et al.,
2003), could lead to missed social opportunities, lost friendship or
romance, and overlooked opportunities for fun. HSEs’ connected-
ness motivation should cause them to try to avoid these lost
opportunities at all costs, even if that cost is an increased possi-
bility of social pain resulting from false alarms. Thus, we propose
that when the risk of rejection is present, HSEs will show a
perceptual bias that causes them to overdetect acceptance cues
from their interaction partner.
Combining these two arguments results in our first hypothesis
(H1): HSEs will perceive greater acceptance than will LSEs when
social risk is present. But what will happen when social risk is
reduced or eliminated? We anticipate that manipulating social risk
will influence both LSEs’ and HSEs’ perceptions of acceptance.
Hence, our second hypothesis (H2) is that, compared with a risky
social context, the goal to protect the self from hurt will be less
active for LSEs when the risk of rejection is reduced, causing them
to become less cautious in their perception of acceptance. Con-
versely, our third hypothesis (H3) is that, compared with a risky
social context, the goal of seeking belonging will be less active for
HSEs when the risk of rejection is reduced, causing them to
become less optimistic in their perceptions of acceptance cues.
Hence, we expect to find evidence of a perceptual bias for both
HSEs and LSEs. Interpersonal risk will bias LSEs to underdetect
acceptance relative to HSEs in similarly risky social conditions
(H1) and relative to LSEs in low-risk social conditions (H2). In
contrast, interpersonal risk will bias HSEs to overdetect acceptance
relative to LSEs in similarly risky social conditions (H1) and
relative to HSEs in low-risk social conditions (H3).
Although we predict that self-esteem will be positively associ-
ated with perceptions of acceptance when risk is present, we also
predict that this association will change under risk-limited social
conditions. The nature of this change could take one of two forms.
The first possibility is that LSEs and HSEs will detect similar
levels of acceptance under risk-limited social conditions (H4a). In
such social circumstances, the competing goals of seeking connec-
tion versus self-protection will not be activated or will be activated
to a lesser degree, and thus, self-esteem differences in the resolu-
tion of the goal conflict will not be evident in people’s detection of
acceptance cues. Instead, idiosyncratic factors may determine peo-
ple’s interest in pursuing a new relationship (e.g., perceived at-
tractiveness of the target, baseline cue-detection abilities). Because
such idiosyncratic factors may not vary systematically with self-
esteem, it is plausible to predict that self-esteem will be unrelated
514 CAMERON, STINSON, GAETZ, AND BALCHEN
to perceptions of acceptance under risk-limited social conditions.
Indeed, this hypothesis is consistent with some previous research
examining self-esteem differences in thoughts and behaviors under
risk-limited social conditions (e.g., Anthony et al., 2007). How-
ever, the second possibility is that when the risk of rejection is
reduced or eliminated, then LSEs will actually detect greater
acceptance than HSEs (H4b). When situational risk is removed,
the remaining idiosyncratic influences on social goals and percep-
tions of acceptance may not be independent from self-esteem:
LSEs’ chronically higher need to belong (e.g., Leary & Baumeis-
ter, 2000) may cause them to find the safe social context particu-
larly appealing. As a result, in risk-limited social situations, LSEs
may become more approach oriented than HSEs, and thus, may
perceive greater acceptance than HSEs. This possibility is also
suggested by the results from risk-regulation research that included
a low-risk experimental condition (e.g., Anthony et al., 2007,
Study 5; Marigold, Holmes, & Ross, 2007, Study 2).
Overview of Studies
In multiple studies, we test our hypothesis that the risk of
rejection causes LSEs to cautiously underdetect acceptance from
novel interaction partners but causes HSEs to optimistically over-
detect acceptance. In Studies 1, 2, and 5, we use the same novel
and highly rigorous experimental design: Single participants intro-
duce themselves via video camera to an attractive, ostensibly
single, opposite-sex participant, watch their interaction partner’s
videotaped response, and then report their perceptions of accep-
tance. In reality, all participants receive the exact same taped
response from a trained confederate. Study 3 uses a similar para-
digm, but participants have a face-to-face interaction with a trained
confederate. To our knowledge, our use of these paradigms rep-
resents the first attempt to hold acceptance cues completely con-
stant across participants while still maintaining a meaningful social
context.
Study 1 examines whether LSEs perceive less acceptance than
HSEs in a risky social context when acceptance cues are held
constant across participants. Study 2 asks participants to detect
acceptance cues directed at the self or another person, thereby
testing whether the self-esteem difference in perceptions of accep-
tance is a motivated process, or whether it reflects self-esteem
differences in social skill. In Studies 3, 4, and 5, we use two
distinct methods to experimentally reduce or eliminate the risk of
rejection that is typically present in the relationship-initiation
context. We then examine the effect of these risk manipulations on
goals and perceptions of acceptance. Taken together, the results of
these diverse studies converge to demonstrate that social risk
indeed elicits self-esteem differences in signature social motiva-
tions and behaviors during the relationship-initiation process.
Study 1: Does Self-Esteem Predict Perceptions of
Acceptance When Social Risk is Present?
Two previous studies have demonstrated that LSEs think they
are less accepted by novel interaction partners than do HSEs
(Brockner & Lloyd, 1986; Campbell & Fehr, 1990). In these
previous studies, actual acceptance by the participants’ interaction
partner was not related to participants’ self-esteem, suggesting that
the self-esteem effect may actually represent motivated perception,
consistent with our hypotheses. However, even though self-esteem
did not influence interaction partners’ explicit reports, it might still
have influenced the interaction partners’ social behavior. Thus, the
possibility remains that LSE and HSE participants in these studies
actually received different social cues from their interaction part-
ners. If this is the case, then the self-esteem effect on perceptions
of acceptance in these previous studies may have reflected real
differences in social cues.
Hence, this first study was designed to test H1 by examining
whether self-esteem predicts perceptions of acceptance when so-
cial risk is present. It is important to note that we test this
hypothesis when social cues from one’s interaction partner are
held completely constant across participants. Even in such con-
trolled conditions, we predict that LSEs will perceive less accep-
tance than HSEs from an attractive, single, opposite-sex stranger,
presumably because of self-esteem differences in signature social
motivations in response to the social risk inherent to such a
first-meeting situation. Moreover, we sought to measure the per-
vasiveness of the self-esteem effect on perceptions of acceptance
by examining participants’ perceptions of acceptance when social
cues reflect low and high levels of acceptance.
Method
Participants. Seventy-nine undergraduate students (58
women, 21 men) enrolled in introductory psychology classes at the
University of Manitoba participated in exchange for partial course
credit. Participants ranged from 18 to 25 years of age (M18.77
years, SD 1.43). The majority of participants were not involved
in romantic relationships (i.e., single; n62), and all participants
reported that they were heterosexual.
Procedure. Upon arriving for their individual lab sessions,
participants completed a preliminary survey in which they indi-
cated their self-esteem using the 10-item Rosenberg (1965) Self-
Esteem Inventory (␣⫽.86), which was adapted to use a 9-point
response format (1 very strongly disagree,9very strongly
agree), rather than the original 4-point response format. This
version of Rosenberg’s scale was used throughout the studies
reported in this article. The preliminary survey also included
demographic questions (e.g., age) and filler items intended to
disguise our focus on self-esteem (e.g., scales assessing morning
vs. evening personality types).
We devised an elaborate cover story that allowed us to expose
all participants to identical social cues while also maintaining the
believability of the interpersonal context. When participants ar-
rived for their individual lab sessions, they were informed that the
present study was investigating compatibility between opposite-
sex strangers. Hence, participants thought that there was a second,
opposite-sex participant in the lab room next to theirs. Participants
were also informed that because the study was interested in ex-
amining “constrained communication,” the participants would be
communicating with their interaction partner via video camera. To
enhance the personal relevance of the experiment and the impor-
tance of the participants’ communication, the researcher informed
the participants that there might also be the opportunity for them to
meet their interaction partner later in a face-to-face interaction.
In the constrained communication task that participants com-
pleted, the participants first introduced themselves to their inter-
515
ACCEPTANCE IS IN THE EYE OF THE BEHOLDER
action partner by recording a video. Their interaction partner
supposedly watched this introductory statement on a closed-circuit
television in the room next door. To ensure consistency across
participant introductions, the participants all discussed the same
list of seven general conversation topics, adapted from Aron,
Melinat, Aron, Vallone, and Bator’s (1997) closeness-generating
procedure (e.g., “What is your dream job?”). After their interaction
partner had supposedly watched the participants’ introductory
tape, participants watched a “response” from their interaction
partner, in which the interaction partner answered the same seven
questions that the participants had answered. Once the participants
had finished watching their interaction partner’s response tape,
they completed a final survey that contained the dependent mea-
sures.
Although participants anticipated that they would meet their
interaction partner face to face following the constrained commu-
nication task, no second interaction ever took place, because there
was actually no second participant in the next room. The taped
response from the participants’ interaction partner was a prere-
corded videotape of an attractive opposite-sex confederate. The
content of the confederate’s taped response represented the exper-
imental manipulation in this study. Hence, after watching the
confederate’s response and completing the dependent measures,
participants were thoroughly debriefed.
Materials and measures.
Confederate responses. The confederates, one male and one
female, were recruited and filmed at the University of Waterloo,
ensuring that the University of Manitoba participants did not
recognize them. To ensure both the believability of the tapes and
to increase the likelihood that participants would want to meet the
confederate, both confederates had minor acting experience and
were above average in attractiveness. Each confederate filmed two
responses. A summary of the confederates’ behavior and the
confederate scripts in the two experimental conditions are pre-
sented in Table 1. In the response used for the low-acceptance
condition, the confederate answered the same seven questions that
the participant initially answered but engaged in minimal self-
disclosure, did not make any reference to the participant’s video-
tape, and expressed minimal nonverbal liking cues (e.g., no smil-
ing, no laughing, little eye contact). In the high-acceptance
condition, the majority of the informative content of the response
was the same as the low-acceptance condition, but in this case, the
confederate agreed with some of the participant’s responses (e.g.,
“I’m with you on this one”), self-disclosed personal information,
expressed strong nonverbal liking cues (e.g., smiling, eye contact),
and finally displayed a verbal overture of interest (i.e., “So, I hope
to see you in the second part of the study!”).
Summary perceptions of acceptance. In the final survey, par-
ticipants reported their perceived acceptance from the confederate
with five items (i.e., “The other participant probably likes me,”
“The other participant probably wants to meet me again,” “The
other participant probably enjoyed the interaction with me,”
“The other participant is probably willing to spend time with
me,” “The other participant probably wants to have another
interaction with me”), using a 7-point response format (1
strongly disagree,7strongly agree). These items were averaged
to form a reliable index of summary perceptions of acceptance
(␣⫽.83).
Table 1
Confederates’ Behavior and Scripted Responses in the Low-Acceptance and High-Acceptance Conditions in Study 1
Low-acceptance condition High-acceptance condition
Behavior: Little facial expression, no smiling, little eye contact
with the camera, little vocal inflection.
Behavior: Animated facial expression, lots of smiling and laughing, leaning
towards the camera (male only), touching hair and face (female only),
lots of eye contact with camera, enthusiastic vocal inflection.
So I guess I’ll give my answers now... Hi!So, Iguess I’ll give my answers now!
What is my favorite class? Nothing in particular—I like them
all about the same.
Question 1...Imwith you on this one! Are we in the same class? I’m
surprised I don’t know you...
My favorite type of movies...hmm, I like a lot of different
kinds. I guess I mostly watch comedies and action movies.
My favorite type of movies...hmm, I like a lot of different kinds. I guess
I mostly watch comedies and action movies...whodoesn’t! I thought
Kill Bill was pretty cool.
The last concert I saw was...Sum41 here on campus. It was
a really good show.
The last concert I saw was...Sum41 here on campus. It was a really good
show! Those guys are crazy!
What is my favorite holiday and why? Definitely Christmas,
no question. Everyone’s in a good mood, you get to eat
great food...plus you get presents.
. . . what is my favorite holiday and why? Definitely Christmas, no
question. Everyone’s in a good mood...youget toeat great food, plus
you get presents!
I’d like to do something with kids—like teaching, or social
work maybe? My brother, he teaches Grade 5, and it seems
like something I could do. But I’d want to work with junior
high kids, maybe doing science.
...mydream job...being rich! No...Id like to do something with
kids—like...teaching, or social work maybe? My brother, he teaches
Grade 5, and it seems like something I could do. But I’d want to work
with junior high kids, maybe doing science?
Well, I’ve always worked full time, so that’s what I do during
the day, during the week. But I hang out with friends after
work, go to clubs, have fun. On the weekends, we’ll take
day trips, go to the lake, the beach, play volley ball.
How do I usually spend my summers? Well, I’ve always worked full-time,
So that’s what I do during the day, during the week. But I hang out with
friends after work...goto clubs, have fun. On the weekends, we’ll take
day trips, go the lake, the beach, play volleyball.
Ummm, if I could go anywhere in the world...?I guess I
would go to Australia, I’ve heard Aussies are cool. I like
beaches and I could learn to surf.
Anywhere in the world eh? Well I’d like to go lots of places, but if I had
to pick I’d say Australia...Iwent on a Contiki tour in Europe after
graduation, and all the Aussies we met were awesome! And I can work
on my tan, I like beaches...andI canlearn to surf.
Ok, so that’s the end of the questions. Ok, so that’s the end of the questions. Now we can meet right? Cuz I think
that you’re in the very next room! Bye!
516 CAMERON, STINSON, GAETZ, AND BALCHEN
Results and Discussion
Preliminary analyses indicated that gender and relationship sta-
tus did not moderate the following results, so these variables were
not included in the reported analyses.
To test whether self-esteem predicted differences in perceptions
of acceptance, we conducted a hierarchical multiple regression in
which self-esteem (mean centered; M7.20,SD1.09), con-
dition (dummy coded: low acceptance 0, high acceptance 1),
and the interaction between the variables were used to predict
perceptions of acceptance (M4.25; SD 0.97). In this hierar-
chical procedure, which we used in all of the regressions that we
report in this article, we entered main effects at Step 1, and the
two-way interaction was added to the equation at Step 2. We
interpreted the main effects from Step 1 of the analysis and
interpreted the interaction obtained at Step 2. Moreover, in all of
the studies in this article, when a significant interaction emerged at
Step 2 of the regression, tests of simple effects were conducted
according to Aiken and West’s (1991) recommendations.
Results revealed a main effect of condition, ␤⫽.41, t(76)
4.14, p.001, such that participants perceived less acceptance in
the low-acceptance condition (M3.78, SD 0.92) than in the
high-acceptance condition (M4.65, SD 0.82). Also, a main
effect of self-esteem, ␤⫽.23, t(76) 2.32, p.023, indicated
that across conditions, LSEs (i.e., participants scoring one standard
deviation below the mean; M
est
3.59) detected much less ac-
ceptance than did HSEs (i.e., participants scoring one standard
deviation above the mean; M
est
4.04). The interaction between
self-esteem and condition was not significant (␤⫽.08, t1).
Thus, it appears that self-esteem predicted perceptions of accep-
tance at both higher and lower levels of acceptance.
This result replicates previous research by Brockner and Lloyd
(1986) and Campbell and Fehr (1990), which demonstrated that
LSEs also perceive less acceptance than HSEs from an interaction
partner in a naturalistic, face-to-face interaction. However, our
results are the first to demonstrate that self-esteem moderates
perceptions of acceptance, even when acceptance cues are held
constant across participants. In naturalistic social interactions, it is
possible that LSEs’ social doubts lead them to behave in a cold
manner, which in turn causes their interaction partner to behave in
a reciprocal fashion, leading LSEs to (perhaps accurately) perceive
less acceptance. On the other hand, HSEs’ confidence allows them
to behave in a friendly manner, which in turn may cause their
interaction partner to reciprocate, leading HSEs to (perhaps accu-
rately) perceive greater acceptance. Hence, self-esteem differences
in anticipated acceptance could lead to a self-fulfilling prophecy
(e.g., Stinson, Cameron, Wood, Gaucher, & Holmes, 2009). Such
potential “actor effects” were controlled in the present study,
which suggests that the observed self-esteem differences in the
perception of acceptance were indeed the result of motivated
perception.
The present results also suggest that the biasing influence of
self-esteem does not overwhelm actual situational differences in
acceptance cues, because everyone, regardless of self-esteem, per-
ceived more acceptance from the high-acceptance confederate than
from the low-acceptance confederate. This condition effect sug-
gests that LSEs’ relative underdetection of acceptance may not be
a skill deficit: LSEs were capable of differentiating between higher
and lower levels of acceptance. Study 2 was designed to explore
further the skill-deficit hypothesis.
Study 2: Are Perceptions of Acceptance Motivated?
The present study seeks to extend Study 1 in four important
ways. First, we want to determine whether LSEs underdetect
acceptance relative to HSEs when social risk is present because of
a skill deficit or whether such differences reflect motivated per-
ception. Therefore, we used the same method as Study 1, but
participants watched only the high-acceptance confederate re-
sponse. In addition, half of the participants believed that the taped
response was directed at them, and the other half thought that the
taped response was directed at a different participant. Thus, par-
ticipants were either the subject of acceptance cues, or they were
the observer of acceptance cues directed at someone else. If LSEs’
relative underdetection of acceptance is the result of a skill deficit,
then LSEs will detect less acceptance than HSEs in both experi-
mental conditions. However, we predict that self-esteem differ-
ences in the detection of acceptance cues result from a perceptual
bias that is caused by self-esteem differences in social motivation
in response to risk. Hence, when the acceptance cues are directed
at the self, we expect LSEs to perceive less acceptance than HSEs,
replicating Study 1 and supporting H1. We do not expect to
observe such a self-esteem difference in the other-directed condi-
tion.
Second, by comparing the self-directed acceptance cues condi-
tion with the other-directed cues condition, we will be able to
determine the direction of the potential perceptual bias. We antic-
ipate that both LSEs and HSEs show a perceptual bias. Consistent
with H2, LSEs will self-protectively underdetect acceptance when
the risk of rejection is present, and thus will detect less acceptance
when cues are directed at the self than when they are directed at
another person. In contrast, consistent with H3, HSEs will opti-
mistically overdetect acceptance when the risk of rejection is
present, and thus will detect more acceptance when cues are
directed at the self than when they are directed at another person.
Third, in the other-directed condition, we test whether LSEs will
either perceive the same amount of acceptance as HSEs, consistent
with H4a, or LSEs will detect more acceptance than HSEs, con-
sistent with H4b.
Finally, in addition to assessing participants’ perceptions of
acceptance, as in Study 1, we also assess participants’ perceptions
of specific verbal and nonverbal acceptance cues (e.g., smiling).
Acceptance is considered to be so central to well-being and sur-
vival that the perception of acceptance cues is thought to be
hardwired (Tooby & Cosmides, 1996). Reflecting the importance
of such acceptance cues, people constantly monitor their environ-
ment for acceptance cues (Leary & Downs, 1995), and the detec-
tion of nonverbal cues occurs automatically (Choi, Gray, & Am-
bady, 2005). By including both measures of acceptance, we are
able to examine whether the biasing influence of self-esteem is
evident only at a summary level (i.e., “He really likes me!”), or
whether the perceptual bias is pervasive enough to affect partici-
pants’ perceptions of specific behaviors.
Method
Participants. Seventy-nine undergraduate students (54
women, 25 men) enrolled in introductory psychology classes at the
517
ACCEPTANCE IS IN THE EYE OF THE BEHOLDER
University of Manitoba participated in exchange for partial course
credit. Participants ranged in age from 17 to 25 years of age (M
19 years, SD 1.93). All participants were single, heterosexual,
and reported English as a first language.
Procedure, materials, and measures. As in Study 1, partic-
ipants first completed a preliminary survey that included the self-
esteem measure (␣⫽.81). For participants in the self condition,
the procedure was identical to that used in Study 1: Participants
taped an introductory video and then watched the high-acceptance
confederate response, believing the confederate’s acceptance cues
were directed at the self. Participants in the observer condition
were informed that they would be watching a response made by
the interaction partner of the previous participant. To keep the
conditions as similar as possible, however, prior to watching the
response, participants in the observer condition were asked to
make an introductory videotape to give them “some insight into
what the participant before them had to do.” They believed that no
one would watch this introductory tape. After they made their
introductory tape, they watched the confederate’s response to the
“previous participant.” Thus, participants in the observer condition
thought that the confederate’s acceptance cues were directed at
someone else. Moreover, these participants did not think that they
were ever going to meet the confederate.
Summary perceptions of acceptance. Participants indicated
their perceptions of acceptance using the same five items that were
used in Study 1. The wording of the items in the observer condition
was adjusted to reflect the experimental context in that condition.
For example, the item “The other participant is probably willing to
spend time with me” was changed to read “The other participant is
probably willing to spend time with his/her assigned partner.”
These items were averaged to form a reliable index of perceptions
of acceptance (␣⫽.90).
Perceiving acceptance cues. We also assessed participants’
perceptions of specific verbal and nonverbal acceptance cues.
Participants rated the frequency with which the confederate en-
gaged in eight acceptance cues during his or her response (i.e.,
smiling, eye contact, crossing legs, laughter, flirtatious glances,
fixing hair, agreeing with something the participant said, express-
ing interest in meeting the participant again), which were adapted
from previous research (e.g., Simpson, Gangestad, & Biek, 1993).
Frequencies were rated using a 5-point scale (1 not at all,5
most of the time). To reduce suspicion, participants also rated the
frequency of some behaviors that were not displayed by the
confederates (e.g., sighing, winking, frowning). Frequencies for
each of the eight acceptance cues were averaged to form a per-
ceived cues index.
Results and Discussion
One female participant in the self condition indicated that she
suspected that her assigned partner was a videotaped confederate
before the final survey was given. This skeptical participant’s data
were excluded from the analyses.
We conducted two hierarchical regressions in which self-esteem
(mean centered; M7.16, SD 1.00), sex (dummy coded: 0
male,1female) and experimental condition (dummy coded: 0
self condition,1observer condition) and the interactions between
the variables were used to predict summary perceptions of acceptance
(M4.98, SD 0.99) and perceived cues (M2.45, SD 0.58).
Summary perceptions of acceptance. Results revealed a
main effect of gender, ␤⫽.32, t(74) 3.43, p.001, such that
men perceived more acceptance from the female confederate (M
5.53, SD 0.96) than women perceived from the male confederate
(M4.72, SD 0.90).
1
Also, a main effect of condition, ␤⫽.48,
t(74) 5.12, p.001, indicated that people perceived more
acceptance in the observer condition (M5.79, SD 0.75) than
in the self condition (M4.47, SD 0.95). However, this
condition effect was qualified by the predicted interaction between
self-esteem and condition, ␤⫽–.25, t(71) –2.61, p.011. No
other significant effects emerged from the analysis. The interaction
between self-esteem and experimental condition is depicted in the
top panel of Figure 1. Replicating Study 1 and consistent with H1,
in the self condition, LSEs detected much less acceptance than did
HSEs, ␤⫽.38, t(71) 3.10, p.002. In addition, as predicted
by H2, LSEs were strongly influenced by the experimental ma-
nipulation, ␤⫽.91, t(71) 9.40, p.001, detecting much more
acceptance when the confederate’s behavior was directed at some-
one else than when it was directed at the self. In contrast, H3 was
not supported; HSEs’ perceptions of acceptance were not influ-
enced by the experimental manipulation, ␤⫽.15, t(71) –1.53,
p.130, although the means were in the anticipated direction.
Results for the observer condition supported H4b: In the observer
condition, LSEs detected much more acceptance than HSEs, ␤⫽
–.31, t(71) –2.33, p.022.
Perceiving acceptance cues. Once again, results revealed a
main effect of gender, ␤⫽.67, t(74) 7.59, p.001, such that
men (M2.98, SD 0.58) perceived more acceptance cues than
women (M2.17, SD 0.35).
2
In addition, the predicted
interaction between self-esteem and condition emerged, ␤⫽–.36,
t(71) –2.64, p.010. This interaction is depicted in the bottom
panel of Figure 1. As with perceptions of acceptance, H1 was
supported in the self condition such that LSEs perceived fewer
acceptance cues than HSEs, ␤⫽.32, t(71) 2.15, p.034.
Moreover, LSEs in the observer condition also detected substan-
tially more acceptance cues that LSEs in the self condition, ␤⫽
.44, t(71) 4.74, p.001, and in this case, the interaction was a
true crossover, in that HSEs perceived fewer acceptance cues in
the observer condition than in the self condition, ␤⫽–.31, t(71)
1
This gender difference appears to be a result of differences between the
male and female confederate’s behavior rather than an effect of the par-
ticipants’ gender. In a follow-up study, 15 single female undergraduate
students (M
age
19, SD 1.89) participated in the observer condition but
believed that the study session involved same-sex pairs. Hence, these
women watched the female confederate’s tape as observers and indicated
perceptions of acceptance. When these female participants’ perceptions of
acceptance were compared with those of the female participants in the
observer condition in Study 2, who watched the male confederate’s re-
sponse, results indicated that female outside observers reported that the
female confederate expressed greater acceptance than the male confeder-
ate, ␤⫽–.37, t(36) –2.36, p.024.
2
Once again, this gender difference seems to be a confederate effect,
rather than an effect of the participants’ gender. In the follow-up study
described in Footnote 1, the female outside observers also rated their
perception of acceptance cues from the female confederate. Once again,
results indicated that female outside observers perceived more acceptance
cues from the female confederate than from the male confederate, ␤⫽
–.74, t(38) – 6.44, p.001.
518 CAMERON, STINSON, GAETZ, AND BALCHEN
–3.34, p.001. Hence, for this dependent variable, both H2 and
H3 were supported. Finally, as with summary perceptions of
acceptance, H4b was supported such that in the observer condition,
LSEs detected many more acceptance cues than HSEs, ␤⫽–.37,
t(71) –2.28, p.025.
Results also revealed an interaction between self-esteem, con-
dition, and gender, ␤⫽–.43, t(71) –2.29, p.025. This
three-way interaction emerged because the pattern of simple ef-
fects reported for the self-esteem by condition effect, above, were
identical for men and women, but the magnitude of each of the
simple effects was stronger for men than for women.
3
Conclusions. These results suggest that LSEs are as capable
as HSEs of detecting acceptance, but they do so only when their
self-protective motive is reduced. In the observer condition, LSEs
were completely protected from any negative consequences of
incorrectly overdetecting acceptance by simply being a “fly on the
wall” observing someone else’s acceptance cues. Being a “fly on
the wall” had a very different effect on HSEs. Consistent with our
motivated-perception hypothesis, when the risk of rejection was
experimentally eliminated in the observer condition, HSEs per-
ceived less acceptance than in the self condition. Taken together,
these results support our proposal that both LSEs and HSEs exhibit
a perceptual bias as a function of social risk. Moreover, LSEs and
HSEs appear to exhibit motivated perception for summary percep-
tions of acceptance and in their perceptions of specific cues that
signify acceptance (e.g., smiles), suggesting that the biasing influ-
ence of self-esteem on perceptions of acceptance is quite perva-
sive.
These results also suggest that LSEs and HSEs live in very
different social worlds. LSEs’ self-protective perceptual bias
means that in daily life, a man with lower self-esteem will be
extremely likely to notice that his friend has lots of admirers and
that his brother attracts the attention of all the cutest dates. How-
ever, this same individual will remain relatively blind to accep-
tance cues directed at the self, even when those acceptance cues
are strong and blatant, as they were in the confederate tapes used
in the present study. In contrast, HSEs’ relationship-promoting
risk-regulation strategy of overdetecting acceptance means that
they might actually notice more acceptance directed at the self and
less acceptance directed at other people. So a man with higher
self-esteem might notice that he has more admirers than does his
friend, and he might think that he attracts more female attention
than his brother. As a result, HSEs’ perceptual bias serves to
confirm their belief that they are valuable interpersonal partners,
whereas LSEs’ perceptual bias makes it more likely that LSEs will
perceive the very rejection that they are motivated to avoid.
Study 3: Does Risk Affect Perceptions of Acceptance
in a Face-to-Face Interaction?
This study was designed to address two questions. First, would
our model generalize to a more naturalistic setting? Thus, instead
of using prerecorded tapes of confederates as a method of convey-
ing acceptance cues, participants had a face-to-face interaction
with an attractive, and ostensibly single, opposite-sex confederate
who was trained to treat all participants in exactly the same
manner. Second, would a subtle manipulation of interpersonal risk
alter perceptions of acceptance for LSEs and HSEs? Hence, par-
ticipants either interacted with the confederate after receiving only
general demographic information about the confederate, or, prior
to the interaction, the confederate disclosed in writing a personal
flaw (i.e., that he/she experiences social anxiety). We predict that
this disclosure will reduce interpersonal risk in a number of pos-
sible ways. For example, (a) it may reduce the self-focused atten-
tion and evaluation that so often accompanies social worries (e.g.,
Mor & Winquist, 2002), and this reduced self-focus may decrease
participants’ awareness of the risk of personal hurt from rejection;
(b) the disclosure suggests that the confederate, who experiences
social anxiety, may not negatively judge the participants’ own shy
or nervous behavior; or (c) the confederate’s admission of a
personal flaw may cause participants to feel superior to the con-
federate. For a number of possible reasons, then, we predict that
3
Results from the follow-up study again suggest that this Gender
Self-Esteem Condition interaction was a confederate effect, rather than
a result of the participants’ gender. In a second set of analyses, we
compared female outside observers who watched the female confederate
with male outside observers who watched the female confederate. A main
effect for self-esteem emerged, ␤⫽–.35, t(28) –1.91, p.066,
indicating that higher self-esteem was associated with perceiving less
acceptance from the female confederate, and this effect was not moderated
by participant gender (t1).
2.50
2.75
3.00
3.25
3.50
revresbOfleS
Condition
Cue Detection
A
B
3.50
3.75
4.00
4.25
4.50
4.75
5.00
5.25
5.50
5.75
6.00
revresbOfleS
LSEs HS Es
Perceptions of
Acceptance
Figure 1. A: Perceptions of acceptance as a function of self-esteem and
experimental condition (Study 2). B: Detection of acceptance cues as a
function of self-esteem and condition (Study 2). Note that results are
graphed for individuals one standard deviation below the mean on self-
esteem (i.e., LSEs lower self-esteem individuals) and one standard
deviation above the mean (i.e., HSEs higher self-esteem individuals).
519
ACCEPTANCE IS IN THE EYE OF THE BEHOLDER
this disclosure will decrease the risk of rejection, and we test this
hypothesis in a pilot study described shortly.
Hence, as observed in Study 2, we predict that LSEs will
perceive less acceptance than HSEs when the risk of rejection is
present (H1), but when the risk of rejection is reduced by the
confederate’s disclosure of a personal flaw, LSEs will detect more
acceptance than HSEs (H4b). Moreover, we expect that LSEs will
self-protectively underdetect acceptance in the risky context but
will detect increased levels of acceptance when the risk of rejec-
tion is reduced (H2). In contrast, we hypothesize that HSEs will
overdetect acceptance in the risky context but will detect decreased
levels of acceptance when the risk of rejection is reduced (H3).
These predictions are consistent with prior research in the domain
of ongoing romantic relationships, which suggests that the discov-
ery of a partner’s personal flaw decreases LSEs’ use of self-
protective risk-regulation strategies and also decreases HSEs’ use
of relationship promoting strategies (Murray et al., 2005).
Method
Participants. Twenty-eight men from the University of Wa-
terloo were recruited to participate in the present study (eight were
recruited from the introductory psychology classes, and 20 were
recruited from the campus student center).
4
Participants received
partial course credit or an $8 gift certificate and two chocolate bars
(or a stationery set) in appreciation for their time. Participants were
between 18 and 24 years of age (M20.1 years, SD 1.64), all
were single, and all reported being fluent in English.
Procedure and measures. Participants were recruited for a
study about “communication styles and media.” Participants were
informed that they would watch an excerpt from a television
program and then discuss the television program and other topics
with another participant, who turned out to be a very attractive
woman. Unbeknownst to the participants, the other “participant”
was actually a confederate. To bolster the believability of the
confederate’s participant identity, the research assistant met both
the confederate and the participant in the same location prior to the
study, and then separated them into different rooms for the first
part of the study.
In his individual lab room, each participant first completed the
preliminary survey that included the same measure of self-esteem
(␣⫽.90) as in Studies 1 and 2. Next, the participant watched an
8-min clip from a television documentary about the international
coffee industry under the premise that he would discuss this clip
with the other participant.
After watching the documentary, the participant was given an
information sheet about the confederate, constituting the experi-
mental manipulation. Participants were randomly assigned to one
of two conditions, and because a second researcher prepared the
envelopes, the researcher running the experimental session was
blind to the participant’s assigned condition. It is important to note
that the confederate was also blind to the participants’ self-esteem
and experimental condition. In the risk condition participants were
provided with information about the confederate indicating that
she was a 20-year old, single, Canadian woman whose first lan-
guage was English. In essence, this information indicated that she
was similar to the participant (in terms of language, age, and
citizenship) and potentially available for a relationship (i.e., sin-
gle). In the lower risk condition, in addition to reading the basic
demographic information about the confederate, participants read
her ostensibly hand-written answers to two additional questions:
“What are your best qualities?” and “What are some things you’d
like to improve about yourself?” Her answer to the first question
was: “I’m pretty good at creative writing, especially short stories.
And I’m open to trying new things.” Her answer to the second
question disclosed a personal flaw: “I wish I could feel more
confident in social situations. Especially when I meet someone
new (like now!), I find myself worrying about whether the other
person likes me or not. I’d like to improve that.”
Pilot study. We validated this experimental manipulation in a
pilot study. One hundred twenty participants (62 women, 58 men;
M
age
24.4 years, SD 7.61; 49 single, 71 in relationships)
completed the self-esteem scale (␣⫽.89; M7.11, SD 1.21)
and then read one of two hypothetical scenarios that asked partic-
ipants to imagine participating in either the risk condition or the
lower risk condition of the present study. Participants then reported
their perceived risk of rejection by answering two questions: “In
this scenario, how likely is it that your interaction partner would
reject you?” and “In this scenario, how likely is it that your
interaction partner would dislike you?” Both items used a 9-point
response format (1 not at all;9extremely) and were averaged
to form a reliable index (␣⫽.63; M3.77, SD 1.60).
Participants’ gender did not moderate the results that follow. As
intended, participants in the risk condition (M4.07,SD1.64)
thought that the risk of rejection was higher than did participants
in the lower risk condition (M3.44,SD1.52), ␤⫽–.19,
t(113) –2.15, p.033. In addition, LSEs (M
est
4.27) believed
rejection was more likely than did HSEs (M
est
3.72), ␤⫽–.23,
t(113) –2.57, p.011. Thus, the risk manipulation influenced
both HSEs and LSEs in a similar manner, although LSEs thought
rejection was more likely overall.
After participants in the present lab study finished reading the
information about the confederate, the researcher brought the
confederate to the participant’s lab room. The researcher then gave
the participant and the confederate their instructions for the inter-
action task: “[Participant], you were randomly assigned to be the
communicator in this study, so that means that you will give your
opinions about each of the questions on this sheet of paper, and
[Confederate], you were randomly assigned to be the listener,
which means that you are supposed to ask [Participant] the ques-
tions and then listen to his answers.” In actuality, the participant
was always assigned the role of communicator, and the confeder-
ate was always assigned the role of listener.
For all participants, the confederate was trained to act in a warm,
attentive manner with the goal of making the other participant feel
comfortable. She was required to lean toward the participant as he
spoke, and to smile, nod, maintain eye contact, and to not cross her
legs. In addition, she responded to some of the participant’s
comments with scripted lines (see Table 2). In part because she
spoke very little, the confederate’s behavior was more reserved
than the female confederate’s behavior in Studies 1 and 2.
4
To reduce the possibility of confederate effects, we limited our design
to only male participants. We selected male participants because current
social norms dictate that men bear the major responsibility of initiating
romantic relationships (Cameron et al., 2010).
520 CAMERON, STINSON, GAETZ, AND BALCHEN
After the interaction, participants completed a questionnaire that
assessed the dependent variables of perceived acceptance. Partic-
ipants reported their summary perceptions of acceptance and their
perceived cues. Summary perceptions of acceptance were assessed
with the same five items that were used in Studies 1 and 2 (␣⫽
.79). Because the confederate in the present study had been trained
to engage in certain behaviors to convey acceptance, we measured
participants’ detection of acceptance cues using only those five
items that were actually represented in the confederate’s behavior:
smiling, flashing eyebrows, flirting, touching her face, and touch-
ing her hair. Frequencies for each of the five acceptance cues were
averaged to form a perceived cue index.
Results and Discussion
Five participants did not believe that the female confederate was
a real participant. These skeptical participants’ data were not
included in the analyses that follow.
5
We used the same analysis strategy as in the previous studies.
We conducted two hierarchical regressions in which self-esteem
(mean centered; M7.24, SD 0.98), experimental condition
(dummy coded: 0 risk,1lower risk) and the interaction
between the variables were used to predict summary perceptions of
acceptance (M4.65, SD 0.63) and perceived cues (M2.07,
SD 0.38).
Summary perceptions of acceptance. This variable was not
influenced by self-esteem, condition, or the interaction between
the variables (all ts1).
Perceiving acceptance cues. Results revealed the predicted
interaction between self-esteem and condition, ␤⫽–.69, t(20)
–2.14, p.047 (see Figure 2). In the risk condition, consistent
with H1, LSEs detected much fewer acceptance cues than HSEs,
␤⫽.76, t(20) 2.25, p.037. In addition, although H2 was not
supported whereby the condition effect for LSEs was not statisti-
cally significant, ␤⫽.35, t(20) 1.47, p.154, it was in the
expected direction such that LSEs tended to detect less acceptance
in the risk condition than in the lower risk condition.
6
Moreover,
consistent with H3, the condition effect for HSEs was significant,
such that HSEs detected more acceptance cues in the risk condition
than in the lower risk condition, ␤⫽–.63, t(20) –2.71, p.037.
Unlike in Studies 2 and 3, H4b was not supported, ␤⫽–.21, t
1, although the direction of the association between self-esteem
and perceptions of acceptance cues was in the anticipated direc-
tion.
Hence, as in Study 2, when interpersonal risk was present
(i.e., in the self condition), HSEs perceived greater acceptance
than did LSEs. However, when interpersonal risk was reduced
by the confederate’s disclosure, the self-esteem difference in
perceptions of acceptance cues was eliminated. Unlike Studies
1 and 2, we did not find evidence for motivated perceptions of
acceptance on the summary measure. It is possible that only
very strong and clear manipulations of risk, such as the manip-
ulation used in Study 2, influence summary assessments of
acceptance. In contrast, participants may encode acceptance
cues like smiling quickly and automatically (e.g., Choi et al.,
2005), and thus, perception of such cues may be more influ-
enced by subtle manipulations of interpersonal risk, such as the
method used in the present study.
5
The suspicious participants were recruited from the general campus
where we could not screen for previously being in a deception study. All
suspicious participants reported previously participating in psychology
studies. None of the naı¨ve participants that had been recruited from
introductory psychology (where we could screen for previous deception
experience) detected the deception.
6
Self-esteem in Study 3 was negatively skewed compared with the
typical distribution of self-esteem in the population from which the sample
was drawn, thus Aiken and West’s (1991) technique of centering self-
esteem at one standard deviation below the mean to test the simple slope
for LSEs actually tested the simple slope for a moderate level of self-
esteem (M6.30). When we centered self-esteem at two standard devi-
ations, which is a more typical level of self-esteem for LSEs (M5.36),
the simple slope of the condition effect for this true LSE group was
significant, ␤⫽.80, t(20) 3.44, p.003.
Table 2
Confederates’ Questions and Scripted Responses in Study 3
Question Scripted response
1. What message do you think the filmmakers were
trying to communicate in the documentary that
you watched?
Agree with whatever answer the participant
provides.
2. Did you learn anything new by watching the
documentary?
No scripted response
3. How do North American attitudes towards coffee
differ from Ethiopian attitudes?
Say “That’s a hard question!” as soon as you
finish reading this question.
4. What are your favorite types of movies? No scripted response
5. What is your favorite class this semester? Why? Say “That sounds interesting!” to the participant’s
response. Be sure to ask the “why” question if
the participant doesn’t volunteer a reason.
6. What is your favorite holiday? Why? Say “That’s definitely my favorite holiday too”
when he is finished.
7. What is your dream job? Why? No scripted response
8. How do you usually spend your summers? No scripted response
9. If you could travel to anywhere in the world,
where would you go? Why?
After he answers, say “Cool! I really want to visit
Russia.”
521
ACCEPTANCE IS IN THE EYE OF THE BEHOLDER
Study 4: Does Risk Affect Goal Activation During
Relationship Initiation?
In the present study, we seek to determine whether social risk
influences goal activation in the manner that we propose. We again
return to the constrained-communication paradigm that we used in
our first two studies, but this time we use a very face-valid
manipulation of social risk. Murray et al. (2008) define risky
situations as “[situations] of dependence where one partner’s ac-
tions constrain the other’s capacity to satisfy important needs and
goals” (p. 430). In a typical relationship initiation context, people
are indeed dependent upon one another: Each person depends upon
the other’s acceptance to fulfill their need to belong. Hence, in the
high-risk condition of the present study, we exaggerate this de-
pendence by telling participants that they would have a face-to-
face meeting with their interaction partner if their interaction
partner decided that he or she was interested in such a meeting.
Hence, the participant’s social outcomes were completely depen-
dent on his or her interaction partner. In the no-risk condition,
participants were told that they would never meet their interaction
partner again. Hence, the participant’s social outcomes were not at
all dependent on his or her interaction partner’s acceptance or
rejection. As in Study 3, we conducted a pilot study to validate this
manipulation.
When the participants’ social outcomes are dependent on their
interaction partners’ decision, this risky social context should
activate self-protective avoidance goals for LSEs, whereas HSEs
should show no such activation of avoidance goals. Hence, we
expect that in the risky condition, LSEs will show greater activa-
tion of avoidance goals than HSEs (H1), and LSEs’ activation of
avoidance goals will decrease when the risk of rejection is elimi-
nated (H2). In contrast, consistent with H1, we expect that HSEs
will show greater activation of approach goals than LSEs when the
risk of rejection is present, and HSEs’ activation of approach goals
will decrease when the risk of rejection is eliminated, supporting
H3.
Method
Participants. Sixty-seven individuals (31 women; 36 men)
from introductory psychology courses at the University of Mani-
toba participated in exchange for partial course credit. Participants
were between 17 and 25 years of age (M19.1 years, SD 1.47),
all were single or casually dating, and all reported English as their
first language.
Procedure and measures. We used the same basic procedure
and materials described in Studies 1 and 2. First, participants
completed the demographic questionnaire including the self-
esteem scale (␣⫽.79). However, immediately before participants
filmed their introductory video, participants in the high-risk con-
dition (n29) were told the following:
Sometimes participants wonder if they will get to meet their interac-
tion partner face to face after making these videos. The good news is
that you two can meet each other face to face, but only if the other
participant decides that he/she wants to meet you. So after watching
each others’ tapes, I’ll ask the other participant if he/she is interested
in meeting you face-to-face. If he/she says “Yes,” I’ll bring him/her to
this room and you can meet. If he/she says no, then that will be the end
of the study.
Participants in the no-risk condition were told the following:
Sometimes participants wonder if they will get to meet their interac-
tion partner face to face after making these videos. Regulations for
running studies here actually mean that I can’t let you meet face to
face, so there isn’t any possibility of meeting the other participant,
even if you wanted to. Watching each other’s videos will be the only
contact that you have with each other.
After receiving these instructions, participants were then asked to
complete two measures that assessed their current approach and
avoidance goals. After participants completed the surveys, the
researcher informed the participants that this was the end of the
study. Participants were then probed for suspicion and fully de-
briefed.
Pilot study. Once again, we conducted a pilot study to validate
our experimental manipulation. Ninety-four participants (49 fe-
male, 45 male; M
age
21.2 years, SD 2.52; 40 single, 54 in
relationships) completed the self-esteem scale (␣⫽.90; M7.11,
SD 1.47) and then read one of two hypothetical scenarios that
asked participants to imagine participating in either the high-risk
condition or the no-risk condition of the present study. Participants
reported perceived risk by rating how “risky,” “dangerous,” “dis-
tressing,” and “difficult” the situation described in the scenario
would be, using a 9-point scale (1 not at all,9extremely).
These items were averaged to form a reliable index of risk (␣⫽
.76; M3.10, SD 1.64). A significant three-way interaction
between self-esteem, condition, and relationship status emerged,
␤⫽–.53, t(75) –2.85, p.006.
7
For those currently in
committed relationships, the interaction between self-esteem and
7
In addition, women (M3.36,SD1.64) rated the scenario as more
risky than did men (M2.62,SD1.47), ␤⫽–.18, t(85) –2.03, p
.045, and LSEs (M
est
4.55) rated the scenario as more risky than did
HSEs (M
est
2.72), ␤⫽–.51, t(85) –5.67, p.001. A significant
two-way interaction between relationship status and gender, ␤⫽.43,
t(79) 2.73, p.008, revealed that men and women did not differ when
they were currently in relationships (M
women
2.90,M
men
2.80; t1),
but single women (M4.08,SD1.65) perceived the situation as more
risky than did single men (M2.90,SD1.52), ␤⫽.20, t(79) 2.98,
p.004.
2.00
2.25
2.50
2.75
3.00
ksiR rewoLksiR
Condition
LSEs HSE s
Cue Detection
Figure 2. Detection of acceptance cues as a function of self-esteem and
condition (Study 3). Note that results are graphed for individuals one
standard deviation below the mean on self-esteem (i.e., LSEs lower
self-esteem individuals) and one standard deviation above the mean (i.e.,
HSEs higher self-esteem individuals).
522 CAMERON, STINSON, GAETZ, AND BALCHEN
condition was not significant, ␤⫽–.03, t1. However, for single
individuals, the interaction between self-esteem and condition was
significant, ␤⫽.36, t(75) 2.41, p.022 (see Figure 3). In the
high-risk condition, LSEs thought the scenario was more risky
than did HSEs, ␤⫽–.68, t(75) 3.89, p.001, whereas in the
no-risk condition, LSEs and HSEs did not reliably differ, ␤⫽
–.01, t1. In addition, LSEs viewed the high-risk scenario as
riskier than the no-risk scenario, ␤⫽–.42, t(75) –2.38, p
.019, whereas HSEs’ perceptions of risk were not influenced by
the manipulation, ␤⫽.24, t(75) 1.36, p.178, although HSEs’
responses were in the expected direction. Hence, it appears that our
manipulation affected perceptions of risk for the intended
participants–single participants, but this effect was moderated by
self-esteem.
Explicit measure of goals. To assess explicit approach and
avoid motivations, participants completed the eight-item measure
of social motivation used by Andersen, Reznik, and Manzella
(1996). Participants responded to five items meant to tap their
motivation to approach the other participant (e.g., “How much are
you willing to share your feelings with your interaction partner?”)
and three items designed to indicate their motivation to avoid the
other participant (e.g., “How much do you want to distance your-
self emotionally from your interaction partner?”). The approach
items were averaged into a single score representing explicit ap-
proach goals (␣⫽.85) and avoidance items were averaged into a
single score representing explicit avoidance goals (␣⫽.72).
Measuring cognitive accessibility of goals. When a person is
given a list of words to study and then is asked to recall as many
words as possible, the number of words recalled from a given
category is an indicator of the cognitive accessibility of those
concepts—more frequent recall indicates greater cognitive acces-
sibility (e.g., Higgins, King, & Mavin, 1982). Hence, we created a
memory task to assess the cognitive accessibility of approach and
avoidance words and reasoned that the cognitive accessibility of
approach and avoid words would reflect the cognitive accessibility
of approach and avoid goals. Participants were asked to study a list
of 22 words for 1 min. This list included seven approach words
(approach,closer,reveal,share,disclose,advance,near), seven
avoidance words (distance,conceal,protect,avoid,away,hide,
withdraw), and eight filler words (asleep,armchair,puppy,cup-
board,reading,grass,writing,table). The order in which these
words were presented was randomized for each participant. After
1 min, the list of words was taken from the participant, and the
participant was given another minute to write down as many words
as he or she could recall. The number of approach words recalled
represented the approach accessibility score and the number of
avoid words recalled represented the avoid accessibility score.
Results and Discussion
Seven participants were eliminated from the analyses. Two
participants (one female and one male) indicated during debriefing
that they did not believe that there was another participant in the
other room, one male participant opted not to finish the study after
completing the first survey, and four participants (three male and
one female) displayed response styles that called into question the
validity of their data (e.g., one participant recalled more than twice
as many words as any other participant and more than the original
word list).
Analysis strategy. We conducted four hierarchical regres-
sions in which self-esteem (mean centered; M7.50, SD 0.88),
gender (dummy coded: 0 female;1male), experimental
condition (dummy coded: 0 high risk,1no risk) and the
subsequent two-way interactions and three-way interaction be-
tween the variables were used to predict explicit approach (M
4.02, SD 1.48) and avoid (M5.88, SD 1.52) goals, and
cognitive accessibility of approach (M2.17, SD 1.06) and
avoid (M2.43, SD 1.41) words.
Explicit goals. When explicit approach goals were entered as
the criterion, there were no significant effects (all ts1.3). When
explicit avoidance goals were entered as the criterion, there were
significant main effects for self-esteem and gender. LSEs reported
greater avoidance goals (M
est
6.87) than HSEs (M
est
5.64),
␤⫽–.41, t(56) –3.43, p.001. In addition, women reported
greater avoidance goals (M6.28, SD 1.49) than men (M
5.51, SD 1.47), ␤⫽–.30, t(56) –2.57, p.01. All other
effects were not significant (all ts1).
Cognitive accessibility. Participants in the high-risk condition
were marginally more likely to recall approach words than were
participants in the no-risk condition, ␤⫽–.23, t(56) –1.77, p
.080. However, self-esteem moderated the association between
condition and accessibility of avoid words, ␤⫽.50, t(52) 2.38,
p.021 (see Figure 4). In the high-risk condition, consistent with
H1, LSEs recalled more avoid words than HSEs, ␤⫽–.45, t(52)
–2.02, p.048. In addition, consistent with H2, LSEs recalled
more avoid words in the high-risk condition than in the no-risk
condition, ␤⫽.44, t(52) 2.36, p.022, whereas the recall of
avoid words for HSEs was unaffected by condition, ␤⫽–.22,
t(52) –1.16, p.251. Taken together, these results support our
hypothesis that risk activates avoid goals for LSEs but not HSEs.
However, we failed to find support for our hypothesis that risk
activates approach goals for HSEs. This result perhaps is not
surprising given that HSEs’ ratings of risk in the pilot study were
not affected by the dependence manipulation: If HSEs’ perceptions
of risk were not affected by the manipulation, their activation of
approach goals also would not be affected by the manipulation.
Risk Assessment
2.00
2.50
3.00
3.50
4.00
4.50
5.00
5.50
High Ris k No Risk
Con dition
LSEs HSE s
Figure 3. Risk assessment for singles as a function of self-esteem and
condition (Study 4). Note that results are graphed for individuals one
standard deviation below the mean on self-esteem (i.e., LSEs lower
self-esteem individuals) and one standard deviation above the mean (i.e.,
HSEs higher self-esteem individuals).
523
ACCEPTANCE IS IN THE EYE OF THE BEHOLDER
However, it is also possible that our explicit measures both of risk
and of approach goal activation were not sensitive enough to detect
subtle, perhaps nonconscious activation of risk and approach goals
for HSEs. Hence, in the next study, we examine the effect of our
manipulation on indirect, behavioral indicators of goals, in addi-
tion to perceptions of acceptance.
Study 5: Does Risk Affect Goals and Perceptions
of Acceptance?
In our final study, we first sought to determine whether our clear
manipulation of social risk would indeed lead to the expected
biases in perceptions of acceptance. Hence, we used the same
constrained communication paradigm that we used in Studies 1
and 2 to examine the effect of the dependence manipulation on
participants’ perceptions of acceptance from the highly accepting
confederate. As in Study 3, we anticipate that in the high-risk
social context (i.e., the dependence condition), HSEs will detect
much more acceptance than LSEs (H1), but that this self-esteem
effect will be reversed in the no-risk social context (H4b). More-
over, we anticipate that LSEs will detect more acceptance in the
no-risk condition than in the high-risk condition (H2), whereas
HSEs will detect less acceptance in the no-risk condition than in
the high-risk condition (H3).
Second, we wanted to assess indirect, behavioral indicators of
approach goal activation. To this end, we asked participants
whether or not they engaged in specific behaviors during their
taped introduction that reflect relationship promotion. Moreover,
we asked observers to watch the participants’ taped introductions
and rate how likeable and attractive the participants seemed. Stin-
son et al. (2009) demonstrated that observers’ liking for partici-
pants is almost completely determined by participants’ prosocial
behavior. Hence, we thought that observers’ liking for participants
in the present study could reflect participants’ actual use of rela-
tionship promoting, prosocial behaviors and, thus, would be an
indirect behavioral indicator of the activation of participants’ ap-
proach goals. On both the participants’ reports and the observers’
reports of prosocial behavior, we expect to see more relationship-
promoting behavior from HSEs than from LSEs in the high-risk
condition (H1), but we expect this self-esteem difference to be
reversed when the risk of rejection is ameliorated (H4b). More-
over, in reflection of the activation of their approach goals in
response to social risk, we expect that risk will dampen LSEs’
prosocial behavior (H2) but will heighten HSEs’ prosocial behav-
ior (H3), relative to the no-risk condition.
Method
Participants. Thirty-nine men from introductory psychology
courses at the University of Manitoba participated in exchange for
partial course credit. Participants were between 18 and 21 years of
age (M19.9 years, SD 0.91), all were single or causally
dating, and all reported English as their first language.
Procedure and measures. We used the same basic procedure
and materials described in the lab study in Study 4. Participants
first completed the preliminary questionnaire that included the
self-esteem assessment (␣⫽.84). Before participants actually
introduced themselves to their interaction partner, participants in
the high-risk condition were informed that they might meet their
interaction partner for a second, face-to-face interaction, but only
if she wanted to meet them. Participants in the no-risk condition
were informed that they would not meet their interaction partner
for a second, face-to-face interaction. After receiving these instruc-
tions, participants filmed their introductory video, and then
watched the same female confederate’s acceptance video that was
used in Studies 1 and 2. This video was edited to remove the
confederate’s final statement (i.e., “So, I hope to see you in the
second part of the study or maybe in the hallway because I think
you’re in the room next to me!”) so as not to contradict the risk
manipulation.
After viewing the response video, participants completed assess-
ments of summary perceptions of acceptance and perceived cues.
These measures were modified from those used in Study 2 to
reflect the cover story of the present study. Specifically, any items
referring to possible future interactions (“The other participant
probably wants to meet me,” “The other participant is probably
willing to spend time with me,” and “The other participant prob-
ably wants to have a face-to-face interaction with me”) were cut.
After completing these measures, participants were thoroughly
debriefed.
After participants had completed the dependent measures they
were then asked to rate their own behavior in their video message.
To assess participants’ approach goal–relevant behavior, partici-
pants indicated how much they had engaged in two important
prosocial behaviors (i.e., smiling and leaning toward the camera),
which were interspersed amongst nondiagnostic filler items (e.g.,
cleared throat). Participants rated their behavior using a 5-point
scale (1 not at all,5most of the time).
At a later date, three trained female coders watched the first
minute of participants’ taped introductions and rated each partic-
ipant on two prosocial variables: “likeable” and “attractive.” Cod-
ers rated how well each dimension described the participants using
a 7-point scale (1 not at all,7extremely). We chose to have
observers watch only a 1-min “slice” of participants’ behavior,
because research suggests that such slices are highly predictive of
impressions formed over a longer period of time (Ambady &
Rosenthal, 1993). Interrater agreement for both variables was high
1.00
1.50
2.00
2.50
3.00
3.50
4.00
High Ris k No Risk
Con dition
LSEs HSE s
Number of Avoidance
Words Recalled
Figure 4. Accessibility of avoidance words as a function of self-esteem
and condition (Study 4). Note that results are graphed for individuals one
standard deviation below the mean on self-esteem (i.e., LSEs lower
self-esteem individuals) and one standard deviation above the mean (i.e.,
HSEs higher self-esteem individuals).
524 CAMERON, STINSON, GAETZ, AND BALCHEN
(intraclass rs.62 and .60, respectively; both ps.001). Thus,
ratings for likeability and attractiveness were combined to create
an index that represented the participants’ likeability (␣⫽.76).
Results and Discussion
Two participants indicated during debriefing that they did not
believe that there was actually a female participant watching their
taped introduction. These skeptical participants were excluded
from the analyses that follow.
Detecting acceptance. We conducted two hierarchical regres-
sions in which self-esteem (mean centered; M7.24, SD 1.05),
experimental condition (dummy coded: 0 high risk,1no risk)
and the interaction were used to predict perceptions of acceptance
(M4.37, SD 0.64) and perceived cues (M2.09, SD 0.42).
Summary perceptions of acceptance. As in Study 3, this
variable was not influenced by self-esteem, condition, or the
interaction between the variables (all ts1).
Perceiving acceptance cues. Results revealed the predicted
interaction between self-esteem and condition, ␤⫽–.66, t(33)
–2.27, p.030 (see Figure 5). In the high-risk condition, consis-
tent with H1, LSEs tended to detect fewer acceptance cues than
HSEs, ␤⫽.52, t(33) 1.76, p.088. In addition, consistent with
H2 and H3, LSEs detected fewer acceptance cues in the high-risk
condition than in the no-risk condition, ␤⫽.45, t(33) 1.47, p
.008, whereas HSEs detected more acceptance cues in the high-
risk condition than in the no-risk condition, ␤⫽–.36, t(33)
–2.22, p.032. H4b was not supported in the safe condition, ␤⫽
–.28, t(33) –1.44, p.158, but the direction of the self-esteem
effect was in the expected direction.
Using a face-valid manipulation of social risk (i.e., manipulating
dependence on one’s social partner), we thus replicated the biasing
influence of social risk observed in Studies 2 and 3. Compared
with the high-risk condition, when the possibility of rejection was
removed from the situation, LSEs actually detected more accep-
tance cues and HSEs detected fewer acceptance cues, a result that
supports our motivational account of self-esteem differences in
perceptions of acceptance.
Behavioral indicators of goals. The frequency of smiling
(M2.35, SD 0.92) was not predicted by self-esteem or the
interaction between the variables (ts1). However, for leaning
toward the camera (M1.92, SD 1.12), there was a significant
interaction between self-esteem and condition, ␤⫽–.53, t(33)
3.08, p.004 (see Figure 6). As anticipated, in the high-risk
condition, consistent with H1, LSEs reported leaning toward the
camera less than did HSEs, ␤⫽–.56, t(33) –3.23, p.003. In
addition, consistent with H2, LSEs reported leaning toward the
camera less in the high-risk condition than in the no-risk condition,
␤⫽–.74, t(33) –5.12, p.001. HSEs’ reports did not vary by
condition, ␤⫽.23, t(33) 1.61, p.116, although the means
were in the direction predicted by H3. Results for the leaning
variable were also consistent with H4b, such that in the no-risk
condition, LSEs reported leaning toward the camera more than did
HSEs, ␤⫽.40, t(33) 2.29, p.028.
Next, we used our standard regression to predict observers’
ratings of participants’ likeability (M4.03, SD 1.09). Results
revealed a main effect for self-esteem, ␤⫽.39, t(34) 2.42, p
.021, such that observers found HSEs more likeable (M
est
4.41)
than LSEs (M
est
3.70). However, this effect was qualified by the
predicted interaction between self-esteem and condition, ␤⫽–.60,
t(33) –2.22, p.034 (see Figure 7). Consistent with H1, in the
high-risk condition, observers liked HSEs much more than LSEs,
␤⫽.89, t(33) 3.26, p.003. Moreover, consistent with H2 and
H3, the experimental manipulation influenced impressions of both
LSEs and HSEs: Compared with the high-risk condition, observers
perceived LSEs to be more likeable, ␤⫽.36, t(33) 2.36, p
.022, and HSEs to be less likeable, ␤⫽–.38, t(33) –2.45, p
.018, in the no-risk condition. On this variable, we did not find
support for H4b: When the risk of rejection was experimentally
eliminated, observers were equally attracted to LSEs and HSEs
(␤⫽.16, t1).
These behavioral results offer support for our motivational
account of participants’ perceptions of acceptance. When risk was
present, LSEs’ self-protective orientation was evident in their
inhibited reports of leaning toward the camera and also in observ-
ers’ codes of their likeability. Because actual liking is strongly
dependent on people’s warm and friendly behavior (e.g., Ambady
& Rosenthal, 1993; Stinson et al., in press), this latter result
suggests that when risk is present, LSEs self-protectively inhibited
their prosocial behaviors. Ironically, the observers’ actual liking
results also suggest that LSEs’ self-protective cognitions and be-
haviors ultimately lead to the very rejection they were trying to
avoid. In contrast, HSEs seem to “pull out all the stops” when
social risk is present. In the high-risk condition, HSEs’ drive to
seek out new relationships was evident in their reports of leaning
toward the camera and in their use of likeable behaviors. However,
when the risk of rejection was eliminated, these self-esteem effects
were also eliminated or even reversed, resulting in LSEs behaving
more prosocially than HSEs.
General Discussion
In the present research, we investigated the influence of self-
esteem on people’s signature social motivations and behaviors by
examining people’s perceptions of acceptance from novel
opposite-sex interaction partners. We proposed that LSEs’ signa-
ture self-protective social motivations cause them to cautiously
Cue Detection
2.20
2.45
2.70
2.95
3.20
High Ris k No Risk
Condition
LSEs HSE s
Figure 5. Detection of acceptance cues as a function of self-esteem and
condition (Study 5). Note that results are graphed for individuals one
standard deviation below the mean on self-esteem (i.e., LSEs lower
self-esteem individuals) and one standard deviation above the mean (i.e.,
HSEs higher self-esteem individuals).
525
ACCEPTANCE IS IN THE EYE OF THE BEHOLDER
underdetect acceptance from their interaction partners, whereas
HSEs’ signature relationship-promoting social motivations cause
them to optimistically overdetect acceptance. The results of three
experiments that varied the risk of rejection using very different
manipulations (i.e., Studies 2, 3, and 5) strongly supported our
predictions. Results of a meta-analysis of the condition effects for
LSEs and HSEs in these three studies indicated that social risk
reduces perceptions of acceptance for LSEs (Z–3.81, p.001)
but increases perceptions of acceptance for HSEs (Z2.63, p
.01). Although the biasing influence of interpersonal risk on per-
ceptions of acceptance was stronger for LSEs (d–2.28) than for
HSEs (d0.81), risk exerted a strong influence on perceptions of
acceptance for everyone. To our knowledge, these results are
among the first to demonstrate that the risk-regulation system also
operates outside of ongoing romantic relationships (see also An-
thony et al., 2007), and our results are the first to demonstrate that
the risk-regulation system can bias the very manner in which
people perceive concrete social cues like smiles, eye-contact, and
laughter.
The results of the present research also demonstrate that self-
protective motivations and behaviors can have generally perni-
cious ramifications for the process of relationship initiation. LSEs’
self-protective response to risk sensitizes them to the possibility of
rejection (Study 4), increases their avoidance-goal activation
(Study 4), decreases their use of prosocial, approach behaviors
(Study 5), and inhibits their perceptions of acceptance (Studies 2,
3, and 5). Taken together, this pattern of self-protective behaviors
means that in a relationship-initiation context, LSEs are very likely
to perceive and even experience the very rejection that they so
desperately want to avoid. In contrast, HSEs’ signature
relationship-promoting motivations and behaviors have generally
positive effects on the process of relationship initiation. HSEs are
generally less sensitive to the possibility of rejection than LSEs
(Studies 3 and 4), and the risk of rejection increases their use of
prosocial, approach behaviors (Study 5), as well as exaggerating
their perceptions of acceptance (Studies 2, 3, and 5).
An Alternative Explanation
People believe they are viewed in the same manner in which
they view themselves (Shrauger & Schoeneman, 1979), and they
believe that others like them as much as they like themselves
(Kenny & DePaulo, 1993). Consequently, LSEs, who have poor
regard for themselves, may project those doubts onto others and
therefore perceive that others do not like them. In contrast, HSEs,
who believe they possess high relational value, may project their
confidence and therefore perceive that others accept them. The
literature on motivated self-perception (Kunda, 1990) also sug-
gests that LSEs may be motivated to see less acceptance from
others, whereas HSEs may be motivated to see more acceptance,
because such perceptions would be congruent with their respective
self-perceptions. Although projection and the motivation to per-
ceive feedback as being consistent with one’s self-concept may
contribute to the self-esteem main effect on perceptions of accep-
tance observed in Study 1, and these alternative accounts may also
help to explain the self– observer differences observed in Study 2,
these mechanisms cannot explain our key finding that social risk
moderates the effect of self-esteem on perceptions of acceptance,
as demonstrated in Studies 3 and 5.
Mechanisms to Explain the Self-Esteem Effects
Although our results are consistent with our risk-regulation
perspective, one may still wonder why self-esteem is related to
people’s responses to social risk. One possible answer to this
question concerns the personality variables that are associated with
self-esteem. In particular, extroversion has been linked to brain
systems implicated in guiding approach motivations, whereas neu-
roticism has been linked to brain systems implicated in guiding
avoidance motivations (e.g., Elliot & Thrash, 2002). In turn, ex-
troversion is positively related to self-esteem and neuroticism is
negatively related to self-esteem (e.g., Robins et al., 2001). Hence,
it is possible that LSEs’ relatively higher levels of neuroticism and
lower levels of extroversion predispose them to favor avoidance
motivations, whereas HSEs’ relatively higher levels of extrover-
1.00
1.50
2.00
2.50
3.00
3.50
High Ris k No Risk
Con dition
LSEs HSE s
Participant Leans
Toward the Camera
Figure 6. Participants’ reports of leaning toward the camera as a function
of self-esteem and condition (Study 5). Note that results are graphed for
individuals one standard deviation below the mean on self-esteem (i.e.,
LSEs lower self-esteem individuals) and one standard deviation above
the mean (i.e., HSEs higher self-esteem individuals).
2.00
2.50
3.00
3.50
4.00
4.50
5.00
5.50
High Ris k No Risk
Con dition
LSEs HSE s
Participants’ Likeableness
Figure 7. Participants’ likeableness as a function of self-esteem and
condition (Study 5). Note that results are graphed for individuals one
standard deviation below the mean on self-esteem (i.e., LSEs lower
self-esteem individuals) and one standard deviation above the mean (i.e.,
HSEs higher self-esteem individuals).
526 CAMERON, STINSON, GAETZ, AND BALCHEN
sion and lower levels of neuroticism predispose them to favor
approach motivations.
We suspect that these personality influences are active ingredi-
ents in the processes that we observed in the studies we presented.
Indeed, we observed main effects of self-esteem that are consistent
with such a personality account (e.g., in contrast to HSEs, LSEs
perceived greater risk in Studies 3 and 4, reported greater explicit
avoidance goals in Study 4 and exhibited less prosocial behavior in
Study 5). However, the interaction between self-esteem and social
risk is not easily explained by a personality account: If LSEs are
chronically higher in avoid motivations than HSEs, then why do
they appear to be so approach motivated in the risk-limited social
conditions? The same question in the reverse may be asked about
HSEs. Given these issues, we propose that self-esteem differences
in extroversion and neuroticism may influence baseline prefer-
ences for avoid or approach goals across social situations, but
self-esteem is still the ultimate arbiter of social goals because it is
sensitive to social risk. Depending on the riskiness of the social
context, self-esteem and risk-regulation processes may cause peo-
ple to rely on their baseline preferences, or self-esteem may
override such preferences in favor of other goals. Future research
should explore these possibilities by examining the links between
personality, self-esteem, social risk, and goals.
A second mechanism that may explain the influence of self-
esteem on perceptions of acceptance and social behavior concerns
the differing self-concepts that characterize individuals with higher
and lower self-esteem. Anthony et al. (2007) demonstrated that
LSEs’ self-doubts tend to center on their possession of qualities
that are particularly valued in first-impression situations, such as
their physical attractiveness, social skills, and their social status. In
contrast, HSEs feel very confident in their possession of these
valued social commodities. Hence, in the types of socially risky
first impression situations examined in the present research, LSEs’
poor self-views of their social commodities may have driven their
avoidance motivations. After all, if LSEs think that they do not
possess desired qualities, then they would anticipate rejection and
thus wish to avoid the social situation. In contrast, HSEs’ confi-
dence in their possession of social commodities may have allowed
them to blithely approach the risky social situations with little fear
of rejection.
If self-esteem differences in self-views are a mechanism to
explain self-esteem differences in social goals and behavior, then
it is important to ask whether these self-views are indeed accurate.
If LSEs are actually lower in social commodities than HSEs, then
perhaps LSEs’ social insecurities and HSEs’ social confidence are
warranted. If this is the case, then LSEs’ use of self-protective
social strategies may be adaptive in the sense that such strategies
may actually help LSEs to avoid real rejection; conversely, per-
haps HSEs’ use of relationship-promoting strategies is adaptive in
the sense that it really is safe for HSEs to approach new relation-
ships because acceptance is highly likely.
Research suggests that self-esteem differences in self-views
about social commodities like physical attractiveness are not gen-
erally accurate (Baumeister, Campbell, Krueger, & Vohs, 2003).
However, despite the objective similarities between LSEs’ and
HSEs’ social commodities, the results of our Study 5 indicated that
when social risk was present, LSEs were indeed less liked than
their HSEs counterparts. Although we suspect that this social
outcome was the result of a self-fulfilling prophecy resulting from
self-esteem differences in social expectations and social behavior
(e.g., Stinson et al., 2009), rather than the result of objective
differences between LSEs’ and HSEs’ possession of social com-
modities, the result is the same: Self-esteem differences in a priori
social expectations may contain a kernel of truth in risky social
situations. However, we suspect that neither group is aware of the
role that their own behavior plays in creating the social outcomes
that they anticipate. This misattribution of the root cause of social
outcomes—to one’s own traits and characteristics rather than to
one’s social behavior—may serve to further undermine LSEs’
depleted self-worth and support HSEs’ self-confidence.
Conclusions
Although socially risky contexts highlight self-esteem differ-
ences in signature social motivations and behaviors, in each of the
studies that we presented, reducing or eliminating social risk also
eliminated, and in some cases even reversed, such self-esteem
differences. These results put to rest any notion that LSEs are
socially apathetic or socially unskilled. Instead, social risk seems
to lead to self-protective motivations that simply outweigh ap-
proach motivations for LSEs, resulting in an apparent lack of
interest in forming new social bonds and an apparent skill deficit
in detecting acceptance or behaving in a likeable manner.
Unfortunately for LSEs, the everyday, normative, relationship-
initiation context appears to be a context of social risk, bound to
elicit LSEs’ self-protective motives. Given this, our findings sug-
gest a rather grim situation for LSEs desiring new social bonds:
Boy meets girl, boy underestimates acceptance, boy feels rejected,
boy acts inhibited, and boy actually gets rejected. Underestimating
acceptance might be particularly detrimental to LSEs’ emotional
well-being (Nezlek, Kowalski, Leary, Blevins, & Holgate, 1997),
and their relatively cold interpersonal behavior might actually
create the very rejection they fear (Stinson et al., 2009). Such
experiences would only serve to reinforce LSEs’ doubts about
their social value (Leary et al., 1995), perhaps even increasing their
self-protective motivations and reducing their likelihood of trying
to initiate relationships with others (Cameron, Stinson, Wood, &
Holmes, 2010). Although the heightened risk LSEs experience in
forming social bonds might encourage them to fulfill their need to
belong with less risky, less interpersonal means (Gardner et al.,
2000), a lack of real social bonds with others could have real
negative consequences for their health (Stinson et al., 2008) and
well-being (Baumeister & Leary, 1995). In contrast, the everyday,
normative, first-meeting context appears to benefit HSEs, who
favor connectedness goals over self-protection. Although this sig-
nature social strategy leads HSEs to overdetect acceptance, which
potentially could lead to awkward social interactions, their likeable
behavior under such risky circumstances may offset this risk
because it ultimately creates real acceptance from others, as evi-
denced by our results in Study 5. Consequently, the social risk
inherent in day-to-day life leads HSEs to shine and receive actual
acceptance from others, thus bolstering their already secure sense
of self.
On a hopeful note for LSEs, when interpersonal risk is reduced,
their perceptions of acceptance increase, and they act in a more
likeable manner. This suggests that interventions designed to build
the social networks of LSEs should focus on reducing perceptions
of interpersonal risk. The manipulation of social risk used in Study
527
ACCEPTANCE IS IN THE EYE OF THE BEHOLDER
3 may be a readily applicable intervention. Highlighting for LSEs
that other people also experience social anxiety may be an effec-
tive tool to help LSEs put aside their self-protective motives so that
they can see, and potentially create, the acceptance that they crave.
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Received August 25, 2008
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Accepted May 15, 2009
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529
ACCEPTANCE IS IN THE EYE OF THE BEHOLDER
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