Self Enhancing Believes Relationship to Psychological Distress Examined by Anxiety Related Attentional Biases

Article excerpt


Despite robust data and influential arguments supporting the positive illusion theory, the potential benefits of self-enhancement have been a controversial research topic in social and health psychology. Some critics proposed that self-enhancement reflects little more than defensive denial and serves to camouflage psychological distress. We propose that anxiety related attentional biases, as valid implicit measures of distress, may help us see more clearly into this debate. Participants were 102 undergraduate students. Although results revealed that overall, high and medium selfenhancers had better performance on a color naming task and were less affected by emotionally arousing content compared to low self enhancers; high self enhancers were more affected by socially rejecting content. Discussion centers on the possible buffering effects of self-enhancing beliefs at unconscious levels.

Keywords: positive illusions, psychological distress, attentional biases, implicit measures

For the past 15 years, Taylor and her collaborators have studied the relation of positive illusions to mental health, gathering evidence for the many beneficial effects of self-enhancement on mental functioning and repeatedly reaching the conclusion that unrealistically optimistic beliefs are protective of health (Taylor, 2005).

Despite their influential arguments, and the numerous studies supporting their model, the potential benefits of self-enhancement have been a controversial research topic in social psychology and health psychology. Critics have pointed out, that one major limitation of studying overly positive self-evaluations is that people prone to self enhancement, may display illusory responses to self report mental health measures items as well, leading to false positive biases. Thus, all measures that contain a self-evaluation component may well be positively biased and of questionable validity for individuals with self-enhancing tendencies. In a sharper version, self-enhancement has been characterized as reflecting defensive neuroticism that leads to self-deceptive suppression of negative information about the self (Colvin & Block, 1994; Colvin, Block & Funder, 1995; Myers & Brewin, 1996; Paulhus, 1998).

This argument was most explicitly expressed by Shedler, Manis and Mayman (1993), who argued that positive illusions are characteristic of those, who are denying distress. "The presence of the defensive deniers would account for the paradoxical finding that normal subjects, distort more than depressive subjects. In short, positive illusion findings, may be nothing but artifacts, due to researchers' inability, to assess mental health in any meaningful way" (p. 1117). In this view, positive illusions are the result of the inadequacies of self-report scales to make a difference between genuine and fake mental health.

The aim of the present study was to investigate the relations of positive illusion to psychological distress in a Romanian (Transylvanian) sample, of mixed cultural background1. We proposed that an implicit measure of psychological distress may help us see more clearly into this debate.

Social biases, positive illusion and mental health

Taylor and Brown (1988) reviewed the current social psychological literature and synthesized social biases in an integrative model called the "Cognitive adaptation theory". Most importantly, in their view, biases are not just cognitive errors due to limitations of the human cognitive systems, but rather a basic ground for mental health. Taylor and Brown, drawing their first conclusion on studies demonstrating that depressed and low-self-esteem individuals manifest more accurate perceptions than non depressed people, asserted that the mild distortion of reality in favor of self is normal and promotes mental health. This tendency to perceive ourselves and the world through "rose colored glasses" was labeled in the literature positive illusions2. …