Self-Esteem Regulation in Threatening Social Comparison: The Roles of Belief in a Just World and Self-Efficacy

Article excerpt

In this study, the author hypothesized that a high belief in a just world for Self (BJW-S), coupled with high perceived self-efficacy, would contribute to preservation of self-esteem in threatening social comparison. Participants (N=186) completed the General Self-Efficacy Scale (Walliser, Schwartzer, & Jerusalem, 1993) and the BJW-S and BJW for Others (BJW-O) scales (Lipkus, Dalbert, & Siegler, 1996). They were then given either an upward (unfavorable) or downward (favorable) social comparison in the academic field. The results suggested that BJW-S (but not BJW-O) coupled with high self-efficacy contributed to maintaining self-esteem in the face of an unfavorable social comparison. However, in cases of low perceived self-efficacy, BJW-S acted in the opposite direction: when BJW-S was low, self-esteem was not affected by unfavorable social comparisons, while it decreased when BJW-S was high.

Keywords: self esteem, just world, self-efficacy, threat, social comparison

The belief in a just world (BJW), according to which people generally get what they deserve (Lerner, 1980), constitutes a fundamental attitudinal orientation widely involved in the perception and comprehension of individuals' physical and social environment. According to Lerner (1980, p.125), the relevance of BJW is not limited to the judgment of others, even if his theory is mostly known from this aspect. As the perspective of the target is invested with increasing importance in social psychology (see Swim & Stangor, 1998), the Just World hypothesis is examined more and more frequently from the point of view of the individual. It has been demonstrated that BJW is indisputably related to psychological benefits. Many studies have underlined that just world believers react more favorably to various threatening situations (see Dalbert, 2001, for review).

It may be assumed that the more relevant dimension in matters referring to psychosocial adjustment is the belief in a just world for the Self rather than for Others, the former being implicitly taken into account by subjects when they respond to a general scale. In a study by Lipkus, Dalbert, and Siegler (1996), only BJW for Self coherently predicted less depression, less stress, and higher life satisfaction. Furthermore, it has been shown that BJW for Self is more coherently correlated than is BJW for Others with the five main personality dimensions (Costa & Mc Crae, 1989): just world believers see themselves as less neurotic, more emotionally stable, extraverted, and open. A study by Bègue and Bastounis (2003) also showed that BJW for self (and not BJW for others) was significantly correlated with feeling that life was purposeful.

The literature cited above lends support to the idea that individuals who believe that what happens to them and to others is in line with their own actions or character have at their disposal an important regulator involved in the daily management of potentially threatening or destabilizing situations. Tomaka and Blascovitch (1994) have described the moderating role that BJW has on stress in a potentially stressing situation. Strong just world believers manifested lower stress (measured by psychological and physiological indicators) after performing two quick tasks of subtraction and committed fewer errors during the task than did low just world believers. Based on these results which underline the stress-buffering effect of BJW, the following study tested the hypothesis that students' BJW-S would contribute to a positive perception of a potentially stressing situation. The procedure employed to induce stress was inspired by work on social comparison (Festinger, 1954). Subjects had to compare themselves to targets presented as benefiting from more or less enviable attributes than themselves. The effects of such comparison on self-esteem have been well established in prior research: ascending or upward social comparison (comparing oneself to someone superior) induces a decrease in self-attributed value. …