Magazine article Science News

Truth Aches

Magazine article Science News

Truth Aches

Article excerpt

What do Roman poet Ovid and comedian Groucho Marx have in common? Separated by nearly 2,000 years, each delivered a pungent and seemingly paradoxical one-liner that exemplifies a provocative theory of how people think about and form close relationships. The theory, championed by psychologist William B. Swann Jr. of the University of Texas at Austin, has attracted considerable interest, as well as skepticism, among behavioral investigators.

"I flee who chases me, and chase who flees me," wrote Ovid, who undoubtedly had problems getting dates.

Groucho, a ladies' man more adept at chasing than fleeing (at least in his movies), nonetheless echoed Ovid with this quip: "I'd never join a club that would have me as a member."

Both remarks, says Swann, defy a basic assumption about social conduct: Above all, people love to be loved by others. On this point, folk wisdom converges with several decades of social science research.

But Ovid and Groucho could find solace in the implication, suggested by a number of studies directed by Swann, that people want more than adoration in their close relationships.

"As people mature, they learn that their relationships proceed most smoothly when others see them as they see themselves, even if they see themselves negatively," he maintains.

People who view themselves unfavorably tend to enter a "psychological cross fire" between an initial longing for praise and a subsequent desire to preserve their self-concept with critical assessments, according to Swann. "For such persons, the warmth produced by favorable feedback is chilled by incredulity, and the reassurance produced by negative feedback is tempered by sadness that the 'truth' could not be more kind," he says.

If Swann's proposition, which he dubs "self-verification theory," holds up, it may prod psychologists to revise their understanding of marriage, friendship, and depression. Common techniques used by psychotherapists to bolster self-esteem and alleviate depression may also undergo reevaluation.

Self-verification theory takes its inspiration from research extending back nearly 100 years. Theorists have argued that each person develops enduring opinions about his or her qualities and abilities--a self-concept--by paying attention to how others react to them. Someone sporting a stable self-concept uses it to predict the responses of others and to seek out consistent views, according to this model.

In the last several decades, an opposing body of research has indicated that people generally pursue praise, whether it matches what they really think about themselves or not. Some investigators now argue that happiness flourishes among those who embrace positive illusions about themselves and unflaggingly seek such opinions from others, while depression more often afflicts those who pursue a relatively balanced mix of kind and critical comments.

In contrast, Swann's research suggests that many depressed people seek out a steady stream of disapproving comments from loved ones and close friends.

"A fundamental need for psychological coherence compels [depressed individuals] to confirm their negative self-concept and seek out information that makes sense in light of their past experiences," Swann argues.

He offers the example of a man who deems himself dull-witted but overhears his wife characterize him as brilliant. An initial glow of pride recedes as the man realizes the laudatory remark challenges a long-standing belief about his intelligence. If his wife is right, what does he really know about himself? To avoid this psychological limbo, he presents his intellectual shortcomings in various ways so that his wife knows what to expect of him and the relationship can proceed harmoniously. If she fails to pick up on his cues, the relationship may founder.

Several tests of self-verification theory appear in the May JOURNAL OF ABNORMAL PSYCHOLOGY. …

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