Our goal is to conduct experimental research to develop interventions that might help people feel more secure. Our starting point is past research in which we have found that insecurity feelings derive in large part from anxieties about whether one will be liked, accepted, and respected by one's peers and significant others. Sometimes people are aware of these concerns, but often social insecurities of this type influence people's thoughts and feelings "automatically", without a lot of deliberate thought and sometimes even entirely outside of their awareness. All they experience are negative reactions to the self or to social situations.
People with fewer insecurities, on the other hand, seem to have a range of automatic thought processes that make them confident and buffer them from worrying about the possibility of social rejection. Fortunately, our recent research shows that with enough practice, even people with low self-esteem can develop these beneficial thought processes that might allow them to gradually become more secure and self-confident. We started with the idea that just as playing Tetris over and over for hours can start to shape the way you look at the world (even in your dreams!), playing a specially-designed computer game might also help to improve your thoughts and feelings about yourself. We describe some of this research here, and provide some simple demonstrations of the kinds of repetitive training tasks we have developed. Our hope is to continue this work to try to identify the automatic patterns of thought that help people feel secure, and the training tasks that can help people engage in those patterns of thought.
Although our research thus far is promising, we can make absolutely no claims about the effectiveness of the games we've developed for helping any particular individual deal with any particular issue or problem. For the treatment of psychological problems, please consult a qualified psychotherapist. If you are interested in the findings from our ongoing research or for further information on the development of these games, go to our self-esteem games website or contact us at baldwin.social.cognition.lab [at] gmail.com.
We plan to update our site from time to time with news about recent projects and other developments.
The lab’s most recent research is on people’s expectations of rejection versus acceptance. More specifically, we have been looking at how these expectations influence motivation and self-perception, and at how they can be re-trained using social-cognitive methods. We have explored these questions in several contexts, including sport performance, lay theories of intelligence, and identification with domains in which stereotyping is likely. For example, one of Dr.Baldwin’s graduate student, Sara Etchison, is focusing on how media portrayals of the wealthy shape expectancies about whether money can buy social acceptance and how those expectancies impact people’s wealth acquisition goals.
Certainly not all instances of rejection result in aggressive responses, and several lines of research have documented possible moderating factors. One prosocial factor that appears to reduce the link between rejection and aggression is the ability to maintain a subjective sense of social connection, i.e. a sense of acceptance or belonging, even in the face of a rejection experience. We have done research to see if activating a mental state of social connection could break the link between rejection and aggression and we examined the impact of a recently developed conditioning intervention, designed to foster a sense of social connection, on feelings of aggressiveness after a rejection among children and adolescents with high and low self-esteem.
In a study conducted with a sample of youth aged 9-15, we hypothesized that participants who played the conditioning game would report lower aggressive feelings and behaviour intentions than participants in the control condition, and that this would be especially salient for participants with low self-esteem. 138 adolescents first completed a conditioning game on computer that repeatedly paired their own name with images of social acceptance (versus a control condition with no systematic pairing), and subsequently reported how aggressively they would behave in response to being rejected by a peer. We found that a simple computer game that pairs the self-concept with images of warm social acceptance can temper adolescents’ tendency to react to social rejections with aggressiveness as they reported less aggressive feelings and intentions. The effect of the conditioning intervention was particularly pronounced among those 9-to 15-year-olds with relatively low self-esteem, who presumably find it most difficult to maintain an emotional sense of secure connection to others when under threat. In line with the current findings, the link between low self-esteem and aggression does seem to involve issues of insecurity and rejection. Fostering healthy self-regard, then, by increasing the sense of being accepted and included by others, is likely to reduce rather than increase aggressiveness in the long run.
Worries and concerns regarding social rejection can be highly stressful and disruptive. In the school context in particular, such concerns and distractions can undermine confidence and interfere with performance. We therefore attempted to train a particular cognitive habit, of inhibiting thoughts of rejection, to see if this might help students deal with failure and social rejection. The participants were 150 students from adult education centres. They were first trained using our computer game, which was designed to help them practice disengaging from images of socially threatening faces, and focusing their attention on socially supportive faces. Afterwards, they were put in a difficult task situation where they underwent failure and social rejection.
The results showed playing the find-the-smile "Matrix" game (as opposed to a control condition in which participants searched for nonsocial stimuli) was helpful to people; particularly those starting the study with relatively low self-esteem. The attentional training led them to feel less rejected and, on a computerized reaction-time task, they were less distracted by rejection-related stimuli. Also, participants who played the find-the-smile "Matrix" game reported fewer interfering thoughts about rejection while they were working on a school-related task, and went on to show higher self-esteem scores after that task. These results show the potential for "emotion training" in serious games. More specifically, the findings demonstrate the value of research into the development of games to train attentional responses to social feedback, a cognitive habit that appears to yield beneficial emotional outcomes in the school context.
Is it possible to improve people’s unconscious, gut feelings of self-esteem? Low self-esteem negatively affects the social lives of many people. Several studies have shown that low self-esteem is related to depression, aggression, and social anxiety. It has also been shown that low self-esteem is linked to feelings of rejection from other people. This study looked to see if we can increase self-esteem through a computer-game type task, by increasing people’s feelings of acceptance. In the computer game, people were asked to enter some information about themselves (i.e. first name, birthday). We call this information 'self-relevant' information because it is unique to the person and we think it contributes to the sense of identity. Next, they clicked on words that appeared in four boxes, which were then followed by a picture of a face. The positive conditioning involves pairing self-relevant information with smiling, approving faces. We found that people who completed this game showed an increase in implicit self-esteem. Our research demonstrated that implicit self-esteem is, in part, represented as unconscious expectancies of social acceptance. This game creates a pairing between the self and positive social feedback, thus leading to automatic thoughts of secure acceptance in relation to the self.