June 9, 1999 COLUMBUS, Ohio -- People with high levels of self-doubt have markedly different thinking patterns than do individuals who harbor lower levels of self-doubt, a new study shows.
Researchers at Ohio State University asked college students to come up with either two or eight past events when they felt confident about their ability to perform an important task.
They found that students who were high in self-doubt actually showed lower levels of self-esteem when they were required to name eight confidence-raising events versus when they had to name only two such examples.
“You would expect someone to have a higher self-regard if he could think of many positive episodes from his life instead of just two,” said Robert Arkin, a professor of psychology at Ohio State. “But the ironic finding is those individuals who are high in self-doubt do precisely the reverse.”
The reason has to do with the difficulty in coming up with eight positive, self-affirming examples from their lives, said Anthony Hermann, a doctoral student at Ohio State and co-author of the study.
“People with high self-doubt focus on how difficult it was to come up with eight positive examples, and that makes them feel worse about themselves,” Hermann said. “People with low self-doubt focus on the fact that they came up with eight examples.”
Hermann and Arkin presented their findings June 4 in Denver, Colo. at the annual meeting of the American Psychological Society. The researchers co-authored the study with Geoffrey Leonardelli, also a doctoral student in psychology at Ohio State.
The researchers divided 120 college freshman into two groups -- one group was asked to recall two situations when they felt confident about their abilities, while the other group was asked to recall eight such examples. Many students cited examples in which they did well academically or in an athletic situation. Following the recall session, each student was asked to fill out questionnaires measuring self-doubt and self-esteem.
When they examined the results, the researchers found that students with high levels of self-doubt felt worse when they had to come up with eight examples versus two examples, while the students with low levels of self-doubt felt better about themselves when required to provide eight positive examples.
In a related study, researchers made the task even more difficult for students who were low in self-doubt by asking them to recall up to 20 examples of past self-confidence.
“We thought that if we made it even more difficult for those with low self-doubt to come up with positive examples, that they would start behaving like their counterparts with high self-doubt,” Hermann said. “We thought they would start concentrating on the difficulty of coming up with examples. But that didn’t happen.”
The researchers concluded that there are decidedly different thinking patterns between people with low self-doubt and those with high self-doubt. In spite of how difficult it may be to come up with numerous examples of confidence-bolstering situations, people with low levels of self-doubt seem to feel even better about themselves when they think of those examples. Meanwhile, people high in self-doubt feel worse and may blame themselves for the perceived difficulty in coming up with examples of past successes.
“These people worry and dwell on the difficulty,” Hermann said. “It’s really hard for them and probably gets harder still because they’re thinking about the task at hand, while low self-doubters aren’t as concerned about or as invested in issues of self-worth.”
The results suggest trying to coax a person with high self-doubt through their slump can backfire, Arkin said.
“The longer a person tries to come up with positive experiences and the more difficult it seems, the more likely that person is to enter into this cyclical experience in which their self-doubt feeds upon itself,” he said.
“People with high levels of self-doubt shouldn’t spend a long time trying to generate positive examples to argue against their current funk. If they try to come up with additional reasons, it’s probably going to backfire.”
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