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Implicit self-esteem

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Implicit self-esteem refers to a person's disposition to evaluate themselves in a spontaneous, automatic, or unconscious manner. It contrasts with explicit self-esteem, which entails more conscious and reflective self-evaluation. Both explicit and implicit self-esteem are constituents of self-esteem.


Implicit self-esteem has been specifically defined as "the introspectively unidentified (or inaccurately identified) effect of the self-attitude on evaluation of self-associated and self-dissociated objects".[1] Considering the difficulties which come with verbalizing one's intuitions, measures of implicit self-esteem offer an avenue into people's deep seated feelings about themselves. In the vast majority of implicit self-esteem measures, people rate themselves in a highly positive manner. The overestimation of one's traits and abilities is argued to be a spillover of positive affect from the self to objects associated with the self.[2] This "spillover" is automatic and unconscious. Implicit self-esteem therefore offers an explanation of positivity bias for things related to the self. Associations are especially important; implicit self-esteem is made up of a series of associations between the self and a positive or negative evaluation of the self. This is especially shown in measures of the Implicit Association Test.

Conditioning implicit self-esteemEdit

It has been suggested that levels of implicit self-esteem can be affected by evaluative conditioning.[3][4] That is, a person's evaluation of a neutral stimulus can be affected by pairing it with another positive, or negative, stimulus. For example, if a neutral stimulus is paired with a positive stimulus, the person's evaluation of the neutral stimulus become more positive. Conditioning processes in this respect require very little conscious awareness.[3] Taking this into account, it can be seen how different people's experiences of socialization may come to affect their levels of implicit self-esteem.

Cultural differencesEdit

As conditioning experiences may occur repeatedly throughout a person's life, their cultural background may have a role to play in their level of implicit self-esteem. While Western cultures emphasize the personal achievement and growth of the individual, Eastern cultures are more shaped towards the growth of the collective.[5] This differentiation between individual and group needs may elicit a difference in implicit self-esteem across cultures. Specifically, it has been hypothesized[6] that those in Asian cultures may have lower implicit self-esteem. This was consequently found, however, that Asian immigrants spending time in Western cultures (such as the USA) show an increase in implicit self-esteem, as well as a decrease in implicit group esteem. This lends weight to the vulnerability of implicit self-esteem to conditioning processes.

Measures of implicit self-esteemEdit

Implicit self-esteem is assessed using indirect measures of cognitive processing. These include the Name Letter Task[7] and the Implicit Association Test.[8] Such indirect measures are designed to reduce awareness of, or control of, the process of assessment. When used to assess implicit self-esteem, they feature stimuli designed to represent the self, such as personal pronouns (e.g., "I") or letters in one's name.

Name–letter effectEdit

Main article: Name–letter effect

The name–letter effect is one of the widest used measures of implicit self-esteem. It represents the idea that an individual prefers the letters belonging to their own name and will select these above other letters in choice tasks. It seemingly occurs subconsciously,[9] with the mere-exposure effect ruled out as a possible explanation.[10]

This effect has been found in a vast range of studies. In one such scenario, participants were given a list of letters, one of which contained letters from their own name and the other of which contained other letters, and asked them to circle the preferred letter. This study found that, even when accounting for all other variables, letters belonging to the participants' own names were preferred.[11]

Similar results have been found in cross-cultural studies, using different alphabets.[12]

It is important to note the difference between the name–letter effect and 'implicit egotism',[13] the latter being attributed to the way people gravitate towards places, people and situations that reflect themselves, including perhaps similarities with their own name. Indeed, research into the topic has shown similarities between people's names and their future careers; for example, the names Dennis and Denise are overepresented among dentists.[14]

Implicit Association TestEdit

Main article: Implicit Association Test

The Implicit Association Test is an experimental method used within psychology to attempt to tap in to a person's automatic, or subconscious association between a concept and an attribute.[1] It has been widely used in an attempt to uncover a person's subconscious prejudices against certain members of society, such as those who are overweight, as well as other implicit stereotypes and associations. The test was formatted in order to measure self-esteem.[8] Participants are asked to make rapid responses, co-classifying themselves ("the self") and positive attributes, as well as negative attributes. The speed, or ease of these associations made is said to show a subconscious, or implicit preference for one attribute over another, with regards to the self.


Many studies,[15] have shown that the vast majority of people's implicit self-esteem is positively biased. That is, people find it a great deal easier to associate themselves with a positive concept than a negative one. Whether this is truly displaying implicit self-esteem is arguable; the findings may instead be linked with illusory superiority, in that people tend to rate themselves as above average on a number of scales.

Links with explicit self-esteemEdit

However, the validity of the Implicit Association Test and implicit self-esteem as a measure of self-esteem itself is questionable due to mixed evidence with regards to explicit self-esteem. One the one hand, researchers,[16] in a detailed and comprehensive study of implicit self-esteem, found the IAT to weakly, yet consistently, correlate with measures of explicit self-esteem. However, more recent research[17] has found measures of explicit self-esteem, such as questionnaires, to be independent of implicit self-esteem, providing an interesting insight into the validity of implicit self-esteem, explicit self-esteem, and the nature of self-esteem itself.


  1. 1.0 1.1 Greenwald, A. G., & Banaji, M. R. (1995). Implicit social cognition: Attitudes, selfesteem, and stereotypes. Psychologicnl Review, 102, 4-27.
  2. Farnham, D. S., Greenwald, G. A., & Banaji, M. N. (1999. Implicit selfesteem. In D. Abrams & M. Hogg(Eds.), Social identity and social cognition (pp. 230-248). Oxford, UK: Blackwell.
  3. 3.0 3.1 De Houwer, J., Thomas, S., & Baeyens, F. (2001). Associative learning of likes and dislikes: A review of 25 years of research on human evaluative conditioning. Psychological Bulletin, 127, 853-869.
  4. Baccus, J.R., Baldwin, M.W., Packer, D.J. (2004). Increasing implicit self-esteem through classical conditioning. Psychological Science, 15, 498-502.
  5. Heine, S. J., Lehman, D. R., Markus, H. R., & Kitayama, S. (1999). Is there a universal need for positive self-regard? Psychological Review, 106, 766-794.
  6. Hetts, J. J., Sakuma, M, & Pelham, B. W. (1999). Two roads to positive regard: Implicit and explicit self-evaluation and culture. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 35, 512-559.
  7. Koole, Sander L.; Brett W. Pelham (2003). "On the Nature of Implicit Self-Esteem: The Case of the Name Letter Effect" Motivated social perception, 93–116, Mahwah, New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum. URL accessed 25 April 2009.
  8. 8.0 8.1 Greenwald, Anthony G., Shelly D. Farnham (December 2000). Using the implicit association test to measure self-esteem and self-concept. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 79 (6): 1022–38.
  9. Koole, S. L., Dijksterhuis, A., & van Knippenberg, A. (2001). What's in a name: Implicit self-esteem and the automatic self. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 80,669-685.
  10. Jones, J. T., Pelham, B. W., Mirenberg, M. C., & Hetts, J. J. (2002). Name–letter preferences are not merely mere exposure: Implicit egotism as self-regulation. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 38, 170-177.
  11. Nuttin, J. M. (1985). Narcissism beyond Gestalt and awareness: The name letter effect. European Journal of Social Psychology, 15(3), 353-361.
  12. Hoorens, V., Nuttin, J. M., Herman, I. E., & Pavakanun, U. (1990). Mastery pleasure versus mere ownership: A quasi-experimental cross-cultural and cross alphabetical test of the name letter effect. European Journal of Social Psychology, 20(3), 181-205.
  13. Pelham, B.W., Carvallo, M., & Jones, J.T. (2005). Implicit egoism. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 14(2), 106-110.
  14. Pelham, B.W., Mirenberg, M.C., & Jones, J.T. (2002) Why Susie Sells Seashells by the Seashore: Implicit Egotism and Major Life Decisions, Attitudes and Social Cognition
  15. Karpinski, A. (2004). Measuring self-esteem using the implicit association test: The role of the other. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 30, 22-34.
  16. Bosson, J.K., Swann, W.B., & Pennebaker J.W. (2000). Stalking the perfect measure of implicit self esteem: The blind men and the elephant revisited? Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 79, 631-649
  17. Rudolph, A., Schro¨ der-Abe´ , M., Schu¨ tz, A., Gregg, A. P., & Sedikides, C. (2008). Through a glass, less darkly? Reassessing convergent and discriminant validity in measures of implicit self-esteem. European Journal of Psychological Assessment, 24, 273–281.
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