By Steven G. Mehta

How does a person’s self esteem affect his or her ability to make judgments about others?  Well a new study shows that a person is more likely to be biased against another person who is different if they have lower self esteem.

“This is one of the oldest accounts of why people stereotype and have prejudice: It makes us feel better about ourselves,” says Jeffrey Sherman of the University of California, Davis, who wrote the study with Thomas Allen. “When we feel bad about ourselves, we can denigrate other people, and that makes us feel better about ourselves.”

In their study, Sherman and Allen asked participants to take a an impossible test with 12 difficult questions.  No one got more than two items correct. However, half of the group was told that they scored well below average – creating a level of self consciousness and low self esteem.  The others were told their tests would be graded later. All of the participants then completed a testing of their prejudices.    The people who were feeling bad about their test performance showed more evidence of implicit prejudice.  The researchers also discovered that that people who feel bad about themselves show enhanced prejudice because negative associations are activated to a greater degree.

“If the problem was that people were having trouble inhibiting bias, you might try to train people to exert better control,” Sherman says. But his results suggest that’s not the issue. “The issue is that our mind wanders to more negative aspects of other groups. The way around that is to try and think differently about other people. When you feel bad about yourself and catch yourself thinking negatively about other groups, remind yourself, ‘I may be feeling this way because I just failed a test or something.'”

This research has interesting implications for litigation and adr.  First, in jury selection.   It might be helpful if you have a jury that is from a different background than your client to try and investigate issues regarding self worth, self esteem, and recognizing one’s place in the social society.  By doing so, you can attempt to find the persons who may be more prejudiced against your client.

Second, in ADR, it may be possible to try and change a person’s feelings about him or herself.  If a person is potentially biased about how the other side feels or acts, you might attempt to create an environment which is conducive to bolstering a person’s self esteem.  For example, you might compliment (only if true) a decision made during the mediation or actions taken previously by the person.  You could also change the topic to something that the person knows a considerable amount about.  By doing so, that person with self esteem issues may be able to demonstrate his or her expertise – and in turn raise self esteem for the moment.  All of this could be done before asking that person to consider the other side’s actions, response, or feelings.

Research Source:

Association for Psychological Science. “People with low self-esteem show more signs of prejudice.” ScienceDaily 23 February 2011. 24 February 2011 <­/releases/2011/02/110223151945.htm&gt;.