Self-effacing people are secretly confident

No matter how meek they might appear, most people are endowed with the same self-confidence, new research reveals. For some, however, that confidence is buried deep inside.

Within the United States as well as across cultures—and stereotypes—all individuals hold a positive inner confidence.

“A given person with high implicit [or inner] self-esteem may be outwardly self-promoting or may be outwardly very modest,” said study team member Anthony Greenwald, a psychologist at the University of Washington.

The results are detailed in the June issue of the journal Psychological Science.


The finding that a self-effacing woman (for instance one who is quick to negate any compliment sent her way) could hold a deep assuredness seems at odds with reason.

But the scientists suggest that cross-culturally similar practices of child-rearing, which include adoration and nurturing of youth, create the foundation for well-poised adults. Whether the grown-ups express their inner attitudes outwardly is partly based on cultural norms.

Previously, psychologists have used these outward expressions to gauge a person’s self-esteem.

To dig beneath arrogant or self-loathing veneers, Greenwald and Susumu Yamaguchi of Tokyo University, along with other colleagues, measured so-called implicit self-esteem with the Implicit Association Test (IAT) in more than 500 university students from the United States, Japan and China.

The students were asked to respond to various pleasant words paired with words that referred to themselves (I, my, me, mine), while being timed. The idea is that the longer it takes, the more difficult it must be to associate certain words with oneself, resulting in a measure of a person’s implicit self-esteem and attitudes about himself or herself.

Students from all three countries showed highly positive implicit self-esteem, with the Japanese students scoring the highest among the cultures.

“It does not make much sense to argue that Japanese have lower or negative self-esteem,” Yamaguchi told LiveScience, “because at the implicit level Japanese hold comparable or higher self-esteem than Americans.”

Everyone’s on a pedestal

Similar child-rearing practices across cultures could explain the similarly positive self-esteem, suggest the researchers.

“It may be that parents in all societies, especially mothers, adore their children and put them on a pedestal, so that children worldwide absorb a highly positive self-concept,” said Greenwald, a co-developer of the IAT.

As for the grandiose boasting of Americans relative to East Asians, the authors suggest social norms, particularly modesty norms, are the culprit.

“Ordinary East Asians are aware that they hold strongly positive self-views,” Yamaguchi said. “But the prevalent modesty norm prevents them from expressing it publicly.”

Psychologists actively debate how self-esteem affects a person’s behavior. However, the debate surrounds explicit self-esteem, and Greenwald suggests the implicit variety could have a more significant impact in everyday living.
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