Take a ride in a glass elevator, from ground level to rooftop in a single ride. How do you feel?
If you’re like most people, you feel – no surprise here – like you’re on top of the world. You feel good about yourself and believe in your ability to overcome any obstacle and conquer every challenge. The only downside is – well, going down. By the time you get to the bottom, not only have your feelings of grandeur evaporated, but now you feel a bit puny, somewhat insignificant, and less than capable.
But wait! You can save yourself the effort. Researchers have discovered that you can awaken the same responses by merely imagining yourself soaring skyward or plummeting earthward. With a little visualization, you can create your own mood.
But what happens next?
That’s what Max Ostinelli, David Luna, and Torsten Ringbergat wanted to find out. The three University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee, psychologists had people imagine themselves rising up into the sky, then asked them to solve a series of SAT-style math problems. With all that positive and high self-esteem pumping up their neural pathways, certainly, their performance should have increased significantly. Right?
Wrong. They did worse. A lot worse. In fact, the performance gap between those who had their self-esteem artificially inflated and those who had theirs artificially diminished was between 20 and 30 percent.
As Max Ostinelli explains to NPR,
“When we boost self-esteem in this way, people are motivated to maintain their high self-esteem. So they say, well, I’ll withdraw from the task.”
In other words, when we know that our feelings of accomplishment are unearned or undeserved, our defense mechanism kicks in to protect our fragile bubble of fantasy from the nasty pinprick of reality. Conversely, when we feel we have to prove ourselves, an inner voice prompts us to engage and persevere rather than sit around wallowing in our feelings of inadequacy.