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Help, I've Failed and I Can't Get Up

Reports on the study conducted by University of Washington psychologist Jonathan Brown on self-esteem. Features of the study; Findings on the role of individual's response to failure as a determinant of a high or low self-esteem.

Afraid you too are suffering from the epidemic of low self-esteem? Finish thesentence: If at first you don't succeed. . .

If you came up with something along the lines of you are utterly useless there may be cause for concern. What separates the high from the low on the self-esteem meter is response to failure, says University of Washington psychologist Jonathon Brown, Ph.D.

He put 172 people—81 with high self-esteem, the rest with low—through a computer word game. Half the participants received a version too difficult to do in the time allotted, assuring their failure. Afterwards Brown asked them to evaluate their performance.

For those lacking self-esteem, failure hit like the proverbial ton of bricks. Only feelings of shame and humiliation rose from the rubble. Worse, they overgeneralized their failure, rating their intelligence and competence more negatively after a poor performance than a successful one.

People with high self-esteem did just the opposite. They rated their intelligence a bit higher after failure, compensating for their sub-par performance. This is the value of self-esteem, explains Brown: It enables us to respond to events—good or bad in ways that bolster our sense of worth.

Because failure is so agonizing to people with low self-esteem, they are less willing to take risks and more apt to be conformists. Though some researchers feel such people go with the flow because they don't trust their judgment enough to break away from the pack, Brown says what they really fear is the dark side of nonconformity—ostracism.