Researchers Design Games to Boost Self-Esteem

Our sense of self is critical to our ability to get along with others and live our lives in relative harmony with those around us.

People who like themselves just seem to have it easier in life, as long as they don't get carried away with their own virtues. And we all know it's no fun spending time with persons who don't like themselves.

But what are you going to do if you find you're just unhappy with who you are, or what you have become? What if you suffer from low self-esteem?

Researchers at McGill University in Montreal have come up one possible answer: Computer games. Yup. They've concocted games that can actually help people raise their own sense of self worth.

Experimental psychologist Mark Baldwin, associate professor of psychology at McGill, has been delving into this subject for more than 20 years now, and what he's learned is that if you can change the way people see themselves in the eyes of others, then you can change the way they evaluate themselves.

Why is that important?

"The way you think and feel about yourself guides your actions, guides the way you approach your goals, guides the way you interact with other people," Baldwin says.

How we feel about ourselves is a "key" to living successfully, he says.

Catch the Smiling Face

Baldwin directed three doctoral students in his department, Jodene Baccus, Stephane Dandeneau and Maya Sakellaropoulo, in what is billed by the university as the world's first effort to create games that can enhance self-esteem. Reports on two of the games will be published in upcoming peer-reviewed journals, the Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, and Psychological Science.

The games can be played here.

Baldwin emphasizes that persons with serious problems involving self-esteem would be better served by seeking clinical help than playing games, but participants in various trials who had low self-esteem have succeeded in raising it just by playing the games.

Each game is different, and easy to play, but all are aimed at getting participants to think more positively about themselves. Picking out the only smiling face in a matrix of 15 mug shots, for example, should encourage feelings of acceptance, and thus higher self-esteem. It's hard to feel good about yourself if you concentrate on a picture of a grouch who seems to scream disapproval.

The fundamental principle here is approval by others increases self-esteem; disapproval lowers it; so concentrate on the face that makes you think positively, not negatively.

Baldwin says the games worked, but how do you measure self-esteem so you can determine whether anything has really changed while playing the game?

As is always the case, it gets a bit more complicated when you get into the particulars. There are at least two types of self-esteem. One is our personal awareness of our "conscious self-esteem," Baldwin says, and the easiest way to measure that is just to ask.

"It turns out that if you ask someone, their answer is actually a pretty good indication of their conscious self-esteem. People just know what their self-esteem is, generally," he says.

But in the last decade or so psychologists have turned to a more interesting question. In addition to our conscious level of self-esteem, there's also a hidden quantity that the person may not even be aware of, Baldwin says. It's self-esteem on automatic pilot, regulated by complex feelings of self and how we think others perceive of us.

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