Researchers Design Games to Boost Self-Esteem

But if you're not necessarily even aware of that hidden self, can you actually measure it?

"You can," he says.

Better Than a Cockroach

Baldwin's teams relied on a widely used technique called the "Implicit Association Test," or IAT.

In the test, participants are asked to put themselves in the same category as a series of words flashed before them. Some of the words are pretty bad, like vomit and cockroach and tragedy, he says.

"Most people find it very hard to put themselves in the same category as a cockroach," Baldwin says. But for some, it's a snap.

People with healthy self-esteem are slower at putting themselves in the same category as cockroaches and vomit than people with lower self-esteem. So by measuring the time it takes to react to the words, the researchers can come up with a general idea of the level of self-esteem in each participant. It's not perfect, but it's something to work with.

And here's what they found. After playing the games, low self-esteem had completely disappeared.

"We don't know if it will be back tomorrow," Baldwin says, but the games forced the participants to concentrate on the positive, not the negative, and that made them feel better about themselves and their relations with others.

The goal of the research now is to make that change more lasting, Baldwin says.

As an experimental psychologist, he doesn't offer clinical advice, but the research points toward a fairly basic guide for better living. If you want to get along better with others, learn how to feel better about yourself.

"The problem is that kind of advice is hard to follow because these habits of thought are so automatic," he says.

It's hard to change who we are, but if Baldwin was in the business of giving advice, he would tell those people to "be kind to yourself and accept yourself."

And playing a game probably won't hurt.

Lee Dye’s column appears weekly on A former science writer for the Los Angeles Times, he now lives in Juneau, Alaska.

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