May 12, 2004 -- 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.
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 ABCNEWS.com. A former science writer for the Los Angeles Times, he now lives in Juneau, Alaska.