Social Psychology

Student Learning Program

Chapter 4: Defending the self: Coping with stresses, inconsistencies, and failures (pp. 125136)

Ask Yourself?

In this topic

  1. Threats to the Well-being of The Self (pp. 125129)
    1. Threat to self
    2. Emotional and physical effects of threat
    3. Threats and appraisals of control
    4. Control and depression
    5. Depressive attributional style
  2. Defending Against Threat: Emotion-focused Coping (pp. 129131)
    1. Coping strategies
    2. Emotion-focused coping
  3. Attacking Threat Head-on: Problem-focused Coping (pp. 131134)
  4. How to Cope? (pp. 134136)
    1. Self-esteem as a resource for coping
    2. Controllability and coping
Threats to the Well-being of The Self
Threat to self

Anything that contradicts our sense of self can mean a threat to us. These threats can be failures, inconsistencies, awareness of our mortality, or small frustrations or hassles of everyday life.

Emotional and physical effects of threat

The level of self-esteem influences the reaction to self-threats. People with high self-esteem are protected against threats, but only if their level of self-esteem is stable. Research by Baumeister et al. (1996 ; Bushman & Baumeister, 1998) showed that especially people with high self-esteem react aggressively after threats to the self. Threats to the self lead to all kinds of physical reactions that in turn lead to illness.

Type A personalities in particular run the risk of suffering physically from threats. These people are ambitious, competitive, speak rapidly, are hostile, and show much anger.

Positive emotion is strongly associated with better health.

Threats and appraisals of control

People have the motive to control their environment. Losing this sense of control is very threatening.

Control and depression

A repeated experience of lack of control can lead to learned helplessness; the feeling that no effort can change the (bad) situation one is in. These feelings can lead to clinical depression, a psychological disorder characterized by negative moods, low self-esteem, pessimism, and a disruption of thinking, sleeping, eating, and activity patterns.

Depressive attributional style

If this feeling of lack of control goes together with the feeling that it is all "my fault", then depression is likely. This depressive attributional style leads to physical as well as mental illness.

Defending Against Threat: Emotion-focused Coping
Coping strategies

Coping strategies are efforts undertaken to reduce the negative consequences produced by threatening events.

Emotion-focused coping

People try to deal with the negative emotions associated with the event, perhaps by escaping or avoiding the threatening situation.

Attacking Threat Head-on: Problem-focused Coping

In problem-focused coping, people try to deal with the threatening situation by reinterpreting the event as non-threatening, or by physically removing the event.

Research activity: Attribution of success and failure

How to Cope?
Self-esteem as a resource for coping

High self-esteem people have a whole arsenal of strategies for coping with threats. Self-esteem serves as a buffer against threats. Threats are harder to cope with for depressed and low self-esteem people.

Controllability and coping

Controllability of a threat leads to a challenge. Uncontrollable events lead to escape, distraction, and other forms of emotion-focused coping behavior. The perceived controllability of an event differs between people.

So what does this mean?

When threatened by external events or negative feedback, like major failures and disasters, inconsistent information, daily hassles and stresses, people must defend their self-esteem. For this reason we respond to these threats with coping strategies. There are two major strategies: leaving or avoiding the stressful situation, or removing the threat. The strategy used depends on the situation and the individual's resources.

Back to chapter 4 introduction

In this chapter

  1. Chapter 4 introduction
  2. Constructing the self-concept: What we know about ourselves
  3. Constructing self-esteem: How we feel about ourselves
  4. Effects of the self: Processes of self-regulation
  5. Defending the self: Coping with stresses, inconsistencies, and failures
  6. Chapter overview (PDF)
  7. Fill-in-the-blanks
  8. Multiple-choice questions