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The sociometer theory

The sociometer theory is a psychological framework that proposes that self-esteem is an indicator of how well we are perceived and accepted by others. According to this theory, humans have a fundamental need to belong and to maintain positive social relationships, and they use self-esteem as a gauge of their social value. The sociometer theory suggests that when we receive positive feedback from others, our self-esteem increases, and when we receive negative feedback, our self-esteem decreases. The theory also implies that people are motivated to enhance their self-esteem by engaging in behaviours that increase their social desirability and avoid behaviours that lower it. In this article, we will explore the origins, evidence, applications, and criticisms of the sociometer theory, and discuss its implications for understanding human behaviour and wellbeing.

What is the sociometer theory?

The sociometer theory is a theory of self-esteem that proposes that self-esteem is not a source of well-being, but rather a psychological gauge that monitors the quality of our social relationships and our perceived relational value to others. According to this theory, self-esteem reflects the degree to which we feel accepted and valued by other people, especially those who are important to us. The theory suggests that self-esteem is an adaptive mechanism that evolved to help us maintain and enhance our social bonds and avoid rejection or ostracism. When we experience low self-esteem, it signals that our social relationships are threatened or damaged, and motivates us to take corrective actions to restore our relational value. Conversely, when we experience high self-esteem, it indicates that our social relationships are secure and satisfactory, and allows us to pursue other goals and interests.

The sociometer theory was first introduced by Mark Leary and colleagues in 1995, who argued that self-esteem monitors the degree of social acceptance that one enjoys from one’s social circle and alerts the self to any threats to belonging that may arise. It was later expanded by Kirkpatrick and Ellis. The theory has been supported by various studies and research that show how self-esteem is influenced by social feedback, social comparison, social inclusion and exclusion, and relational devaluation. The theory also has implications for clinical and societal interventions that aim to improve self-esteem and well-being.

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The need to belong

The theory was based on the evolutionary assumption that belonging to social groups was a fundamental human need and a key factor for survival and reproduction. The sociometer theory suggests that the self-esteem system serves as an adaptive function to motivate people to engage in behaviour that enhances their social value and avoids rejection. The theory also distinguishes between state self-esteem, which is a momentary feeling of worth or value based on situational cues, and global self-esteem, which is a stable and general evaluation of oneself across domains and contexts.

When we experience low relational value, such as being excluded, criticized, or ignored, our self-esteem drops and we feel emotional distress. This motivates us to restore our relational value and seek social acceptance. Conversely, when we experience high relational value, such as being praised, included, or admired, our self-esteem rises and we feel positive emotions. This reinforces our social behaviours and relationships.

Strengths and limitations of The sociometer theory

One of the strengths of the sociometer theory is that it can explain why people are motivated to seek social approval and avoid social rejection. The theory implies that self-esteem is not an end in itself, but a means to achieve social belongingness and avoid isolation. The theory also provides a framework for understanding how different types of feedback, such as praise, criticism, acceptance, or rejection, can affect our self-esteem and behaviour.

One of the limitations of the sociometer theory is that it does not account for individual differences in self-esteem and social sensitivity. The theory assumes that everyone has the same level of concern for their social status and relational value, but this may not be true for people who have different personality traits, cultural backgrounds, or personal experiences. The theory also does not explain how people can maintain or enhance their self-esteem in the face of chronic or severe social rejection or exclusion. The theory may need to incorporate other factors, such as coping strategies, self-compassion, or social support, to explain how people can deal with negative social feedback and protect their self-esteem.

Further reading

If you are interested in learning more about the sociometer theory, here are some weblinks for further reading:

Sociometer theory. – APA PsycNet

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Sociometer – Wikipedia

The Sociometer Theory: what it is and how it explains self-esteem

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