A team of U.K. researchers has developed a mathematical equation to identify signals in the human brain that explain why self-esteem goes up and down when we learn other people’s judgments of us.
Scientists learned that self-esteem is influenced not only by our perception of the way people think of us, but also by our expectations of whether they will like us or not.
University College of London investigators believe the model may help to predict when people are at risk of psychiatric disorders.
The study appears in the scientific journal eLife.
“Low self-esteem is a vulnerability factor for numerous psychiatric problems including eating disorders, anxiety disorders, and depression. In this study, we identified exactly what happens in the brain when self-esteem goes up and down,” said the study’s lead author, Dr. Geert-Jan Will.
“We hope that these findings inform our understanding of how mental health problems develop, which may ultimately improve diagnostic tools and treatments,” he said.
For the study, 40 healthy participants did a social evaluation task while in an MRI scanner. After uploading a profile to an online database, they received feedback, ostensibly given by 184 strangers (actually an algorithm), in the form of a thumbs-up (like) or thumbs-down (dislike).
The “strangers” were in different groups so that participants learned to expect positive feedback from some groups of raters, and negative feedback from other groups. After every two to three trials, participants reported on their self-esteem at that moment.
Participants expected to be liked by “strangers” in the groups that mostly gave positive feedback, so when they received a thumbs-down from a person in that group, their self-esteem took a hit. These social prediction errors — the difference between expected and received feedback — were key for determining self-esteem.
“We found that self-esteem changes were guided not only by whether other people like you, but were especially dependent on whether you expected to be liked,” Dr Will said.
The research team developed a model of the neural processes at play when appraisals impact self-esteem, finding that social prediction errors and changes in self-esteem resulting from these errors were tied to activity in parts of the brain important for learning and valuation.
The researchers then combined their computational model with clinical questionnaires to explore the neural mechanisms underlying vulnerability to mental health problems.
They found that people who had greater fluctuations in self-esteem during the task also had lower self-esteem more generally and reported more symptoms of depression and anxiety.
People in this group showed increased prediction error responses in a part of the brain called the insula, which was strongly coupled to activity in the part of the prefrontal cortex that explained changes in self-esteem.
This finding is important as the researchers hypothesize this pattern of neural activity could be a neurobiological marker that confers increased risk for a range of common mental health problems.
“By combining our mathematical equation for self-esteem with brain scans in people as they found out whether other people liked them, we identified a possible marker for vulnerability to mental health problems. We hope these tools can be used to improve diagnostics, enabling mental health professionals to make more specific diagnoses and targeted treatments,” said Dr. Robb Rutledge.
The authors are continuing their line of work by studying people with particularly low self-esteem, and plan to follow up by studying people diagnosed with psychiatric disorders.
Source: University College London