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Development of self-protective biases in response to social evaluative feedback

  1. Leah H. Somervillea,b,1
  1. aDepartment of Psychology, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA 02138;
  2. bCenter for Brain Science, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA 02138
  1. Edited by Susan T. Fiske, Princeton University, Princeton, NJ, and approved November 6, 2017 (received for review July 13, 2017)

Significance

The growing popularity of social media, especially among youth, has resulted in peer feedback (including rejection) pervading everyday life. Given that peer ostracism has been linked to depression and suicide, it is critical to understand the psychological impact of peer feedback from a developmental perspective. We demonstrate that adolescents and adults use peer feedback to inform views of themselves and of others in very different ways. Of particular interest, early adolescents internalized rejection from peers and felt worse about themselves, whereas adults exhibited evidence of self-protective biases that preserved positive self-views. This work advances theoretical insights into how development shapes social-evaluative experiences and informs sources of vulnerability that could put adolescents at unique risk for negative mental health outcomes.

Abstract

Adolescence is a developmental period marked by heightened attunement to social evaluation. While adults have been shown to enact self-protective processes to buffer their self-views from evaluative threats like peer rejection, it is unclear whether adolescents avail themselves of the same defenses. The present study examines how social evaluation shapes views of the self and others differently across development. N?=?107 participants ages 10–23 completed a reciprocal social evaluation task that involved predicting and receiving peer acceptance and rejection feedback, along with assessments of self-views and likability ratings of peers. Here, we show that, despite equivalent experiences of social evaluation, adolescents internalized peer rejection, experiencing a feedback-induced drop in self-views, whereas adults externalized peer rejection, reporting a task-induced boost in self-views and deprecating the peers who rejected them. The results identify codeveloping processes underlying why peer rejection may lead to more dramatic alterations in self-views during adolescence than other phases of the lifespan.

Footnotes

  • ?1To whom correspondence should be addressed. Email: somerville{at}fas.harvard.edu.

Published under the PNAS license.

Online Impact

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