The finding is contrary to the common belief that all people are motivated to alleviate negative moods, according to Jonathon Brown, a University of Washington psychologist and co-author of the study.
"Many people with low self-esteem believe sadness is part of life and that you shouldn't try to get rid of it, while people with high self-esteem believe in doing something to feel better if they have a negative experience or get in a bad mood," said Brown.
The researchers conducted five studies involving nearly 900 people. In the key experiment, the researchers created a sad mood by having subjects listen to music and found that people with low self-esteem were significantly less likely than people with high self-esteem to select a comedy video from among six tapes to break their mood.
A group first read descriptions of the six videos -which included stand-up comedy routines, a discussion of global warming and the story of a polio-crippled runner who dreams of becoming an Olympian but fails - and rated how happy or sad each would make them feel if they watched it. Most people, regardless of their self-esteem, said the comedy video would make them the happiest.
Then 116 people, half of whom had been tested to have high-esteem and half to have low self-esteem, were exposed to music that induced happy or sad moods. Some of the subjects heard a jazz version of Bach's Brandenburg Concerto No. 3 to put them a positive mood. The others were put into a negative mood by listening to Prokofiev's "Russia Under the Mongolian Yoke" played at half speed, a piece of music Brown described as "slow, sad, laborious and boring." Each recording lasted about 10 minutes.
Afterward, all subjects were given the descriptions of the six videos and asked to rate how they thought each would make them feel, ranging on a scale from very sad to very happy. Finally, they were asked to select one to watch.
The subjects, regardless of their level of self-esteem, agreed that the comedy video was the one that would put them in the happiest mood. However, among the people exposed to the negative music there was a sharp difference in the videos they actually picked to watch. Just 47 percent of low-self-esteem people picked the comedy video while 75 percent of high self-esteem subjects selected it.
A different pattern emerged among people who heard the happy or positive music. More people with low self-esteem (75 percent) than those with high self-esteem (54 percent) chose the comedy video.
Brown said it appears that a combination of resignation and sadness leads to less motivation among people with low self-esteem to rise above their mood and make an effort to change it.
"People with low-self esteem feel resignation because they question whether anything will help and say 'I'm not good at breaking or changing a mood,'" he said. "They also believe sadness is not something you get rid of and that you learn and grow from sadness. They feel it is not appropriate to try to change a mood. These are not people who would necessarily go to the movies or shopping to feel better."
There are things that people with low self-esteem can do to snap a negative mood, according to Brown.
"If you have low self-esteem, you should actively try to rise above the sadness and learn that you will feel better if you do not passively accept sadness. You can get better if you remind yourself to do something. You may have to kick yourself in the butt to go to a movie because it will require a conscious effort rather than something that comes automatically," he said.
The other four studies reinforced the idea that low self-esteem people are less motivated to change a negative mood. The initial study asked students to record in a diary a positive or negative experience that happened to them in the next seven to 10 days and what they did afterwards. Among those who listed a negative experience, only 55 percent of people with low self-esteem expressed a goal to improve their mood compared to 77 percent of those with high self-esteem. The second study found that people with low self-esteem are equally knowledgeable as those with high self-esteem about strategies to repair negative moods.
The final two studies asked people about their experiences when they were in a negative mood. Those with high self-esteem were more likely to express the need to do something to change the mood and less likely to recall instances when they didn't find a way improve their mood. Those with low self-esteem, however, were more likely to say such moods are acceptable and that they couldn't change a mood even if they tried. They also were more likely to say that negative moods sapped their energy.
Self-esteem is generally defined in terms of feelings of affection one has for oneself. In a normal population, high self-esteem is characterized by a general fondness for oneself. Low self-esteem is marked by mildly positive, ambivalent or slightly negative feelings.
Co-authors of the paper published in a recent issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology are Joanne Wood, a psychology professor at Canada's University of Waterloo, Sara Heimpel, a graduate student at Waterloo, and Margaret Marshall, a doctoral student at Washington.
The research was funded by the Social Science and Humanities Research Council of Canada.
For more information, contact Brown at (206) 543-0679 or firstname.lastname@example.org