Bale, Christopher (2012) Investigating causal relationships between self-perceptions of attractiveness and self-esteem in women. In: British Psychological Society Social Psychology Section Annual Conference, 21-23 August 2012, St Andrews, Scotland. (Unpublished)

Objectives: Individual self-esteem has been linked to a wide variety of personal and social issues including work, life and relationship satisfaction, educational achievement, physical and mental health, and antisocial and criminal behaviour. However, significant controversy over the essential nature and function of self-esteem exists. In particular, ‘top down’ theories of self-esteem suggest that it causally affects self-perceptions and behaviour, whilst ‘bottom up’ perspectives argue that it is a result of these. Most studies of self-esteem, including those in relation to physical attractiveness, have adopted correlational designs, and so there is a pressing need for more experimental research in this area.

Design: Three experimental studies examined causal relationships between self-perceptions of physical attractiveness and self-esteem in women.

Methods: Studies 1 and 2 recruited a total of 265 women to take part in online experiments in which they were exposed to either highly attractive or unattractive images of others and then completed various measures of self-esteem. Study 3 exposed 76 women to a laboratory based sub-conscious priming manipulation of self-esteem before measuring their self-esteem and self-perceived attractiveness.

Results: Studies 1 and 2 found no significant differences between experimental groups on any measures of self-esteem. Results from Study 3 showed significant effects of self-esteem primes on subsequent self-esteem and self-perceptions of attractiveness.

Conclusions: The results support a ‘top down’ interpretation of the relationship between self-perceived attractiveness and self-esteem. This has implications regarding possible effects of the media on body image and eating disorders, together with wider issues surrounding self-esteem causes, effects and interventions.

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