Some individuals live a life of drama and are easily moved or perturbed by changes in their surroundings, while others live a life of tranquility and they are generally unaffected by the vicissitudes of life. In two event-contingent experience-sampling studies, we have demonstrated that valence focus (the extent to which self-reports of emotion contain a lot of information about pleasure and displeasure, or hedonics) predicts this variation. As expected, across both studies, individuals who evidenced higher VF showed significantly greater self-esteem lability to negative aspects of social interactions when compared with those lower in VF. Those individuals who emphasized the pleasantness or unpleasantness of their emotional experience experienced stronger drops in their self-esteem when they perceived threatening social cues such as conflict, disagreement, criticism, or a partner’s expression of negative emotion. In addition, across both studies, individuals higher in VF showed greater increases in self-esteem when they perceived a rewarding cue (the partner’s expression of positive emotion). These findings are consistent with the hypothesis that individuals high in VF are more responsive to the valenced social cues that they encounter in their daily lives than individuals lower in VF. Furthermore, the greater sensitivity of high VF individuals appears to be specific to valenced cues; the self-esteem of high VF individuals did not change more than that of low VF individuals in response to neutral social cues. In addition, the moderating effect of VF was evident even after controlling for potentially related personality variables (neuroticism, affect intensity), providing further support that VF predicts outcome measures over and above measures of emotional reactivity (Barrett & Niedenthal, 2004
; Barrett, Quigley et al., 2004
). Interestingly, we observed a double-dissociation between neuroticism and VF in both studies. Neuroticism predicted individuals’ average levels of self-esteem (i.e., an average perception of the self across all kinds of interactions) in both studies but VF did not. In contrast, VF predicted changes in self-esteem as a function of hedonic cues perceived in the environment but neuroticism did not. Thus, neuroticism seems to be associated with a more general or average perception of the self, whereas VF predicts the variations that occur in self-esteem in reaction to hedonic cues.
Because valence focus was assessed in an implicit manner (i.e., calculated from the proportion of variance in each person’s sample of ratings that is accounted for by the valence-based meanings of the words), it is unlikely that participants attempted to respond in a manner consistent with their expectations about valence focus. In measuring valence focus, participants did not explicitly report that they were high or low in valence focus; instead, their degree of valence focus was computed from the covariation in their self-report ratings of emotion words across multiple interactions, partners, and settings. Thus, individuals who implicitly evidenced a pattern of highly valenced responses were more likely to show changes in their self-esteem in response to positive or negative social cues.
These findings suggest that individuals who experience strong, valenced emotions tend to be more sensitive to their social environment, and that this sensitivity may produce greater fluctuations in their feelings about themselves. Prior work (Barrett & Niedenthal, 2004
) has shown that high valence focused individuals more quickly perceived changes in negative facial expressions, and this greater perceptual sensitivity was not accounted for by other variables such as neuroticism, extraversion, and need for evaluation. The present studies extend this work by demonstrating that the greater sensitivity of high valence focus individuals is present in their everyday perceptions in a more natural social interaction context. Furthermore, the findings show that individuals who are high in valence focus are more attuned to both negatively and positively valenced social cues, and that their reactivity to those cues impacts their momentary feelings about themselves.
Barring certain forms of mental illness, people are sensitive to their social environment to some degree. However, enhanced sensitivity to environmental cues is considered a risk factor for depression (Barnett & Gotlib, 1988
), suggesting that individuals high in valence focus may be at higher risk for mood disorders such as depression. Support for this idea comes from research (Butler, Hokanson, & Flynn, 1994
) that has demonstrated that depressed individuals or those with a prior history of depression evidenced higher self-esteem lability than those who had never been depressed. Furthermore, individuals who showed high self-esteem lability and who experienced significant life stress were more likely to develop depression (Butler et al., 1994
). Additional work also has shown that people whose self-worth is contingent on external cues evidence poorer psychological adjustment (e.g., Crocker, Luhtanen, Cooper, Bouvrette, 2003
) and are more vulnerable to depression (Sargent, Crocker, & Luhtanen, 2006
). This prior work together with the present findings suggests that individuals who are high in VF, who show greater self-esteem lability in response to externally available threat and reward cues, also may be more prone to develop depression.
These ideas raise the possibility that VF may serve as a risk factor for some forms of psychopathology. VF is an indicator of variations in affective responding, and such variations have been linked to several forms of psychopathology, including Axis I disorders, such as various forms of anxiety, major depression, and schizophrenia, and some Axis II disorders, such as borderline personality disorder. Variations in affective responding may predispose people to alcohol and drug dependence and may signal a brain’s proneness to psychopathology, such that certain variations can be considered trans-disorder vulnerabilities. Many psychological disorders share a common or “transdiagnostic” (Harvey, Watkins, Mansell, & Shafran, 2004
) disturbance in affective processing (Barlow, 2002
; Kring, in press
) that involves vigilance to threat (Quigley & Barrett, 1999
), is on a continuum with normal personality variability (Weinstock & Whisman, 2006
), and has been associated with the short allele of a serotonin transporter (5-HTT) promoter polymorphism, which is thought to produce an affective vulnerability to environmental stress (Hariri & Holmes, 2006
). One question for future research is whether VF represents an identifiable risk factor for these trans-disorder variations in affective responding.
Our findings also converge with recent work (Zeigler-Hill & Showers, 2007
) on self-esteem stability that has compared individuals who organize information about themselves into distinct positively and negatively valenced aspects (i.e., who compartmentalize self-aspects) with those integrate positive and negatively valenced aspects (i.e., who integrate self-aspects). Individuals who compartmentalized evaluative self-aspects were more likely than those who integrated evaluative self-aspects to show a greater increase in state self-esteem on days when they reported experiencing more positive events and a greater decrease in state self-esteem on days when they reported experiencing more negative events. Although the methodology of the Zeigler-Hill and Showers study differed in important ways from the methodology in the present work (e.g., they assessed the stability of self-esteem from day to day rather than momentary self-esteem lability in response to specific cues; self-esteem and daily events were assessed retrospectively at the end of each day rather than immediately after events occurred), compartmentalized individuals showed patterns similar to the those found in the present work for individuals high in VF. Future work might examine whether high VF individuals’ greater sensitivity to affective cues in the environment shapes the nature of their self-structure, leading them to develop more evaluatively compartmentalized views of self.
Several limitations need to be considered in interpreting these findings. First, although valence focus may lead to greater attention to valenced situational cues, thereby resulting in greater ups and downs in self-esteem, the correlational nature of the study cannot rule out bidirectional or third variables that may account for the observed effects. For example, it is possible that having a history of fluctuations in self-esteem leads individuals to show greater valence focus, or that a third variable, such as generalized negative feelings about the self, underlies both greater self-esteem lability and greater valence focus. In the present studies, we were able to rule out the possibility that generalized negative feelings about the self accounted for the findings; global self-esteem, as assessed by the Rosenberg Self-Esteem Inventory, was not related to either VF or AF. Furthermore, we were able to rule out neuroticism and affect intensity as alternative explanatory variables; in contrast to the effects observed for VF, neither neuroticism nor affect intensity predicted changes in self-esteem when valenced social cues were present.
Second, participants’ reports determined whether they experienced a positive or negative social cue, and the degree to which these subjective perceptions map onto the objective characteristics of the situation is unknown. People who are high in VF may experience a higher base rate of rewarding or threatening cues (although this pattern was generally not evident in Study 1, and the relationships were in the opposite direction in Study 2). This limitation will need to be addressed in further work in which high and low VF individuals respond to a set of objectively designated rewarding and threatening social cues.
Third, a fundamental measurement issue relates to the way in which VF and AF were calculated. Both indices were based on correlating each participant's sample of emotion ratings to valence-based and arousal-based semantic matrices. Typically, a correlation coefficient becomes a good estimator of the population correlation coefficient only when sample sizes are large. In the present study, the sample size of emotion ratings varied widely across participants, with some participants having fairly small samples. As a result, the VF and AF indices might be better estimates of the true level of VF and AF for participants who had a larger number of interactions than for those who had a smaller number. Because measurement error reduces the magnitude of the regression coefficient and attenuates the size of estimates of interaction effects, it may be that individuals with smaller sample sizes had lower VF estimates and therefore smaller regression coefficients and less self-esteem lability. However, this alternative explanation can be ruled out because variations in VF were not related to the number of interactions reported. Furthermore, error (both random and systematic) is not likely to produce spurious interactions (Aiken & West, 1991
). Thus, it is unlikely that the effect of VF on self-esteem lability was spurious due to the error inherent in the estimation of VF.
Finally, valence focus was consistently and uniquely related to self-esteem lability across both studies, even when arousal focus was unexpectedly predicting the degree of self-esteem lability (in Study 2). Notably, AF was not consistently related to greater shifts in self-esteem when either positive or negative social cues were present. Further work is needed to establish the consistency of the relationship between AF and self-esteem lability.
Overall, the present findings demonstrate that pleasure and threat cues in the social environment are more evocative for people who are high in valence focus, leading them to experience greater momentary fluctuations in their feelings about themselves. These findings invite further investigation to evaluate whether this enhanced sensitivity to affective cues and accompanying self-esteem lability place high VF individuals at greater risk for depression and other mood disorders.