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Surprises in study of girls, self-esteem

  • SSU professor Heather Smith, right, and assistant professor Matthew Callahan recently published a paper about the correlation between a young woman's self-esteem and her relationships. (CONNER JAY / The Press Democrat)

Heather Smith has long been interested in how our comparisons to other people shape our experiences.

“You go to the gym, you notice the people to your left and your right and you think either 'I'm not doing so badly' or 'I'd better stop eating that extra cookie,'” said Smith, a veteran professor of social psychology at Sonoma State University.

So Smith set about trying to capture those comparisons in real time, at the moment when young women were in the process of sizing themselves up — negatively or favorably — in comparison to other women.

She and a research team that included colleague Matthew Paolucci Callahan and several student assistants enlisted 87 female students at SSU to record when and how they compared themselves during the day.

Comparisons could be anything from athleticism and grades to appearance, social status, lifestyle and wealth. It included not only people they knew, but also strangers on the street and celebrities.

They blazed a new research trail by enlisting cellphones to capture immediate reactions.

Subjects got three texts daily for a week and were told to stop and record their comparisons in a notebook.

“We were interested in how often people make comparisons, what they are about, how they feel about them,” Smith said, “and are they upward toward people they perceive as better off, or downward, feeling better off than other people?”

Their findings were surprising: Those young women with the most diverse circles of friends were less likely to feel envious or inferior when comparing themselves.

Many studies have found that diverse friendships increase tolerance, empathy and civic engagement.

But Smith said this is the first study that shows how having close friends of different ethnicities, religions, ages, sexual orientations and genders can mitigate the bad feelings that arise when women compare themselves, particularly when it comes to looks.

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