When Compliments Do Not Hit but Critiques Do: An fMRI Study Into Self-esteem and Self-knowledge in Processing Social Feedback

Charlotte C. van Schie; Chui-De Chiu; Serge A. R. B. Rombouts; Willem J. Heiser; Bernet M. Elzinga


Soc Cogn Affect Neurosci. 2018;13(4):404-417. 

In This Article

Abstract and Introduction


The way we view ourselves may play an important role in our responses to interpersonal interactions. In this study, we investigate how feedback valence, consistency of feedback with self-knowledge and global self-esteem influence affective and neural responses to social feedback. Participants (N = 46) with a high range of self-esteem levels performed the social feedback task in an MRI scanner. Negative, intermediate and positive feedback was provided, supposedly by another person based on a personal interview. Participants rated their mood and applicability of feedback to the self. Analyses on trial basis on neural and affective responses are used to incorporate applicability of individual feedback words. Lower self-esteem related to low mood especially after receiving non-applicable negative feedback. Higher self-esteem related to increased posterior cingulate cortex and precuneus activation (i.e. self-referential processing) for applicable negative feedback. Lower self-esteem related to decreased medial prefrontal cortex, insula, anterior cingulate cortex and posterior cingulate cortex activation (i.e. self-referential processing) during positive feedback and decreased temporoparietal junction activation (i.e. other referential processing) for applicable positive feedback. Self-esteem and consistency of feedback with self-knowledge appear to guide our affective and neural responses to social feedback. This may be highly relevant for the interpersonal problems that individuals face with low self-esteem and negative self-views.


Feedback from others informs us about our social standing and whether the way we view ourselves is in line with the way others view us (Swann, 1982; Cross and Markus, 1999; Over, 2016). Processing and responding to social feedback is highly relevant for updating our self-concept as this allows us to learn and grow and adapt to our social environments (Markus and Cross, 1990; vanDellen et al., 2011; Swann and Brooks, 2012). Our self-concept is not only shaped through interaction with others, it also shapes our responses to these interactions (Markus and Wurf, 1987; Chen et al., 2006). Our self-concept guides us in which feedback should be processed and which dismissed as irrelevant (Markus and Wurf, 1987; Ahern et al., 2015).

Two main components of the self-concept are relevant in the context of our social interactions, self-knowledge and global self-esteem (Campbell et al., 2003). Self-knowledge is accumulated through experiencing consistencies in information about our attributes (Swann and Brooks, 2012). People can more easily process information that is consistent with their self-knowledge (Higgins, 1987; Vignoles et al., 2006; Stinson et al., 2010). Inconsistent social feedback induces tension, anger and confusion, regardless of the valence of the feedback (Higgins, 1987; Stinson et al., 2010). Self-esteem is thought to emerge through setting standards for ourselves which may be derived from what others implicitly or explicitly expect of us (Shavelson et al., 1976; Higgins, 1987). The level of self-esteem is related to our sensitivity to social feedback. Individuals with low self-esteem tend to experience more and longer lasting distress after rejection compared to individuals with high self-esteem (Nezlek et al., 1997; Bernichon et al., 2003; Brown, 2010; Ford and Collins, 2013). Neuroimaging studies indicate that during social rejection lower self-esteem is associated with both decreased and increased activation in the medial prefrontal cortex (mPFC) and ventral anterior cingulate cortex (ACC), interpreted as decreased emotion regulation or increased social pain (Onoda et al., 2010; Somerville et al., 2010; Gyurak et al., 2012).

So far, most studies have focussed on how individuals respond to social feedback without taking into account whether the specific feedback is consistent with that individual's self-concept. For example, studies on social rejection have shown that individuals, quite obviously, do not like to be rejected and that this acutely lowers mood (Leary, 2005; Blackhart et al., 2009; Cacioppo et al., 2013; Rotge et al., 2015). Moreover, on a neural level, rejection induces a different activation pattern [inferior orbitofrontal cortex (OFC), anterior insula, ACC (pgACC, sgACC and aMCC) and caudate nucleus] (Cacioppo et al., 2013; Rotge et al., 2015) than acceptance (mPFC and vACC) (Somerville et al., 2006). Some recent findings also point to neural commonalities for both acceptance and rejection in the insula, dACC and mPFC, indicating that not only valence but also the social and self-relevancy of feedback is important (Achterberg et al., 2016; Dalgleish et al., 2017). The binary feedback provided to participants in conventional social feedback paradigms [e.g. being included or excluded (Onoda et al., 2010), or being liked or disliked by peers based on a photograph (Somerville et al., 2010)], does not allow to consider the relevance of self-knowledge. Eisenberger et al. (2011) did use personal feedback (e.g. presenting nouns such as lazy, annoying) and found that feedback which lowers self-esteem at that moment, increases activation in the dorsal ACC and anterior insula (Eisenberger et al., 2011). This novel paradigm allows for an assessment of the consistency between feedback and self-knowledge, though it was not done in that study.

Furthermore, no studies directly assessed which brain regions are involved in the processing of the (in)consistency of social feedback with an individual's self-knowledge. We postulate that the Cortical Midline Structures [CMS, i.e. mPFC, ACC, posterior cingulate cortex (PCC) and precuneus] may be involved in this process as they play a critical role in thinking about the self and whether information is relevant to the self (Fossati et al., 2003; Phan et al., 2004; Northoff et al., 2006; Moran et al., 2011; Bergstrom et al., 2015). More importantly, we postulate that consistency of social feedback may interact with valence of feedback and self-esteem. While individuals with high self-esteem possess a clear self-concept with predominantly positive attributes, the self-concept of individuals with low self-esteem consists of conflicting attributes (Campbell et al., 1996). Therefore, the threat from negative feedback to the self-concept, especially when inconsistent with self-knowledge, may be larger for individuals with low self-esteem as they may meet more difficulties refusing it (vanDellen et al., 2011).

In sum, previous experimental studies have shown that feedback has a particular strong impact when it is negative and inconsistent with our self-knowledge and that the impact may differ depending on self-esteem. Our knowledge is still limited in terms of shared and unique neural correlates of positive and negative feedback. So far, no studies have investigated how (in)consistency of social feedback with self-knowledge is processed in the brain. To provide a better understanding of how the self-concept affects our neural and affective responses to social feedback (idiosyncratic nouns with a negative, positive or intermediate valence), this study evaluates the role of valence, the (in)consistency between feedback and self-knowledge and self-esteem. To increase our understanding of the role of self-esteem on responses to social feedback, this study included participants along the full spectrum of global self-esteem, including participants with clinically low self-esteem (Schmitt and Allik, 2005; Korrelboom, 2011).