The Self in Social Context

Appearance-Based Rejection Sensitivity

We live in a culture that places tremendous emphasis on physical appearance.  Although concerns about appearance are relatively common in everyday life, some people are more sensitive to the possibility of being rejected based on their looks than others, with consequences for health and well-being.  To examine this idea, I developed a construct called Appearance-based Rejection Sensitivity (Appearance-RS) – the dispositional tendency to anxiously expect, readily perceive, and overreact to signs of rejection based on one’s physical appearance.  Our research suggests that individuals with Appearance-RS filter their social world through the lens of appearance; they frequently notice and compare their appearance with others, and feel pressure from peers and the media to look attractive (Park, 2007; Park, DiRaddo, & Calogero, 2009).

Furthermore, Appearance-RS has been shown to shape affective, cognitive, and behavioral reactions to real or perceived instances of appearance-based rejection.  Individuals with high Appearance-RS feel more alone and rejected when simply reminded of aspects of their appearance they feel insecure about (Park, 2007); they show negative cognitive biases after experiencing an ambiguous instance of appearance-based rejection (Park & Harwin, 2010); and show greater social avoidance and withdrawal on days they feel highly sensitive to rejection based on their appearance (Park & Pinkus, 2009).  Individuals with high Appearance-RS are also more vulnerable to eating disorder symptoms, body dysmorphic disorder, and are more likely to consider cosmetic surgery as a way to improve their appearance, especially after they recall times when they were bullied or teased based on the way they looked (Calogero, Park, Rahemtulla, & Williams, 2010; Park, Calogero, Harwin, & DiRaddo, 2009; Park, Calogero, Young, Harwin, & DiRaddo, 2010).  Appearance-RS is not limited to adults; it has also been documented among adolescents , for whom appearance and belonging concerns are highly salient (Bowker, Thomas, Spencer, & Park, 2013).

In sum, this research suggests that Appearance-RS is an important risk factor that contributes to a wide range of mental and physical health problems.  There are ways, however, to at least temporarily alleviate the sting of rejection for those with high Appearance-RS.  In particular, having individuals engage in self-affirmation (e.g., reminding people of their personal strengths), or secure attachment priming (e.g., reminding people of their close relationships), buffer people from the negative effects of appearance-based threats (Park, 2007). Current research is examining how Appearance-RS affects people’s motivation, performance, and well-being in online interactions where their appearance nay be visible to others.

Underrepresented Students in STEM Contexts

With funding from the National Science Foundation and Research and Evaluation on Education in Science and Engineering (REESE), our lab has examined effects of romantic goal pursuit and romantic partner preferences on men’s and women’s performance and interest in STEM fields.  We propose that whereas the goal to appear romantically desirable and intelligent in STEM fields are compatible for men, for women, these goals may conflict.  Consistent with this idea, women (but not men) reported less favorable attitudes toward STEM fields and less desire to major in math and science when romantic goals were activated in the environment, as well as in women’s reports of their daily romantic goal strivings (Park, Young, Troisi, & Pinkus, 2011).  Furthermore, women who preferred to date smarter romantic partners were the ones most susceptible to under-performing in math and reporting less identification with and interest in STEM careers when romantic goals were activated (Park, Eastwick, Young, Troisi, & Streamer, 2016).

One way to boost women’s attitudes and interest in STEM may be through the use of feedback.  Along these lines, we found that women who received positive (vs. objective) feedback on a math test from a perceived gatekeeper (i.e., a male vs. female authority figure in a math setting) showed improved math-related outcomes, such as greater math self-efficacy, more favorable attitudes, identification with, and interest in STEM fields, and greater implicit identification with math  (Park, Kondrak, Ward, & Streamer, 2018).  Current research, funded by the National Science Foundation’s Division of Undergraduate Education (Improving Undergraduate STEM Education) examines how different types of feedback shape college students’ self-efficacy, belonging, and motivation in real-world STEM settings.