We All Care What Other People Think of Us

What Other People Think, part 1

At last year’s congregational auction here at CUUC, the high bidder for the privilege of giving me a sermon topic wanted me to address the issue of other people’s opinions of us, and should we care what other people think? So today is the day I take up this topic.

It turns out there’s an answer to this question: Yes, we do and should care what other people think. Blessed be, amen, our closing hymn . . .

Oh, you know I’m not going to short-change a topic as rich as this one. (What would you think of me?)

The question is one of integrity, isn’t it? “To thine own self be true,” as Polonius said. And integrity – the wholeness of a life in which actions and principles are consistent – is important.

We’ve all met people who say, no, they are not affected by what other people think of them. Maybe you used to be one of those people – maybe you still are. I spent some years as youth imagining that I was immune to the opinions of others – but this was mostly so I could say snide and contemptuous things about lemming-people who followed the crowd and wouldn’t think for themselves.

Social psychologist Mark Leary did a very interesting study. He began by surveying a large group of students on their self-esteem and how much it depended on what other people think. Some of the students, question after question, reported that they were completely unaffected by the opinions of others. Other students said they were strongly affected by what other people think of them.

Leary then selected two groups: students who most strongly said they were not affected by others, and students who most strongly said they were affected by others’ opinions of them. Here’s what each student did. They had to sit alone in a room and talk about themselves for five minutes, speaking into a microphone. They were told that there was someone out of sight in another room listening to them, and that listener was making a determination, based on what they heard, whether they wanted to interact the speaker in the next part of the study. So the speaker is talking for five minutes into a microphone. And they can’t see the listener, but at the end of every minute as they’re talking, a number appears on a display in front of them – a number between 1 and 7. The students have been told that a 1 means "the listener really doesn’t want to interact with you. From what they’re hearing, they don’t like you." A 7 means that they very strongly do want to interact with you. Numbers in between indicate varying degrees of in-between interest.

Imagine how this would feel. You start talking about yourself, and at the end of one minute you see a 4. OK, they’re on the fence. You keep talking. At the end of the second minute, you see a 3.


At the end of the third minute, it’s a 2.

I'm losing them!

At the end of the fourth minute, it’s up to a 3.

Ah, that last minute must have a little more interest in it.

Then at the end of the last minute, it’s back down to a 2 again.


Now, Leary has rigged it. Half the students, by random draw, got 4-3-2-3-2 – and it didn’t matter how charmingly or how boringly they talked about themselves. The other half of the students got rising numbers: 4-5-6-5-6.

Not surprisingly the students who had said that they cared about other people’s opinions had big reactions to the numbers. When one of these students got the sequence of falling numbers, their self-esteem sank.
“But the self-proclaimed mavericks suffered shocks almost as big. They might indeed have steered by their own compass, but they didn’t realize that their compass tracked public opinion, not true north” (Jonathan Haidt, The Righteous Mind 91)
Leary says that we have an internal sociometer that continuously measures how the people around you value having you around. When your sociometer needle drops, it triggers an alarm and changes our behavior. Leary writes:
“the sociometer operates at a nonconscious and preattentive level to scan the social environment for any and all indications that one’s relational value is low or declining.” (qtd in Haidt 92)
We ALL care what people think of us. It’s just that some people have such low self-awareness that they think they don’t. And why do they have that delusion? Because they think people will think better of them if they profess to be the kind of person who doesn’t care what other people think.

Actually, there is one group of people that truly do not have the internal unconscious sociometer and can be said to not care what other people think of them: psychopaths. Psychopaths would care what others think only as part of a plan to manipulate or exploit them. They don’t have shame and guilt: the social emotions that correspond to being attentive to what others think of us.

At this point you may be thinking, OK, we are all, if we aren’t psychopaths, attentive to others opinions, but even so, there are some people who are clearly always seeking approval and others who, while attentive to overt signs of approval and disapproval, aren’t always trying to get approval. Some people seem to need to constant reassurance and others seem to be more “self-defined” or self-differentiated. They take for granted that they are "acceptable enough," and, unless explicitly shown or told they aren't, they don’t seem to think about it.

To get at what’s going on here, we have to unpack the notion of self a little bit. What is this “self” thing to which Polonius tells us to be true?

Next: The Self

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This is part 1 of 3 of "What Other People Think"
See also:
Part 2: The Self and Its Worldview
Part 3: Biases and Anxiety

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