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Capitalization, self-esteem, and building social resources

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Principal Investigator(s):

Shannon M. Smith
University of Rochester
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Harry Reis
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Sample size: 2434
Field period: 10/21/2005 - 11/01/2005



Existing research has not looked closely at the processes by which positive emotions and the sharing of positive experiences contribute to the development of close relationships. When people enter close relationships, they expect partners to be responsive to their most important needs and aspirations. This expectation is central to the definition of communal relationships (Clark, Dubash, & Mills, 1998), considered by most researchers to be the prototype of close, supportive interpersonal bonds. Most studies have examined responsiveness largely in terms of needs related to coping with stress or conflict. However, communal relationships also involve responsiveness to personal aspirations, because goals and ideals are central parts of the self (Markus & Nurius, 1986). As noted above, only a handful of studies have examined partner responsiveness to positive events (which, we assume, represent the embodiment of personal aspirations, goals, and ideals). An enthusiastic response is likely to indicate support and valuing of the individual’s goals and ideals, thus building an important social resource. A significant body of research has shown that partner responsiveness contributes to intimacy and satisfaction in close relationships, but again, these studies have largely examined responsiveness in the context of negative events and conflict (e.g., Gottman, 1980; Reis & Shaver, 1988).

The proposed TESS experiment explores the role of capitalization in building interpersonal resources. The research described above suggests that for capitalization to occur, a partner’s response to the disclosure of one’s good fortune must be positive and enthusiastic. However, the perception of a partner’s response at best imperfectly reflects the partner’s actual response. No matter how positive a response is intended, and no matter how positive a response might appear to neutral observers, if the person disclosing a positive event does not perceive the response to be positive, he or she will not experience the partner as supportive and affirming, will be unable to capitalize on the event, and social resources will not accrue (Reis, Clark, & Holmes, 2004). On the other hand, if the sharer perceives more positivity in a partner’s response than is objectively warranted, he or she may nevertheless capitalize. Existing research on conflictual interactions demonstrates that both objective accounts of a partner’s responsiveness and subjective construals of those responses are influential in close relationships (e.g., Collins & Feeney, 2000). The purpose of this study is to examine how perceptions of a partner’s responsiveness to positive events contribute to capitalization, and thereby to individual and relational well-being.


Our key hypothesis is that threatened low self-esteem individuals will perceive less enthusiasm from their romantic partners than non-threatened low self-esteem individuals, while the opposite pattern will be true for high self-esteem individuals.

Experimental Manipulation:

Condition 1: Secret self threat (Murray et al., 2002) – designed to prime aspects of the self that are unacceptable and thus pose a threat to the relationship
Condition 2: Partner betrayal – designed to prime the partner’s unacceptability as a relationship threat
Condition 3: Disagreement – designed to prime a relationship threat to which both partners contribute
Condition 4: No threat/Positive event – designed to examine participants’ descriptions of a partner’s imagined response to a positive event in the absence of a threat
Condition 5: No threat/Neutral event – designed as a comparison for the self-esteem by threat/no threat interaction from the other four conditions

Key Dependent Variables:

Ratings of subjects' feelings,their partner’s anticipated response on Gable et al.’s (2004) Capitalization scale, and perceptions of their partner’s unconditional regard (Murray et al., 2002).


Smith, S. M., & Reis, H. T. (2012). "Perceived responses to capitalization attempts are influenced by self-esteem and relationship threat." Personal Relationships. 19: 367-385

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