Self-Esteem, Organization of Thoughts about Partners, and Context-Dependence of Partner Views

Download data and study materials from OSF

This experiment was fielded as part of a TESS telephone survey. Data and materials for all the studies included on this survey is available here.

Principal investigators:

Steven Graham

New College of Florida



Margaret S. Clark

Yale University



Sample size: 168

Field period: 10/2003


Earlier research suggests that people with low self-esteem tend to segregate positive and negative information about relationship partners in memory, whereas those with high self-esteem tend to integrate such information (Graham & Clark, under revision). The present research had two purposes: (1) To replicate this earlier finding in a nationally representative sample of married people, and, (2) To extend this finding by testing the hypothesis that those with low self-esteem have more context-dependent views of partners. The first portion of this research was correlational. We explored the former by asking participants to respond to a measure of trait self-esteem as well as a measure of integration of thoughts about partners. We explored the latter by randomly assigning participants to recall either positive or negative events in their marriage, and then rating their current marital satisfaction.


#1) We predicted that the measures of self-esteem and of integration of thoughts about partners would be positively associated. We further predicted that this association would hold, controlling for: sex, age, length of relationship, and marital satisfaction.
#2) We predicted that individuals low in self-esteem and/or low in integration of positive and negative thoughts about partners would be more affected by positive and negative primes relating to their marriage. In particular, we predicted that respondents with low self-esteem would report lower current marital satisfaction after recalling negative marital events but higher current satisfaction after recalling positive marital events, whereas those high in self-esteem and/or integration would report similar satisfaction, regardless of the valence of events recalled.

Experimental Manipulations

Participants recalled either three positive marital events or three negative marital events. Regardless of the valence of these events, participants were instructed to attempt to recall the events vividly and then to rate the positivity/negativity of each event.


For the first purpose of the research, the measure of integration was a key dependent variable.
For the second purpose of the research, the measure of marital satisfaction was a key dependent variable.

Summary of Results

We predicted and found that the measures of trait self-esteem and integration of thoughts about partners would be positively associated, controlling for sex, age, length of relationship, and marital satisfaction. Greater marital satisfaction also predicted integration of thoughts about partners. This fits with the findings of Murray & Holmes (1999), who demonstrated that people in more satisfying relationships tend to link partner faults to partner virtues in memory. We predicted, but did not find, that participants low in self-esteem would be more affected by recalling either positive or negative events than would participants high in self-esteem. It is possible that our hypothesis was incorrect. However, examination of the marital satisfaction data suggests a methodological explanation for this null finding. Satisfaction ratings were quite high (M=6.47, 7-point scale) and may have been especially vulnerable to socially desirable reporting given the method of data collection.


Overall, this research was successful. We successfully replicated earlier work demonstrating a link between self-esteem and integration of positive and negative thoughts about partners. Importantly, the present study adds to those conducted earlier by demonstrating this association across a wider age range (earlier samples were restricted to college students) and extending it to marriage or marriage-like relationships (earlier associations related to college roommates, best friends, and dating relationships). Whereas our second hypothesis was not supported, findings suggest that researchers should be cautious collecting measures especially susceptible to social desirability concerns during phone interviews.

Additional Information

This research was conducted via phone interviews. Only participants who were married or living together in marriage-like relationships completed the relevant measures.


Graham, S. M., & Clark, M. S. 2004. Low self-esteem and organization of evaluative information about others. Poster presented at the bi-annual conference of the International Association for Relationships Research.
Graham, S. M., & Clark, M. S. 2004. Segregation of evaluative information about others and context-dependence and stability of partner views. Poster presented at the annual conference of the Society for Personality and Social Psychology.
Graham, S. M. and M. S. Clark. 2006. Self-esteem and organization of valenced information about others: The "Jekyll & Hyde"-ing of relationship partners. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 90:652-665.