Give your ego a bright outlook: consider ego related phrases that aren't all negative

In my first article about the word ego and related terms, I discussed phrases with a negative connotation.  To summarize, egoism originally meant the overuse of the word "I", and likewise ego and related phrases often involve self-centered, selfish viewpoints and behaviors.  However, we learned that our own ego can get in the way of what we want.  It leads us, unconsciously, to make errors in judgment and to jeopardize relationships.  We will never satisfy it, so to reduce its interference in our lives we can make efforts to suspend it, reduce it, or deflate it.  From the foregoing we might get the impression that ego is generally a bad thing.

However, ego can also have neutral connotations.  After all, the word simply means "I", the first person pronoun, in Greek.  And a healthy self-view doesn't require feeling negative about oneself.  On the contrary, we should generally have positive views of ourselves, within balance.  That's the real key to mastering the ego.  So today I'll discuss three phrases that contain "ego" that often have a positive connotation:

  • Ego involvement
  • Ego boost
  • Ego defense

Ego involvement: how to understand it better than even some of the experts

Like egoism, ego involvement is an ambiguous term.  According to Merriam-Webster, ego involvement is "an involvement of one's self-esteem in the performance of a task or in an object."  It is contrasted with task involvement, which is the frame of mind focused on mastering something such as a school subject or a sport.  The focus is on personal mastery and is accompanied by a belief that greater effort will lead to success.  Ego involvement, on the other hand, is focused on how the individual does in comparison with others.This description of task involvement reminds me of the concept of "growth mindset" popularized by Carol Dweck.  I'll be visiting this concept further in the future. It's easy to see why this version of ego involvement isn't useful, and I would have included this phrase in my last article if it weren't for its alternative meaning.

The experts seem to be confused about this

I was confused by the definition offered by APA Dictionary of Psychology.  They apparently conflate the two concepts together.  First, they define ego involvement as "the extent to which a task ... is perceived as ... important to one's self-esteem," which matches the description in the paragraph above.The original statement was, "the extent to which a task or other target of judgment is perceived as psychologically significant or important to one's self-esteem."  Here's how it should be worded: Ego involvement is the extent to which a task is important to one's self esteem. Alternatively, (in social justice theory) ego involvement is the extent to which a target of judgment is perceived as psychologically significant.  Instead they tried to intermingle the two definitions.  This convinces me that whoever wrote this seemingly official definition really can't tell the two apart. However, their definition continues, "It is presumed to be a determinant of attitude strength. Also called attitudinal involvement; personal involvement; self-relevance."  What on earth is that supposed to mean?

Why social judgment theory is worth considering

Let's cut through this confusion by considering the source of the second definition.  Wikipedia informs us: "Social judgment theory (SJT) is a self-persuasion theory proposed by Carolyn Sherif, Muzafer Sherif, and Carl Hovland, defined by Sherif and Sherif as the perception and evaluation of an idea by comparing it with current attitudes." Here's my summary of the theory: every time we encounter a new idea, we subconsciously compare it to our point of view regarding similar things.  We seek something to compare the idea to, in order to determine our attitude toward it.  This applies in a general sense when we encounter new or unfamiliar ideas.  For example, if we see a new product on television we may compare it with other, similar, products that we have already seen.  If it seems similar to something we often use, we may be interested in learning more.  On the other hand, if we don't see a need for the item we'll likely have no interest in it.  Thus, we immediately form an attitude toward the item, that is, we've made a judgment.  

Notice that we've been discussing social judgment theory; there is a social element involved.  Not only will we make judgments regarding the usefulness of a new idea, we will make judgments in terms of our self-identity.  I referred to this concept in the article Who Influences Your Outlook? Can You Even Know? SJT builds on the concept of social identity by suggesting that every time we encounter a new idea we not only evaluate its familiarity and usefulness, but we also evaluate how it relates to our social identity.  According to the theory this is called ego involvement.  Now the second half of the APA definition above is starting to make sense.  If I see a commercial for a new Ford truck but all my friends drive Chevrolet, I will probably not be interested regardless of how good the product is.  

I thus include the phrase ego involvement here because it is useful to understanding how we make decisions and how we respond to new ideas.  The latter definition is neither positive or negative (although the resulting response could be). It is a useful concept to understand, because none of us operate in a vacuum.  The more we understand how our mind works the better our ability to recognize our limitations and act effectively.

One way to use this understanding to your advantage

Understanding the concept of ego involvement is useful for persuasion.  A person is more likely to be persuaded if they don't have negative ego involvement in an issue.  (For example, they don't have friends who hate Fords.)  Also, if the information is different enough from similar ideas, they will have a harder time contrasting it and thus forming negative judgments.  Finally, it's best to understand that persuasion happens a little at a time, so repeated messages work best.  Take note of these principles next time you observe multiple advertisements for a product or service.  Effective advertisers are well aware of these effects.

A little ego boost never hurt anyone

You're still reading this?  Give yourself a pat on the back.  Ego involvement is not an easy concept to understand, so if you can explain the two versions of "ego involvement," you are a very smart person.  How do you feel now?  I just gave you a little "ego boost."  I was being completely sincere in doing it.  In fact, I really struggled to explain it so I feel like I need an ego boost right now myself.

According to some sources, confidence boost and morale boost are synonyms for ego boost.  Both phrases have positive connotations.  An ego boost is something that makes one feel better and raises morale.  That's why I'm including this phrase in this article.To be honest, I don't really think this use of "ego" is consistent with the other meanings we've considered. "Confidence boost" or "morale boost" feel more correct, but "ego boost" is just such a compact, easy phrase, I decided to include it here anyway.

Lindsay Kramer, a marriage and family therapist, shared three things to tell yourself when you need an ego boost:

  • “I can’t control everything.”
  • “I know I can do this.”
  • “It’s OK if I make a mistake.”

I think these affirmations are perfectly healthy.  They don't make comparisons to other people, and at least two of them are completely factual.  And perhaps most importantly, they counteract messages that we often encounter implying that nothing should ever go wrong.  

The best and worst kinds of ego boost

Do you want to give another person a healthy ego boost?  Show appreciation for something they've done or give them a sincere compliment.  Or try this:  Next time you are concluding a conversation with someone, reiterate the ideas they've expressed and tell them why you feel the ideas have value.  You'll not only boost their morale, you'll be making a big deposit in their emotional bank account.  

While we've considered positive forms of ego boosting, I need to acknowledge that it can be misused.  A person can give themselves an ego boost by bullying others or putting them down.  A person who relies on this kind of behavior is likely to end up in a self-destructive cycle that hurts everyone else along the way.In the future I'll be writing about "contingent" self-esteem and its relationship to the negative aspects of ego.

Ego defense: don't be too hard on your ego; maybe it's just trying to protect you

I first encountered this concept when studying emotional intelligence.  In The Journal of Psychology article "The Relationship Between Emotional Intelligence and Ego Defense Mechanisms," John Pellitteri wrote, "The 'skills' of emotional intelligence are conscious efforts akin to coping mechanisms (Haan, 1977). but they may operate in ways similar to unconscious defenses because of the similarity of function."John Pellitteri (2002) The Relationship Between Emotional Intelligence and Ego Defense Mechanisms, The Journal of Psychology, 136:2, 182-194, DOI: 10.1080/00223980209604149 In What is Emotional Intelligence? I cited another study that came to a similar conclusion. 

The key to understanding ego defense is homeostasis, the tendency to resist change in order to maintain a stable, relatively constant internal environment.  This is an important part of the functioning of living organisms.  Our bodies are constantly making changes, most of them completely outside our awareness, in order to maintain homeostasis.  The fact that living beings make these continuous adjustments is really a marvel, worthy of much more consideration than we usually give it.  But in this case we are talking specifically about mental well-being.  The subconscious mind often makes self-protective adjustments to keep distress to a minimum.

An idea with lots of potential

Freud did consider the role of the subconscious mind in adaptive defenses, and to a degree his ideas on the subject persist until today.  However, according to Pellitteri, "Contemporary psychoanalytic self-psychology and object relations theory broadened the role of defense to include the maintenance of self-esteem and the protection of self-organization."  His essay provided me with lots of thought-provoking ideas to explore, most of which I won't go into here.  However, one statement, "Socially unacceptable negative emotions are unavailable to conscious experience," reminds me of what I've already written on social desirability.  

Ego defense has a strong relationship with identity, which I'll be exploring further in the future, and it also affects moral judgment:

Adolescents with strong defense use showed lower levels of moral judgment. Even more important was the finding that the earlier defense use predicted moral judgment both in later adolescence and in early adulthood.Pellitteri, ibid.

Why this stuff matters

What did we learn here?  While the ego is often associated with negative, selfish behaviors, not everything associated with ego is negative.  In fact, ego-related concepts can help us understand and take some control of mental processes that would otherwise be completely invisible to us.  It's almost like we're being given a third eye that opens inward and we can start seeing things going on inside that most people are completely unaware of.  Social judgment theory gives insight into how ego involvement influences the way we process new ideas.  The concept of ego defense provides yet more evidence of the giant, underwater part of the iceberg that is our unconscious mind.  And finally, we learned some effective ways to give ourselves and others an "ego boost."  Why not make a note of one to try?