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Psychol Sci. 2007 Oct;18(10):886-92.

Defensive physiological reactions to rejection: the effect of self-esteem and attentional control on startle responses.

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University of California, Berkeley, CA 94720, USA.


We examined the hypothesis that rejection automatically elicits defensive physiological reactions in people with low self-esteem (SE) but that attentional control moderates this effect. Undergraduates (N= 67) completed questionnaire measures of SE and attentional control. Their eye-blink responses to startle probes were measured while they viewed paintings related to rejection and acceptance themes. The stimuli also included positive-, negative-, and neutral-valence control paintings unrelated to rejection. As predicted, compared with people high in SE, those low in SE showed stronger startle eye-blink responses to paintings related to rejection, but not to negative paintings. Paintings related to acceptance did not attenuate their physiological reactivity. Furthermore, attentional control moderated their sensitivity to rejection, such that low SE was related to greater eye-blink responses to rejection only among individuals who were low in attentional control. Implications of the role of attentional control as a top-down process regulating emotional reactivity in people with low SE are discussed.

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