Self-esteem refers to an individual's or in some cases a group's evaluative judgment about himself, herself, or itself. The term and concept were relatively unnoticed prior to the 1960s, at which time various thinkers and researchers began to suspect that it could be an important factor in behavior. By the late 1970s self-esteem had become a major focus of a great deal of research, and people began to seek to raise self-esteem in connection with a broad assortment of interventions, including clinical practice and education.
During the 1980s self-esteem became a national buzzword and was being studied and applied in a staggering variety of settings. Leading proponents such as Nathaniel Branden (1984) contended that deficient self-esteem was a causal factor behind nearly every sort of personal and social problem and pathology. A high point of sorts was reached late that decade, when the state of California established the California Task Force to Promote Self-esteem and Personal and Social Responsibility. Its manifesto (California Task Force, 1990) asserted that raising the self-esteem of California's citizens would help solve many of the state's problems, including violence, drug abuse, unwanted pregnancy, and school underachievement.
Criticism began to mount in the 1990s, and since the early 2000s the value of self-esteem has become the focus of serious debate. As of 2008 there are many programs for boosting self-esteem, especially among schools, and some groups whose livelihoods depend on administering these are fiercely resistant to criticism. On the other side, accumulated research findings have led many experts to question whether high self-esteem or boosting self-esteem has any practical value at all. Most likely an intermediate conclusion is correct.
In 1999 the American Psychological Society (subsequently renamed the Association for Psychological Science) commissioned a panel of experts to review the research findings and provide a summary evaluation of the benefits of high self-esteem. The governing board sought to compose the panel of persons with widely different initial views about self-esteem (i.e., both proponents and critics) and selected a leader (Baumeister) who had held different opinions at different times, reflecting a presumptive willingness to revise his opinions in light of new evidence. Its report filled an entire issue of the journal Psychological Science in the Public Interest (Baumeister, Campbell, Krueger, & Vohs, 2003). That report, and a condensed version for lay readers published by the same authors in Scientific American in January 2005, offers a relatively thorough overview for interested readers.
Self-esteem literally means a person's valuing of himself or herself. It is thus the evaluative dimension of the self-concept. This may include both thoughts and feelings. Related terms include self-love, self-worth, self-respect, self-regard, and narcissism.
Self-esteem is typically measured with a questionnaire inviting respondents to rate how they think and feel about themselves. For better or worse, the brief scale developed by Rosenberg (1965) has become the standard way of measuring self-esteem. Items on self-esteem scales typically include assessment of liking for oneself overall, appraisal of one's confidence at being able to perform well at work and in school, and ability to get along with others and be liked. Moral self-appraisals are included in some scales.
Self-esteem is thus opinion, not objective appraisal. High self-esteem may refer to accurate, healthy appreciation of one's genuine capabilities and worth as a person, or it may refer to unrealistic, conceited overestimates of the self. Efforts to distinguish inflated egotism or narcissistic conceitedness from so-called true self-esteem have not had much success thus far. One general implication, therefore, is that several different kinds of people score high in self-esteem.
Nearly all research samples find that self-esteem, at least among modern Americans, is relatively high on average. That is, the distribution of scores runs from close to the maximum possible score on the scale down to a bit below the scale midpoint, with then relatively few scores in the bottom register. When researchers compare high and low scores on self-esteem, they divide the sample in its middle, but some critics have suggested that this in effect compares truly high self-esteem against medium self-esteem. Nonetheless, the distribution refutes widespread claims that the American population suffers from an epidemic of low self-esteem. In fact, American self-esteem scores have long been relatively high and have been increasing steadily in recent decades (Twenge & Campbell, 2001).
One important question is whether self-esteem should be measured as a general attitude toward the self overall or, instead, in specific domains. It seems eminently possible for a person to believe himself or herself to be good at math and poor at music; is there a core overall evaluation of self that coexists with these? Most research has focused on global self-esteem, but there are notable exceptions, particularly the work of Herbert Marsh (e.g., 2006), which focuses on academic self-esteem and indeed sometimes emphasizes self-esteem as separate for specific areas of study.
A persistent source of bias in the research literature stems from relying on self-reports. People score high in self-esteem by saying favorable things about themselves on a questionnaire, and so people who tend to flatter themselves on questionnaires end up classified as high in self-esteem. That may sound obvious, but many researchers then give people another questionnaire to ask about other sorts of behaviors and attributes, and when these same people say favorable things about themselves on those questionnaires, researchers sometimes mistakenly conclude that self-esteem contributes to positive outcomes. For example, when researchers ask people how intelligent or physically attractive they are, people with high self-esteem rate themselves higher than those with low self-esteem, which seemingly suggests that high self-esteem is linked to intelligence and good looks. But when researchers get objective data (e.g., giving an IQ test, or having judges rate how good-looking participants are), those differences disappear completely.
Much interest in self-esteem was stimulated by the claim that raising self-esteem could contribute to improving schoolwork. Although these hopes appear now to be false, they were plausible. In theory, high self-esteem might improve performance by increasing confidence, by making people willing to persist despite initial failure, by means of self-fulfilling prophecies, by eagerness to seek out challenges, and by other means. These hopes have been fueled by persistent findings that correlate self-esteem with grades in school and test performance, typically around .21 to .26, as noted already by Hansford and Hattie (1982), though the results varied widely from one study to another.
The fact that students with higher grades have higher self-esteem does not necessarily mean that bolstering self-esteem will cause other students to improve performance, however, for two reasons. The first reason is the familiar gap between correlation and causation. High self-esteem appears to be the result, not the cause, of doing well in school, as gradually emerged from painstaking longitudinal studies (e.g., Bachman & O'Malley, 1977). In other words, the good grades come first, and high self-esteem follows, so boosting self-esteem to improve grades may be backwards and hence futile.
Second, even if there were direct causal links between a stable trait of self-esteem and school performance, this does not guarantee that artificially boosting the trait or attitude will lead to improvements in performance. The many programs aimed at increasing self-esteem among students have generally failed to provide any evidence that they improve learning. An early review of such interventions and programs by Scheirer and Kraut (1979) concluded that such interventions were not effective. Subsequently, many professional programs advertised as bolstering self-esteem among students have added modules on study skills and socially desirable behavior, seemingly in tacit acknowledgement that self-esteem boosting alone does not work, but programs originating in the schools themselves may not uniformly recognize this need.
Almost no studies have employed experimental designs with proper controls to investigate the effects of boosting self-esteem. One exception was reported by Forsyth, Kerr, Burnette, and Baumeister (2007). College students with C, D, or F midterm grades were randomly assigned to receive weekly messages containing (1) review questions, (2) review questions plus self-esteem boosting, or (3) review questions plus reminders to take personal responsibility. Students whose self-esteem was boosted actually got significantly poorer grades on the final examination than on the midterm and poorer than students in the control condition. Thus, boosting self-esteem actually caused a significant decline in performance. The authors were surprised by this result and wished to conduct further studies, but obviously it would be unethical to conduct research that expects to cause students to get bad grades. Still, this result should give pause to anyone interested in improving school performance. Some have pointed out that the widespread embracing of self-esteem in school curriculums has coincided with a general decline in American student performance, though drawing firm causal conclusions from mass societal phenomena is generally unwarranted, especially in comparison with controlled experimentation.
Why might self-esteem cause school performance to get worse? Even proponents of self-esteem such as Nathaniel Branden have begun to suggest that self-esteem has most positive effects when it is earned via legitimate accomplishment. Hence simply telling people to think they are wonderful in the absence of such achievement may foster a sense of being too good to be willing to work hard or other sorts of entitlements. Overconfidence is also a possibility.
Self-esteem has been investigated for a variety of possible benefits beyond school performance. Given the limited space, this entry provides only a brief overview: For a more thorough review, see Baumeister and colleagues (2003).
Interpersonally, people with high self-esteem report and consider themselves to be charming and popular, with good relationship skills and many friends, but when they are rated by other people, most of these advantages disappear. In laboratory studies that assign people to interact with strangers and then report their impressions, high self-esteem persons generally think they have made better impressions than people with low self-esteem, but the actual impressions are no different or in some cases worse.
A longstanding view has surmised that violence and aggression stem from low self-esteem, but the actual evidence for this is extremely sparse and consists mainly of self-reports. Behavioral studies generally find self-esteem to make no difference and people high in narcissism, which can be regarded as one of the less appealing kinds of high self-esteem, are the most aggressive, especially when someone has criticized them. Thus, violence stems more from threatened egotism than from inadequate self-love (Baumeister, Smart, & Boden, 1996). There is some evidence of a correlation between some forms of delinquent, externalizing, antisocial behavior and low self-esteem, though it is not known which causes which.
The effects of self-esteem on work and task performance resemble those on school performance. Self-reports vary widely but generally point toward a mildly positive relationship, possibly because people with high self-esteem are prouder of their work than are people low in self-esteem. Objective data on task performance generally show little or no difference, with one important exception: High self-esteem leads to better persistence in the face of failure than low self-esteem, as shown in many studies.
Happiness is correlated with high self-esteem. Obviously these studies rely on self-reports of happiness (because no objective measures exist), but the pattern seems robust across many methods and samples, and experimental manipulations that raise or lower self-esteem produce corresponding emotional changes to support the conclusion. There is also a longstanding hypothesis that high self-esteem acts as a buffer to shield the person from the harmful effects of stress and trauma, and some rigorous studies have supported that conclusion. Although other studies have shown somewhat different patterns of results, none finds that low self-esteem leads to better coping or more happiness. Low self-esteem is persistently correlated with depression, though it is very difficult to say which causes the other.
The hope that high self-esteem would help young people resist smoking, drug abuse, early sexual behavior, and other unhealthy patterns has not generally been supported. If anything, more findings link high than low self-esteem to early experimentation with sex and drugs, possibly because popularity contributes to both high self-esteem and experimentation. Among all these domains surveyed by Baumeister and colleagues (2003), the best results were found with eating disorders. Low self-esteem appears to be a risk factor that significantly increases the risk that young women and possibly young men will develop eating disorders, though the effect of self-esteem is only in combination with other factors and possibly indirect.
Overall, two benefits of high self-esteem stood out. High self-esteem promotes initiative, presumably because confidence makes people more willing to take action and rely on their own judgment. This can produce negative effects, but initiative is mostly considered a good thing, and so this is one important benefit.
The other benefit is positive feelings and happiness. High self-esteem seems to be linked to a stock of pleasant, happy feelings that enable the person to enjoy life when it is good and/or avoid depression and misery when things are not going well.
Although these two established benefits of high self-esteem fall far short of what was once hoped, they are far from trivial, and in combination they can contribute to making life good for people whose self-esteem is high. The question of how much effort and other resources should be devoted to boosting self-esteem in order to increase these two benefits is left to policymakers. It is however noteworthy that these benefits of high self-esteem accrue mainly to the individuals rather than to their relationship partners or to society as a whole. Some experts caution that simply flattering young people or otherwise seeking to boost their self-esteem directly will more likely contribute to increased narcissism and other less desirable forms of self-esteem, and the societal consequences of narcissism (which has been increasing throughout the U.S. population in the last decades of the 20th century; Twenge & Campbell, in press) are if anything negative.
The question of what are the benefits of high self-esteem is hardly the only important question about self-esteem. Considerable work has been invested in understanding how the behavioral, mental, and emotional reactions of people with high self-esteem differ from those with low or medium self-esteem. Presumably most educators and other leaders will have to deal with people having a variety of levels of self-esteem, and so understanding these differences may be useful for helping them deal effectively with each individual.
In general, low self-esteem is a greater puzzle than high self-esteem. Researchers have found it relatively easy to characterize people with high self-esteem, who like themselves and generally expect life to go well. Competing theories about low self-esteem have flourished, however.
Regarding emotional differences, high self-esteem is associated with generally higher levels of happiness and good feelings than low self-esteem (as noted above). Another difference is in emotional lability (Campbell, Chew, & Scratchley, 1991). People with low self-esteem have more frequent emotional ups and downs. This may indicate that people with low self-esteem lack the stabilizing influence that is associated with the emotional resources that go with high self-esteem.
Regarding cognition, people with low self-esteem experience more uncertainty and instability of self-knowledge (Campbell, 1990). Their self-concepts fluctuate more than those of people with high self-esteem. They are more likely to describe themselves in inconsistent and contradictory ways and to change how they rate themselves from one time to another. They are also more likely to respond “I don't know” to questions about themselves. This is an important clue to the nature of self-esteem. High self-esteem means having firm, clear ideas about who one is and what one wants. Low self-esteem does not apparently mean being convinced that one is a bad person. Instead, it is the absence of well-defined positive views of self rather than the presence of well-defined negative views.
People with high self-esteem engage in many self-flattering biases, such as assuming and in many cases overestimating how much that others will agree with their opinions and that their abilities are unique. They take credit for success and deny blame for failure. People with low self-esteem have fewer such biases. These mental tricks contribute to some of the biases noted earlier, such as that people with high self-esteem consider themselves smarter, more popular, and better-looking than other people, whereas objective evidence generally disconfirms these self-flattering views. Thus, an essential part of high self-esteem in many cases is convincing oneself that one is better than one really is.
Turning to motivation, what do people with low self-esteem want? Mostly they do not seek failure and rejection. Instead, they seem to want the same things that people high in self-esteem want (such as success and social approval), but they are less certain than others that they will achieve these goals (McFarlin & Blascovich, 1981).
The level of aspiration is different, and as a result, the overarching social motivations are different. People with high self-esteem want and expect to succeed, and so they are willing to take chances to stand out. They have a self-enhancing orientation, which means they look for ways to increase their stock of successes and to improve how others see them. In contrast, low self-esteem is associated with a prevention orientation: These people go through life seeking to remedy problems and avoid failures. They may focus on their weaknesses (whereas people with high self-esteem focus on their strengths) and avoid risky situations (for review, see Baumeister, Tice, & Hutton, 1989).
People with low self-esteem lack confidence in their own views and ideas, and so they are relatively willing to do what others tell them. Indeed, some of the earliest research on self-esteem emphasized that low self-esteem produces a relatively high susceptibility to persuasion and influence (Janis, 1954; for review, see Brockner, 1983). The behavior of these people varies across situations as they yield to current pressures. High self-esteem, in contrast, tends to promote acting on one's own and disregarding the influences and even the good advice of others.
Abundant research has shown that people desire high self-esteem: They strive to think well of themselves. Why is the concern with self-esteem seemingly so deeply rooted in the psyche? If high self-esteem conferred many positive benefits, the desire for it would be understandable, but given the relatively few advantages, it presents a puzzle. Noting that high self-esteem feels good provides a partial answer, but because emotions are presumably there to help people survive and prosper, the question again arises, why are emotions tied to self-esteem?
One answer offered by Mark Leary and his colleagues is that self-esteem is a kind of internal measure of something that is vitally important, namely one's prospects for social acceptance (Leary, Tambor, Terdal, & Downs, 1995). High self-esteem is typically based on thinking one has the traits that will bring acceptance: attractiveness, likeability, and competence. Low self-esteem in this view is essentially a belief that one does not have what it takes to attract and keep relationship partners and group memberships. Human survival has long depended on belonging to important groups, and so self-esteem may be one's internal measure of how likely that is.
Bachman, J. G., & O'Malley, P. M. (1977). Self-esteem in young men: A longitudinal analysis of the impact of educational and occupational attainment. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 35, 365–380.
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