Self-esteem is a concept that has been used to explain a vast array of emotional, motivational, and behavioral phenomena. Most Americans believe intuitively that low self-esteem is undesirable; indeed, the link between low self-esteem and depression, shyness, loneliness, and alienation supports the general idea that low self-esteem is an aversive state. The view that self-esteem is a vital component of mental health is also evident in the popular media and in educational policy. Low self-esteem has been viewed as the root cause of societal problems ranging from drug abuse to teenage pregnancy to poor school performance. A number of educational and therapeutic programs have been developed to solve these problems by increasing self-esteem. Self-esteem is one of the most frequently examined constructs in sociology and psychology, with more than 15,000 research articles referring to it over the past thirty years. This entry reviews the research that has focused on the conceptual and functional basis of self-esteem.
Self-esteem is defined as the evaluative component of the self-concept, the extent to which people view themselves as likable and worthy as opposed to unlikable and unworthy. As a self-reflexive attitude, self-esteem is composed of cognitive and affective components. Self-esteem is related to personal beliefs about skills, abilities, and future outcomes as well as the strategies people use to gain self-knowledge. However, the personal experience of self-esteem is more emotional than rational. Some people dislike themselves in spite of objective evidence suggesting that they should feel very good about themselves. Many successful doctors, lawyers, professors, and entrepreneurs are filled with self-loathing despite their objective career success.
The term "self-esteem" sometimes is used interchangeably with terms such as "self-confidence," "self-efficacy," and even "self-concept," but such usage is inaccurate and should be discouraged. Self-confidence and self-efficacy refer to the belief that one can attain specific outcomes. Although people with high self-esteem often are self-confident, evaluative reactions to personal outcomes vary greatly, and it is possible for people to be confident about attaining a goal without feeling good about themselves in the process. The term "self-concept" refers to the components of self-knowledge and includes things such as name, race, ethnicity, gender, occupation, likes and dislikes, and personality traits. As such, self-concept refers to cognitive beliefs and other forms of self-relevant knowledge (Felson 1992). Although self-esteem clearly is influenced by the contents of the self-concept, they are not the same thing.
STRUCTURE AND MEASUREMENT OF SELF-ESTEEM
An important issue in the literature on self-esteem is whether self-esteem is best conceptualized as a unitary global trait or a multidimensional trait with independent subcomponents. An example of a multidimensional trait model is Tafarodi and Swann's (1995) differentiation between self-liking and self-competence. From this perspective, it is possible for people to like themselves generally but view themselves as not particularly efficacious at various tasks. Conversely, it is possible for people to view themselves as generally competent but not really like themselves. Mismatches between self-liking and self-competence lead to biases in the interpretation of social and performance feedback that confirm the level of self-liking. For instance, those who are high in self-liking but low in self-competence perceive negative feedback more positively than do those who are low in self-liking but high in self-competence.
Global self-esteem is best conceptualized as a hierarchical construct with three major components: performance self-esteem, social self-esteem, and physical self-esteem. Each component can be broken down into progressively smaller subcomponents. Performance self-esteem refers to one's sense of general competence and includes intellectual ability, school performance, self-regulatory capacities, self-confidence, efficacy, and agency. People who are high in performance self-esteem believe that they are smart and capable. As will be discussed below, personal beliefs about performance are poorly related to objective outcomes. Social self-esteem refers to how people believe they are perceived by others. It is perception rather than reality that is critical here. If people believe that others, especially significant others, value and respect them, they experience high social self-esteem even if others truly dislike them or hold them in contempt. The influence of these reflected appraisals on self-esteem is an integral part of Cooley's (1902) "looking-glass self" and has been implicated in the development of self-esteem by sociological theorists such as George Herbert Mead and Stanley Rosenberg. People who are low in social self-esteem often experience social anxiety and are high in public self-consciousness. They are highly attentive to their public images and worry about how others view them. Physical self-esteem refers to how people view their physical bodies and includes things such as athletic skills, physical attractiveness, and body image as well as physical stigmas and feelings about race and ethnicity.
How are these subcomponents of self-esteem related to global self-esteem? James (1892) proposed that global self-esteem is the summation of specific components of self-esteem, each of which is weighted by its importance to the self-concept. In other words, people have high self-esteem to the extent that they feel good about the things that matter to them. Not being good at tennis is irrelevant to the self-concept of a nonathlete, and doing poorly in school may have little impact on inner-city youth who do not identify with mainstream values (Steele 1997). Pelham (1995) and Marsh (1995) debated the value of global versus specific component models. Pelham's research generally supports the Jamesian view that the centrality of self-views is an important predictor of the emotional response to the self (i.e., one's feelings of self-esteem), whereas Marsh claims that domain importance does not have a strong impact on self-esteem. Although the jury is still out on this issue, the concept of domain importance is a central feature of most theories of self-esteem.
In terms of measurement, most research uses global measures of self-esteem, since this is viewed as having the greatest theoretical importance (Baumeister 1998). The most widely used measure of global self-esteem is the Rosenberg (1965) scale, which consists of ten general statements such as "On the whole, I am satisfied with myself," "I certainly feel useless at times," and "I take a positive attitude toward myself." Unfortunately, scores on this scale tend to be tightly clustered around its mean, limiting its predictive value. A review of self-esteem measures conducted by Blascovich and Tomaka (1991) recommended the Revised Feelings of Inadequacy Scale (Fleming and Courtney 1984), which is a modified version of the Janis and Field (1959) scale. This scale has five factors: social confidence, school abilities, self-regard, physical appearance, and physical ability. The total score on this scale is widely used as a measure of global self-esteem.
Another issue in the measurement and definition of self-esteem is whether it is best conceptualized as a stable personality trait or a context-specific state. Most theories of self-esteem view it as a relatively stable trait: If one has high self-esteem today, one probably will have high self-esteem tomorrow. Around this stable baseline, however, there are fluctuations; although people generally may feel good about themselves, there are times when they may experience self-doubt and even dislike themselves. In terms of research, the selection of trait or state measures of self-esteem depends on whether one is interested in predicting long-term outcomes or in the immediate effects associated with feelings about the self. Obviously, measures of state self-esteem are more useful for the latter group. The State Self-Esteem Scale (Heatherton and Polivy 1991) is a commonly used measure that has been shown to be sensitive to laboratory manipulations of self-esteem. This scale measures context-specific feelings related to performance, social, and physical self-esteem. Measures of trait and state self-esteem are highly correlated. However, frequent fluctuations in state self-esteem have been found to be associated with increased sensitivity to and reliance on social evaluations, increased concern about how one views the self, and even anger and hostility (Kernis 1993). In general, those with a fragile sense of self-esteem respond extremely favorably to positive feedback and extremely defensively to negative feedback.
SOURCES AND FUNCTIONS OF SELF-ESTEEM
A central issue in self-esteem pertains to its source. Research in psychology and sociology has focused on the role of early childhood experiences, especially in terms of parental treatment. Harter has incorporated the Jamesian and Cooley views of the development of self-esteem into a general model of self-esteem development (Harter 1993). Harter proposes that reflected appraisals about important dimensions affect the development of self-esteem but that specific domains are closely linked to potential audiences. According to her theory, parents are particularly concerned about behavioral conduct and school performance, and therefore, children's beliefs about how their parents view them on these dimensions influence self-esteem. Children who do well scholastically and behave in accordance with parental expectations believe that their parents support and love them. However, parents have less impact than do peers on self-perceptions related to physical appearance, athletic ability, and peer likability. To obtain the support of one's peers, children believe they have to be attractive, athletic, and likable. Failure to obtain support from either parents or peers can lead to feelings of hopelessness, depression, and poor global self-esteem. Harter's model offers a significant advance over earlier developmental theories by integrating importance and social support from a domain-specific perspective.
Further evidence for socialization processes can be found when one considers the influence of gender differences. A number of studies suggest that boys and girls diverge in their primary sources of self-esteem, with girls being more influenced by relationships and boys being more influenced by objective success. Stein et al. (1992) examined participants in an eight-year longitudinal study of adolescent growth and development. During adolescence, an agentic orientation predicted heightened self-esteem for males but not for females, whereas a communal orientation predicted heightened self-esteem for females but not for males. The possibility that males and females differ in terms of what constitutes the self-concept was also addressed by Josephs et al. (1992). In a series of studies, men and women were given false feedback indicating that they had deficits either on a performance dimension (e.g., competition, individual thinking) or on a social dimension (e.g., nurturance, interpersonal integration). Consistent with predictions, men high in self-esteem enhanced their estimates of being able to engage successfully in future performance behaviors, whereas women high in self-esteem enhanced their estimates of being able to engage successfully in future social behaviors. The authors of this entry recently compared the experiences of boys and girls in a summer tennis camp designed to increase self-esteem (Hebl et al. 1999). Scores on a children's version of the state self-esteem scale showed that both boys and girls had increases in overall self-esteem during the tennis camp, but whereas boys gained self-esteem primarily in the performance self-esteem domain, girls gainedself-esteem primarily in the social self-esteem domain. In each case it can be seen that boys gain self-esteem from getting ahead whereas girls gain self-esteem from getting along.
From a completely different perspective, some researchers have begun to explore the possibility that self-esteem is determined more by biology than by socialization. Although direct evidence is minimal, there is circumstantial evidence that some components of self-esteem are based in biology. Twin studies have suggested that self-esteem is moderately heritable, with estimates ranging from 30 to 50 percent (Kendler et al. 1998). In addition, traits known to be associated with self-esteem, such as extraversion and neuroticism, have long been known to have a genetic component. Kramer (1993) argues that self-esteem is rooted in activity of the serotoninergic neurotransmitter system. He notes that pharmacological treatments that increase the activity of serotonin are associated with an increased sense of self-confidence and self-esteem. However, there have not been any systematic or rigorous tests of this hypothesis. The possibility that self-esteem has a biological component remains an important empirical issue.
Some theorists have portrayed self-esteem as a mechanism that has evolved through adaptation to promote survival of the species. Accordingly, self-esteem is viewed as a force that promotes feelings of confidence and competence that may lead to superior performance across a broad range of activities. Interestingly, this perspective can be used to explain gender differences in the major sources of self-esteem. Throughout human evolutionary history, males were of value to the group primarily through their role as hunters and protectors whereas women gathered food and nurtured offspring. Hence, being good at tasks closely associated with ancestral sex roles may be associated with increased feelings of self-esteem. However, because theories of evolution and socialization predict the same gender pattern for self-esteem, it is impossible to clarify which perspective is correct or whether they are equally correct or incorrect. Baumeister (1998) has noted that simple evolutionary accounts of self-esteem are difficult to accept because of the rather negligible benefits associated with self-esteem and the possibility that high self-esteem may promote overconfidence and excessive risk taking.
A novel and important functional account of self-esteem has been proposed by Leary and his colleagues. Leary begins with the assumption that humans have a fundamental need to belong that is rooted in evolutionary history (Baumeister and Leary 1995). For most of human evolution, survival and reproduction depended on affiliation with a group. Those who belonged to social groups were more likely to survive and reproduce than were those who were excluded from groups and left to survive on their own. According to Leary, self-esteem functions as a monitor of the likelihood of social exclusion. When people behave in ways that increase the likelihood that they will be rejected, they experience a reduction in state self-esteem. Thus, self-esteem serves as a monitor, or sociometer, of social acceptance and/or rejection. At the trait level, those with high self-esteem have sociometers that indicate a low probability of rejection and therefore do not worry about how they are perceived by others. By contrast, those with low self-esteem have sociometers that indicate the imminent possibility of rejection and therefore are highly motivated to manage their public impressions.
CONSEQUENCES OF HAVING HIGH OR LOW SELF-ESTEEM
Self-esteem has both cognitive and affective components. Accordingly, a number of researchers have examined the cognitive and affective reactions of those with high and low self-esteem. The overall view suggests that people process information in a way that confirms and supports their chronic self-views. People with high self-esteem actively defend their positive self-views, whereas those with low self-esteem appear to be less able to do so. This section reviews research that has examined differences between individuals with high and low self-esteem.
Self-esteem differences have been reported for a wide range of intrapsychic phenomena, including emotional reactions, cognitive processes, and motivational states. There are obvious differences in how individuals with high and low self-esteem feel about themselves; the positivity and negativity of self-feelings are of course central to self-esteem. For instance, people with low self-esteem are more likely to report being depressed and anxious than are those with high self-esteem. These differences appear to be more subjective than objective. Researchers have used diary studies to examine whether high and low self-esteem people differ in their daily moods and emotions (Campbell et al. 1991). Compared with individuals with high self-esteem, individuals with low self-esteem judged the events in their lives more negatively and as having a greater impact on their moods. However, when outside judges read participants' diaries, they could not distinguish between the events experienced by participants with high and low self-esteem. Thus, similar circumstances are perceived and experienced differently as a function of a person's self-esteem level. In terms of specific emotional states, there are no differences in how high and low self-esteem individuals experience impersonal emotions (e.g., happiness), but there are differences in how they experience self-relevant emotions (e.g., pride and shame). People with high self-esteem are more likely to report pride, whereas those with low self-esteem are more likely to report shame. Once again, this pattern is independent of actual events in the lives of people with high and low self-esteem.
A robust finding in social psychological research is that everyone feels good after receiving positive feedback regardless of one's self-esteem level. People with low self-esteem like to hear good things about themselves just as much as do people with high self-esteem, and both groups hope to be successful in life. However, people with high self-esteem are much more likely to believe positive feedback. People with low self-esteem are distrustful of overly positive feedback because it contradicts what they believe to be true about themselves. Swann (Swann et al. 1987) argues that people with low self-esteem are attracted to negative information because it validates and confirms their negative self-views. Swann likens the conflict between an emotional preference for positivity and a cognitive preference for negativity to being caught in the cross fire between two warring factions.
A consistent theme in the literature on self-esteem is that self-esteem involves a cognitive bias in processing evaluative and social information. In a world filled with ambiguities and uncertainties, people selectively construct their own reality through biased encoding, retrieval, and interpretation of life events. Research on information-processing styles shows that high self-esteem is associated with cognitive strategies aimed at enhancing self-appraisals and thinking of oneself in the most positive way. These objectives are accomplished by means of deeper encoding and more frequent retrieval of positive self-knowledge coupled with an avoidance of negative self-relevant information. That is, people with high self-esteem pay attention to information that says good things about them but ignore information that challenges a positive self-view. By contrast, the processing style associated with low self-esteem is one of self-consciousness and rumination. Individuals with low self-esteem focus on their own thoughts and feelings, often dwelling on negative life events. They are vigilant for information that confirms a negative self-view and ruminate on past failures, embarrassments, and setbacks in a nonproductive fashion.
Biased information processing helps people maintain their existing self-views. For example, an individual with high self-esteem may create a personal definition of what it means to be a "good student" that includes areas in which he or she excels while downplaying the importance of areas of personal deficiency. People with high self-esteem also believe that their talents are unique and special but that their weaknesses are common and trivial. As a result of their selective processing of evaluative information, people with high self-esteem are more adept at defending their self-esteem from external threats. Thus, people with high self-esteem discredit sources of negative feedback while readily accepting positive feedback. These people are also more likely to show a self-serving bias, which refers to the tendency of individuals to take personal credit for success but to blame failure on external circumstances. Some studies in fact find a reversal of the self-serving bias in individuals with low self-esteem such that they credit success to the environment (e.g., an easy task or luck) and blame themselves for failure. People with low self-esteem appear to be generally less able to put a positive spin on negative personal information. For instance, after receiving a negative evaluation, individuals with low self-esteem are more likely to dwell on their weaknesses while individuals with high self-esteem recruit thoughts about their strengths. Differential responses to feedback appear to be an automatic consequence of self-esteem that does not require effort or conscious initiation (Dodgson and Wood 1998).
Baumeister and Tice (Baumeister et al. 1989) have proposed that the basic distinction between high self-esteem and low self-esteem is motivational. People with high self-esteem are concerned primarily with self-enhancement, whereas people with low self-esteem are concerned primarily with self-protection. The self-enhancement motive emphasizes feeling good about oneself with the aim of increasing one's self-esteem. Thus, people with high self-esteem look for areas in which they can excel and stand out. When they fail at a task, they set higher goals so that they can prove they possess exceptional skills. By contrast, people with low self-esteem are concerned with avoiding humiliation, embarrassment, and rejection. Low self-esteem individuals' self-protective orientation guards against feeling even worse about themselves. Thus, when they fail at a task, they set more modest goals so that they do not lose further esteem through failure.
Self-esteem is known to be relevant to inter-personal behavior. For instance, high and low self-esteem people differ in their perceptions of inter-personal acceptance or rejection. A study in which participants were told that they had been rejected or accepted by their peers (Nezlek et al. 1997) showed that individuals with low self-esteem perceived peer inclusion and exclusion accurately, corresponding to experimental feedback. High self-esteem individuals, however, always perceived inclusion, even when they had been told they had been personally rejected. In general, people with high self-esteem believe that others admire, like, and respect them, whereas people with low self-esteem do not feel that others provide them with adequate support. This pattern fits in well with the reflected appraisal model of self-esteem that was discussed earlier. Because they are concerned with how others view them and are uncertain about their own beliefs, people with low self-esteem are especially yielding; they change their minds and behaviors to conform to the beliefs and opinions of others. Conversely, people with high self-esteem are confident about their opinions and tend not to be influenced by others. Indeed, they often view their own ideas and beliefs as being superior to those of others.
The currently available evidence paints the cognitive, affective, and social worlds of those with high and low self-esteem to be quite different. But do people truly differ as a function of self-esteem? When people are interviewed, there appear to be great differences between those with high and low self-esteem. When describing themselves, high self-esteem people say they are physically attractive, intelligent, socially skilled, outgoing, upbeat, optimistic, and satisfied with the state of their lives. Low self-esteem people depict themselves in a much less positive light and describe themselves by using more neutral and negative self-aspects than do those with high self-esteem. Unfortunately, the use of self-reports is problematic because they are confounded by one's level of self-esteem. High self-esteem people generally like and believe favorable things about themselves, and it is not surprising that they rate themselves highly on positive personality traits. However, the extent to which high self-esteem individuals actually possess and exhibit these positive traits—and the extent to which they do not possess or exhibit negative traits—is not well known.
The few studies that have compared claims by high and low self-esteem people to objective standards have not found differences between self-esteem groups. For instance, although people with high self-esteem think of themselves as more attractive than do people with low self-esteem, both groups are seen as equally attractive by others (Diener et al. 1995). Ratings of intelligence show the same pattern: High self-esteem people claim to be more intelligent, but intelligence tests show no differences as a function of self-esteem (Gabriel et al. 1994). Similarly, self-report data indicate that high self-esteem individuals are more likable than are low self-esteem individuals. However, likability ratings of high and low self-esteem people by interaction partners show no relation to self-esteem (Brockner and Lloyd 1986). Overall, most researchers have concluded that there are few differences in objective outcomes between those high and low in self-esteem (Baumeister 1998). A review of the literature by the California Task Force to Promote Self-Esteem and Personal and Social Responsibility (1990) conceded that "the associations between self-esteem and its expected consequences are mixed, insignificant, or absent" (Mecca et al. 1989, p. 15). Self-esteem appears to be related to subjective rather than objective life outcomes.
It is even possible that high self-esteem is associated with negative outcomes in some contexts. For instance, although high self-esteem typically is associated with superior self-regulation, some evidence suggests that high self-esteem may interfere with self-regulation when self-esteem is threatened. Relative to when they succeed, failure elicits higher goals and increased persistence—even on unsolvable tasks—in those with high self-esteem (McFarlin et al. 1984). Baumeister et al. (1993) demonstrated that ego threats sabotage self-regulation among those with high self-esteem. In this research, high and low self-esteem participants chose performance contingencies in which greater payoffs were associated with loftier and riskier personal goals. In the control condition, those with high self-esteem set appropriate goals and showed superior self-regulation. However, after ego threat (being told to play it safe if they "didn't have what it takes"), high self-esteem participants set inappropriate, risky goals and ended up with smaller monetary rewards than did participants with low self-esteem. Under threat, participants with high self-esteem also were significantly more likely to choke under pressure (i.e., to show performance decrements under conditions where superior performance is important) than were participants with low self-esteem. These findings suggest that people with high self-esteem are prone to self-regulatory failure in certain situations.
Similarly, extremely positive self-appraisals have been linked to poor interpersonal outcomes, especially when such self-appraisals are challenged or discredited. Baumeister et al. (1996) examined the literature linking self-esteem to interpersonal violence. In contrast to widely held assumptions that low self-esteem is associated with violent actions, they found a consistent pattern in which those who thought highly of themselves but encountered a threat or challenge to their positive self-views were more likely to act in hostile and violent ways. Similarly, Kernis and colleagues (Kernis 1993) have demonstrated that when it is unstable, high self-esteem is associated with increased hostility and aggression. They found that those with unstable high self-esteem are likely to respond to ego threats with self-aggrandizement and defensiveness (Kernis et al. 1997).
Other evidence suggests that those with highly positive self-views may exhibit poor interpersonal skills. Colvin et al. (1995) examined individuals with apparently inflated self-views, as indicated by the difference between self and other ratings. They found that those individuals were viewed by others as hostile and unlikable. In addition, during a structured and highly charged debate, such individuals engaged in a variety of negatively evaluated interpersonal behaviors, such as bragging, interrupting their partners, and showing an overall lack of genuine concern for their partners. Once again, these patterns are most likely to occur when high self-esteem individuals feel personally challenged. Schlenker et al. (1990) exposed high and low self-esteem subjects to contexts in which they were motivated to make a positive impression on a critical or a supportive audience. They found that high self-esteem subjects became egotistical when the evaluative pressures were greatest. They concluded that "people with high self-esteem become more boastful as the social stakes increase" (p. 891). Similar findings have been reported by Schneider and Turkat (1975), who found that high self-esteem subjects who also expressed high needs for social approval presented themselves much more positively after negative feedback than they did after positive feedback. Perhaps ironically, high self-esteem subjects who receive negative feedback about their intellectual abilities claim to have especially good social skills. However, the available evidence does not support their claims.
Having high self-esteem confers a number of benefits to those who possess it: Such people feel good about themselves, are able to cope effectively with challenges and negative feedback, and live in a social world in which they believe that people value and respect them. Although there may be some negative consequences associated with having extremely high self-esteem, most people with high self-esteem lead happy and productive lives. People with low self-esteem see the world through a more negative filter, and their general dislike for themselves influences their perceptions of everything around them. It is striking that the objective record does not validate the subjective experiences of those with high and low self-esteem. The interesting unanswered questions about self-esteem are related to what allows people to hold such positive or negative views of themselves in spite of objective evidence. For instance, it is possible that self-esteem is rooted in neurochemistry and therefore is not sensitive to contextual influence, but this has not been established. It is equally plausible that self-esteem is a cognitive style that develops through early socialization experiences, but this perspective also requires more conclusive evidence. In any case, the subjective experience of having high or low self-esteem plays an important role in how people interpret the world around them.
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Self-esteem refers to the evaluative and affective aspects of the self, to how "good" or "bad" we feel about ourselves. It is a consequence of the self's capacity for reflexivity, that is, the ability to look at oneself and to evaluate what one sees. Self-evaluations typically give rise to positive or negative self-feelings, such as pride or shame. These self-feelings make self-esteem important both experientially (i.e., they constitute some of our strongest emotions) and motivationally (i.e., people are motivated to seek positive self-feelings and to avoid negative self-feelings). Self-esteem can change over time, but individuals tend to maintain a consistent view of their self-worth due to the need for psychological consistency and the need to resolve cognitive dissonance.
The motivation to maintain and enhance a positive conception of oneself is a major dynamic of many contemporary self-theories (Gecas 1991). Such theories suggest that self-conceptions are valued and protected. Thus, a low self-evaluation on criteria that matter is an uncomfortable condition people are motivated to avoid. Avoiding low self-evaluations may occur through increased efforts at self-improvement or, more typically, through such self-serving activities as selective perception and memory, various strategies of impression management, and restructuring the environment and/or redefining the situation to make it reflect a more favorable view of self (Rosenberg 1979). These manipulations and distortions may raise self-esteem, but at the price of self-deception.
There may be optimum levels of self-esteem beyond which the consequences for individuals are negative. Overly low levels of self-esteem are associated with depression and self-defeating behavior including suicidal ideation, but excessively high self-esteem may be associated with arrogance, egoism, and even aggression. Ray Baumeister (2001), for example, hypothesizes that narcissistic individuals may react aggressively to criticism because their brittle self-esteem is too high, not too low. In terms of competent performance, high self-esteem individuals expect to perform well, whereas those with low self-esteem expect to do more poorly. The self-esteem literature generally indicates that low self-esteem individuals depend more on and are more influenced by external cues that provide self-relevant information about performance than high self-esteem individuals (Tice 1993).
Development of Self-Esteem
Several processes have been identified as important to the development of self-esteem: reflected appraisals, social comparisons, and self-attributions. Within sociology, reflected appraisals is the most important process because of its emphasis within symbolic interaction theory. The reflected appraisals process states that we come to see ourselves and to evaluate ourselves as we think others see and evaluate us. Based on Charles Cooley's (1902) influential concept of the looking-glass self and George H. Mead's (1934) theory of role taking as a product of symbolic interaction, reflected appraisals emphasize the essentially social character of the self (i.e., that our self-conceptions reflect our perceptions of the judgments of others, especially significant others, in our environment). Empirically, however, there is not much congruence between self-appraisals and the actual appraisals of us by others (Gecas and Burke 1995). This suggests that the appraisals of others are not very accurately perceived, and if accurately perceived, may not be believed. There are a number of reasons for this disparity. One is the difficulty of getting honest feedback from others, especially if it is negative. The norms of social interaction typically emphasize tact and proper demeanor, which serve to protect self-esteem. Another reason is that the feedback from "significant others" may be suspect. For example, parents and teachers and others who seek to boost self-esteem may overemphasize the importance of praise in developing self-esteem in children. Although praise and encouragement may be important for children's self-esteem, successful performance at activities that children value may be more important because they constitute more credible evidence of competence and worth. In fact, Baumeister (2001) suggest that society is doing more of a disservice by not tying praise to performance, and by doling out praise when it is not earned. Baumeister (2001, p. 101) aptly states: "one should beware of people who regard themselves as superior to others, especially when those beliefs are inflated, weakly grounded in reality or heavily dependent on having others confirm them frequently. Conceited, self-important individuals turn nasty toward those who puncture their bubbles of self love." Finally, the self-esteem motive has a distorting effect on all three processes of self-esteem development. To the extent that the self-esteem motive is operative, we are more likely to selectively perceive and remember favorable feedback and ignore or discredit unfavorable feedback from others. For these and other reasons it is important to emphasize that the reflected appraisals process operates primarily through our perceptions of the appraisals of others.
A second process important to the development of self-esteem is social comparison. This is the process in which individuals assess their own abilities and virtues by comparing them to those of others. According to Leon Festinger's (1954) theory, as well as much of the contemporary theory and research on social comparisons (see Suls and Wills 1991 for a review), the main function of this process is reality-testing. This is most likely to occur in situations where knowledge about some aspect of oneself is ambiguous or uncertain. Local reference groups are most likely to be used as standards for these comparisons, especially under conditions of competition, such as athletic contests and classroom performance. Individuals tend to compare themselves with others who are doing slightly better than themselves (upward social comparisons) as a means of gathering information about a specific task. As with reflected appraisals, the reality-testing that occurs by means of social comparisons is biased by the self-esteem motive: we are likely to seek out favorable comparisons, avoid unfavorable comparisons, or to try to neutralize unavoidably unfavorable comparisons with various disclaimers and excuses. Research has also shown that individuals often compare themselves with others who are performing poorly (downward social comparisons) to enhance their self-images (Spencer, Josephs, and Steele 1993).
A third process, self-attributions, refers to the tendency to make inferences about ourselves from direct observation of our behavior and its consequences. Daryl Bem's (1972) self-perception theory proposes that individuals acquire knowledge about themselves in the same way they acquire knowledge about others: by observing behavior and making inferences about internal dispositions and states (e.g., motives, attitudes, self-esteem) from these observations. Self-perception theory can be subsumed under the more general attribution theory, which deals with how individuals make causal attributions about their own and others' behavior. Again, we are hardly neutral observers of what we see. Research suggests that our causal attributions tend to be self-serving. For example, we are more likely to make internal causal attributions for our behavioral successes and external attributions for our failures.
Although all three of these processes are important to the development and maintenance of self-esteem, at any one time one may be more relevant to self-esteem than the others. Also, it is evident that the self does not passively respond to processes that affect it. Rather, it actively shapes and influences these processes in the interests of protecting self-esteem and other self-motivations. In this sense, self-esteem is both a product of social forces and an agent in its own development (Gecas 2001).
Family Interaction and Self-Esteem
One of the most important social contexts for the development and expression of self-esteem is the family. For children, the family is the most important context because its major function is the socialization and care of children. The family is the first primary group that we experience—the place where some of our most important identities take shape (e.g., male/female, boy/girl, son/daughter, and sister/brother). Assessments of role performances based on these identities become early sources of self-esteem. Mead's (1934) discussion of the early stages of role-taking and role-playing, processes essential in the development of the self, occur within the context of family interactions. Parents typically serve as mentors and as significant others for children. The intimate, extensive, and relatively enduring relationships characteristic of the family as a primary group make it an important context for the self-esteem of children as well as adults.
All three processes of self-esteem formation are pervasive in family life. We frequently make self-attributions on the basis of our role performances and interactions with family members, feeling good or bad about ourselves depending on what inferences we draw. Social comparisons are also a common feature of family life, particularly among siblings. Notions of fairness or injustice initially develop within sibling relations, as do comparisons of various competencies and virtues, with inevitable implications for self-esteem. Reflected appraisals are ubiquitous among family members. All family members have opinions about one another and are typically less reticent to express them to each other than is the case outside of family relations. Siblings, especially, may be only too eager to give critical feedback regarding each other's behavior, appearance, social skills, and intelligence. Not all of these appraisals, of course, are equally significant for one's self-esteem. Both what is being appraised (with regard to its importance for one's self-concept) and who does the appraising, are important qualifiers. For children, on most things, the reflected appraisals of their parents may matter much more than those of their siblings.
Reflected appraisals has been the main process examined in studies of self-esteem within families. The bulk of this research has focused on the effects of parental behavior on children's self-esteem. In general, these studies find that parental support and encouragement, responsiveness, and use of inductive control are related positively to children's self-esteem (Gecas and Seff 1990). Most of these parental variables could be considered indicators of positive reflected appraisals of the child. They are also the parental behaviors found to be associated with the development of other positive socialization outcomes in children and adolescents (such as moral development, pro-social behavior, and academic achievement).
Not surprisingly, these relationships are much stronger for the child's perceptions of parental behavior and his or her self-esteem than for actual parental behavior or parental reports of their behavior (Gecas and Schwalbe 1986). Furthermore, this research indicates that there is not much overlap between parental reports of their behavior and children's perceptions of this behavior. Evidently a good deal of selectivity and bias in recall and perception are reflected in these studies.
Birth order and sibling relations may also be consequential for children's self-esteem. On the basis of both reflected appraisals and social comparisons, we would expect first-borns to have higher self-esteem than later-born children. The greater attention and encouragement from parents should contribute to first-borns' greater sense of worth and importance; and first-borns' typically greater power and competence compared with younger siblings should result in more favorable social comparisons. Research, however, provides only modest (and inconsistent) support for these expectations (Blake 1989). Oldest and only children do seem to have higher self-esteem than later-born children, but the differences are not significant. The effects of birth order may be suppressed or mitigated by the influence of several other features of the sibling system, such as sex composition of the sibling order, child spacing, family size, age and sex of target child, and age and sex of next oldest sibling. Without taking into account the effect of these other variables, the influence of birth order on self-esteem may largely disappear (Gecas and Pasley 1983).
Other structural variations within families (e.g., single-parent families, stepparent families, extended families) may affect children's self-esteem, if they have an impact on reflected appraisals, social comparisons, or self-attributions. There has not been much research on the effects of these family structural variations on children's self-esteem. What research there is does not report much variation. The quality of family relations does not seen to vary consistently enough across these structural variations for them to show significant and consistent differences in children's self-esteem.
For children's and adolescents' self-esteem the most relevant domains of evaluation are academic competence, athletic competence, social acceptance, physical appearance, and behavioral conduct. Interestingly, among all these domains, the evaluation of one's physical appearance takes precedence over other domains of self-esteem, especially for girls (Harter 1993). Parents, and others, begin to react to the physical self when one is an infant and toddler. Critical feedback on one's appearance negatively affects self-esteem. Moreover, self-esteem is implicated in various eating disorders (such as anorexia, bulimia, and binge eating), especially among adolescent girls (Heatherton and Baumeister 1991). Parents place greater emphasis on the academic competence and behavioral conduct of their children, whereas peers place the most importance on physical appearance, likeability, and athletic competence of others their age.
Family relations are also important for parents' and spouses' self-esteem, although these have not received the attention given to children's self-esteem. Husbands and wives are typically significant others for each other, and the reflected appraisals received from these sources should matter a great deal for spouses' self-esteem, even more so now than in the past. As the institution of marriage/family continues to evolve from a traditional pattern (characterized by multiple functions and a segregated division of labor), to a companionship pattern (characterized by fewer functions, but greater emphasis on love, emotional support, and nurturing socialization), the quality of the marital bond becomes increasingly relevant for the self-esteem of husbands and wives. As the high divorce rate attests, however, the family as a "haven in a heartless world" (Lasch 1975) is an increasingly fragile emotional anchor for the self in contemporary society. Along with the loss of functions, there has also been a decline in traditional social supports (such as religion and extended kin networks) for marriage and family. Consequently, a premium is placed on love and affection. It becomes the raison d'être for marriage. And when love and affection declines, as it often does under the stresses of contemporary life, divorce is a common solution. This too has serious consequences for self-esteem.
Along with the marital bond, the parental bond is a major source of self-conception and self-esteem for most adults. It may even be a more enduring source of self-definition than marriage, because people typically do not divorce their children. The identities of "mother" and "father" are among the most important in the self-conceptions of parents. How parents perform the roles associated with these identities, how their children respond to them, and the quality of the parent-child relationship have major implications for parents' self-esteem.
Research on parenthood suggests that it is a rocky road for parents' self-esteem. The transition to parenthood is itself a major event, typically a source of joy and stress, with significant consequences for the marital bond and for family patterns (Demo and Cox 2000). Children provide numerous occasions for both parental satisfaction and distress. They are a source of parental pleasure and pride, increasing parents' self-esteem, as well as a source of frustration, anger, and distress, decreasing parents' self-esteem. Research on parental satisfaction across the various stages of parenthood suggests that the positive experiences are more frequent when the children are young, and the negative experiences increase in frequency when children get older, with adolescence reported as the most difficult time for parents (Gecas and Seff 1990). Maternal self-esteem has long been associated with the quality of mother-child interactions. Research indicates that low self-esteem mothers are more likely to engage in child abuse (Oates and Forrest 1985) and neglect (Christensen et al. 1994). There are, of course, numerous factors that qualify or mitigate this pattern, such as number and sex of children, personalities of the children and the parents, and economic and occupational stresses on the family.
Culture: Ethnicity and Self-Esteem
Most research and theory on self-concept and self-esteem is based on Western cultures and populations, whereas increasing attention to cross-cultural differences is expanding our view of self processes. Harry Triandis (1989) distinguishes between individualistic cultures, such as the United States, and collectivistic cultures, such as China and other Asian cultures. Self-esteem in the former is more likely to be based on the achievement of personal goals, whereas in the latter self-esteem is derived from the achievement of collective goals, such as those of family or society. Hazel Markus and Shinobu Kitayama (1991) propose a similar distinction between Western and Eastern cultures in their conceptualization of "independent" versus "interdependent" selves. Independent self-conceptions emphasize the uniqueness of the individual and the separation of self from others. Interdependent self-conceptions stress the connectedness of the person to the group and to fitting in with one's group. The same processes of self-concept formation may apply in both types of cultures, but with different emphases. For example, in collectivist cultures, such as those of Japan or China, the reflected appraisals from one's family, work group, or peer group are the primary sources of self-esteem and concomitant emotions such as shame and pride. By contrast, in the more individualistic Western cultures, self-attributions based on individual achievement may be a more important process for self-esteem.
These distinctions between Western and Eastern cultures are instructive for understanding self-processes, but it should also be noted that there is considerable variation within each culture regarding self-processes. For example, within the United States and other Western countries women are more likely to have an interdependent self-concept and men are more likely to emphasize an independent self-concept (Markus and Oyserman 1989). A more collectivist or interdependent self is also characteristic of ethnic and racial minorities in the United States. Although the level of self-esteem does not seem to vary much by race or by ethnicity (Gecas and Burke 1995), various social factors related to race and ethnicity (such as social class and racial composition of schools and communities) do affect self-esteem. For example, African-American students who attend predominantly African-American high schools report higher self-esteem than African-American teenagers who attend predominantly white high schools (Ross 1995).
Is There Too Much Emphasis on Self-Esteem?
Self-esteem has become the most popular aspect of personality studied, and a major emphasis of various family and individual therapy programs. The popularity of self-esteem is due largely to its perceived salutary consequences for individual functioning, and to the perceived strength and pervasiveness of the self-esteem motive. In the minds of many (scholars as well as the general public), high self-esteem has come to be associated with numerous "good" outcomes for individuals (e.g., academic achievement, popularity, personal success, health and happiness), whereas low self-esteem is associated with various "bad" outcomes (e.g., delinquency, academic failure, and depression). For example, the California Task Force to Promote Self-Esteem and Personal and Social Responsibility (1990, p. 4) concludes: "Self-esteem is the likeliest candidate for a social vaccine, something that empowers us to live responsibly and that inoculates us against the lures of crime, violence, substance abuse, teen pregnancy, child abuse, chronic welfare dependency, and educational failure. The lack of self-esteem is central to most personal and social ills plaguing our state and nation."
Scholarly research on self-esteem gives a much more qualified and equivocal picture. Although there is a tendency for high self-esteem to be associated with some positive outcomes, and low self-esteem with negative outcomes, the relationships tend to be modest, often mixed or non-significant, and specific to certain conditions (see Mecca, Smelser, and Vasconcellos 1989). Reasons for the low associations and mixed results are common to much of the research in the social sciences: problems of measurement (validity and reliability); problems of conceptualization (relating a global variable to a specific behavioral outcome); failure to control for other confounding variables; and reliance on cross-sectional research designs.
Nevertheless, self-esteem has come to be perceived, particularly by family practitioners, as the key solution of most personal and interpersonal problems. Programs to "raise self-esteem" are common in our society—in classrooms, rehabilitation centers, workplaces, and, of course, families (Hewitt 1998). The research evidence by itself does not seem to warrant this kind of advocacy in the applied sphere. This emphasis on self-esteem with family therapy is probably less a consequence of persuasive scientific research than an expression of some of our central cultural values, such as individualism. Some scholars have expressed concern about this over-emphasis on self-esteem (Baumeister 2001; Hewitt 1998), viewing it as detrimental to the maintenance of interpersonal and family bonds. Wesley Burr and Clark Christensen (1992) argue that the emphasis on self-esteem in the helping professions may contribute to selfishness, self-centeredness, and excessive individualism, which undermines commitment to families and the health of family processes.
Self-esteem is an important aspect of individual experience and it does have consequences for individual and family functioning. But it is no panacea for personal or social ills. No variable is. It should be viewed in the proper scientific perspective—an important social psychological variable that, like a number of others (e.g., commitment, altruism, gender identity), has been found to affect individual functioning and family relations.
See also:Attraction; Attribution in Relationships; Birth Order; Children of Alcoholics; Depression: Adults; Depression: Children and Adolescents; Development: Self; Developmental Psychopathology; Divorce: Effects on Children; Eating Disorders; Gifted and Talented Children; Juvenile Delinquency; Menopause; Parenting Styles; Power: Marital Relationships; School; Sibling Relationships; Suicide; Symbolic
Interactionism; Therapy: Family Relationships; Transition to Parenthood; Widowhood
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Considered an important component of emotional health, self-esteem encompasses both self-confidence and self-acceptance. It is the way individuals perceive themselves and their self-value.
Self-esteem is the way individuals think and feel about themselves and how well they do things that are important to them. In children, self-esteem is shaped by what they think and feel about themselves. Their self-esteem is highest when they see themselves as approximating their "ideal" self, the person they would like to be. Children who have high self-esteem have an easier time handling conflicts, resisting negative pressures, and making friends. They laugh and smile more and have a generally optimistic view of the world and their life.
Children with low self-esteem have a difficult time dealing with problems, are overly self-critical, and can become passive, withdrawn, and depressed. They may hesitate to try new things, may speak negatively about themselves, are easily frustrated, and often see temporary problems as permanent conditions. They are pessimistic about themselves and their life.
Self-esteem comes from different sources for children at different stages of development. The development of self-esteem in young children is heavily influenced by parental attitudes and behavior. Supportive parental behavior, including encouragement and praise for accomplishments, as well as the child's internalization of the parents' own attitudes toward success and failure, are the most powerful factors in the development of self-esteem in early childhood. As children get older their experiences outside the home, in school, and with peers, become increasingly important in determining their self-esteem.
Schools can influence their students' self-esteem through the attitudes they foster toward competition and diversity and their recognition of achievement in academics, sports , and the arts. By middle childhood, friendships have assumed a pivotal role in a child's life. Studies have shown that school-age youngsters spend more time with their friends than they spend doing homework, watching television, or playing alone. In addition, the amount of time in which they interact with their parents is greatly reduced from when they were younger. At this stage, social acceptance by a child's peer group plays a major role in developing and maintaining self-esteem.
The physical and emotional changes that take place in adolescence , especially early adolescence, present new challenges to a child's self-esteem. Boys whose growth spurt comes late compare themselves with peers who have matured early and seem more athletic, masculine, and confident. In contrast, early physical maturation can be embarrassing for girls, who may feel gawky and self-conscious in their newly developed bodies. Both boys and girls expend inordinate amounts of time and energy on personal grooming, spending long periods of time in the bathroom trying to achieve a certain kind of look. Fitting in with their peers becomes more important than ever to their self-esteem, and, in later adolescence, relationships with the opposite sex (or sometimes the same sex) can become a major source of confidence or insecurity. Up to a certain point, adolescents need to gain a sense of competence by making and learning from their own mistakes and by being held accountable for their own actions.
Peer acceptance and relationships are important to children's social and emotional development and to their development of self-esteem. Peer acceptance, especially friendships, provides a wide range of learning and development opportunities for children. These include companionship, recreation, social skills, participating in group problem solving, and managing competition and conflict. They also allow for self-exploration, emotional growth, and moral and ethical development.
There are several factors that influence self-esteem. These include the following:
- Age: Self-esteem tends to grow steadily until middle school when the transition of moving from the familiar environment of elementary school to a new setting confronts children with new demands. Self-esteem either continues to grow after this period or begins to decrease.
- Gender: Girls tend to be more susceptible to having low self-esteem than boys, perhaps because of increased social pressure that emphasizes appearance more than intelligence or athletic ability.
- Socioeconomic status: Researchers have found that children from higher-income families usually have a better sense of self-esteem in the mid- to late-adolescence years.
- Body image: Especially true for teens but also important for younger children, body image is evaluated within the context of media images from television, movies, and advertising that often portray girls as thin, beautiful, and with perfect complexion. Boys are portrayed as muscular, very good looking, and tall. Girls who are overweight and boys who are thin or short often have low self-esteem because they compare themselves against these cultural and narrow standards.
Infants start building self-esteem as soon as they are born. Their self-esteem is first built by having their basic needs met, including the need for love, comfort, and closeness. They gradually learn that they are loved as the people who care for them consistently treat them gently, kindly, comfort them when they cry, and show them attention. How their parents or primary caregivers treat them sets the stage for later development of self-esteem. Parents who give their babies love and attention teach the infants that they are important, safe, and secure.
During toddlerhood, children still have not developed a clear understanding of self-esteem or self-identity. Each time they learn a new skill they add to their sense of their ability and their comprehension of who they are. Toddlers learn about themselves by learning what they look like, what they can do, and where they belong. They find it difficult to share since they are just starting to learn who they are and what is theirs.
Toddlers see themselves through the eyes of their parents, family , or primary caregivers. If their parents show them love and treat them as special, toddlers will develop self-esteem. Toddlers who feel unloved find it more difficult to develop a sense of self-worth.
By the age of three, children have a clearer understanding of who they are and how they fit into the world they know. They have begun learning about their bodies and that, within limits, they are able to think and make decisions on their own. They can handle time away from their parents or primary caregivers because they feel safe on their own or with other children and adults. They develop their self-esteem in mostly physical ways, by comparing their appearance to that of other children, such as height, size, agility, and abilities.
Preschoolers learn self-esteem in stages through developing their senses of trust, independence, and initiative. During this age, parents can help foster the child's self-esteem by teaching problem-solving skills, involving them in tasks that give them a sense of accomplishment, asking for and listening to their opinions, and introducing them to social settings, especially with their peers. Young children learn self-esteem through what they can do and what their parents think of them.
A critical point in a child's development of self-esteem occurs when they start school. Many children's self-esteem falls when they have to cope with adults and peers in a new situation with rules that may be new and strange. In the early school-age years, self-esteem is about how well children manage learning tasks in school and how they perform in sports. It also depends on their physical appearance and characteristics and their ability to make friends with other children their own age.
Stresses at home, such as parents arguing a lot, and problems at school, such as difficult lessons, being bullied, or not having friends, can have a negative impact on a child's self-esteem. Children with overly developed self-esteem may tend to be bullies , while children with lower self-esteem may become the victims of bullies. Parents can help children develop an inner sense of self-control, which comes from having experience in making decisions.
Teenagers' self-esteem is often affected by the physical and hormonal changes they experience, especially during puberty . Teens undergo major changes in their lives and their self-esteem can often become fragile. They are usually extremely concerned about how they look and how they are perceived and accepted by their peers. Teens who set goals in their lives have higher self-esteem than those who do not. High self-esteem is also directly related to teens who have a very supportive family.
Body image is a major component in teenagers' self-esteem, and they are very concerned about how their peers see them. Teens who have high self-esteem like the way they look and accept themselves the way they are. Teens with low self-esteem usually have a poor body image and think they are too fat, not pretty enough, or not muscular enough. There are some physical features that teens cannot change, but accepting themselves as they are without undue self-criticism is challenging. If there are characteristics that cause low self-esteem but can be changed, teens may be able to set reasonable goals for making change. For example, if teens think they are overweight, they should first verify their perception with a healthcare provider. If they are actually overweight, they can set goals to lose weight by eating nutritiously and exercising regularly.
The "Teens Health" section of the Web site Kids Health (available online at <www.kidshealth.org>) offers the following advice for teens to improve self-esteem: "When you hear negative comments coming from within, tell yourself to stop. Your inner critic can be retrained. Try exercises like giving yourself three compliments every day. While you're at it, every evening list three things in your day that really gave you pleasure. It can be anything from the way the sun felt on your face, the sound of your favorite band, or the way someone laughed at your jokes. By focusing on the good things you do and the positive aspects of your life, you can change how you feel about yourself."
Parents can enhance teenagers' self-esteem by asking for their help or advice and listening to their opinions.
Numerous studies have linked low self-esteem to a wide range of problems, including poor school achievement, criminal and violent behavior; being the victim of bullying; teenage pregnancy; smoking and the use of alcohol and other drugs; dropping out of school; depression; and thoughts of suicide , suicide attempts, and suicide. Also, children and teens who have low self-esteem have more physical health problems than those with higher self-esteem.
Every child and teen has low self-esteem at some time in his or her life. Criticism from parents or others can make children with low self-esteem feel worse. Children can also develop low self-esteem if parents or others press them to reach unrealistic goals. Parents should be concerned when a child's low self-esteem interferes with his or her daily activities or causes depression. Some common signs of low-self esteem in children and teens are as follows:
- feeling they must always please other people
- general feelings of not liking themselves
- feelings of unhappiness most of the time
- feeling that their problems are not normal and that they to blame for their problems
- needing constant validation or approval
- not making friends easily or having no friends
- needing to prove that they are better than others
When to call the doctor
Sometimes a lack of self-esteem is too much for a child to handle alone. Parents may need to seek professional psychological help for children suffering from low self-esteem when the child is depressed or shows an inability to create friendships. Help may also be needed for adolescents whose lack of self-esteem is expressed in negative behaviors, such as criminal activities, gang affiliation, smoking, and alcohol and other drug dependency. If the child talks about or threatens suicide, professional help should be sought immediately.
Koenig, Larry. Smart Discipline: Fast, Lasting Solutions for Your Peace of Mind and Your Child's Self-Esteem. New York: HarperResource, 2002.
Loomans, Diana, and Julia Loomans. 100 Ways to Build Self-Esteem and Teach Values. Tiburon, CA: H. J. Kramer, 2003.
Moorman, Chick. Parent Talk: How to Talk to Your Children in Language that Builds Self-Esteem and Encourages Responsibility. New York: Fireside, 2003.
Owens, Karen. Raising Your Child's Inner Self-Esteem: The Authoritative Guide from Infancy through the Teen Years. Cambridge, MA: Da Capo Press, 2003.
Cottle, Thomas J. "Getting beyond Self-Esteem." Childhood Education 80 (Mid-Summer 2004): 269–271.
|source: McKesson Health Solutions, http://www.med.umich.edu/1libr/pa/pa-esteemup_pep.htm, 2004.|
|1. Be a role model for high self-esteem. If you have a positive attitude, chances are your children will have one too.|
|2. Have realistic expectations. Unreasonable goals will set your child up for feelings of failure.|
|3. Respect your child's individuality. Their accomplishments should be praised even if they are not in your area of interest, or if their level of academic success, for instance, is generally lower than a sibling's.|
|4. Praise your child's efforts, even if they are ultimately unsuccessful. Making a great effort should be rewarded, even he or she did not come in "first."|
|5. Be careful when correcting your child's behavior. Constructive criticism is much more useful than pinning your child with a label like "lazy" or "stupid."|
Dunton, Genevieve Fridlund, et al. "Physical Self-Concept in Adolescent Girls: Behavioral and Physiological Correlates." Research Quarterly for Exercise and Sport 74 (September 2003): 360–65.
Hoffmann, John P., et al. "Onset of Major Depressive Disorder among Adolescents." Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry 42 (February 2003): 217–24.
Marmot, Michael. "Self-Esteem and Health: Autonomy, Self-Esteem, and Health are Linked Together." British Medical Journal 327 (September 13, 2003): 574–75.
Votta, Elizabeth, and Ian G. Manion. "Factors in the Psychological Adjustment of Homeless Adolescent Males: The Role of Coping Style." 42 (July 2003): 778–85.
Walsh, Nancy. "Some Teens Prone to Hopelessness Depression." Clinical Psychiatry News 31 (June 2003): 41.
National Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry. 3615 Wisconsin Ave. NW, Washington, DC 20016. Web site: <www.aacap.org>.
National Association for Self-Esteem. PO Box 597, Fulton, MD 20759. Web site: <www.self-esteem-nase.org>.
"How Can I Improve My Self-Esteem?" TeensHealth, April 2001. Available online at <www.kidshealth.org/teen/question/emotions/self_esteem.html> (accessed November 14, 2004).
"Self-Esteem." ParentLink, 2004. Available online at <www.parentlink.act.gov.au/parentguides/parentg_selfesteem.htm> (accessed November 14, 2004).
"Self-Esteem in Children." North Carolina State University Cooperative Extension, 2004. Available online at <www.ces.ncsu.edu/depts/fcs/human/pubs/fcsw_506.pdf> (accessed November 14, 2004).
Ken R. Wells
Peer acceptance —The degree to which a child or adolescent is socially accepted by peers, usually of about the same age; the level of peer popularity.
Primary caregiver —A person who is responsible for the primary care and upbringing of a child.
Puberty —The point in development when the ability to reproduce begins. The gonads begin to function and secondary sexual characteristics begin to appear.
Self-identity —The awareness that an individual has of being unique.
Self-esteem is one of the most frequently studied constructs in the social sciences. Popular culture and public policy discussions also make frequent reference to self-esteem. Yet, despite its familiarity and wide usage, there is no generally accepted definition of self-esteem among social scientists. The earliest use of the term was by philosopher/psychologist William James in what became an influential chapter, “The Consciousness of Self,” in The Principles of Psychology (1890). James included self-esteem in a group of “self-feelings” that emerge from the conscious awareness of self in relation to others. He offered two definitions of self-esteem that, in their inconsistency, typify the confusion and disagreement associated with the term. In the best-known of James’s definitions, self-esteem is “determined by the ratio of our actualities to our supposed potentialities; a fraction of which our pretensions are the denominator and the numerator our success: thus, Self-esteem = Success / Pretensions” (p. 310). Alternatively, according to James, self-esteem is “a certain average tone of self-feeling which each one of us carries about with him, and which is independent of the objective reasons we may have for satisfaction or discontent” (p. 306). These seemingly incompatible definitions highlight a valid and important distinction between self-esteem that is contingent on circumstances and self-esteem that transcends them.
Most of the empirical research on self-esteem in the social sciences works from definitions similar to James’s “average tone of self-feeling.” The best-known of these is offered by the sociologist Morris Rosenberg in his Society and the Adolescent Self-Image, where self-esteem is defined as “a favorable or unfavorable attitude toward the self” (1965, p. 15). The brief self-report measure that Rosenberg developed for his research on adolescents, the Self-Esteem Scale, is the most widely used measure of self-esteem in social science research. In another influential book, The Antecedents of Self-Esteem, Stanley Coopersmith offered a similar conceptualization of self-esteem as “the evaluation the individual makes and customarily maintains with regard to himself” (1967, p. 4). Both Rosenberg and Coopersmith operate from the assumption that people’s attitude toward or customary evaluation of self underlies their overall sense of self-worth. The definitions offered in these two classic works and assumed by much of the empirical work on self-esteem describe a particular form of self-esteem that is traitlike, consistent across time and situations, and global, concerned with all aspects of the self. This definition also corresponds well to usage of the term in popular culture and public policy settings.
Two alternative conceptualizations of self-esteem depart from these classic definitions by dropping the assumption that self-esteem is global or that it is a trait. Domain-specific conceptualizations accept the premise that self-esteem is an attitude toward or customary evaluation of the self but contend that it is not necessarily global. Thus, for instance, it is possible to have a high opinion of oneself in the social domain but a relatively modest, or even negative, opinion of oneself in the academic domain. Whether self-esteem is viewed as global or domain-specific, it may be conceptualized as a state rather than a trait. This form of self-esteem is like James’s ratio of successes to pretensions definition in that it is contingent on circumstances. State self-esteem typically rises when circumstances are positive and drops when they are negative. Neither the domain-specific nor the state conceptualizations are necessarily inconsistent with the global trait conceptualization because it can be shown that weighted combinations of domain-specific self-evaluations are highly predictive of global self-esteem and that state self-esteem varies in a relatively narrow range around the level of trait self-esteem to which it typically returns.
Classic conceptualizations of self-esteem and the questionnaire measures they have spawned assume that people are willing and able to accurately report their self-esteem, an assumption that now seems at least partially unfounded. Drawing on basic research on attitude formation and change, social scientists now make a distinction between self-esteem as traditionally measured—explicit self-esteem—and self-esteem measured using procedures that do not require or allow people to consciously indicate their attitude toward themselves—implicit self-esteem. As with attitudes toward any object, research indicates that explicit and implicit attitudes toward self are not strongly associated. Indeed, different patterns of correspondence between explicit and implicit self-esteem are now viewed as evidence of qualitatively different forms of self-esteem. For instance, a person who is high on explicit but low on implicit self-esteem is described as having defensive self-esteem. A person who is high on both explicit and implicit self-esteem is described as having genuine self-esteem. This work raises questions about the likely success of policies and practices designed to bolster self-esteem that focus only on explicit attitudes toward self (e.g., positive “self-talk”).
Furthermore, other important qualitative distinctions in self-esteem indicate that there is more to self-esteem than whether it is high or low. One such distinction is stability of self-esteem, defined as the degree of variability in a person’s self-esteem across time. Stability of self-esteem is only modestly associated with level of self-esteem, meaning that people at any given level of self-esteem will vary in the stability of their self-esteem. The combination of level and stability of self-esteem allows for more precise predictions about the role of self-esteem in behavior. For instance, people with high but unstable self-esteem are more likely to react with hostility to provocation than people with stable high self-esteem. Another qualitative distinction is contingency of self-esteem, defined as the degree to which self-esteem is responsive to changes in circumstances. Contingency is moderately correlated with level of self-esteem, indicating that lower self-esteem is accompanied by greater contingency. Contingency of self-esteem typically is indexed at the domain-specific level, allowing for distinctions between people not only in terms of how contingent their self-esteem is, but also in terms of the specific domains in which it is contingent.
In popular usage, self-esteem often is used as a generic label for a variety of similar constructs from which it should be distinguished. Principal among these is self-concept, a much broader term that, according to Rosenberg, is “the totality of the individual’s thoughts and feelings having reference to himself as object ” (1965, p. 7, emphasis in original). Another construct often erroneously referred to as self-esteem is self-efficacy, a narrower construct than self-esteem—even in its domain-specific form—that reflects people’s perceptions of their ability to enact a specific behavior. It is directly influenced by prior experience with the behavior and is only indirectly influenced by or reflective of self-esteem.
In popular culture and public policy settings, self-esteem is perceived as critically important to healthy functioning. The strength of this perception is evident in the efforts of groups such as the National Association for Self-Esteem and the California Task Force to Promote Self-Esteem and Personal and Social Responsibility, the latter concluding that “self-esteem is the likeliest candidate for a social vaccine” (1990, p. 232). This conclusion stands in stark contrast to the empirical research literature, which indicates that self-esteem is not strongly associated with behavior—desirable or undesirable—and that, when there is an association, self-esteem is not a causal factor. In an influential Scientific American article, “Exploding the Self-Esteem Myth,” Roy Baumeister and colleagues summarized this literature by stating, “we have found little to indicate that indiscriminately promoting self-esteem in today’s children or adults … offers society any compensatory benefits” (2005, p. 91). This conclusion has led social scientists to examine more closely their assumptions about the origins and functions of self-esteem. Emerging accounts suggest that self-esteem is best viewed as a reflection of other characteristics such as healthy family relationships and social acceptance; it is these constructs that warrant the attention given to self-esteem.
Self-esteem is at once simple and complex. The widely accepted definition of the construct as simply people’s attitude toward themselves is at odds with the social and psychological structures and processes that underlie it, as well as the wide range of opinions as to its importance for individuals and society. Concerns about whether it is important at all have inspired social scientists to probe more deeply the origins and underpinnings of self-esteem to determine how, if at all, it matters. The result is one of the most richly described, frequently studied, and intriguing constructs in the social sciences.
SEE ALSO Guttman Scale; James, William; Mental Health; Psychology; Rosenberg’s Self-Esteem Scale; Scales; Self-Awareness Theory; Social Science; Trait Theory
Baumeister, Roy F., Jennifer D. Campbell, Joachim I. Krueger, and Kathleen D. Vohs. 2005. Exploding the Self-Esteem Myth. Scientific American 292 (1): 84–91.
California Task Force to Promote Self-Esteem and Personal and Social Responsibility. 1990. Toward a State of Esteem. Sacramento: California Department of Education.
Coopersmith, Stanley. 1967. The Antecedents of Self-Esteem. San Francisco: W. H. Freeman.
Rosenberg, Morris. 1965. Society and the Adolescent Self-Image. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. (Revised edition, Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1989.)
Rick H. Hoyle
The roots of the self-esteem movement go back to the later nineteenth century, where they intertwined with larger notions of children's vulnerability and the need for adult protection and support. Most of the psychologists associated with the child study movement specifically discussed the concept of self-esteem as a key component in successful child rearing. Progressive-era educators used the idea as well in seeking a supportive school environment. But it was only in the 1960s that this long-established belief of experts won popular and institutional backing as a way to reconcile academic commitment with parental concerns for childhood frailty and for the special value of their own children.
The 1880s through 1930s
John Dewey and William James were among the early psychologist proponents of the importance of the self. Dewey discussed "intuition of self" in his seminal 1886 work, Psychology, using knowledge of self as the talisman for knowledge gains in general. Selfhood was, in this view, essential to freedom. But it was James who, in 1892, first used the term self-esteem with an explicit scientific definition. A key task in socializing children, in James's view, involved helping them gain the capacity to develop "self" and, with it, the capacity to adapt to different social settings with appropriate projections of self. Self-esteem, more specifically, involved the kind of perceptions that, properly honed, were crucial to achievement and success.
The popularization of psychology and the growing notion that children often needed expert help brought concerns about self-esteem to greater attention during the 1920s and 1930s. If children needed a sense of self to operate successfully, but if children were also vulnerable, it was certainly possible that special measures might be necessary to assure that the mechanism (the self) was in working order.
The 1950s to the Present
During the 1950s and 1960s the connection between self-esteem and supportive school programs was fully forged. A clear symptom, as well as a cause of further awareness, was a growing spate of expert studies on the subject. Stanley Coopersmith, in 1967, identified the link between self-esteem and frailty, noting the "indications that in children domination, rejection, and severe punishment result in lowered self-esteem. Under such conditions they have fewer experiences of love and success and tend to become generally more submissive and withdrawn (though occasionally veering to the opposite extreme of aggression and domination)"(p. 45).
While experts debated the precise correlatives of self-esteem–in their eyes, the subject was extremely complicated–three points shone through. First and most obviously, self-esteem was vitally important to a well-adjusted, high-functioning child or adult. This conclusion was amply prepared for by previous generations of scientific writing. Second, self-esteem was crucially affected by what parents did to children. Levels of discipline, family affection, and marital stability all registered in a child's emerging concept of self-worth. And finally, self-esteem played a crucial role in school success. As Coopersmith put it, "Ability and academic performance are significantly associated with feelings of personal worth."
The self-esteem movement served as an adjustment between school commitments and worries about overburdening children. It also arose at a time of significant rethinking about the preconditions of adult success, with the rise of service-sector jobs that depended on people skills, that is, the skills needed in salesmanship or in maneuvering in management bureaucracies. In addition, the movement also reflected a reduction in confidence in the middle-class home environment, which was linked to the rising divorce rate, and also very practical problems in dealing with the surge in population due to the baby boom, as children suffered from crowded classrooms.
As early as 1950, enhanced discussions of self-confidence and the need for explicit parental support were becoming standard segments in the childrearing manuals. Thus in 1952, Sidonie Gruenberg wrote, "To value his own good opinion, a child has to feel that he is a worthwhile person. He has to have confidence in himself as an individual. This confidence is hard for children to develop and there are many experiences that may shake it" (p. 192). The approach was in interesting contrast to Gruenberg's voluminous writings in the 1930s, where the subject received little explicit comment. Now, however, she gave extensive attention to the need for parents to display pride in their children, with a particular plea that children be encouraged through the mistakes they made. "We must not let the mistakes and failures shatter our faith in the child… . He needs real and lasting self-respect if he is to develop" both integrity and a durable capacity to achieve (p. 193). Self-esteem, clearly, began in the home, and a more flexible approach to discipline was urged on parents.
The application of self-esteem concepts in the schools from the 1960s onward involved a number of specific programs and a more general reorientation. Programs typically focused on the importance of providing children a wide range of activities so that they could gain a sense of achievement or mastery, whatever their strictly academic talents. Thus many schools enhanced standard lessons with new opportunities for self-expression. History or literature courses added often-elaborate role-playing exercises to reading and discussion. By playing a historical character, children might demonstrate skills that would not come to light if they were merely called upon to recite facts about the same character. It was also crucial that most of these additional exercises were not graded, again in the interests of encouraging a sense of competence at all levels. Another set of self-esteem exercises involved a growing emphasis on "service learning." Here, students could directly contribute to the community while also building an opportunity to display an individual capacity to perform. Thus the Challenge Program in California involved high school students in tutoring grade-schoolers, in working in a historical society, or in participating in environmental efforts. The rationale was central to the self-esteem approach: through these nonacademic activities, students would "have a reason to enjoy and a recipe for personal success."
The approach was fascinating in its effort to provide alternatives to academic competence and competitiveness, and even more fascinating in its assumptions that school must be leavened by nonacademic exercises. Proponents argued that when involved students were compared with control groups participation in the self-esteem programs reduced discipline problems in the schools and improved academic performance. It was less clear why overall American academic achievement levels continued to falter (for example, compared to other nations that did not stress self-esteem) despite the growing utilization of self-esteem activities.
Self-esteem arguments also entered into recommendations for teacher behavior. Thus teachers were urged to add positive comments on all student work, in addition to (and perhaps instead of) critical observations. Some education authorities argued essentially that rewarding good behavior was far more useful, given self-esteem needs, than castigating bad. The portfolio movement also included some self-esteem justifications as well, although it had a number of other justifications. Instead of grading students through conventional tests alone, portfolio programs allowed them to offer a collection of different kinds of expression in the subject area, from art to computer graphics, so that various learning styles could be accommodated with equal access to self-esteem. And self-esteem concerns had a further impact on the concept of grading, probably contributing substantially to grade inflation.
Self-esteem notions and activities were often criticized, and movements to develop more rigorous testing procedures in the 1990s represented something of a counterattack. Through most of the final third of the twentieth century, however, self-esteem ideas strongly influenced many teachers, and even some athletic coaches, while helping to reconcile parents to the demands of schooling by providing some buffer between strict academics and the psychological development of their children.
See also: Child Psychology; Child-Rearing Advice Literature; Emotional Life.
Coopersmith, Stanley. 1967. The Antecedents of Self-Esteem. San Francisco: W. H. Freeman.
Gruenberg, Sidonie. 1958. The Parents' Guide to Everyday Problems of Boys and Girls. New York: Hill and Wang.
Rosenberg, Morris. 1965. Society and the Adolescent Self-Image. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Wang, Jianjun, Betty Greathose, and V. M. Falcinella. 1996. "An Empirical Assessment of Self-Esteem Enhancement." Education 119: 99–105.
Peter N. Stearns
Self-esteem is the value that people put on the mental image that they have of themselves.
for searching the Internet and other reference sources
Everyone has a mental picture of his or her strengths, weaknesses, characteristics, and abilities. This mental picture, often called self-image, begins to develop in infancy and continues to grow and change throughout life. People develop their self-image through their interactions with other people and the world. Self-esteem is a person’s overall sense of being lovable, acceptable, worthy, and capable.
Self-esteem has three main parts:
- feeling loved and accepted by others
- having feelings of self-acceptance and self-worth
- feeling competent and capable of solving problems and using skills
The first ideas that babies and young children have about themselves are strongly influenced by the things their parents do and say. If a caregiver tells a toddler that she is bad often enough, the child will begin to believe that she is bad. If a parent constantly tells a school-age child that he is dumb, there is a good chance that he will believe that he can never do well in school. As children grow, the judgments of teachers, friends, coaches, and other people in their lives influence the image they have of themselves.
People also have a mental image of what they would like to be. Everyone’s mental image of the ideal person is different. Some people admire athletic skills. Others admire academic abilities, courage, compassion, or the ability to get along with others. People whose mental self-image matches fairly well with the qualities they admire generally feel good about themselves and have high self-esteem. People whose self-image does not match well with the things they think are important tend to be unhappy, dissatisfied, negative about themselves, and have low self-esteem. With low self-esteem, people may see themselves as unlovable, unacceptable, unworthy, or incompetent.
The way people feel about themselves has a big effect on their behavior. People with high self-esteem who feel good about themselves and see themselves as competent, independent problem solvers are more likely to meet challenges at home, school, and work. People who feel lovable and worthy have better relationships and tend to ask for help and support when they need it. Self-acceptance helps people cope with failures and learn from mistakes. High self-esteem allows people to accept their imperfections.
Low self-esteem has been linked to violent and delinquent behavior and to school failure. Teenagers with low self-esteem are more likely to be involved in gangs, drug and alcohol abuse, sexually promiscuous activities, or antisocial behaviors* that lead to confrontations with the law. Low self-esteem is also linked to depression*, poor body image*, and eating disorders*. People with low self-esteem tend to have a harder time coping with failure, mistakes, and their own imperfections.
- * antisocial behaviors
- are behaviors that differ significantly from the norms of society and are considered harmful to society.
- * depression
- (de-PRESH-un) is a mental state characterized by feelings of sadness, despair, and discouragement.
- * body image
- is a person’s impressions, thoughts, feelings, and opinions about his or her body.
- * eating disorders
- are conditions in which a person’s eating behaviors and food habits are so unbalanced that they cause physical and emotional problems.
Unlike a person’s height or eye color, self-esteem is not fixed for life. Self-esteem can be nourished and improved. Studies have shown that positive thinking or positive self-talk helps raise self-esteem. For example, people who think, “I’m so dumb, I’ll never solve this math problem” reinforce their low self-esteem. They can help raise their self-esteem by mentally correcting themselves and thinking instead, “I might have to work harder than some of my friends to solve this problem, but I am sure I can figure it out.”
Parents, teachers, coaches, and friends can help people develop high self-esteem by:
- helping them learn new skills that are suited to their age and interest
- encouraging them to try new things
- offering genuine praise for trying hard, as well as for success
- not comparing people’s abilities (especially with siblings or classmates)
- expressing acceptance and caring
- being a good listener and letting the person know that his or her ideas and feelings are important
Body Dysmorphic Disorder
Canfield, Jack, Mark Victor Hansen, and Kimberly Kirberger, eds. Chicken Soup for the Teenage Soul: 101 Stories of Life, Love and Learning. Deerfield Beech, FL: Health Communications, Inc., 1997.
The National Association for Self-Esteem (NASE), 1776 Lincoln Street, Suite 1012, Denver, CO 80203-1027. The National Association for Self-Esteem has a website that provides information on the latest research on self-esteem and its relationship to behavior. http://www.self-esteem-nase.org
Nemours Center for Children’s Health Media, Alfred I. duPont Hospital for Chidren, 1600 Rockland Road, Wilmington, DE 19803. This organization’s KidsHealth website has articles about self-esteem. http://www.KidsHealth.org
Considered an important component of emotional health, self-esteem encompasses both self-confidence and self-acceptance.
Psychologists who write about self-esteem generally discuss it in terms of two key components: the feeling of being loved and accepted by others and a sense of competence and mastery in performing tasks and solving problems independently.
Much research has been conducted in the area of developing self-esteem in children. Martin Seligman claims that in order for children to feel good about themselves, they must feel that they are able to do things well. He claims that trying to shield children from feelings of sadness, frustration, and anxiety when they fail robs them of the motivation to persist in difficult tasks until they succeed. It is precisely such success in the face of difficulties that can truly make them feel good about themselves. Seligman believes that this attempt to cushion children against unpleasant emotions is in large part responsible for an increase in the prevalence of depression since the 1950s, an increase that he associates with a conditioned sense of helplessness.
Self-esteem comes from different sources for children at different stages of development. The development of self-esteem in young children is heavily influenced by parental attitudes and behavior. Supportive parental behavior, including the encouragement and praise of mastery, as well as the child's internalization of the parents' own attitudes toward success and failure, are the most powerful factors in the development of self-esteem in early childhood . Later, older children's experiences outside the home—in school and with peers—become increasingly important in determining their self-esteem. Schools can influence their students' self-esteem through the attitudes they foster toward competition and diversity and their recognition of achievement in academics, sports, and the arts. By middle childhood, friendships have assumed a pivotal role in a child's life. Studies have shown that school-age youngsters spend more time with their friends than they spend doing homework, watching television, or playing alone. In addition, the amount of time they interact with their parents is greatly reduced from when they were younger. At this stage, social acceptance by a child's peer group plays a major role in developing and maintaining self-esteem.
The physical and emotional changes that take place in adolescence , especially early adolescence, present new challenges to a child's self-esteem. Boys whose growth spurt comes late compare themselves with peers who have matured early and seem more athletic, masculine, and confident. In contrast, early physical maturation can be embarrassing for girls, who feel gawky and self-conscious in their newly developed bodies. Fitting in with their peers becomes more important than ever to their self-esteem, and, in later adolescence, relationships with the opposite sex can become a major source of confidence or insecurity.
Seligman, Martin E.P. The Optimistic Child. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1995.
Esteem for the self consolidates the sense of one's own value or, more mundanely, one's pride. Hence Freud's interest in it in "On Narcissism" (1914c): "One part of self-regard is primary—the residue of infantile narcissism; another part arises out of the omnipotence which is corroborated by experience (the fulfillment of the ego ideal), whilst a third part proceeds from the satisfaction of object-libido" (p. 100). As the effect of ego demands on the "narcissistic" ego ideal and "moral conscience," the feeling of self-esteem is at the origin of repression: "In paraphrenics self-regard is increased, while in the transference neuroses it is diminished" (p. 98). It is nevertheless the narcissistic part that proves to be determinant: when self-esteem is threatened, the result is shame rather than guilt. It therefore depends, in each individual life and in the different psychopathological cases, on the quality of the subject's narcissism and thus on the modalities of the subject's cathexis by and of the object, as it depends for its regulation on its relations with the ego ideal (Janine Chasseguet-Smirgel). All situations of existential crisis shatter it particularly, adolescence being an example, but especially melancholy because, according to Freud (1916-17g), what differentiates it from "normal mourning," over and above the common loss of object that characterizes them both, is the fact that it calls itself into question.
See also: Ego ideal; Inferiority, feeling of; "Mourning and melancholia"; Omnipotence of thought; "On Narcissism: An Introduction"; Self-consciousness; Self, the; Suicide.
Chasseguet-Smirgel, Janine. (1973). Essai sur l'Idéal du Moi. Contributionà l'état psychanalytique de "la maladie d'idéalité." Revue française psychanalyse, 37 (5-6), 735-929.
Freud, Sigmund. (1914c). On narcissism: An introduction. SE, 14: 67-102.
——. (1916-17g). Mourning and melancholia. SE, 14: 237-258.