Self-esteem

The Basic Idea

Have you ever felt a little down after having spent a considerable amount of time scrolling through social media? At one point or another, we have all gone on social media apps just to see our friends living their best lives: graduating with honors, receiving a promotion, going on the holiday of your dreams. Seeing others achieve things we never did or go places we have never gone can have an impact on our self-esteem.

Self-esteem refers to an individual’s overall evaluation of their own personal worth. Self-esteem is also used to describe how much one appreciates themselves. Colloquially, the terms ‘self-worth’ and ‘self-respect’ have also been used interchangeably with ‘self-esteem.’

Our experiences shape our self-esteem. When someone consistently receives negative comments from others, they are likely to experience lower self-esteem. It’s also affected by factors like self-awareness, self-confidence, and insecurities. In turn, these factors can be influenced by socioeconomic status,1 physical ability, racism, and discrimination.2

Our self-esteem tends to be at its lowest during our childhood years. It increases during adolescence, before reaching a relatively stable level during adulthood.

The curious paradox is that when I accept myself just as I am, then I can change.

– Carl R. Rogers in his book, On Becoming a Person: A Therapist’s View of Psychotherapy

Key Terms

Rosenberg self-esteem scale (RSES): A questionnaire developed by Morris Rosenberg with 10 questions, consisting of an equal share of positively and negatively worded statements, to determine an individual’s self-esteem on a scale of 0 to 30. Introduced in 1965, it remains the most commonly used instrument to measure self-esteem.

Self-evaluation: A process that describes the way an individual assesses their own abilities, traits, attitudes, or behavior.

Self-awareness: A reflective state with attention focused on ourselves for the purpose of social evaluation.

Upwards social comparison: This occurs when an individual compares themselves with others who are perceived to have positive traits that are superior to themselves.

History

Self-esteem is one of the oldest themes in the study of psychology.3 Early ideas on self-esteem were first explored in the 18th century by Scottish philosopher, David Hume. His work highlighted the importance of thinking highly of ourselves, which he suggested served as motivation that would allow us to fully reach our potential.

In 1890, William James laid the foundation for exploring self-esteem as a distinct concept of psychology in his book, The Principles of Psychology.4 Instead of ‘self-esteem,’ James used the word ‘social self’ to describe a state which comprises attributes which are recognized by others.

Fast forward to 1965: social psychologist Morris Rosenberg became the first to provide a formal definition of self-esteem, describing it as a positive feeling of self-worth.5 In his book, Society and the Adolescent Self-Image, Rosenberg stated that self-esteem consisted of an individual respecting themselves.

Rosenberg introduced the Rosenberg self-esteem scale (RSES), which today is the most commonly used measure of self-esteem in social science. Rosenberg designed the RSES as a questionnaire with five positively worded statements and five negatively worded statements. It uses the responses to measure positive and negative feelings about the individual, measuring self-esteem on a scale of 0 to 30. Scores below 15 highlight a potentially problematic, low self-esteem.

It has been translated into various languages and used extensively in more than 50 different countries.6,7 In addition to its impressive consistency, the popularity of the RSES stems from its reliability when performing retests on individuals. Studies on the RSES have pointed out correlations with extraversion and romantic attachment styles which were consistent across various countries.8 These results suggest that the scale is equivalent across cultures.

Extending his work further, Rosenberg produced findings that showed that ethnic differences only had a small to moderate correlation to youth’s self-esteem. Given the stigmatization of non-White communities in the 1960s, Rosenberg was surprised by this finding as he expected African American individuals to report significantly lower levels of self-esteem than White individuals. Further analysis led Rosenberg to the conclusion that self-esteem is influenced more heavily by the perceived opinions of family and close friends, rather than those of acquaintances and other people in general.3

Building on Rosenberg’s work, further research by Brown, Dutton and Cook in 2001 described three ways in which we could use the term ‘self-esteem’:8

  • Global or trait self-esteem, to describe the way individuals generally feel about themselves
  • Self-evaluation, to describe the way individuals asses their many attributes and abilities
  • Feelings of self-esteem, to describe the temporary emotional states, such as the joy of securing your dream job.

People

 

David Hume

A Scottish philosopher, historian, economist and writer who was a part of the Scottish Enlightenment, a period in 18th century Scotland which produced numerous scholarly and scientific accomplishments. Hume was one of the first to explore themes of self-esteem.

William James: An American psychologist, philosopher, and historian who is commonly referred to as a founder of modern psychology. James was an early contributor to broad ideas on self-focused processes, including self-esteem, which laid the foundation for future scholars. His work in the late 19th century foreshadowed the formal definition of self-esteem by Morris Rosenberg. At Harvard University, James was one of the very first educators to offer a psychology course in the United States.9

Morris Rosenberg

An American social psychologist and a significant contributor to the field of self-concept. Rosenberg was influential in being the first to formally articulate the definition of self-esteem, along with introducing the groundbreaking Rosenberg self-esteem scale. Earning his doctoral degree from Columbia University, Rosenberg has shaped modern understanding of how self-esteem influences social behavior.10

Consequences

Self-esteem has important everyday consequences on our decision-making processes, success, emotional health, and well-being. Healthy levels of self-esteem can also increase our motivation, as it gives us the confidence to tackle new challenges in the workplace or in our relationships outside of work.11

When it comes to success in life, further research has provided evidence to show that self-esteem can be used to predict an individual’s level of success and well-being. This is relevant in areas such as education, employment status, job success, job satisfaction, relationships and health. Life success is not necessarily a consequence of high self-esteem, but rather an important predictor of success in these areas even when controlling for other variables such as gender, intelligence, and socioeconomic status.12

Self-esteem also has important consequences on our decision-making. Together with anxiety, self-esteem has been shown to be strongly associated with our decision-making ability. When it comes to personal decision-making, self-esteem is shown to be related to one’s perceived likelihood that a favorable outcome materializes.

Similarly, research has shown that self-esteem is related to the extent of negative feelings related to an undesirable outcome. These implications are only present when making decisions for ourselves, as self-esteem does not create the same effects when it comes to making decisions for someone else.13 Consider how we put ourselves in the shoes of our friends when helping them make decisions which do not affect ourselves.

Controversies

One issue regarding the self-esteem theory is its distinction from other constructs, such as narcissism. Some researchers have linked high self-esteem with narcissistic traits when analyzing the benefits and drawbacks of self-esteem. For example, social psychologist Roy Baumeister suggests that if self-esteem scales were truly accurate, they would be able to identify arrogant, narcissistic individuals.14

However, Rosenberg argues that Baumeister’s suggestions go against Rosenberg’s own definition of self-esteem. Rosenberg stressed that self-esteem and egotism are not synonymous.15 He explains that self-esteem only involves an individual evaluating whether they are a person of worth, which is not related to whether an individual considers themselves superior to others.16

Despite the beneficial social impacts of self-esteem in our everyday lives, self-esteem that is too high can become unhealthy. Self-esteem that is too high can make an individual overestimate their own abilities, leading them to perceive they are more than capable when in reality, they do not possess the skills required. Individuals with self-esteem that is too high may start to feel that success is something they are entitled to. This is undesirable and can blind an individual from constructive criticism which could have been used for self-improvement.11

Similarly, low self-esteem can lead to negative consequences. Low self-esteem can exacerbate an individual’s insecurities about their own abilities, which can lead to a lack of confidence and feelings of unworthiness. Individuals with low self-esteem may start doubting their own capabilities, hampering their decision-making process. This can prevent one from trying new activities or picking up new skills, which can affect platonic and romantic relationships.11

Case Study

A novel study by Erin Vogel, a social psychologist, has shown that in the context of social media, increased levels of upward social comparison can play an important role in lowering an individual’s self-esteem.17 On social media, upward social comparison processes happen when we compare ourselves with others who we perceive to be superior. This occurs frequently as social media platforms are designed to allow us to selectively share what we want, allowing individuals to present their most desirable traits. Unlike social media, real-life interactions do not allow for strategic presentation as interactions are instantaneous and inflexible.

The impact of increased social comparison in lowering our self-esteem is in line with previous research that showed social comparison in everyday interactions can also lower an individual’s self-esteem. Vogel’s results also show that increased social comparison can cause a reduction in an individual’s well-being.

However, Vogel also highlights that her results do not necessarily contradict the results of studies that have suggested that social media can increase one’s self-esteem. Vogel suggests that this likely holds in specific scenarios, such as when individuals compare themselves to their best friends instead of strangers.

Related TDL Content

Why can we not perceive our own abilities?

It is not uncommon for an individual’s lack of knowledge to result in an overestimation of their own competence. Our society’s self-awareness causes misinformed people to have the confidence to claim the spotlight, while experts and well-informed folks are behind the stage, rolling up the curtains. This TDL piece explains the Dunning-Kruger effect, a bias which explains this phenomenon.

Why do we blame external factors for our own mistakes?

Have you noticed yourself attributing success to your own actions, in contrast to blaming negative consequences to external factors which we perceive to be unrelated to our character? This is a result of the self-serving bias, a common cognitive bias that has fascinated researchers globally for decades.

Why do we treat our in-group better than we do our out-group?

Why do we tend to give preferential treatment to others who belong in the same group as us, even when groups are assigned randomly? This behavior can be explained by in-group bias, which suggests that group membership may actually be meaningless. Further research has shown that group membership has important consequences on our self-esteem.

Sources

  1. Von Soest, T., Wagner, J., Hansen, T., & Gerstorf, D. (2018). Self-esteem across the second half of life: The role of socioeconomic status, physical health, social relationships, and personality factors. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 114(6), 945-958. https://doi.org/10.1037/pspp0000123
  2. Johnson, A. J. (2020). Examining associations between racism, internalized shame, and self-esteem among African Americans. Cogent Psychology, 7(1). https://doi.org/10.1080/23311908.2020.1757857
  3. Donnellan, M. B., Trzesniewski, K. H., & Robins, R. W. (2011). Self-esteem: Enduring issues and controversies. In T. Chamorro-Premuzic, S. von Stumm, & A. Furnham (Eds.), The Wiley-Blackwell handbook of individual differences (pp. 718–746). Wiley Blackwell.
  4. James, W. (1986). The principles of psychology (Ser. Great books of the western world, 53). Encyclopaedia Britannica.
  5. Rosenberg, M. (1965). Society and the adolescent self-image. Princeton University Press.
  6. Vallieres, E. F., & Vallerand, R. J. (1990). Traduction et validation canadienne-française de L’échelle de L’estime de soi de Rosenberg. International Journal of Psychology, 25(2), 305-316. https://doi.org/10.1080/00207599008247865
  7. Schmitt, D. P., & Allik, J. (2005). Simultaneous administration of the Rosenberg self-esteem scale in 53 nations: Exploring the universal and culture-specific features of global self-esteem. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 89(4), 623-642. https://doi.org/10.1037/0022-3514.89.4.623
  8. Abdel-Khalek, A. (2016). Introduction to the psychology of self-esteem. Self-esteem: Perspectives, influences, and improvement strategies, 1, 1-23.
  9. William James. (n.d.). Department of Psychology. https://psychology.fas.harvard.edu/people/william-james#:~:text=In%201875%20James%20taught%20one,Stanley%20Hall%20in%201878
  10. Fazio, E., & Nguyen, K. (2007). Rosenberg, Morris (1922-1992). The Blackwell Encyclopedia of Sociology. https://doi.org/10.1002/9781405165518.wbeosr079
  11. What are the signs of healthy or low self-esteem? (n.d.). Verywell Mind. https://www.verywellmind.com/what-is-self-esteem-2795868
  12. Orth, U., & Robins, R. W. (2014). The development of self-esteem. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 23(5), 381-387. https://doi.org/10.1177/0963721414547414
  13. Wray, L. D., & Stone, E. R. (2005). The role of self-esteem and anxiety in decision making for self versus others in relationships. Journal of Behavioral Decision Making, 18(2), 125-144. https://doi.org/10.1002/bdm.490
  14. Baumeister, R. F., Smart, L., & Boden, J. M. (1996). Relation of threatened egotism to violence and aggression: The dark side of high self-esteem. Psychological Review, 103(1), 5-33. doi:10.1037/0033-295X.103.1.5
  15. Donnellan, M. B., Trzesniewski, K. H., Robins, R. W., Moffitt, T. E., & Caspi, A. (2005). Low self-esteem is related to aggression, antisocial behavior, and delinquency. Psychological Science, 16(4), 328-335. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.0956-7976.2005.01535.x
  16. Rosenberg, M. (1989). Society and the adolescent self-image (Rev. ed.). Wesleyan University Press.
  17. Vogel, E. A., Rose, J. P., Roberts, L. R., & Eckles, K. (2014). Social comparison, social media, and self-esteem. Psychology of Popular Media Culture, 3(4), 206-222. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/ppm0000047

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