Psychology 101: The 101 Ideas, Concepts and Theories that Have Shaped Our World - Adrian Furnham 2021
Self-Esteem: Do you Feel Good About Yourself?
Nobody holds a good opinion of a man who has a low opinion of himself. (Anthony Trollope, Orley Farm, 1860)
Only the person who has faith in himself is able to be faithful to others. (Erich Fromm, The Art of Loving, 1957)
For nearly 30 years it has been an accepted fact in psychology that low self-esteem was the root cause of many social and personal problems, particularly among young people. Thus everything from teenage pregnancy to suicide and delinquency to school failure was due, in major part, to low self-esteem. Hence the development and proliferation of the self-esteem movement, which attempted through a variety of clinical and educational interventions to raise the esteem of various targeted groups. The assumption was, because self-esteem has such powerful causal power, it was the most efficient way to improve the lot of various groups that experienced a variety of social and psychological problems.
However, over the last few years social psychologists have challenged many of these assumptions and found them wanting. One challenge came from Emler (2005) who did a careful, critical evaluation of the literature. His conclusion was essentially that there is little evidence for the causal power of low self-esteem causing social problems or for that matter, of the efficacy of programmes that attempted to raise it. The research drew a number of specific conclusions:
• Relatively low self-esteem is not a risk factor for delinquency, violence towards others (including child and partner abuse), drug use, alcohol abuse, educational under-attainment or racism.
• Relatively low self-esteem is a risk factor for suicide, suicide attempts, depression, teenage pregnancy and victimization by bullies. However, in each case it is only one among several related risk factors.
• Although the causal mechanisms remain unclear, relatively low childhood self-esteem also appears to be associated with adolescent eating disorders and, among males only, with low earnings and employment problems in young adulthood.
• Young people with very high self-esteem are more likely than others to hold racist attitudes, reject social pressures from adults and peers and engage in physically risky pursuits, such as drink-driving or driving too fast.
• The most important influences on young people’s levels of self-esteem are their parents — partly as a result of genetic inheritance and partly through the degree of love, concern, acceptance and interest that they show their children. Physical and sexual abuse are especially damaging for children’s feelings of self-worth.
• Personal successes and failures also influence self-esteem. But despite the attention given to the effects on high or low achievement in school, the degree of influence of self-esteem is relatively small.
• Children’s self-esteem can be raised by parenting programmes and other planned interventions, but knowledge of why particular interventions are effective is limited.
Emler argued that low self-esteem could have beneficial motivational characteristics while high self-esteem could lead to arrogant, conceited, self-satisfied behaviour rather than provide specific benefits.
This idea has been taken up by my colleague, Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic in his 2013 book Confidence. He argues that we are told that the key to success in life and business is confidence: believe in yourself, and the world is your oyster. Yet millions of people feel themselves to be hindered by low self-confidence.
In Confidence, he shows us that high confidence makes us less likeable, less employable and less successful in the long run. He shows the benefits of low confidence (including being more motivated and self-aware), teaches us how to know when to fake it, get ahead at work, improve our social skills, feel better emotionally and physically, and much more.
In addition to reviews, experimental studies began to show the negative effects of high self-esteem. That is, they appeared to show that people with high self-esteem pose a greater threat to themselves and others than those with low self-esteem.
Baumeister’s (Baumeister et al., 2003) imaginative studies have probably provided the best empirical evidence that there is no causal relationship between low self-esteem and life success, though this conclusion has been disputed. Some recent longitudinal studies suggest otherwise. In fact, if anything the opposite is true. Still others have shown that self-esteem can have both positive and negative consequences. If people derive their self-esteem from external factors like physical appearance they may be prone to eating disorders.
The essence of the argument is that we need to be accurate in self-evaluation, which is about our competencies with both a spirit of acceptance and realism. To be self-accepting we need to take responsibility for our actions. Hence, there is a difference between authentic or genuine self-esteem and external or false self-esteem. The former is internal and under our control, the latter external and under the control of others who may be insecure and fickle.
Similarly, it is important to try to distinguish between unhealthy narcissism with all its ego-inflatedness and self-absorbed vanity and genuine, correct and appropriately high self-esteem. Those with narcissism are dependent on others to affirm them. In this sense they are highly vulnerable and addicted to their positive affirmations. Thus the genuine narcissist keeps seeking personal validation but this is never enough to convince them of their own adequacy. Because they do not have genuine high self-esteem they strive to fake it.
There have been various attempts to make differentiations in the narcissism literature which spans psychiatry and psychology. It has been conceived as a type and a trait, even a psychological process. There have been studies on overt (more exhibitionistic and aggressive) vs. covert (anxious, defensive, vulnerable) narcissists and many attempts to differentiate ’healthy’, ’productive’ narcissism from ’unhealthy’ ’destructive’ narcissism. Indeed, there appears to be some differences when there is a ’clinical’ vs. ’non-clinical’ account of narcissism. This problem may be resolved by the trait concept, whereby it is possible to locate everybody on the self-esteem—narcissistic trait. Clinicians may see only extreme cases that are recommended for therapy while personality and organizational psychologists see less ’extreme cases’ who appear ’relatively’ well adjusted.
Those with self-awareness, and neither hubris nor humility with respect to the abilities and talents, do best. It may be paradoxically very unwise and unhealthy to concentrate on raising self-esteem when it is not in alignment with actual capabilities.
Baumeister, R., Campbell, J., Krueger, J., & Volis, K. (2003). Does high self-esteem cause better performance, interpersonal success, happiness and healthier lifestyles? Psychological science in the public interest, 4, 1—44.
Chamorro-Premuzic, T. (2014). Confidence. New York: Hudson Street Press.
Emler, N. (2005). The costs and causes of low self-esteem. Unpublished paper: LSE.
Twenge, J. (2006). Generation Me. New York: Free Press.