Self-esteem encompasses beliefs (for example, "I am competent/incompetent") and emotions (for example, triumph/despair, pride/shame). Behavior may reflect self-esteem (for example, assertiveness/timorousness, confidence/caution).
Psychologists usually regard self-esteem as an enduring personality characteristic (trait self-esteem), though normal, short-term variations (state self-esteem) occur.
Self-esteem can apply specifically to a particular dimension (for example, "I believe I am a good writer, and feel proud of that in particular") or have global extent (for example, "I believe I am a good person, and feel proud of myself in general").
Synonyms or near-synonyms of self-esteem include: self-worth, self-regard, self-respect, , self-love (which can express overtones of self-promotion), self-integrity. Self-esteem is distinct from self-confidence and self-efficacy, which involve beliefs about ability and future performance.
The Oxford English Dictionary (OED)
traces the use of the word "self-esteem" in English back as far as 1657.
[John Milton is argued to have first coined this term.]
After a career in the proto-psychological lore of phrenology in the 19th century the term entered more mainstream psychological use in the work of the American psychologists and philosophers Lorne Park and William James in 1890.
Self-esteem has become the third most frequently occurring theme in psychological literature: as of 2003 over 25,000 articles, chapters, and books referred to the topic.
Given a long and varied history, the term has, unsurprisingly, no less than three major types of definitions in the field, each of which has generated its own tradition of research, findings, and practical applications:
Branden’s (1969) description of self-esteem includes the following primary properties:
Compare the usage of terms such as self-love or self-confidence.
Implicit self-esteem refers to a person's disposition to evaluate themselves positively or negatively in a spontaneous, automatic, or unconscious manner. It contrasts with explicit self-esteem, which entails more conscious and reflective self-evaluation. Both explicit and implicit self-esteem are subtypes of self-esteem proper.
Implicit self-esteem is assessed using indirect measures of cognitive processing. These include the Name Letter Task and the Implicit Association Test. Such indirect measures are designed to reduce awareness of, or control of, the process of assessment. When used to assess implicit self-esteem, they feature stimuli designed to represent the self, such as personal pronouns (e.g., "I") or letters in one's name.
For the purposes of empirical research, psychologists typically assess self-esteem by a self-report inventory yielding a quantitative result. They establish the validity and reliability of the questionnaire prior to its use. Researchers are becoming more interested in measures of implicit self-esteem.
Popular lore recognizes just "high" self-esteem and "low" self-esteem.
The Rosenberg Self-Esteem Scale (1965) and the Coopersmith Self-Esteem Inventory (1967/1981) feature among the most widely used systems for measuring self-esteem. The Rosenberg test, often seen as a "standard" , usually uses a ten-question battery scored on a four-point response-system that requires participants to indicate their level of agreement with a series of statements about themselves. The Coopersmith Inventory uses a 50-question battery over a variety of topics and asks subjects whether they rate positive or negative characteristics of someone as similar or dissimilar to themselves.
Many early theories suggested that self-esteem is a basic human need or motivation. American psychologist Abraham Maslow, for example, included self-esteem in his heirarchy of needs. He described two different forms of esteem: the need for respect from others and the need for self-respect, or inner self-esteem. Respect from others entails recognition, acceptance, status, and appreciation, and was believed to be more fragile and easily lost than inner self-esteem. According to Maslow, without the fulfillment of the self-esteem need, individuals will be driven to seek it and unable to grow and obtain self-actualization.
Modern theories of self-esteem explore the reasons why humans are motivated to maintain a high regard for themselves. Sociometer theory maintains that self-esteem evolved to check one's level of status and acceptance in ones' social group. According to terror management theory, self esteem serves a protective function and reduces anxiety about life and death.
Level and quality of self-esteem, though correlated, remain distinct. Level-wise, one can exhibit high but fragile self-esteem (as in narcissism) or low but stable self-esteem (as in humility). However, investigators can indirectly assess the quality of self-esteem in several ways:
From the late 1970s to the early 1990s many Americans assumed as a matter of course that students' self-esteem acted as a critical factor in the grades that they earn in school, in their relationships with their peers, and in their later success in life. Given this assumption, some American groups created programs which aimed to increase the self-esteem of students. Until the 1990s little peer-reviewed and controlled research took place on this topic.
The concept of self-improvement has undergone dramatic change since 1911, when Ambrose Bierce mockingly defined self-esteem as "an erroneous appeasement." Good and bad character are now known as "personality differences". Rights have replaced responsibilities. The research on ego centrism and ethnocentrism that informed discussion of human growth and development in the mid-20th century is ignored; indeed, the terms themselves are considered politically incorrect. A revolution has taken place in the vocabulary of self. Words that imply responsibility or accountability — self-criticism, self-denial, self-discipline, self-control, self-effacement, self-mastery, self-reproach, and self-sacrifice — are no longer in fashion. The language most in favor is that which exalts the self — self-expression, self-assertion, self-indulgence, self-realization, self-approval, self-acceptance, self-love, and the ubiquitous self-esteem.|20px|20px|Ruggiero, 2000
Peer-reviewed research undertaken since then has not validated previous assumptions. Recent research indicates that inflating students' self-esteem in and of itself has no positive effect on grades. One study has shown that inflating self-esteem by itself can actually decrease grades.
High self-esteem correlates highly with self-reported happiness. However, it is not clear which, if either, necessarily leads to the other. Additionally, self-esteem has been found to be related to forgiveness in close relationships, in that people with high self-esteem will be more forgiving than people with low self-esteem.
The relationship involving self-esteem and academic results does not signify that high self-esteem contributes to high academic results. It simply means that high self- esteem may be accomplished due to high academic performance.
Some of the most interesting results of recent studies center on the relationships between bullying, violence, and self-esteem. People used to assume that bullies acted violently towards others because they suffered from low self-esteem (although supporters of this position offered no controlled studies to back up this belief).
These findings suggest that the low-esteem theory is wrong. But none involves what social psychologists regard as the most convincing form of evidence: controlled laboratory experiments. When we conducted our initial review of the literature, we uncovered no lab studies that probed the link between self-esteem and aggression.|20px|20px|Roy Baumeister, 2001
In contrast to old beliefs, recent research indicates that bullies act the way that they do because they suffer from unearned high self-esteem.
Violent criminals often describe themselves as superior to others - as special, elite persons who deserve preferential treatment. Many murders and assaults are committed in response to blows to self-esteem such as insults and humiliation. (To be sure, some perpetrators live in settings where insults threaten more than their opinions of themselves. Esteem and respect are linked to status in the social hierarchy, and to put someone down can have tangible and even life-threatening consequences.)
The same conclusion has emerged from studies of other categories of violent people. Street-gang members have been reported to hold favourable opinions of themselves and turn to violence when these estimations are shaken. Playground bullies regard themselves as superior to other children; low self-esteem is found among the victims of bullies, but not among bullies themselves. Violent groups generally have overt belief systems that emphasise their superiority over others.|20PX|20PX|Baumeister, 2001
The findings of this research do not take into account that the concept of self-esteem lacks a clear definition and that differing views exist of the precise definition of self-esteem. In his own work, Baumeister often uses a "common use" definition: self-esteem is how you regard yourself (or how you appear to regard yourself) regardless of how this view was cultivated. Other psychologists believe that a "self esteem" that depends on external validation of the self (or other people's approval), such as what seems relevant in the discussion of violent people, does not, in fact, equate to "true" self-esteem. Nathaniel Branden labeled external validation as "pseudo self-esteem", arguing that "true self-esteem" comes from internal sources, such as self-responsibility, self-sufficiency and the knowledge of one's own competence and capability to deal with obstacles and adversity, regardless of what other people think.
Psychologists who agree with Branden's view dismiss Baumeister's findings. Such psychologists say that Baumeister mistakes narcissism as "high self-esteem" in criminals. They see such narcissism as an inflated opinion of self, built on shaky grounds, and opine that violence comes when that opinion comes under threat. Those with "true" self-esteem who valued themselves and believed wholly in their own competence and worth would have no need to resort to violence or indeed have any need to believe in their superiority or to prove their superiority.
Contingencies of self-worth comprise those qualities a person believes he or she must have in order to class as a person of value; proponents claim the contingencies as the core of self-esteem.
In the field of social psychology, Jennifer Crocker has carried out major research on the topic of contingencies of self-worth. She says that her research "explores what it is that people believe they need to be or do to have value and worth as a person, and the consequences of those beliefs". She claims that people pursue self-esteem by trying to prove that they have worth and value, and this pursuit affects "the satisfaction of the fundamental human needs for learning, relationships, autonomy, self-regulation, and mental and physical health" (Crocker, 2007). Crocker argues that this pursuit of self-worth affects not only the individual, but everyone around the person as well.
According to the "Contingencies of Self-Worth model" (Crocker & Wolfe, 2001) people differ in their bases of self-esteem. Their beliefs — beliefs about what they think they need to do or who they need to "be" in order to class as a person of worth — form these bases. Crocker and her colleagues (2001) identified seven "domains" in which people frequently derive their self-worth:
Individuals who base their self-worth in a specific domain (such as, for example, academic success) leave themselves much more vulnerable to having their self-esteem threatened when negative events happen to them within that domain (such as when they fail a test at school). A 2003 study by Crocker found that students who based their contingency of self-worth on academic criteria had a greater likelihood of experiencing lower-state self-esteem, greater negative affect, and negative self-evaluative thoughts when they did not perform well on academic tasks, when they received poor grades, or when graduate schools rejected them (Crocker, Karpinski, Quinn, & Chase, 2003; Crocker, Sommers, & Luhtanen, 2002).
Crocker and her colleagues (2003) have constructed the "Contingencies of Self-Worth Scale", which measures the seven domains mentioned above that previous research had hypothesized as providing important internal and external sources of self-esteem. Crocker argues that the domains on which people base self-worth play a greater role than whether self-worth is actually contingent or not. Contingencies of self-worth can function internally, externally, or somewhere in between. Some research has shown that external contingencies of self-worth, such as physical appearance and academic success, correlate negatively to well-being, even promoting depression and eating-disorders (Jambekar, Quinn, & Crocker, 2001). Other work has found internal contingencies, on the other hand, unrelated or even positively related to well-being (Sargent, Crocker, & Luhtanen, 2006).
Research by Crocker and her colleagues also suggests that contingencies of self-worth have self-regulatory properties (Crocker, Luhtanen, Cooper, & Bouvrette, 2003). Crocker et al. define successful self-regulation as “the willingness to exert effort toward one’s most important goals, while taking setbacks and failures as opportunities to learn, identify weaknesses and address them, and develop new strategies toward achieving those goals” (Crocker, Brook, & Niiya, 2006). Since many individuals strive for a feeling of value, it makes sense that those people would experience special motivation to succeed and actively to avoid failure in the domains on which they base their own self-worth. Accordingly, successful self-regulation can prove difficult for people aiming to maintain and enhance their self-esteem, because they would have to actually embrace failure or criticism as a learning opportunity, rather than avoid it. Instead, when a task which individuals see as fundamental to their self-worth proves difficult and failure seems probable, contingencies of self-worth lead to stress, feelings of pressure, and a loss of intrinsic motivation. In these cases, highly contingent people may withdraw from the situation. On the other hand, the positive emotional affect following success in a domain of contingency may become addictive for the highly contingent individual (Baumeister & Vohs, 2001). Over time, these people may require even greater successes to achieve the same satisfaction or emotional “high”. Therefore, the goal to succeed can become a relentless quest for these individuals (Crocker & Nuer, 2004).
Researchers such as Crocker believe that people confuse the boosts to self-esteem resulting from successes with true human needs, such as learning, mutually supportive relationships, autonomy, and safety (Crocker & Nuer, 2004; Crocker & Park, 2004; Deci & Ryan, 2000). Crocker claims that people do not seek "self-esteem", but basic human needs, and that the contingencies on which they base their self-esteem has more importance than the level of self-esteem itself.
Perhaps one of the strongest theoretical and operational critiques of the concept of self-esteem has come from American psychologist Albert Ellis who on numerous occasions criticized the philosophy as essentially self-defeating and ultimately destructive. Although acknowledging the human propensity and tendency to ego rating as innate, he has claimed that the philosophy of self-esteem in the last analysis is both unrealistic, illogical and self- and socially destructive – often doing more harm than good. Questioning the foundations and usefulness of generalized ego strength, he has claimed that self-esteem is based on arbitrary definitional premises, over-generalized, perfectionistic and grandiose thinking. Acknowledging that rating and valuing behaviours and characteristics is functional and even necessary, he sees rating and valuing human beings totality and total selves as irrational, unethical and absolutistic. The more healthy alternative to self-esteem according to him is unconditional self-acceptance and unconditional other-acceptance and these concepts are incorporated in his therapeutic system Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy. In 2005 he released a book with a detailed analysis of the concept of self-esteem titled "The Myth of Self-esteem".