Self-esteem refers to the positive (high self-esteem) or negative (low self-esteem) feelings that we have about ourselves. We experience the positive feelings of high self-esteem when we believe that we are good and worthy and that others view us positively. We experience the negative feelings of low self-esteem when we believe that we are inadequate and less worthy than others.
Our self-esteem is determined by many factors, including how well we view our own performance and appearance, and how satisfied we are with our relationships with other people (Tafarodi & Swann, 1995). Self-esteem is in part a trait that is stable over time, with some people having relatively high self-esteem and others having lower self-esteem. But self-esteem is also a state that varies day to day and even hour to hour. When we have succeeded at an important task, when we have done something that we think is useful or important, or when we feel that we are accepted and valued by others, our self-concept will contain many positive thoughts and we will therefore have high self-esteem. When we have failed, done something harmful, or feel that we have been ignored or criticized, the negative aspects of the self-concept are more accessible and we experience low self-esteem.
Self-esteem can be measured using both explicit and implicit measures, and both approaches find that most people tend to view themselves positively. One common explicit self-report measure of self-esteem is the Rosenberg Self-Esteem Scale. Higher scores on the scale indicate higher self-esteem.
The Rosenberg Self-Esteem Scale
Please rate yourself on the following items by writing a number in the blank before each statement, where you
1 = Strongly Disagree 2 = Disagree 3 = Agree 4 = Strongly Agree
- _____I feel that I’m a person of worth, at least on any equal base with others.
- _____I feel that I have a number of good qualities.
- _____All in all, I am inclined to think that I am a failure (R).
- _____I am able to do things as well as other people.
- _____I feel I do not have much to be proud of. (R)
- _____I take a positive attitude towards myself.
- _____On the whole, I am satisfied with myself.
- _____I wish I could have more respect for myself. (R)
- _____I certainly feel useless at times. (R)
- _____At times I think I am no good at all. (R)
Numerous studies have used the Rosenberg scale to assess people’s self-esteem in many areas of the world. An interesting finding in many samples from the Western world, particularly in North America, is that the average score is often significantly higher than the mid-point. Heine and Lehman (1999), for example, reported meta-analytic data indicating that less than 7% of participants scored below the mid-point! One interesting implication of this is that participants in such samples classified as having low self-esteem on the basis of a median split will typically actually have at least moderate self-esteem.
If so many people, particularly in individualistic cultures, report having relatively high self-esteem, an interesting question is why this might be. Perhaps some cultures place more importance on developing high self-esteem than others, and people correspondingly feel more pressure to report feeling good about themselves (Held, 2002). A problem with measures such as the Rosenberg scale is that they can be influenced by the desire to portray the self positively. The observed scores on the Rosenberg scale may be somewhat inflated because people naturally try to make themselves look as if they have very high self-esteem—maybe they lie a bit to the experimenters to make themselves look better than they really are and perhaps to make themselves feel better. If this the case, then we might expect to find average levels of reported self-esteem to be lower in cultures where having high self-worth is less of a priority. This is indeed what has generally been found. Heine and Lehman (1999) reported that Japanese participants living in Japan showed, on average, moderate levels of self-esteem, normally distributed around the scale mid-point. Many other studies have shown that people in Eastern, collectivistic cultures report significantly lower self-esteem than those from more Western, individualistic ones (Campbell et al., 1996). Do, then, such differences reflect these different cultural priorities and pressures, or could it be that they reflect genuine differences in actual self-esteem levels? There are no easy answers here, of course, but there are some findings from studies, using different methods of measuring self-esteem, that may shed some light on this issue.
Indirect measures of self-esteem have been created—measures that may provide a more accurate picture of the self-concept because they are less influenced by the desire to make a positive impression. Anthony Greenwald and Shelly Farnham (2000) used the Implicit Association Test to study the self-concept indirectly. Participants worked at a computer and were presented with a series of words, each of which they were to categorize in one of two ways. One categorization decision involved whether the words were related to the self (e.g., me, myself, mine) or to another person (e.g., other, them, their). A second categorization decision involved determining whether words were pleasant (e.g., joy, smile, pleasant) or unpleasant (e.g., pain, death, tragedy). On some trials, the self words were paired with the pleasant items, and the other words with the unpleasant items. On other trials, the self words were paired with the unpleasant items, and the other words with the pleasant items. Greenwald and Farnham found that on average, participants were significantly faster at categorizing positive words that were presented with self words than they were at categorizing negative words that were presented with self words, suggesting, again, that people did have positive self-esteem. Furthermore, there were also meaningful differences among people in the speed of responding, suggesting that the measure captured some individual variation in implicit self-esteem.
A number of studies have since explored cross-cultural differences in implicit self-esteem and have not found the same differences observed on explicit measures like the Rosenberg scale (Yamaguchi et al., 2007). Does this mean that we can conclude that the lower scores on self-report measures observed in members of collectivistic cultures are more apparent than real? Maybe not just yet, especially given that the correlations between explicit and implicit measures of self-esteem are often quite small (Heine, Lehman, Markus, & Kitayama, 1999). Nevertheless, values such as modesty may be less prioritized in individualistic cultures than in collectivistic ones, which may in turn reflect differences in reported self-esteem levels. Indeed, Cai and colleagues (2007) found that differences in explicit self-esteem between Chinese and American participants were explained by cultural differences in modesty.
Another interesting aspect of diversity and self-esteem is the average difference observed between men and women. Across many countries, women have been found to report lower self-esteem than men (Sprecher, Brooks, & Avogo, 2013). However, these differences have generally been found to be small, particularly in nations where gender equality in law and opportunity is higher (Kling, Hyde, Showers, & Buswell, 1999). These findings are consistent with Mead’s (1934) suggestion that self-esteem in part relates to the view that others have of our importance in the wider world. As women’s opportunities to participate in careers outside of the home have increased in many nations, so the differences between their self-esteem and that of men have decreased.
There are also some interesting age differences in self-esteem that have been uncovered. In a large Internet survey, Robins, Trzesniewski, Tracy, Gosling, & Potter (2002) found that self-esteem tends to decrease from childhood to early adolescence, and then rises steadily from adolescence into adulthood, usually until people are well into their sixties, after which point it begins to decline. One interesting implication of this is that we often will have higher self-esteem later in life than in our early adulthood years, which would appear to run against ageist stereotypes that older adults have lower self-worth. What factors might help to explain these age-related increases in self-esteem? One possibility relates back to our discussion of self-discrepancy theory in the previous section on the cognitive self. Recall that this theory states that when our perceived self-discrepancy between our current and ideal selves is small, we tend to feel more positive about ourselves than when we see the gap as being large. Could it be that older adults have a current view of self that is closer to their ideal than younger adults, and that this is why their self-esteem is often higher? Evidence from Ryff (1991) suggests that this may well be the case. In this study, elderly adults rated their current and ideal selves as more similar than either middle-aged or young adults. In part, older adults are able to more closely align these two selves because they are better able to realistically adjust their ideal standards as they age (Rothermund & Brandstadter, 2003) and because they engage in more favorable and age-appropriate social comparisons than do younger adults (Helgeson & Mickelson, 2000).