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Social Psychology in the Public Interest

1 February, 2016 - 12:23

Does High Self-Esteem Cause Happiness or Other Positive Outcomes?

Teachers, parents, school counselors, and people in many cultures frequently assume that high self-esteem causes many positive outcomes for people who have it and therefore that we should try to increase it in ourselves and others. Perhaps you agree with the idea that if you could increase your self-esteem, you would feel better about yourself and therefore be able to work at a higher level, or attract a more desirable mate. If you do believe that, you would not be alone. Baumeister and colleagues (2003) describe the origins and momentum of what they call the self-esteem movement, which has grown in influence in various countries since the 1970s. For example, in 1986, the state of California funded a task force under the premise that raising self-esteem would help solve many of the state’s problems, including crime, teen pregnancy, drug abuse, school underachievement, and pollution.

Baumeister and colleagues (2003) conducted an extensive review of the research literature to determine whether having high self-esteem was as helpful as many people seem to think it is. They began by assessing which variables were correlated with high self-esteem and then considered the extent to which high self-esteem caused these outcomes. They found that high self-esteem does correlate with many positive outcomes. People with high self-esteem get better grades, are less depressed, feel less stress, and may even live longer than those who view themselves more negatively. The researchers also found that high self-esteem is correlated with greater initiative and activity; people with high self-esteem just do more things. They are also more more likely to defend victims against bullies compared with people with low self-esteem, and they are more likely to initiate relationships and to speak up in groups. High self-esteem people also work harder in response to initial failure and are more willing to switch to a new line of endeavor if the present one seems unpromising. Thus, having high self-esteem seems to be a valuable resource—people with high self-esteem are happier, more active, and in many ways better able to deal with their environment.

On the other hand, Baumeister and his colleagues also found that people with high self-esteem sometimes delude themselves. They tend to believe that they are more likable and attractive, have better relationships, and make better impressions on others than people with low self-esteem. But objective measures show that these beliefs are often distortions rather than facts. Furthermore, people with overly high self-esteem, particularly when it is accompanied by narcissism, defensiveness, conceit, and the unwillingness to critically assess one’s potential negative qualities, have been found to engage in a variety of negative behaviors (Baumeister, Smart, & Boden, 1996). For example, people with high self-esteem are more likely to be bullies (despite also being more likely to defend victims) and to experiment with alcohol, drugs, and sex.

Todd Heatherton and Kathleen Vohs (2000) found that when people with extremely high self-esteem were forced to fail on a difficult task in front of a partner, they responded by acting more unfriendly, rudely, and arrogantly than did those with lower self-esteem. And research has found that children who inflate their social self-worth—those who think that they are more popular than they really are and who thus have unrealistically high self-esteem—are also more aggressive than children who do not show such narcissistic tendencies (Sandstrom & Herlan, 2007; Thomaes, Bushman, Stegge, & Olthof, 2008). Such findings raise the interesting possibility that programs that increase the self-esteem of children who bully and are aggressive, based on the notion that these behaviors stem from low self-esteem, may do more harm than good (Emler, 2001). If you are thinking like a social psychologist, these findings may not surprise you—narcissists tend to focus on their self-concerns, with little concern for others, and we have seen many times that other-concern is a necessity for satisfactory social relations.

Furthermore, despite the many positive variables that relate to high self-esteem, when Baumeister and his colleagues looked at the causal role of self-esteem they found little evidence that high self-esteem caused these positive outcomes. For instance, although high self-esteem is correlated with academic achievement, it is more the result than the cause of this achievement. Programs designed to boost the self-esteem of pupils have not been shown to improve academic performance, and laboratory studies have generally failed to find that manipulations of self-esteem cause better task performance.

Baumeister and his colleagues concluded that programs designed to boost self-esteem should be used only in a limited way and should not be the only approach taken. Raising self-esteem will not make young people do better in school, obey the law, stay out of trouble, get along better with other people, or respect the rights of others. And these programs may even backfire if the increased self-esteem creates narcissism or conceit. Baumeister and his colleagues suggested that attempts to boost self-esteem should only be carried out as a reward for good behavior and worthy achievements, and not simply to try to make children feel better about themselves.

Although we naturally desire to have social status and high self-esteem, we cannot always promote ourselves without any regard to the accuracy of our self-characterizations. If we consistently distort our capabilities, and particularly if we do this over a long period of time, we will just end up fooling ourselves and perhaps engaging in behaviors that are not actually beneficial to us. Most of us probably know someone who is convinced that he or she has a particular talent at a professional level, but we, and others, can see that this person is deluded (but perhaps we are too kind to say this). Some individuals who audition on television talent shows spring to mind. Such self-delusion can become problematic because although this high self-esteem might propel people to work harder, and although they may enjoy thinking positively about themselves, they may be setting themselves up for long-term disappointment and failure. Their pursuit of unrealistic goals may also take valuable time away from finding areas they have more chance to succeed in.

When we self-enhance too much, although we may feel good about it in the short term, in the longer term the outcomes for the self may not be positive. The goal of creating and maintaining positive self-esteem (an affective goal) must be tempered by the cognitive goal of having an accurate self-view (Kirkpatrick & Ellis, 2001; Swann, Chang-Schneider, & Angulo, 2007). In some cases, the cognitive goal of obtaining an accurate picture of ourselves and our social world and the affective goal of gaining positive self-esteem work hand in hand. Getting the best grade in an important exam produces accurate knowledge about our skills in the domain as well as giving us some positive self-esteem. In other cases, the two goals are incompatible. Doing more poorly on an exam than we had hoped produces conflicting, contradictory outcomes. The poor score provides accurate information about the self—namely, that we have not mastered the subject—but at the same time makes us feel bad. Self-verification theory states that people often seek confirmation of their self-concept, whether it is positive or negative (Swann, 1983). This sets up a fascinating clash between our need to self-enhance against our need to be realistic in our views of ourselves. Delusion versus truth: which one wins out? The answer, of course, as with pretty much everything to do with human social behavior, is that it depends. But on what does it depend?

One factor is who the source is of the feedback about us: when we are seeking out close relationships, we more often form them with others who verify our self-views. We also tend to feel more satisfied with interactions with self-verifying partners than those who are always positive toward us (Swann, De La Ronde, & Hixon, 1994; Swann & Pelham, 2002). Self-verification seems to be less important to us in more distant relationships, as in those cases we often tend to prefer self-enhancing feedback.

Another related factor is the part of our self-concept we are seeking feedback about, coupled with who is providing this evaluation. Let’s say you are in a romantic relationship and you ask your partner and your close friend about how physically attractive they think you are. Who would you want to give you self-enhancing feedback? Who would you want more honesty from? The evidence suggests that most of us would prefer self-enhancing feedback from our partner, and accuracy from our friend (Swann, Bosson, & Pelham, 2002), as perceived physical attractiveness is more central to romance than friendship.

Under certain conditions, verification prevails over enhancement. However, we should not underestimate the power of self-enhancement to often cloud our ability to be more realistic about ourselves. For example, self-verification of negative aspects of our self-concept is more likely in situations where we are pretty sure of our faults (Swann & Pelham, 1988). If there is room for doubt, then enhancement tends to rule. Also, if we are confident that the consequences of getting innaccurate, self-enhancing feedback about negative aspects ourselves are minimal, then we tend to welcome self-enhancement with open arms (Aronson, 1992).

Therefore, in those situations where the needs to enhance and to verify are in conflict, we must learn to reconcile our self-concept with our self-esteem. We must be able to accept our negative aspects and to work to overcome them. The ability to balance the cognitive and the affective features of the self helps us create realistic views of ourselves and to translate these into more efficient and effective behaviors.

There is one final cautionary note about focusing too much on self-enhancement, to the detriment of self-verification, and other-concern. Jennifer Crocker and Lora Park (2004) have identified another cost of our attempts to inflate our self-esteem: we may spend so much time trying to enhance our self-esteem in the eyes of others—by focusing on the clothes we are wearing, impressing others, and so forth—that we have little time left to really improve ourselves in more meaningful ways. In some extreme cases, people experience such strong needs to improve their self-esteem and social status that they act in assertive or dominant ways in order to gain it. As in many other domains, then, having positive self-esteem is a good thing, but we must be careful to temper it with a healthy realism and a concern for others. The real irony here is that those people who do show more other- than self-concern, those who engage in more prosocial behavior at personal costs to themselves, for example, often tend to have higher self-esteem anyway (Leak & Leak, 2003).

Key Takeaways

  • Self-esteem refers to the positive (high self-esteem) or negative (low self-esteem) feelings that we have about ourselves.
  • Self-esteem is determined both by our own achievements and accomplishments and by how we think others are judging us.
  • Self-esteem can be measured using both direct and indirect measures, and both approaches find that people tend to view themselves positively.
  • Self-esteem shows important variations across different cultural, gender, and age groups.
  • Because it is so important to have self-esteem, we may seek out, process, and remember information in a way that allows us to see ourselves even more positively.
  • High self-esteem is correlated with, but does not cause, a variety of positive outcomes.
  • Although high self-esteem does correlate with many positive outcomes in life, overly high self-esteem creates narcissism, which can lead to unfriendly, rude, and ultimately dysfunctional behaviors.

Exercises and Critical Thinking

  1. In what ways do you attempt to boost your own self-esteem? Which strategies do you feel have been particularly effective and ineffective and why?
  2. Do you know people who have appropriately high self-esteem? What about people who are narcissists? How do these individual differences influence their social behavior in positive and negative ways?
  3. “It is relatively easy to succeed in life with low self-esteem, but very difficult to succeed without self-control, self-discipline, or emotional resilience in the face of setbacks” (Twenge & Campbell, 2009, p. 295). To what extent do you agree with this quote and why?


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