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Self esteem: The costs and causes of low self worth

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Self-esteem
The costs and causes of low self-worth
Nicholas Emler
The Joseph Rowntree Foundation has supported this project as part of its programme of research
and innovative development projects, which it hopes will be of value to policy makers and
practitioners. The facts presented and views expressed in this report are, however, those of the
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Contents
Page
Acknowledgements v
1Self-esteem: definition and measurement 1
Introduction 1
Self-esteem in the public domain 2
What is self-esteem? The views of scholars and scientists 4
Can self-esteem be measured and, if so, how? 7
Conclusions 11
2The consequences of self-esteem 13
The problem of distinguishing causes and effects 13
Matters of consequence 17
Crime and delinquency 18
Racial prejudice 20
Abuse of illegal drugs 21
Alcohol abuse 23
Risky sexual behaviour (including practices carrying risk of sexually transmitted diseases
and of teenage pregnancy) 23
Child maltreatment 26
Educational underachievement 27
Chronic dependency on state support (including poverty, low earnings and long-term
unemployment) 28
Eating disorders 29
Suicide, parasuicide and suicidal thoughts 30
Outcomes: overview 32
3The sources of differences in self-esteem 35
Factors that have weak effects or none 35
Factors that have a modest effect 38
Factors that have a substantial effect: (the behaviour of) parents 42
The relative immunity of established self-esteem: are there any other significant others? 44
Conclusions: the sources of self-esteem 48
4Changing self-esteem: the effectiveness of planned interventions 49
How self-esteem might be raised: theory as a source of ideas 50
How self-esteem might be raised: research evidence as a source of ideas 51
How self-esteem might be raised: varieties of intervention in practice 52
Does anything work at all? 53
Conclusions: raising self-esteem – what works and what works best? 57
5General conclusions 58
Defining and measuring self-esteem 58
Behavioural consequences of self-esteem 58
The causes of low and high self-esteem 59
Planned interventions to raise self-esteem: what works? 60
Future research needs 61
Final word 61
Notes 62
Bibliography 63
Appendix: Research into the possible consequences of low self-esteem 83
The following have offered helpful advice on different parts of this review: Dominic Abrams, University of
Kent; Roy Baumeister, Case Western Reserve University; John Bynner, Institute of Education; William
Damon, Stanford University; Duncan Cramer, Loughborough University; Leon Feinstein, the London
School of Economics; Miles Hewstone, University of Wales at Cardiff; Peter Robinson, Bristol University;
Glen Waller, St George’s Hospital Medical School.
Acknowledgements
v
1
Introduction
Violent children hold other lives cheap because they
believe their own lives to be worthless.
(Melanie Phillips,
The Sunday Times
, 3 December
2000, commenting on the apparently motiveless
murder of a young Nigerian boy, Damilola Taylor)
This observation will have struck a chord with
readers because it mirrors many widely accepted
views. These include the ideas that many children,
rather too many, are now growing up with a sense
that they have no value, and that their damaged
sense of their own worth in turn causes them to do
violence to themselves and others. If such views
have a sound basis in fact, then there is much to
recommend efforts to repair the self-esteem of these
young people and to take whatever measures we
can to ensure no further damage of this kind is
done. Are these views therefore well founded?
The aim of this review is to summarise what is
known from research about the nature of self-
esteem, its consequences and its antecedents. More
particularly, it is concerned with the self-esteem of
children and adolescents. The reasons for this focus
are twofold. First, many of the phenomena seen to
be consequences of low self-esteem are especially
pronounced in the early part of life. The once
popular image of adolescence as a ‘stormy decade’,
a period of life marked by chronic self-doubt,
conflict with parents and rebellion against the
standards of adult society, has proved to be an
unhelpful and inaccurate generalisation about
young people. A recent study confirms this point.
Gillies et al. (2001) interviewed ordinary young
people and their parents and found little to suggest
that their relationships with one another were riven
with disputes and difficulties.
There is, however, less dissent from the
observation that adolescents are, much more than
other age groups, liable to commit crimes, abuse
drugs and put their health at risk in other ways.
And, of course, some matters of concern are by
definition associated with this period of life, such
as teenage pregnancy. The second reason for a
focus upon adolescence is the sense that damage
done and left unrepaired early in life cannot
thereafter easily be undone.
There is an incidental and not entirely trivial
advantage to defining the scope of the review in
this way: most of the published literature deals
with this period of life. The real disadvantage is
that little can be selected out as having no relevance
for the aims of the review. Nonetheless, we can and
should be more precise about the aims and scope.
The issues of interest here are essentially whether
individuals differ in self-esteem, whether these
differences have any important consequences and,
if so, what produces these differences.
The review will be organised as follows.
Following a brief overview of popular views about
self-esteem, scientific interpretations of the concept
will be described. This will lead into an
examination of the options for measuring self-
esteem, and whether there are grounds for
regarding it as a unitary quality and as one distinct
from some apparently related psychological
attributes. Next will come a review of evidence for
behavioural consequences of low self-esteem;
particular attention will be given to those
consequences seen to constitute social problems,
such as delinquency, drug abuse, teenage
pregnancy, racism and suicide attempts. Research
into the roots of self-esteem will then be
considered, aiming in particular to determine what
is known about the conditions resulting in low self-
esteem. Finally, methods of intervention are
considered: what kinds of intervention appear to be
successful in raising self-esteem, what are their
costs and what evidence is there if any that they
have long-term benefits?
1Self-esteem: definition and measurement
2
Self-esteem
Self-esteem in the public domain
If there were ever a magic bullet that could transform
a young person’s life it would be a pill coated with
self-esteem. This powerful yet fragile quality is the
key to the future for a teenager.
(Katz, 2000, p. 7)
Few ideas in the human sciences have ever
achieved the level of attention that has been
lavished upon the notion of self-esteem. Within
psychology alone, research papers and articles that
make some reference to self-esteem, and often
much more than a passing reference, are now
appearing at a rate of over a thousand each year.
Given this level of interest, one is liable to conclude
that it is an idea of some considerable significance.
But, rather more unusually, this academic
preoccupation is substantially matched by interest
among the public at large, and not just among
those people – doctors, teachers, social workers –
who might be expected to show a professional
interest in the human psyche. In their everyday
lives, people routinely treat the notion of self-
esteem as an intelligible basis for explaining their
own difficulties or others’ failings. Some indication
of the sheer level of this popular interest is that the
US bookseller Amazon currently lists over 2,000
titles which deal in some way with self-esteem.
In a sense, the prominence of this notion in
everyday discourse should cause no surprise. The
term is not the property of psychology or indeed
any other branch of the human sciences; nor did it
begin life as a psychological concept with a
specialised and technical meaning. This particular
composite term has been in common usage in the
English language, according to the OED, for at least
four centuries. And, when a term endures for so
long, it is a reasonable bet that it refers to
something of importance to people, something they
find it very useful to be able to label for one
another.
Nevertheless, over time, usage changes and the
connotations evolve. It is in this respect that
scientific interest in self-esteem is related to the
public discourse. When we talk about self-esteem
in our everyday conversations, somewhere in the
background – and not always only in the
background – a psychological interpretation is
being invoked. Self-esteem is about psychological
health, about motivations, about personal identity.
Perhaps the most striking and distinctive feature of
contemporary usage, however, is the idea that self-
esteem is a kind of resource or asset. And, like other
assets, it is now discussed within the realm of
human rights. People desire self-esteem, just as
they may be expected to desire prosperity, good
physical health, or freedom of thought. But they
also regard it as something they should have by
right. And, if they lack self-esteem, this is because
they have been denied or deprived of it through the
actions or inactions of others.
The human sciences have made this aspiration
legitimate, even admirable, in an interesting way.
They have encouraged the belief that self-esteem is
good for the individual who is blessed with it but it
is also good for society. In other words, this is a
case in which self-interests coincide with the
common good. And this puts it firmly on the
political agenda. If self-esteem is good for collective
well-being, it is worth spending public money to
ensure there is more of it to go around. This is a far
from fanciful scenario. In 1986, the state of
California set up a task force to achieve precisely
this aim. Its remit was to raise the self-esteem of its
entire population.
Why did politicians in California back this
initiative? The reasoning is instructive; more than
that, it reflects directly on the purpose of this
review. The Californian policy makers had come to
be convinced that self-esteem is a powerful, all-
purpose ‘social vaccine’ – the term used in the Task
Force final report (California Task Force to Promote
Self-esteem and Personal and Social Responsibility,
3
Self-esteem: definition and measurement
1990). It had become a fashionable notion that high
self-esteem inoculates people, and in particular
young people, against vulnerability to a wide range
of social ills. Those who possess high self-esteem
are less likely to abuse drugs, commit crimes, fail to
benefit from education, engage in unsafe sexual
practices that could pose a risk to health or result in
unwanted pregnancies, suffer from stress, develop
eating disorders, perpetrate acts of racism or child
abuse or violence towards their partners, become
chronically dependent on the state for financial
support, get depressed or make suicide attempts.
And the list of benefits didn’t stop there.
Farmers have been told that high self-esteem
will contribute more to their success than up-to-
date knowledge of farming methods. Bankers have
been advised to nurture the self-esteem of their
customers because this will significantly contribute
to the latter’s net worth; customers with high self-
esteem will be more likely to repay loans and
provide profitable business to the bank. Even
management consultants have sought to convince
their clients that staff with good self-esteem will be
more effective and productive employees (Hewitt,
1998).
Self-esteem has therefore proved fertile territory
for those Hewitt (1998) describes as conceptual
entrepreneurs. These are people who seek to
persuade a wider audience that something is a
major problem and it requires a solution; they also
claim to know what the solution is. In this case,
their claims that low self-esteem lay behind a range
of undesirable behaviours and practices made low
self-esteem the problem and high self-esteem, or
methods that supposedly promote this condition,
the solution. In Californians, they had a receptive
audience for these claims but also, it turned out,
across the world (see foreword in Mecca et al.,
1989).
Correspondingly, the fashion favoured
associated forms of political correctness. Because
self-esteem is both desirable for society as a whole
and the right of every individual, all practices or
circumstances that could conceivably damage a
person’s self-esteem were to be purged from the
curriculum of life (and certainly from the precincts
of educational establishments). Any reluctance to
pursue this agenda could be attacked with all the
self-righteous moral certainty of a lynching party.
Thus, as one commentator noted, around the time
of the California initiative, teachers and others
working with young people became increasingly
reluctant to voice meaningful relative judgements
about those in their care (Baumeister, 1998).
Announcing winners meant others were losers.
Genuine criticism was far too risky. Consequently,
standards got dumbed down and every ego
required a merit award just for turning up.
The note of scepticism here is intentional, the
intention to signal what is to come in this review.
Like the fictional Gordon Gekko’s infamous
admonition about greed, we should be suspicious
of any convenient convergence of self-serving
interests with the greater good.
What has become common sense in this matter
– only people with low self-esteem act in ways that
are harmful to themselves or others – turns out as a
blanket generalisation not to be a reliable or sound
basis for policy initiatives.
If we are to spend money – anybody’s money –
or time or talent on efforts to mitigate social
problems, we had better be sure of two things:
those efforts will have the anticipated benefits and
investments made in them would not have been
better spent on something else. Of course, one
cannot always be entirely sure ahead of time of
either of these things. It may simply be impossible
to tell without at least a trial effort whether
something will work, let alone whether it will be
cost-effective. But, in the case of self-esteem, we can
make highly educated guesses. And we can make
them if we are prepared to be educated by the
effort already lavished upon the pertinent issues by
social researchers across the globe.
4
Self-esteem
What is self-esteem? The views of scholars
and scientists
In common usage, self-esteem is a favourable
opinion of oneself. Psychologists, however, from
the very start addressed the underlying question
raised by such an appraisal: on what is it based?
The most likely answer it now seems, rather
surprisingly, is ‘not much’. But this possibility has
only recently come into focus.
Most discussions of the question pay some
homage to the definition offered by William James
in his Principles of Psychology, first published in
1890: self-esteem is success divided by pretensions.
The elegant simplicity of this notion contains some
interesting implications. Self-esteem can be
increased by achieving greater successes and
maintained by avoiding failures, but it can also be
increased by adopting less ambitious goals: ‘to give
up pretensions is as blessed a relief as to get them
gratified’ (James, 1890, p. 311). James’s formula also
made the important prediction that self-esteem
cannot be predicted purely from the objective level
of success a person achieves. What matters is
whether their successes are relevant to their
aspirations. Thus, to the detached observer,
particular individuals may indisputably be highly
successful, to the extent of being widely admired
for their achievements, and yet these same
individuals may have a very negative opinion of
themselves because these achievements are either
irrelevant to their pretensions or fall short of them.
And, as we shall see later, James also expected
individuals to differ in their average levels of self-
esteem.
The consequences of James’s formula come
down to the following question: is there in practice
more variance in the denominator or in the
numerator? If most people aspire to achieve the
same things – which is to say there is little variance
among people in their pretensions – then the main
cause of differences in self-esteem would be
differences in degree of success, and we should
expect these two things to be strongly related. On
the other hand, if there is a great deal of variance in
pretensions – people differ considerably in what
they aspire to and/or in the standards they aspire
to – objective differences in success become less
important sources of differences in self-esteem.
There is evidence that young people, whatever
their circumstances, want or aspire to much the
same things, at least in a material sense. So, for
example, young people from deprived areas share
conventional aspirations for their adult lives – ‘nice
house, good job, nice car, nice family’ (Johnston et
al., 2000). But self-esteem is more closely linked to
aspirations for personal qualities, and here
aspirations are more variable. Thus, Rosenberg
(1979) found that not all adolescents cared equally
about being likeable. In contrast, concern with
appearance is, according to Harter (1993), just
about universal.
The success/pretensions formula also clearly
implies a calculation or judgement and therefore
raises further questions about the basis on which
this calculation is made. Most obviously, how do
people know whether and to what degree they are
successful, that they have the qualities they desire?
A highly influential answer to this question was
given by the sociologist Charles Horton Cooley in
1902. Our assessments of our own worth are based
on the judgements we imagine others make of us.
Moreover, our guesses about these judgements
depend upon the qualities we see in these other
people. We anticipate that virtuous or successful
people will judge us more harshly than people who
lack these attributes. In other words, what shapes
our self-esteem are not our objective
accomplishments objectively and directly
appraised, but the anticipated judgements of these
accomplishments by other people. And, when these
other people are themselves very successful, our
own successes will look less impressive.
These ideas were to reappear much later in
three guises that have been relevant to scientific
5
Self-esteem: definition and measurement
thinking about self-esteem. First of all, Leon
Festinger (1954) developed his social psychological
theory of social comparison processes. Its essence is
the idea that we seldom have access to objective
and absolute standards against which we can judge
ourselves. There are some obvious respects in
which this is true. We may, for example, wish to
have good taste in music or sensible opinions about
the issues of the day. But there is no objective test
we can apply to ourselves here as we can, for
example, to the question of whether we are able to
swim 50 yards or stay upright on a bicycle. Even
with respect to such matters of performance,
however, as often as not we want to know whether
we are good at swimming, cycling, etc., and not
merely whether we can do these things. And, in
order to estimate how well we are doing, we need
to compare ourselves with others – to make social
comparisons. So, it is crucial who we choose for
comparison. Much of the research following on
Festinger’s propositions sought to determine how
such choices are made.
Second, Morris Rosenberg (1965) devised a
method for measuring self-esteem based on the
notion that it is a variety of attitude. Attitude had
emerged as a key concept in the social sciences
almost 40 years earlier; this had coincided with the
development of procedures for measuring social
attitudes with some degree of precision. Once
social attitudes could be measured, the effects upon
behaviour of differences in attitudes could be
studied. Attitudes were defined primarily in terms
of emotional or evaluative reactions; they constitute
our reactions of approval or disapproval, liking or
dislike, for social practices, habits of behaviour,
categories of people, political policies, public
figures and so on. And it was in this sense that
Rosenberg regarded self-esteem as an evaluative
attitude towards the self. A great merit of this view
is that it corresponds quite closely to common
usage or the dictionary definition of self-esteem.
The link to Cooley was Rosenberg’s belief that this
attitude is powerfully shaped by what others are
believed to think of the self. The enduring
significance of Rosenberg’s definition is that it is
embodied in his self-esteem scale and this scale has
become the gold standard in self-esteem research.
The third long-term impact of Cooley’s ideas
has been the sociological tradition of symbolic
interactionism and its notions that we discover who
we are and what we are through our interactions
with other people and through the access these
interactions give us to their opinions of us. Most of
the research into and theorising about self-esteem
has assumed that we are strongly affected by
others’ reactions to us. If the feedback we receive
from other people is uniformly negative, this will
be absorbed into our self-appraisals. If other people
overwhelmingly react with approval then our self-
esteem will inevitably benefit. It is also an
assumption behind just about every intervention
programme yet devised to raise self-esteem as well
as the basic premise of most of the popular books
devoted to raising self-esteem. One such example,
501 Ways to Boost your Child’s Self Esteem (Ramsey,
1994), is simply a list of different ways and
opportunities for giving positive feedback to one’s
children. Finally, the same assumption lies behind
views about criticism: one should never give
negative feedback because its effect violates the
other’s inalienable right to self-esteem.
Cooley, it should be recalled, emphasised in
particular what we imagine others think of us: ‘We
imagine, and in imagining share, the judgments of
the other mind’ (p. 152). We should remember this
emphasis because it is possibly quite crucial to
understanding the nature and roots of self-esteem.
It might seem a reasonable step from this
observation to the conclusion that what we imagine
to be the case has a basis in our experience. In other
words, our suppositions about what other people
think of us are derived from how they actually treat
us. Nonetheless, these two things are not
necessarily the same. As we shall see when the
6
Self-esteem
determinants of self-esteem are discussed later in
this review, however reasonable it may be in theory
to make the link, research supports a very different
conclusion.
Let us return for the moment to the nature of
self-esteem. Opinions, we assume, differ. If self-
esteem is one’s opinion of oneself, how might the
self-esteem of one person differ from that of the
next? William James thought that self-esteem
would vary in two ways. First, it would behave
rather like an emotion; it would fluctuate, if not
from hour to hour then certainly from day to day
and perhaps from week to week. One person might
experience higher self-esteem than another one
week but their positions could be reversed the
following week. This view takes self-esteem to be
reactive, the reactions being to the variable or
changeable conditions of a person’s daily life. So,
just as an insult might provoke anger or
unexpected difficulties with some project might
induce a mood of gloom, warm praise or a
significant success could temporarily elevate self-
esteem while a humiliating failure might have the
opposite effect.
If self-esteem does vary in this way, then there
are two relevant questions for us. First, how
reactive is self-esteem? Can it, for example, be
lowered or raised very rapidly and does it recover
to some resting state rather slowly – is self-esteem
more analogous to grief (a relatively long-term
reaction from which one recovers slowly) or to fear
(relatively short-term)? Second, do individuals
differ in the reactivity of their self-esteem? Do some
people respond to every minor change in fortune
with a rapid adjustment to their opinion of
themselves while others are very slow to react and
difficult to shift? Some recent research does suggest
that differences of this kind exist and that they may
have important consequences, but primarily in
combination with more stable or chronic
differences in self-esteem levels.
A related notion is that self-esteem is akin to a
barometer in that it tracks conditions rather than
reacting to events. For one advocate of this view,
Mark Leary, the relevant conditions are the state of
one’s relations with others (e.g. Leary et al., 1995).
When these relations are good – when one is
accepted, included, loved – then self-esteem will be
relatively high. When relations are bad – when one
is rejected, excluded, despised – then self-esteem
will be low. For Leary, the significance of this
tracking is that it initiates, or should initiate,
corrective action when things are not going well. In
other words, low self-esteem acts as a warning
about the poor state of one’s relationships with
other people and a signal that repair work is
needed.
If Leary is right, then two things potentially
follow. One is that the particular judgements others
make of our successes, assets and talents are
ultimately of less consequence for our self-esteem
than whether they like and accept us. The other is
that self-esteem itself may be of less consequence
than the quality of the personal bonds with others
that it reflects.
The barometer notion is close to the idea that
self-esteem is a motivator. People experience a need
for self-esteem: when they have less of it they will
strive to obtain more. But this does not preclude the
possibility that this need will be more strongly felt
by some than by others, just as some people are
more concerned than others to achieve success or
might experience more keenly than others a need to
be liked and accepted. In other words, the desire
and search for self-esteem could be a more potent
driving force in the lives of some individuals than
they are in the lives of others. Thus far, there seems
to be little evidence for this. Everyone seems to
prefer self-esteem and to find the lack of it
distressing (e.g. Brown, 1993). But not everybody
finds it so easy to achieve and hold on to.
This brings us closer to the second way in which
William James anticipated self-esteem might vary.
7
Self-esteem: definition and measurement
He thought that each person carries ‘a certain
average tone of self-feeling’ and this average will
vary from one individual to another. This is similar
to what would be called in contemporary
psychology a ‘trait’ view of self-esteem – it is a
quality of the person that is relatively fixed or
persistent. The crucial word here of course is
‘relatively’. Just how fixed are the differences? Are
they like adult stature, pretty much permanently
fixed once people are full-grown, or more like
weight differences – modifiable within limits but
gradually and with difficulty?
The conclusions one comes to about these
questions have implications for how one tries to
measure self-esteem as well as for the consequences
that might be expected to flow from variations in
self-esteem. Most of the research to be examined in
this review has treated – and measured – self-
esteem as a trait rather than as a state, and has
asked about the consequences of chronically high
versus chronically low self-esteem. At the same
time, however, many researchers, and certainly the
conceptual entrepreneurs, have taken the view that
chronic low self-esteem can be raised (and
correspondingly that high self-esteem can be
eroded; it can suffer long-term damage). In this,
their implicit if not explicit model of self-esteem is
close to Rosenberg’s: it is an attitude. If the attitude
is well established and strongly held, it will resist
change, it will be stable but it will not be entirely
immune to modification. If it is not strongly held, it
will be more unstable, more likely to go up or
down with changing circumstances and more
readily modified by interventions that have this
particular purpose.
The truth or otherwise of views about the
changeability of self-esteem is of considerable
practical importance. But their truth should in the
end be determined on the basis of evidence and not
assumed a priori. Some of the relevant evidence is
provided by the process of building and testing
methods for measuring self-esteem, and it is to
measurement that I now turn.
Can self-esteem be measured and, if so, how?
Research can tell us nothing about self-esteem, and
certainly nothing about either its causes or its
consequences, if self-esteem cannot first be
measured. A procedure or instrument to perform
this task of measurement must be able, at the very
least, to do two things. First, it must be able to
detect differences or changes in self-esteem. Ideally,
it should be sensitive to differences or changes that
are quite small. Second, it should not be sensitive to
changes or variations in other psychological states
or qualities. These two requirements may be
obvious enough but achieving them both in
practice has been far from easy.
In designing a method of measurement, it also
helps to be clear about what it is one wishes to
measure. In the case of self-esteem, as we have seen,
clarity on this point – or at least unanimity – has been
missing. The requirements for measuring a motive
are not identical to those for measuring an attitude
and for both they are quite different from what is
required to assess a temporary state. Most of the
procedures developed have followed Rosenberg’s
lead and taken self-esteem to be an attitude.
Nonetheless, this still leaves a lot of choice
about how to measure self-esteem. The main choice
is whether to treat attitudes primarily as feelings, or
as evaluations. Coopersmith defined self-esteem as
‘the extent to which a person believes himself to be
capable, significant, successful and worthy’. This
definition therefore stresses evaluation – a set of
judgements about the self against criteria of
excellence.
In contrast, Rosenberg’s (1965) scale, which was
one of the first and is still one of the most widely
used measures of self-esteem, emphasises feelings.
One attraction of his scale is its simplicity. The basic
scale consists of just ten statements of opinion
about oneself and one is simply asked whether one
agrees with the sentiment expressed or not (see the
box below). A score is the sum of positive views
expressed out of ten.1
8
Self-esteem
There are two distinctive features of the scale.
The first is that agreement with any of these
statements is not agreeing that one is better than or
superior to others. Indeed, only two of the ten
statements make any reference to a comparison
with other people and in each case the sentiment
expressed is one of parity with others. The second
is that the sentiments are very general evaluations
of oneself. For this reason, it has appropriately been
described as a measure of global self-esteem.
A merit of this assessment strategy is that this
simple scale achieves quite a high level of precision.
Any measurement procedure is subject to some
error; in practice, this means that attempts to
measure the same quality several times will on
each occasion produce a different result. Small
differences can be tolerated; large differences
would be a serious problem. Fortunately, there are
now well-established procedures for improving the
precision of psychological measures and, just as
important, for quantifying the degree of precision
one has achieved. But, because high degrees of
precision in measurement are costly, there will
always be a trade-off between the conflicting goals
of reducing error and keeping measurement costs
down.
The low cost and relatively low error of the
Rosenberg Self-esteem Scale have therefore made it
very attractive for researchers. Nonetheless,
different instruments are useful for different
purposes, for example to achieve a finer level of
discrimination than a ten-item scale allows – to
detect very small differences – or to assess
particular elements of self-esteem.
According to one review (Blaskovich and
Tomaka, 1991), at least 200 different measures of
self-esteem have been developed; there can be few
other concepts in the social sciences, apart perhaps
from intelligence, of which this is true. This is
potentially a serious problem; merely because
different tests or scales are claimed to measure the
same thing, it does not mean that they do.
Fortunately, the problem is simplified for us a little.
Just four scales have accounted for the majority of
published studies, the RSE (described above), the
Coopersmith (1967) Self Esteem Inventory (SEI),
the Tennessee Self Concept Scale (Fitts, 1965) and
the Piers-Harris Children’s Self Concept Scale
(Piers, 1969). Thus, for most purposes, we need
only know whether these four measure the same
quality.
Rosenberg’s measure was originally devised to
study adolescents and is regularly used with adults
as well. Younger children require a different
approach. Stanley Coopersmith (1967) was
particularly interested in the self-esteem of
preadolescents, specifically ten to 12 year olds, and
to study this developed a 50-item inventory (SEI).
But Coopersmith also took the view that self-
esteem is most appropriately assessed by
measuring distinct components. This view directly
reflects his definition of self-esteem which, as noted
The Rosenberg Self-esteem Scale (RSE)
1 On the whole I am satisfied with myself.
2At times I think I am no good at all.
3I think that I have a number of good
qualities.
4I am able to do things as well as most
other people.
5I feel I do not have much to be proud of.
6I certainly feel useless at times.
7I feel that I am a person of worth, at least
on an equal plane with others.
8I wish I could have more respect for
myself.
9All in all, I am inclined to feel that I am a
failure.
10 I take a positive attitude towards myself.
9
Self-esteem: definition and measurement
above, emphasises evaluation rather than feeling.
Consequently, his inventory includes questions
about self-esteem in four areas of the child’s life:
parents, peers, school and personal interests.
The SEI has been described as an aggregate
rather than a global measure because self-esteem is
treated as the sum or aggregate of assets and
liabilities in various domains – in this case, the four
areas of life that Coopersmith took to be most
relevant. Given that correlations between the SEI
and Rosenberg’s measure are not especially high –
in the range 0.58 to 0.60 (Blaskovich and Tomaka,
1991) – these two instruments are not measuring
precisely the same thing, even after taking
measurement error into account. The other two
extensively used scales, the Tennessee Self Concept
Scale and the Piers-Harris Children’s Self Concept
Scale, are also aggregate measures. Overall, scores
derived from the various aggregate measures tend
to correlate well with each other; typical ranges are
0.65 to 0.85 and this higher value is approaching
the theoretical limit, which indicates that they are
pretty much assessing the same thing.
The choice of instrument for research is
therefore going to depend on the following
considerations:
appropriateness to the sample studied
(children and adolescents require different
approaches)
the value of being able to assess particular
facets of self-esteem; for example, versions of
one instrument include scales for social
confidence, physical appearance, school
abilities and physical competence in addition
to general self-regard (Fleming and
Courtney, 1984)
the importance of being able to compare
results with published norms (in almost all
cases, the published norms are based on
American samples and are not necessarily
appropriate to other populations)
costs (also short scales may also be more
acceptable to some research populations,
particularly if they are being asked many
other questions).
There are, however, some other measurement
issues we need to consider. Knowing that one has
measured something with a reasonable degree of
precision is not the same as knowing what one has
measured or whether it is what one intended to
measure. This is familiar in psychometrics as the
issue of validity. Any instrument serving as a
thermometer should be sensitive to changes in
temperature but not to changes in anything else
such as air pressure. Likewise, an instrument to
assess self-esteem should be sensitive to variations
in this quality but not to variations in any other.
The validity of a measure is commonly decided
by looking at three patterns of evidence. First, do
different methods of measuring the same
phenomenon produce similar results? Second, are
these results quite distinct from those obtained by
using similar methods to measure what are
presumed to be quite different phenomena? Third,
do test scores behave in a manner that is consistent
with what is known or believed to be the nature of
the phenomenon?
All the commonly used methods for measuring
self-esteem rely upon people’s self-reports of their
feelings or opinions of themselves. Only two
alternatives have so far seriously been considered.
One is to use observers to assess a person’s self-
esteem. Observer ratings are widely used in
personality research and generally the results
converge with those from self-reports. This is
regarded as important evidence of validity because
it indicates that results are not primarily reflecting
the method of measurement used.
Matters, however, have so far proved quite
different for self-esteem. Demo (1985) assessed the
self-esteem of adolescents both in the usual
manner, using the Rosenberg and Coopersmith
scales, and using ratings by their peers and by
10
Self-esteem
student observers. The two self-report measures
were interrelated as were the two observer rating
measures, but the self-reports were largely
unrelated to the observer ratings.
It is not quite clear what we should make of
this. But one possibility is that the observers were
assessing something different; rather than judging
how these other individuals actually felt about
themselves the observers may have been estimating
how they ought to feel about themselves, perhaps
on the basis of their other apparent qualities. Given
that, as we shall see, how people feel about
themselves bears little relation to their objective
qualities or accomplishments, there would then
also be little agreement between self-evaluations
and evaluations by observers.
The second alternative to self-reports is the use
of indirect measures. These rely on unconsciously
and automatically activated mental connections
and have already been used with apparent success
to measure other kinds of attitudes. Farnham et al.
(1999) have applied the same principles to develop
an implicit measure of self-esteem. Unfortunately,
they found virtually a zero relation between this
measure and the most widely used self-report
measure, the RSE. Their own interpretation is that
it is the latter that is the poor measure of self-
esteem. Before we accept their conclusion, however,
we should consider the other two tests of validity.
The first of these is that instruments intended to
measure self-esteem should not produce the same
results as instruments intended to measure other
qualities. Up to a point, self-esteem measures have
little difficulty in satisfying this test. What they are
measuring is clearly distinct from what is measured
by instruments intended to assess qualities such as
extraversion or conscientiousness, for example. The
difficulties arise with respect to qualities that
appear on the surface to be more similar to self-
esteem.
One of the most conspicuous examples is
depression. Measures respectively of self-esteem
and depression consistently produce similar
results; individuals who score highly on self-esteem
measures typically have low scores on measures of
depression and vice versa. This raises questions as
to whether depression and low self-esteem are not
the same thing. It also casts some doubt on the
coherence of trying to explain one in terms of the
other. On the other hand, it has been argued (e.g.
Tennen and Affleck, 1993) that depression as a
clinical state – a condition serious enough to merit
medical care – is qualitatively distinct from low
self-esteem. Perhaps the most reasonable
conclusion for the present is that, when research
measures degrees of depression in samples that are
not undergoing treatment for this condition, it
probably is measuring an attribute that
substantially overlaps with low self-esteem.
Measures of self-esteem also tend to produce
results similar to measures of such qualities as
locus of control (the degree to which individuals
believe they control events in their lives), self-
efficacy (the degree to which individuals believe
they possess the capabilities necessary to achieve
things and control events) and neuroticism (the
degree to which individuals describe themselves as
insecure, fearful, guilt-ridden and miserable). At
least one researcher, Judge (2001), believes these
similar results reflect the fact that these all show the
same underlying quality, which he calls core self-
evaluations.
If Judge is right, this is helpful in two respects.
First, we can avoid wasting time over questions as
to whether self-esteem or a quality labelled in one
of these other ways is the more important influence
on some outcome, such as, for example, suicide
attempts or eating disorders. Second, it expands the
knowledge base available to us. Thus, for instance,
evidence about the nature, causes or consequences
of neuroticism is potentially informative about the
nature, causes or consequences of low self-esteem.
The third test of validity is whether measures of
self-esteem produce results that make sense. In effect
this is asking: are the results consistent with the
theories we have about this quality? So-called test–
11
Self-esteem: definition and measurement
retest correlations – whether the same results are
obtained if self-esteem is measured at two closely
related points in time – provide reassurance that
self-esteem is, as Rosenberg and others proposed, a
relatively stable quality of the person. Or, as William
James put it, each individual has a ‘certain average
tone of self feeling’. But James also seems to have
been right in his view that an individual’s self-
esteem can fluctuate from day to day around this
average level. In other words, self-esteem is a state
as well as a trait (Hetherton and Polivy, 1991).
As the points in time at which self-esteem is
measured become further apart, the results
obtained on these separate occasions also become
less similar. What this indicates is that self-esteem
has moderate but by no means perfect stability
over time. People’s self-esteem can change as they
grow older even if there is a tendency for it to
become progressively more stable with age.
Stability itself, however, turns out to be a
variable quality (Kernis, 1993). Some people have
high or low self-esteem that is also very stable, at
least over short periods (a few days). Others show
much more instability in their opinions of
themselves over the same periods. This is
consistent with Rosenberg’s view that self-esteem is
an attitude. We should expect attitudes to vary in
strength. When they are strongly held they will be
more stable. When they are held with less certainty
they will be more vulnerable to contradiction and
so liable to fluctuate as each new piece of evidence
comes along. We should therefore expect stable
self-esteem to be more resistant to efforts to change
it. It also turns out, as we shall see, that stability of
self-esteem has consequences for behaviour.
As to the rest, it comes down to the following
question: does the picture provided by the research
evidence as a whole – which will include evidence
about the causes and consequences of self-esteem –
make sense? If it does, then there are grounds for
confidence that the measures that have contributed
to this picture do detect real and consequential
differences between people.
Conclusions
Low self-esteem is the source of all manner of
personal and social ills. That at least is the popular
view. Whether systematic research can either
confirm or qualify this popular opinion requires
first the availability of procedures – tests or
measures – that can accurately assess levels of self-
esteem. And this in turn depends on a degree of
clarity as to what it is one is trying to measure.
There has been broad agreement that self-esteem
can usefully be regarded as a form of attitude and
measures constructed on this assumption have
been able to meet a basic test; they are able to assess
the level of something with a fair degree of
reliability or precision. Currently, the major point of
disagreement about this something is whether it is
best regarded as a generally positive or negative
feeling about the self or as a collection of
judgements about personal assets and liabilities.
Whether this attitude is a feeling or a set of
judgements, it also has the properties of both a state
and a trait. It can vary from day to day but it also
has an average level that is relatively stable over
time. So, some individuals may have a particularly
positive opinion of themselves that changes little
over the years, even if it may vary somewhat
around this generally high level from one day to
the next.
The measures of self-esteem currently available
to researchers can also to some extent meet the
important test of divergent validity; they are
sensitive to variations in this quality rather than
some others. The question mark that remains,
however, is whether variations in self-esteem are
really something distinct from opinions about the
self that go by such labels as depression,
neuroticism, self-efficacy and locus of control.
Finally, these measures all rely upon self-
reports. It is good practice in psychological
measurement to demonstrate that one can obtain
similar results using different methods of
measurement. With respect to self-esteem, this has
12
Self-esteem
yet to be demonstrated. But this should not
discourage us from looking for patterns of evidence
with the methods of measurement that are
available. And, if those patterns are coherent and
consistent, this should increase our confidence in
the validity of these methods.
13
The problem of distinguishing causes and
effects
Self-esteem crosses over from a topic of purely
theoretical interest to one of real practical
importance to the extent that it has consequences,
and more precisely consequences having benefits
and costs. Indeed, this conviction, that there are
extensive and in particular negative consequences
of low self-esteem, has fed wider public interest in
the matter. The legions of ‘conceptual
entrepreneurs’ referred to previously have survived
and multiplied on the back of this certainty. So, is it
a sound and sensible appreciation of what matters
in life?
To answer this we need to recognise two
distinct kinds of consequence. Probably the more
familiar one is that variations in self-esteem
influence the occurrence of some outcome of
interest, for example whether or not a person
makes repeated suicide attempts, becomes an
alcoholic or physically abuses their own children.
In other words, the issue here is: do differences in
self-esteem make these negative outcomes more or
less likely?
The second consequence is for the effect of other
circumstances or conditions on such outcomes. This
kind of consequence is sometimes referred to as a
buffering effect (typically used to describe the
effects of high self-esteem in reducing the impact of
adverse life events on such outcomes as mental or
physical health). However, buffering is one of a set
of effects under the general heading of ‘moderators’
(cf. Baron and Kenny, 1986). Moderator effects are
potentially at least as important in practical terms
as are causal effects, but we tend to know much less
about them, probably because they are less easy to
spot.
Still the most commonly adopted option in
research is to look for a correlation between self-
esteem and the other variables of interest. An
example of this is the study by Robinson and Frank
(1994) comparing the self-esteem and sexual
behaviour of a sample of young people. Suppose
these researchers had found no association between
self-esteem and pregnancy in adolescence – which
is pretty much what they did find. It might seem
reasonable to conclude that self-esteem has no
consequences in this area. But this inference would
be an error.
Of the two major types of error that arise from
interpreting data, the more common – the ‘Type II’
error – is to accept the null hypothesis when it is in
fact false. If this is labouring an elementary point it
is still a point we should not take for granted;
establishing conclusively that two things – such as
low self-esteem and teenage pregnancy – are
entirely unrelated is extremely difficult and for
practical purposes virtually impossible.
Consequently, a high proportion of the conclusions
that social scientists are able to draw from their
work are tentative and provisional. In this case, the
reasonable and appropriate conclusion that
Robinson and Frank draw from their findings, and
for us to draw, is that there may be an association
and there may not but the data available do not say
which of these is true. As to what would allow a
choice between these two possibilities, the answer
essentially is that more data would. And quite
possibly only rather a lot more data.
So much for the downside of null effects (or
failures to reject the null hypothesis). The good
news is that for many of the questions likely to be
of interest to us a lot more data probably are
available. But their availability also changes the
questions we now can and should ask. This is
because most things are related, or to continue with
the example, there is almost certainly a relation
between a woman’s self-esteem and whether or not
she has a pregnancy as a teenager. So, what we
really need to ask is not whether there is a link or
not but how strong is the link.
Though most things are related, many of the
relationships are very weak indeed, so weak as to
be of virtually no practical significance. This may
be the reality of any self-esteem–teenage pregnancy
2The consequences of self-esteem
14
Self-esteem
link. We can in principle provide this more precise
and useful answer by systematically combining the
evidence from all the available and relevant
studies. This puts us in a position to capitalise on
the considerable number of studies of self-esteem
and its possible consequences. The techniques
involved here are those of ‘meta-analysis’
(Rosenthal, 1994) and because they can answer this
more precise question – just how strong is the link?
– they are set to become increasingly important
tools for social scientists and policy makers, and
indeed for everyone interested in the practical
applications of scientific evidence. Later, I will look
at the application of this technique to the link
between self-esteem and gender, and consider the
further question that must then arise: how strong
must the association be to have any practical
significance?
For the moment, however, consider in the
simple case what a positive effect – a rejection of
the null hypothesis – means. Too often it is taken to
be an answer. In reality, it merely raises a question:
why does the relationship exist? To see why, we
need only recall what all science students are told
in their first year: an empirical association between
two observations – a correlation – in itself tells us
nothing about the causal relationships that link
these observations. If, for example, we discover
that delinquent teenagers have lower self-esteem
than their more law-abiding peers, it does not
follow that low self-esteem leads to delinquency, or
for that matter that delinquency lowers self-esteem.
There are basically seven possibilities we need
to consider. It is important to distinguish between
these possibilities because each has distinct
practical implications, though it might not be
immediately apparent why this is so. Let us,
therefore, consider in turn the different ways in
which self-esteem could be related to behaviour or
other outcomes.
1It is a direct contributory cause that is
independent of other causes. This might involve
the demonstration, for example, that level of
self-esteem has an impact on risk taking in
sexual behaviour (e.g. unsafe sexual practices
carrying a higher risk of sexually transmitted
disease or unwanted pregnancy)
independent of or over and above the effects
of other factors predictive of such risk taking.
The two practical implications are that (a)
one might thereby reduce the level of risk
taking by increasing self-esteem and (b) one
might identify groups – i.e. those with low
self-esteem – most vulnerable to the outcome
of interest and concentrate resources upon
them to reduce the impact of other risk
factors.
2It is a mediator. This means that self-esteem is
the psychological state that links some cause
to an effect. Let us suppose, for example, that
teenage girls who do poorly in school are at
greater risk of becoming pregnant. Self-
esteem would mediate this effect if academic
failure damaged self-esteem and if this
diminished esteem then increased the
likelihood of pregnancy in the teenage years.
The practical value of this lies in the
possibility that at least one link in the causal
chain can be broken, most obviously that
between academic failure and feelings of
self-worth. Should this prove possible then
the experience of failure need not increase
the risk of pregnancy.
3It is an indirect or mediated cause. Low self-
esteem could, for example, affect the
likelihood of teenage pregnancy indirectly
through its impact on susceptibility to peer
influence. The causal chain could then be
broken at the mediator.
15
The consequences of self-esteem
4It is a moderator. This is not necessarily the
same as saying that self-esteem interacts with
other causes, even if in practice most
moderator effects so far discovered take this
form. Let us suppose that a connection has
been found between poor educational
performance and teenage pregnancy. Self-
esteem would be having a moderating effect
if this connection were present or stronger at
one level of self-esteem (e.g. low) and absent
or weaker at another level (e.g. high). This
has two kinds of practical implication. One
arises from the possibility of modifying self-
esteem. If it could be raised, then the impact
of the cause on the effect would be
diminished. The other is the potential to
identify an at-risk group.
5It is a correlated outcome. Suppose that
experience of early teenage pregnancy is
associated with low self-esteem. It is possible
that both low self-esteem and pregnancy are
consequences of something else such as
intercourse with multiple partners or poor
relations with parents. If this is the case then
the association between pregnancy and self-
esteem is merely incidental.
6It is an effect. A different possibility is that
pregnancy as a consequence of early sexual
activity itself damages self-esteem. In effect,
pregnancy becomes the mediator of a link
between such activity and self-esteem. There
are practical implications if the causal
repercussions then lead on from lowered
self-esteem to other negative outcomes (such
as depression, suicide attempts, drug abuse,
or prostitution). Obviously, we are going to
be most interested in the causes of self-
esteem if we think low self-esteem has
damaging consequences.
7It is both cause and effect. Some of the
theoretically derived predictions about self-
esteem anticipate that level of self-esteem
will affect the likelihood of certain actions or
behaviours and that the occurrence of these
latter will in turn have effects on subsequent
levels of self-esteem. But in some cases the
causal loop is expected to involve negative
feedback. For example, suppose low self-
esteem increases the risk of teenage
pregnancy which in its turn, if it occurs, raises
self-esteem (this possibility has been taken
seriously – see section on ‘Risky sexual
behaviour’ later in this chapter; it has also
been taken seriously for another outcome,
delinquency – see section on ‘Crime and
delinquency’ later in this chapter). In other
cases, there is supposedly a positive feedback
loop – for example, between self-esteem and
the formation of close relationships. On
closer inspection, however, it almost always
turns out that additional links are in the loop
and that the loop is not perfectly closed.
Practically, this means that causal loops can
be broken.
In practice, almost all of the research that has
examined possible effects of self-esteem on such
outcomes as health-threatening behaviour patterns,
anti-social activities, poor life management (poor
work habits, etc.) has been conducted in such a way
that it cannot distinguish between direct or indirect
causal influences, mediators, correlated outcomes
or effects. In particular, wherever a relationship has
been found between self-esteem and some pattern
of behaviour, it has not been possible to rule out
these last two possibilities – either that some other
condition affects both self-esteem and the
behaviour in question or that this behaviour
influences self-esteem.
16
Self-esteem
Research that can distinguish between the
various possibilities therefore assumes particular
value in deciding policy implications. Two research
designs are especially important here. The first is a
longitudinal design (or prospective study) in which
self-esteem and/or an outcome are, at the very
least, measured on more than one occasion. In the
case of a link between teenage pregnancy and low
self-esteem, for example, one would want to know
whether low esteem predated the pregnancy.
Prospective studies in which psychological states at
one point in life can be compared to events later in
life can in principle answer such questions. But, a
large initial sample may be required if the events of
interest – such as suicide attempts or addiction to
Class A drugs – have a low incidence in the
population studied. Moreover, if self-esteem does
change over time, then a real impact of low self-
esteem upon suicide attempts at 13, 14 or 15, or
drug addiction in the late teens and twenties may
not be detected if self-esteem has been assessed at,
for instance, age ten. In evaluating evidence from
longitudinal studies, therefore, one needs to
consider the time interval between successive
observations or measurements.
The second research design of interest is a true
experiment. Its high status in scientific research is
quite simply a consequence of its unique power in
deciding questions of cause and effect. But it is still
not a perfect solution for such questions. If we were
able to lower the self-esteem of one group of people
and could then show that, compared to another
group which had not suffered this experience,
members of this first group were for example more
willing to commit misdemeanours, we could be
fairly confident that this behaviour was caused by
their lowered self-esteem. But it would not follow
that, beyond the conditions of this experiment, low
self-esteem is a cause, let alone the main cause, of
criminal misconduct. This stronger conclusion, that
the results of the experiment have general or
external validity, requires something additional. It
requires proof that the conditions that allowed us
to lower self-esteem in the experiment also occur
naturally and with the same effect.
This point is not always recognised by those
scientists who are the most enthusiastic about the
value of experimental evidence. Yet the point is
particularly relevant with respect to self-esteem. It
becomes clearer if one asks whether a person
whose self-esteem has just been lowered is really
equivalent to one whose self-esteem has been low
for a long time. It is a fair guess that these are two
very different kinds of people who could respond
to the same circumstances – such as the
opportunity to commit some misdemeanour – in
quite different ways. One simply cannot reproduce,
in the course of an experiment, effects that in the
normal course of events have accumulated over a
lifetime (De Ronde and Swann, 1993, p. 157 make a
similar point).
Despite this difficulty in generalising from
experimental findings, the potential value of
experiments should not be discounted. There are
many cases of researchers trying to raise self-
esteem as part of some programme of intervention
or treatment for a particular group. The group
might be victims of rape or child abuse, patients
with eating disorders or alcohol addiction, or
young offenders. These cases provide valuable
opportunities to test a causal hypothesis. If the
intervention does succeed in raising the self-esteem
of a treatment group, as compared to that of a
control group, is there also a change in the relevant
behaviour? More specifically, is degree of change in
self-esteem directly related to the scale of any
change in behaviour? This would be important
evidence of a causal role of self-esteem in that
behaviour. Sadly, this opportunity has not always
been taken.
17
The consequences of self-esteem
Matters of consequence
Diminished self-esteem stands as a powerful
independent
variable (condition, cause, factor) in the
genesis of major social problems.
We all know this to
be true.
(Smelser, 1989, p. 8, first emphasis in original, second
emphasis added)
This statement appears in the introduction to a
collection of scientific reviews commissioned by the
California Task Force on self-esteem. What makes
the statement extraordinary is the observation
Smelser adds next: ‘The real problem is ... how can
we determine that it is scientifically true.’ The
implication is that the role of science is to confirm
what we already know to be the case. This is not an
auspicious beginning for a book that is intended to
be a dispassionate, objective survey of scientific
evidence. But it does make the conclusions in the
final report of the Task Force, published one year
later (California Task Force to Promote Self-esteem
and Personal and Social Responsibility, 1990), less
surprising.
The authors of that report present as key findings
essentially what ‘we all know’ to be true. In the end,
any evidence that pointed in a different direction –
including evidence reviewed in the 1989 volume –
was not allowed to get in the way of this certainty.
Before taking our own look at the evidence, what
constitutes ‘a major social problem’?
Smelser proposed that it must first be relevant
to something we value as a society. ‘Pregnancy out
of wedlock, for example, is a problem in large part
because it stands in violation of the value we place
on the family as the legitimate locus for
childbearing’ (Smelser, 1989, p. 3). With respect to
teenage pregnancy in particular, one might argue it
is additionally a problem because of the value we
place on childhood; teenage pregnancy threatens to
bring childhood to a premature end.
The behaviour should also involve some
economic or social cost. Prevalence is one but not
the only determinant of the scale of such costs. The
economic costs of common crimes – burglary,
assault, car theft – are high not least because of the
treatment meted out to convicted offenders.
Ironically, however, the costs for victims are far
lower than those of corporate crime though this
latter kind of crime is seldom identified as a social
problem.
The behaviour also needs to be sufficiently
commonplace. Killing people with handguns was
not, in this sense, a social problem in Britain even
before the post-Dunblane ban on these weapons. It
might be regarded as such in the United States
where deaths from gunshot wounds are many
times more prevalent (though the powerful gun
lobby there has effectively kept it off the social
problem agenda). In contrast, politicians,
journalists and others in both countries routinely
identify teenage pregnancy as a major social
problem on grounds of its high prevalence rate.
Behaviour qualifies as a social problem,
therefore, if it is defined as such at the political
level. Behaviours that objectively meet other
criteria are not invariably treated by governments
as social problems while others that fail to meet
them are. As sociologists like Howard Becker have
made clear, what gets to be treated as a major social
problem, and its relative position on the scale of
society’s priorities, is strongly determined by the
activities of moral entrepreneurs. Child labour is
accorded the status of social problem in some
countries while in others it is regarded as an
integral and essential part of the economy.
Amphetamine abuse is not conspicuously
identified as a social problem in Britain but
marijuana use supposedly is such a problem.
The point of these observations is to
acknowledge that no listing of behaviours under
18
Self-esteem
the banner of social problems will be
uncontroversial. Nor can it claim to be entirely
objective. To review the role of self-esteem in the
genesis of social problems, the best that one can do
is to consider behaviours that do have clear and
significant costs and about which there is enough
research to allow some sensible conclusions. This
latter requirement will exclude quite a lot that one
might otherwise wish to consider.
With these caveats in mind, the following list is
proposed:
crime and delinquency (and violent crime)
racial prejudice
abuse of illegal drugs (and tobacco use)
alcohol abuse
risky sexual behaviour (including practices
carrying risk of sexually transmitted diseases
and of teenage pregnancy)
child maltreatment
educational underachievement
chronic dependency on state support
eating disorders
suicide and suicide attempts/parasuicide.
Crime and delinquency
Including crime, and juvenile crime in particular,
on a list of costly social problems will cause little
dissent. It is worth saying, however, that the
catalogue of costs should include those to the lives
of the offenders and not just those for victims or
those for the state in terms of prevention, policing
and treatment.
There have been three serious arguments for the
role of diminished self-esteem in criminal
behaviour. First, there are versions of the argument
in the opening quotation from Melanie Phillips.
People who are convinced they are worthless have
no self-esteem to lose from any opprobrium they
might attract by breaking the law. The flip side of
this is the assumption that people with high self-
esteem avoid crime because they anticipate that it
would damage their sense of their own worth.
The second argument puts together two beliefs
about young people and crime. One is that young
people are drawn into crime to the extent that they
succumb to the malign influence of less law-
abiding youngsters. The other is that young people
with a low sense of their own worth are more
susceptible to influence of this kind.
The third argument has been called by its
principal advocate, Howard Kaplan (1980), an
‘esteem enhancement’ explanation for crime. This
explanation takes self-esteem to be a motive:
children want to think well of themselves, find it
distressing when they do not and therefore make
efforts to enhance their esteem if it is low.
According to this explanation, delinquency (Kaplan
uses the term ‘deviance’) follows on low self-
esteem because it provides a means of raising
esteem.
The first two arguments predict a
straightforward association between low self-
esteem and delinquent behaviour. Kaplan’s
interpretation gives rise to a more complex set of
predictions: low self-esteem should produce an
increase in delinquent behaviour which should in
turn result in higher self-esteem. That is, level of
self-esteem should be both cause and effect. How
these various predictions fare against the evidence1
is provided in the Appendix.
The final report of the California Task Force
(California Task Force to Promote Self-esteem and
Personal and Social Responsibility, 1990) is
unequivocal. ‘People who esteem themselves are
less likely to engage in ... crime’ (p. 5). However,
their own academic consultants, Scheff et al. (1989),
find the opposite message in the same evidence:
‘the conclusion we draw from the reviews, [that]
the relationships reported between self-esteem and
deviance have been weak or null’ (p. 177).
19
The consequences of self-esteem
McCarthy and Hoge (1984) are equally
unequivocal:
We find ... no clear positive policy implications in the
weak results of our analysis ... if researchers cannot
uncover stronger relationships between self-esteem
and delinquency than we have, they should look in
other directions in order to understand both self-
esteem and delinquency.
So far, none has found stronger relationships.
There are indications of a slight effect of
involvement in delinquency upon subsequent self-
esteem, but the effect is to depress self-esteem
slightly, not to raise it (see Appendix, section on
‘Crime and delinquency’). None of the other
predictions made by Kaplan and others has been
borne out; in particular no study to date has shown
that low self-esteem leads to delinquency.
Violent crime
Violations to self-esteem through insult, humiliation or
coercion ... are probably the most important sources
of anger and aggressive drive in humans.
(Feshbach, 1971, p. 285)
Even if there is no link from self-esteem to
delinquency, could matters be different for violent
crime? Feshbach was by no means the first to
suggest a link. An old idea in psychology had it
that aggression was usually a response to some
frustrating experience; crudely, if your efforts to
achieve something you want badly are frustrated
you are liable to lash out (Dollard et al., 1939).
In the 1960s, this kind of response to frustration
was explicitly linked to self-esteem. According to
Rosenbaum and de Charms (1962), persons with low
self-esteem are more easily frustrated and hence
more prone to aggression. Quite how they reached
this conclusion is unclear given their further
assumption that low self-esteem is associated with
lower expectations. If you expect less, surely you
should be less often disappointed or ‘frustrated’.
Nonetheless, the conviction that high self-
esteem must necessarily be a good thing – an
opinion one encounters again and again in this
literature – favoured the Rosenbaum and de
Charms view. For example, re-examination of
evidence collected from a sample of young men in
the 1930s led its authors to the conclusion that boys
who were consistently aggressive had become so
because sustained parental attacks had
undermined ‘the boy’s conception of himself as a
person of worth and significance’ (McCord et al.,
1961, p. 84).
A famous and frequently cited study of prison
inmates with a history of violence reached a similar
conclusion. Its author, Hans Toch (1993), proposed
that their violent behaviour was most often ‘self-
image compensating’, intended to repair a
damaged self-image. Or, as Scheff et al. (1989) put
it, ‘the need to resort to aggression was believed to
stem from feelings of extremely low self-esteem’ (p.
170).
Similar claims have been made about other
forms of violent behaviour including rape,
domestic violence, child abuse, gang violence and
murder. Against these claims, the negative evidence
in the case of delinquency points to the same
conclusion, if only because violence is an integral
feature of this pattern of behaviour (Emler and
Reicher, 1995). And this is the conclusion that
others have come to.
A careful review of the claims that low self-
esteem leads to various forms of violence
(Baumeister et al., 1996) makes two points that are
worth repeating here. One is that there is little
research directly testing this causal link. In other
words, researchers have often invoked low self-
esteem as an explanation for violence without
actually measuring self-esteem adequately if at all.
Their second observation is that insofar as
sound evidence is available it does not support the
view that chronically low self-esteem leads to
violence. It is, on the contrary, more consistent with
20
Self-esteem
the view that violence results from a high level of
self-esteem. Baumeister and his colleagues go on to
qualify their own prediction in an important way. It
seems that high self-esteem carries with it a greater
risk that this very positive view of the self will be
contradicted or challenged by others. It is this
challenge that precipitates violence. This is also a
plausible reading of Feshbach’s opinion, in the
quotation above: your self-esteem is more likely to
be violated the more of it you have in the first
place.
For the moment, it is worth noting that the
authors of another study (Kernis et al., 1989) found
that the people most likely to report angry and
hostile responses to others had high but unstable
self-esteem. Those with high and stable self-esteem
were the least likely to report such reactions. This
seems to confirm the value of recognising that self-
esteem can vary in stability and not just in chronic
level. It is also an example of self-esteem acting as a
moderator and doing so in such a way that no
simple association with the outcome would be
evident.
Racial prejudice
What we are trying to tackle in this one hour is what I
think is the root of all the problems in the world – lack
of self-esteem is what causes war because people
who really love themselves don’t go out and try to
fight other people.
(Oprah Winfrey, cited in Harrison, 1989)
Racism is now high on the agenda of most western
countries as a significant social problem. This is
partly because equality of rights irrespective of
ethnic background is recognised and enshrined in
law. Discrimination based on race has long ceased
to be official policy in most countries. Its
persistence, along with other forms of intolerance,
such as homophobia, has thus become a social
problem seen to be rooted in individual attitudes. It
is undoubtedly also on the agenda because so
many of the armed and most deadly conflicts of
recent times appear to have had their origins in
animosities based on ethnicity or race.
There have been various arguments for a link
between self-esteem and racial prejudice. The most
extensively developed and thoroughly researched
theoretical explanation for such a link is social
identity theory. A difficulty in deciding whether the
evidence supports this explanation, however, is
that there is some disagreement as to exactly what
it predicts.
The essence of this explanation, as originally set
out by Henri Tajfel (1978), seems to be as follows.
Individuals are members of social groups or
categories and derive a part of their sense of who
they are – their identity – from membership of
these categories. The worth or status of the groups
to which they belong also reflects on their sense of
their own personal worth. In other terms, social
identities are potentially sources of self-esteem.
However, the worth or standing of the groups
to which we belong can only be determined
relatively, by comparing them with other groups to
which we do not belong. To the extent that we wish
to think well of ourselves, we are therefore bound
to look for ways in which our own group is better
than another. But we will also do what we can to
promote and protect this superiority. Among other
things, we should therefore show favouritism
towards our own group and discriminate against
others whenever the opportunity arises.
Some of this prediction has certainly been borne
out by research. People do show an ‘ingroup bias’
in all manner of ways. They will tend to regard
their own group as more virtuous in comparison
with others and they will discriminate in favour of
their own group when possible. However, the
crucial claim is that this favouritism is motivated
by and satisfies a desire for self-esteem.
One prediction to which this analysis gives rise
is the following: if people are not able to
discriminate their self-esteem should suffer; if they
are able to do so their self-esteem should benefit. Of
21
The consequences of self-esteem
12 attempts to test this prediction identified by
Rubin and Hewstone (1998), nine were able to
confirm it. A further proposal is that the tendency
to discriminate in favour of one’s own group and
against others will be most marked in those
individuals with the strongest need to increase
their self-esteem, namely those who initially have
least. This particular prediction has received little
support. Instead, most experimental tests of this
prediction – 22 out of 23 – showed that
discrimination was highest amongst those whose
self-esteem was initially highest (Rubin and
Hewstone, 1998). Another review of the available
evidence (Aberson et al., 2000) came to the same
conclusion: more ingroup bias is actually shown by
people with high, not low, self-esteem (cf. also
Crocker and Schwartz, 1985).
There is now a debate among those working in
this area of social psychology as to whether the
kind of self-esteem that may be a factor in ingroup
favouritism is social or collective self-esteem rather
than personal, specific rather than global, or state
rather than trait (Brown, 2000). It remains to be
seen whether the resolution of these questions will
shed any more light on the determinants of racism.
However, one other issue yet to be resolved
satisfactorily is the relation between the effects
found, both in laboratory experiments and outside,
which involve fairly modest degrees of favouritism
for an ingroup and the often extreme degrees of
violent hostility sometimes shown towards
members of ethnic minorities.
A different approach treats racial prejudice as an
attitude that varies from one individual to another.
There are good grounds for this approach: some
people are consistently more inclined to endorse
racist sentiments than others – and indeed this
tendency is associated with other kinds of bigotry,
including sexist and homophobic attitudes (e.g.
Altemeyer, 1996). The association between racist
attitudes and limited formal education is also very
clear (Emler and Frazer, 1999). It might therefore be
expected that racist attitudes go together with low
self-esteem. However, this link has not been found;
indeed, if anything, the link appears to be between
racism and high self-esteem. The assumption that
poor educational attainment necessarily lowers
self-esteem may therefore be at fault. I shall
consider this possibility in Chapter 3.
Abuse of illegal drugs
... drug addicts behave as they do because of low
self-esteem, rather than developing low self-esteem
as the result of deviant behaviour.
(Kitano, 1989, p. 319)
Low self-esteem has been one of the most popular
explanations for drug abuse, according to Furnham
and Lowick (1984). But just what kind of an
explanation is it? The two clearest grounds for
expecting a causal link between self-esteem and
drug abuse treat the latter as respectively
criminally or morally deviant behaviour and as a
health risk.
From the observation that use of certain drugs is
illegal and may be labelled as morally deviant by
mainstream society follows the expectation that
people will use or abuse these drugs if they already
have a poor opinion of themselves; if in effect they
have nothing further to lose from public
condemnation or criticism. This is essentially the
same as one of the arguments for a link between
delinquency more generally and low self-esteem.
Second, taking seriously the idea that self-
esteem is one’s attitude towards oneself, if that
attitude is negative then it should involve treating
the self badly. Drug abuse would represent bad
treatment if the abuser were knowingly incurring a
significant health risk.
A third explanation attributes drug use to peer
influence. This attribution is quite explicit in the
‘just say “no” to drugs’ type of campaign directed
at youth. It also routinely supplies a justification for
intervention programmes targeted at drug use
where these programmes include attempts to raise
22
Self-esteem
self-esteem (e.g. Coombs et al., 1984; Franklin,
1985). The reasoning here, as with delinquency, is
that low self-esteem renders adolescents vulnerable
to undesirable peer influences.
A fourth possibility is that drug use, insofar as it
makes the user feel good, offers to people whose
self-esteem is low a means of raising their esteem
or of at least a temporary escape from the bad
feelings they have about themselves. But this
possibility highlights a problem, as do some of the
others: drug use and drug abuse are not equivalent.
Nor is there a simple dividing line between the
two, let alone a simple definition of abuse (or
misuse or problem use). Yet, despite these
difficulties, there are strong indications that the
determinants respectively of use and abuse/
problem use are not identical (e.g. Glanz and
Pickens, 1992; Lloyd, 1998).
Each of the four explanations outlined above
assumes that low self-esteem enhances the risk of
illegal drug use, if not drug abuse. The evidence for
either kind of link is mixed at best. At worst, it
suffers from the familiar problems of correlational
research: it is not possible to tell whether low self-
esteem has a causal influence.
As matters stand, research evidence provides
little or no support for the view quoted at the
beginning of this section (see Appendix, section on
‘Drug use and drug abuse’). If self-esteem is related
to drug use, the relationship is weak at best.
Furthermore, there is even less to indicate that low
self-esteem is a cause, direct or otherwise, of drug
use, or of drug abuse. Evidence that draws a clearer
distinction between use and abuse might revise
these conclusions but McCarthy and Hoge’s (1984)
recommendation concerning delinquency seems
equally appropriate here. There are many, more
plausible candidates for the causal roles in both use
and abuse of illegal drugs.
Smoking
Studies assessing the link between self-esteem and
drug use have quite frequently also considered
tobacco use. Yet there are grounds for treating these
activities differently. Unlike illegal drug use, the
illegality of buying and smoking cigarettes is
purely a function of age. Moreover, public attitudes
to smoking and smokers are rather different from
those towards illegal drugs and those who use
them. The current focus of these attitudes, and
indeed of public campaigns against smoking and of
regulations aimed at smoking, is on damage to
health. The newer twist is that the health concerns
are now extended to people exposed to others’
smoking, and this has given a moral dimension to
criticisms of smokers.
Smoking is therefore increasingly treated as an
anti-social activity and this stigma may have an
impact on the self-esteem of those who smoke. But
smoking by young people is still widely seen as
driven by peer group pressures. Thus, smoking by
young people, like illegal drug use, has been
attributed to their inability to resist these pressures.
And the same assumptions can be found linking
susceptibility to peer group pressure with low self-
esteem. The personal health risks of smoking are
also increasingly salient. This again raises the
expectation that people who do not value
themselves will do less to take care of their health.
In the light of this expectation, a substantial
study of adults – in this case 3,000 navy personnel –
by Abood and Conway (1988) produced surprising
results. Self-esteem did not predict specific
activities liable to affect health, such as smoking,
though it did predict what they called the general
practice of ‘wellness’ behaviours. The clear
predictor of specific health-related activities was
the degree of value each individual attached to his
or her health.
With respect to children and adolescents, there
does not yet appear to be a case for a strong causal
influence of low self-esteem with respect to taking
up smoking (see Appendix, section on ‘Smoking’).
Certainly, there is little at this time to justify efforts
to raise the self-esteem of young people if the
expected pay-off for such efforts is that they will
23
The consequences of self-esteem
either give up smoking or not take it up in the first
place. This is also the conclusion reached by
Dielman et al. (1984) on the basis of a study of
about 500 12 to 13 year olds. The link found
between self-esteem and smoking in this sample
was too weak, they thought, to make a case for
intervention focusing on self-esteem.
Alcohol abuse
If ... the adolescent lacks self-esteem, behaviors
dangerous to health are more likely to occur. These
include precocious and unprotected sexual behavior;
the use of tobacco, alcohol and other drugs; injuries
arising accidentally from risk taking behaviors,
especially when combined with alcohol or drugs;
intentional injury whether self-inflicted or inflicted by
others.
(Friedman, 1989, p. 309)
The social mores surrounding alcohol consumption
are different again from those applied to either
illicit drug use or smoking. Alcohol consumption,
like smoking, is a status offence in adolescence. The
health risks may be objectively as real as those of
smoking but have nothing like the same public
salience. Nor does drinking attract the same social
opprobrium as smoking; instead, it is still
extensively promoted as a sociable, desirable and
even glamorous activity. Moreover, it is regulated
in quite different ways. And the dividing line
between alcohol use and alcohol abuse is highly
ambiguous.
Whatever the psychological mechanisms
underlying alcohol abuse, therefore, there is no
reason to expect that they will be the same as those
for illegal drug use or for smoking. That said, the
reasons that have been invoked for expecting low
self-esteem to lead to alcohol abuse will now be
familiar. These include the esteem enhancement
argument – alcohol can, if temporarily, induce a
more euphoric state and this will be especially
attractive to people whose feelings of self-worth are
low. They also include the self-abuse argument –
people who despise themselves will treat
themselves badly. The social standing argument
also arises here – those with low self-esteem have
nothing further to lose from the disapproval their
behaviour may attract.
Researchers most convinced of the truth of a
particular hypothesis are those likely to look most
energetically for the evidence to support their
convictions. It is therefore instructive that R.A.
Steffenhagen who has been one of the most
consistent and vociferous advocates of the view
that alcoholism results from low self-esteem has
failed to find evidence to convince himself. Instead,
he reports that depression is the most powerful
predictor of alcoholism (e.g. Steffenhagen and
Steffenhagen, 1985).
There is unfortunately a concealed problem in
this apparently clear conclusion. Depression and
low self-esteem are strongly related. Indeed, it is
possible that measures of these two states are in
reality measuring the same underlying quality. If
so, then the statistical procedures for distinguishing
the relative importance of depression and self-
esteem will simply select the measure that does the
better job of assessing this single underlying
quality. The danger lies in assuming that one has
measured two quite separate things when in reality
only one thing has been measured, albeit in two
different ways.
Whether or not Steffenhagen was misled in this
way, however, the evidence that low self-esteem
leads to alcohol abuse is not there (see Appendix,
section on ‘Alcohol abuse’).
Risky sexual behaviour (including practices
carrying risk of sexually transmitted diseases
and of teenage pregnancy)
Young people who are self-esteeming are less likely
to become pregnant as teenagers.
(California Task Force to Promote Self-esteem and
Personal and Social Responsibility, 1990, p. 5)
24
Self-esteem
Teenage pregnancy is different from the social
problems so far considered in one significant
respect. There is an event, pregnancy, which can be
pinpointed in time. Consequently, it should in
principle be possible to reach a clear conclusion
here. Either prior low self-esteem predicts this
event or it does not. Good longitudinal evidence –
prospective studies – should on the face of it give
us an unequivocal answer: the Task Force
conclusion is either right or wrong.
In reality, of course, matters are not quite so
simple. This is not just because ‘less likely’ could
mean a whole lot less likely or a reduced
probability of teenage pregnancy so small as to be
devoid of practical significance. The lack of
simplicity stems from the fact that the activity
which brings pregnancy about is not effectively a
single event. Rather, the probability that sexual
intercourse leads to pregnancy increases among
teenagers with age, with frequency of intercourse
and as an inverse function of the efficacy of
contraceptive measures. The probability may also
increase with the number of sexual partners, over
and above the effects of frequency of intercourse.
What need to be explained therefore are
patterns of habitual behaviour, particularly
frequency of intercourse, and adequacy of
contraceptive behaviours. Given that these occupy
spans of time and that their onset can be difficult to
determine accurately, deciding which might come
first, low self-esteem or the risky behaviours,
becomes quite difficult. Nonetheless, untangling
the sequence assumes even greater importance
given the range of health risks that attend early,
frequent, multi-partner and unprotected
intercourse.
The theoretical arguments for expecting low
self-esteem to increase the risk of teenage
pregnancy and high self-esteem to decrease it are
the familiar ones. But they also include
embellishments specific to this case. One such is
Luker’s (1975) cost–benefit argument. It takes the
notion that adolescents differ in their experiences
and expectations of success. Low self-esteem is
supposedly an expression of poor experiences and
low expectations. Adolescents in this position will
feel they have nothing to lose from becoming
pregnant, that is, fewer costs. For example, there
may be no expectation of academic success or
rewarding employment which would otherwise be
compromised by a pregnancy.
To this, Luker adds that there can be perceived
costs to prevention. These could include but are not
limited to the monetary cost of contraceptives
themselves. Depending on the cultural climate
there may be personal costs to the acquisition of
contraceptives. Fortunately, in more enlightened
times, the vital need to remove this particular
barrier is increasingly recognised. But costs of
rejection, of affection foregone, remain. Luker’s
analysis has several merits. But much of it could
still hold even without a causal role for self-esteem.
Kaplan’s esteem enhancement argument has
also been invoked in various forms to explain
teenage pregnancy. One view has it that adolescent
girls can see motherhood as a more prestigious
status than the one they currently occupy. Another
is that pregnancy signals a move to the status of
adult and an escape from a childhood status that
has failed to provide feelings of self-worth. A third
is that the sexual contact involved is associated
with being loved and valued. As Crockenberg and
Soby (1989) put it, sexual intercourse may ‘validate
the adolescent as an attractive person’ (p. 131). And
pregnancy would also validate capacity in a central
biological role.
If any of these views has any virtue, then, there
should be a gain in self-esteem from a sexual
relationship or from pregnancy. Taking teenage
pregnancy first, the lessons to be learned from
comparisons of pregnant teenagers, teenagers who
have become parents and teenagers who have
experienced neither state are limited. One reason is
that both teenage pregnancy and parenthood tend
to attract strong social disapproval. To the extent
that this is so, then diminished self-esteem could
25
The consequences of self-esteem
result from these conditions. Unpleasant physical
symptoms associated with pregnancy could
influence self-esteem scores. Additionally, the well-
established phenomenon of post-natal depression
complicates interpretations of evidence gathered
from teenage mothers shortly after they have
experienced childbirth.
Given these qualifications, what does research
show? First, there does seem to be an association
between low self-esteem and increased subsequent
risk of pregnancy in adolescence (see Appendix,
section on ‘Sexual behaviour and teenage
pregnancy’). However, just how this increased risk
arises remains for the present unclear. With respect
to contraception, we still await clear and persuasive
evidence of the strength of any association between
contraceptive use and self-esteem or decisive
evidence that self-esteem is the causal factor in any
such association. Moreover, the question begged
should a causal influence be confirmed is the
following: why would low self-esteem result in less
effective contraception?
Several possibilities suggest themselves.
Acquiring contraceptives requires self-esteem. One
is more likely to use them consistently if one’s
sense of self-worth is high. One will be more
successful in persuading sexual partners to take
precautions. One will be less vulnerable to pressure
from a partner to have unprotected sex. And so on.
All these possibilities also remain to be verified, or
ruled out.
To conclude, there is evidence for an increased
risk – perhaps a 50 per cent increase – among
teenage girls with lower self-esteem than their
peers. The risk must arise because the former have
more unprotected intercourse than the latter.
Precisely why low self-esteem produces this effect
remains, for the present, unclear. And, until we
know this, we cannot know whether the risk can be
reduced more effectively by raising self-esteem (the
recommendation of the California Task Force) or
through some other intervention such as targeted
contraceptive advice and support.
Health risks and susceptibility to influence
As we have seen, a common theme in discussions
of adolescent activities carrying a health risk is that
young people are pressured into these activities by
their peers. The recommended solution is to help
youngsters develop the capacity to resist this kind
of pressure. Health education campaigners and
those who sponsor their campaigns have
apparently long been convinced of the efficacy of
this solution. So, young people are exhorted to ‘say
no’ to drugs, cigarettes, alcohol, sexual advances, or
any other proposition likely to endanger their
health. And interventions intended to raise young
people’s self-esteem are often justified on the
grounds that they will develop this kind of
autonomy and immunity to peer pressure.
These ideas can claim some scientific authority.
One quite widely used measure of self-esteem was
developed to test the notion that persuasibility is a
character trait, and that the essence of the trait is
self-esteem. Irving Janis constructed this measure
to test his prediction that people with low self-
esteem would be more easily influenced than those
with high self-esteem. And this is what he found
(Janis and Field, 1959).
Given the conviction is so widespread that low
self-esteem creates susceptibility to influence and to
conformity pressures, it is worth taking a moment
to examine the grounds for this conviction. It is
worth doing because a great deal more evidence
now exists about the connection between self-
esteem and persuasibility. Moreover, a good meta-
analysis of this evidence is available (Rhodes and
Wood, 1992). Consequently, we are able to see not
only whether there is a causal connection but also
just how strong it is.
Rhodes and Wood (1992) found adequate tests
of the connection in 57 separate pieces of research.
They were also able to look at two kinds of
potential effect, on the tendency to conform and on
the tendency to be influenced. The latter was
distinguished from the former by the presence of
arguments supporting whatever was being
26
Self-esteem
advocated. Rhodes and Wood did find that there is
a clear association between self-esteem and both
conformity and influence. But it is not the
association that might have been expected.
People with moderate, rather than either high
or low, self-esteem show the greatest inclination to
conform or to be influenced. The effect sizes were
small to moderate. However, Rhodes and Wood
also found indications that lows and highs show
greater resistance to conformity and persuasion for
different reasons. Lows, they suggest, have
difficulty receiving the message. In other terms,
they are less likely to notice what others are doing
or that an attempt is being made to influence them.
Highs, in contrast, do notice but reject the
influence.
Two qualifications must be registered here.
First, no effect of self-esteem was found for
children (the authors of the analysis do not say
precisely how they defined ‘children’ but it is
possible this included all those below 18).
Generally, there is much less evidence available on
the self-esteem–influence link in adolescence.
Second, virtually all of the available research is
about conformity to or influence by strangers. In
reality, most influence is likely to be exercised by
acquaintances, and by family and friends in
particular.
We may therefore still not have a clear answer
to the question about social influence and its
relation to self-esteem in adolescence. But the
results of this analysis should cause us to re-
examine two pervasive assumptions. One is that
susceptibility to influence by others is necessarily a
bad thing. The other is that it is sensible to explore
only the possible consequences of high versus low
self-esteem.
The idea that it is bad to conform and good to
be independent is almost as old as the social
sciences. Ever since Gustav Le Bon wrote his
immensely popular book on the psychology of the
crowd towards the end of the nineteenth century
(Le Bon, 1896), the idea that going along with the
crowd is a kind of weakness has suffused both the
popular imagination and academic writings.
Arguably, this can lead to the ridiculous and
untenable position that every individual should
make up his or her own mind about everything,
should act independently in every way and should
never concur with the opinions of others.
A more reasonable position, I believe, is that it is
healthy and adaptive to take into account the
opinions of others when deciding one’s own
opinion (cf. Emler and Reicher, 1995). Moreover, the
influence of others is more likely to be benign and
constructive than negative, and sensitivity to this
influence is more likely to result in responsible
behaviour and sensible choices than publicly costly
or personally damaging actions. If young people do
show an inclination to go along with their peers in
many things, this is more often than not a force for
the good.
If this position is reasonable, then it may also be
the case that the optimal level of self-esteem is not
high. If self-esteem is a favourable opinion of
oneself, then people with very high self-esteem will
also sometimes be described in less positive terms –
overbearing, arrogant, self-centred, narcissistic,
egotistic, smug, vain. The results of the Rhodes and
Wood analysis should set alarm bells ringing. If
self-esteem has benefits, researchers may have been
looking in the wrong places for them. Those
benefits may lie in moderation and not at either
extreme.
Child maltreatment
… child battering mothers [are] usually young, have
immature dependent personalities, lack self-esteem.
(Mitchell, 1975, p. 641)
The view that parents with low self-esteem are
more likely to abuse their children is commonplace
in the medical profession. And, if true, it would
indicate a worryingly toxic process in which the
damaged self-esteem of one generation transmits
27
The consequences of self-esteem
similar damage to the next. For there are strong
indications, as we shall see later, that victims of
child abuse have diminished self-esteem as
adolescents and adults.
There are two limitations in particular to the
available research (see Appendix, section on ‘Child
abuse’). First, there is very little of it and the
samples have been small. Second, almost all the
research so far published compares parents already
identified as abusers with others considered to be
non-abusing parents. The latter category is likely to
include some – indeed an unknown number – of
unidentified abusers. This approach inevitably
raises a question about any observed association
between abusive parenting and low self-esteem.
This is clearly one social problem that would
benefit from more research to discover its roots.
Genuinely informative research will not be easy, for
the reasons outlined above. But, if it is to be
undertaken, there is also a case for considering
possibilities beyond the damaging effects of low
self-esteem. Baumeister and his colleagues
(Baumeister et al., 1996) provide a strong argument
that violence of all kinds, including violent abuse of
one’s own children, is more likely to be done by
people whose self-esteem is very high than by
those whose self-esteem is rather low. They point
out that the former category will include people
whose high opinion of themselves will be more
often challenged. This will be especially true when
that high opinion has little basis in reality.
Educational underachievement
No single aspect of self-esteem has attracted quite
so much research attention as its relation to
education. One source of interest reflects the
suspicion that educational failure damages young
people’s self-esteem. The other principal possibility
to have aroused this attention is that self-esteem
itself plays some role in educational attainment.
Specifically do children fail in part because their
self-esteem is low?
The most important direct determinant of
educational attainment is ability. But equally clearly
it is not the whole story. Measured ability on entry
to formal education does not explain all of the
variance in eventual achievements. Given that the
association between initial ability and achievement
is imperfect, therefore, what causes some children
to ‘overachieve’ – to do better than their intellectual
ability would suggest they should – and others to
underachieve relative to their intellectual potential?
There have been many candidates for the role of
extra ingredient here and self-esteem is just one.
But it has also been viewed as a potential mediator
of other factors such as social background – in
effect as the proximal cause through which more
remote influences work. And it has been seen as a
moderator, amplifying or dampening the impact of
such variables as degree of parental support.
Over many years of research, a consistent
pattern is apparent. Self-esteem and educational
attainment are related. But they are not strongly
related. The strength of the association varies with
age; with the educational outcome considered; with
the sex, ethnic origin and socio-economic
background of the individuals concerned; and with
the measures of self-esteem used. The correlations
in individual studies have occasionally been as
high as 0.5 (West et al., 1980). But on average they
are lower, much lower. A review by Hansford and
Hattie (1982) estimated the strength of the
correlation at 0.16. West et al. (1980), examining
findings from around 300 studies, put the estimate
at 0.18.
A number of longitudinal studies in this area
have provided the opportunity to see whether this
association actually reflects the influence of self-
esteem on subsequent educational attainments. It
does not (e.g. Hoge et al., 1995). The weak
relationship that was consistently found reflects a
small effect of attainment on self-esteem and not
the reverse.
Recent analysis of data from a major
longitudinal study in Britain confirms the weak
28
Self-esteem
effects of earlier self-esteem on later educational
attainment. Feinstein (2000) analysed data from the
1970 British Cohort Study, which included a
measure of self-esteem taken at age ten. With
respect to subsequent educational qualifications, he
was able to consider information from just under
8,500 members of the cohort. Self-esteem was only
trivially related to later educational attainments in
this sample.
The considerable volume of research devoted to
this single question has revealed much about both
the nature of self-esteem and the non-intellectual
influences on educational attainment. But it has not
substantially altered this conclusion. One
consequence has been to focus attention on the role
of education-specific self-esteem. Numerous
measures of this are now in use. Furthermore, they
do relate more strongly to attainment than global
measures. But to argue that explanation lies in
domain-specific forms of self-esteem is something
very different.
One interesting discovery is that level of global
self-esteem does not have much impact on what
young people want or try to achieve in this
domain. It does, however, influence what they
expect to achieve. McFarlin and Blaskovich (1981)
demonstrated that people with low self-esteem
wanted to succeed as much as anyone else. They
also tried just as hard. But unlike people with high
self-esteem they expected to fail. However, because
performance is influenced by effort rather than by
expectations of success or failure, there are few
differences in the achievements of low- and high-
esteem individuals.
One other curious difference is that people with
high self-esteem can show greater persistence at a
task but in such a way that results in no consistent
advantage. This is because the persistence is often
counterproductive; it can be wasted effort on lost
causes (McFarlin et al., 1984).
Chronic dependency on state support
(including poverty, low earnings and long-
term unemployment)
Americans seem politically especially sensitised to
the evils of what they call chronic welfare
dependency. In other countries, the condition at
issue might more simply be labelled ‘poverty’. But
describing the condition as welfare dependency –
or dependency on state support – puts the spotlight
on the individual who occupies this condition and
not, for example, on the circumstances of the labour
market or structural features intrinsic to a free-
market, capital and labour economy. It invites us to
look at the character of this individual to
understand the condition.
It does not mandate any particular answer.
Nevertheless, among the options are explanations
which hold the individual culpable, guilty of
laziness, limited imagination or cynical exploitation
of the system. In this context, low self-esteem is one
of the more sympathetic options. It also suggests its
own solution: nobody wants to be dependent on
state handouts and those who are can be helped to
escape by first raising their self-esteem.
We do not have to accept the question as posed
here. It was on the California Task Force list of
social problems and owes its presence to the
political requirements of selling the rest of the Task
Force agenda to the state government. Ironically,
also, the scale of this particular ‘social problem’ is
much smaller in the United States than it is in
Britain and other west European countries. In 1984,
just prior to the creation of the Task Force, the
United States was spending under 0.4 per cent of
its gross national product on what could be called
welfare handouts – in California itself, the
percentage was much lower still (Schneiderman et
al., 1989). And it was already on a downward trend.
None of this reduces the capacity for
newspapers to sell copy that pillories ‘welfare
29
The consequences of self-esteem
scroungers’ or for politicians to find a sympathetic
audience for their concerns about the burden of
welfare borne by hard-working taxpayers.
Refugees labelled as economic migrants currently
arouse the same fears and grievances as unmarried
mothers did before these new suspects appeared on
the scene. So, is there any solid scientific evidence
that poverty or its consequences for dependency on
state financial support have their roots, even if only
in part, in low self-esteem?
The grounds for this explanation are similar to
those for the role of low self-esteem in educational
failure. People with low self-esteem have low
expectations for success and consequently fail to
make the best use of the talents they have. They
feel more helpless than they should in the face of
their circumstances and so do not make
appropriate efforts to change them.
However persuasive any of this sounds in
theory, there is as yet very little evidence to
substantiate it. Schneiderman and his co-authors,
charged with writing the review for this item on the
Task Force agenda, instead offered a lesson in the
real causes of poverty and the real costs of welfare
dependency. As for self-esteem, they conclude thus:
The widely held assumption that low self-esteem has
predictable behavioral consequences that are
necessarily associated with low motivation or lack of
initiative or social responsibility is not supported by
the empirical literature.
(Schneiderman
et al.
, 1989, p. 223)
They go on to note that the relevant evidence if
anything supports completely the opposite
conclusion.
Their scepticism about any negative
consequences of low self-esteem may have been
premature. Most of the research capable of
illuminating the question does indeed support their
view (see Appendix, section on ‘Economic
consequences’). However, one very recent analysis
of data from a British sample (Feinstein, 2000)
clearly indicates strong influences of childhood
self-esteem on outcomes in adulthood, specifically
whether or not young men experienced extended
periods of unemployment and how much they
were earning by their mid-twenties (interestingly,
there were quite different long-term consequences
of childhood self-esteem for females). This may be
only one study but it is based on a very substantial
sample and it cannot easily be dismissed. The
challenge now must be to explain how and why
childhood self-esteem has these economic
consequences.
Eating disorders
In the light of the publicity surrounding eating
disorders, it might come as a surprise that the
prevalence rates for these disorders is actually very
low. For anorexia, it has been estimated at between
one and two in 1,000 for females and about ten
times less for males (Fombonne, 1995). Bulimia,
which has only more recently been recognised as a
distinct disorder, has according to Fombonne a
higher rate at around 2 per cent for women. Again,
the incidence for males is about one-tenth of that
for females.
Given these rates, it is tempting to conclude that
although eating disorders represent personal
troubles they do not qualify as social problems.
However, less stringent criteria than those applied
for clinical diagnosis of a disorder indicate
substantially higher rates for various symptoms of
eating pathology, such as binge eating, self-induced
vomiting, laxative misuse, inappropriate dieting,
unhealthy weight loss and excessive, food-related
exercise. At the same time, on any measure of
eating dysfunction, females are more often the
sufferers than males.
In Fombonne’s (1995) review of possible causal
mechanisms underlying eating disturbances,
30
Self-esteem
covering the literature up to around 1992, no
mention is made of self-esteem as a possible factor.
But, prior to that date, hardly anyone seems to have
considered the possibility. Since then, there has
been a veritable explosion of studies examining this
particular risk factor. And, in virtually every case, a
connection has been found. It does not follow,
however, that low self-esteem is a risk factor for the
development of eating disorders.
Various reasons have been advanced for an
association between low self-esteem and eating
disorders. The most popular is that eating is
disordered in individuals who are unhappy with
something about themselves, in this case their body
shape or weight or appearance. Because low self-
esteem entails dissatisfaction with the self, it may
therefore extend to anything seen to be associated
with all or part of the self, including the body. This
could be taken to imply that dissatisfaction with
one’s body is one consequence of a more
generalised dissatisfaction with oneself.
Alternatively, it could mean that people’s general
sense of their own worth is the sum of their views
about a number of distinguishable aspects of
themselves and their bodies are among these
aspects.
If this latter is the case, then what needs to be
explained is why some people are so dissatisfied
with their bodies that they are constantly trying to
change them. Knowing about their self-esteem
would make no contribution to such an explanation
because it is a consequence – or part expression – of
this dissatisfaction, not a cause. If the former
interpretation is the more appropriate, then we
need also to pay careful attention to the way in
which self-esteem is measured. Some aggregate
measures of self-esteem include as one of the
aggregated components evaluations of the body.
Finding that people who evaluate their bodies
negatively also, for example, diet to excess is not
telling us very much.
A different kind of interpretation treats eating
disorders as forms of self-abuse. One consequence
of a negative attitude is that the object of this
attitude is treated badly. Yet another is that low
self-esteem increases the likelihood of actions
which are essentially consolations, temporary
escapes from an unhappy condition. But if, for
example, binge eating is a consoling pleasure of
this kind, the consolations of severe dieting are less
obvious. If either of these interpretations are
appropriate, then self-esteem should be associated
with some eating disorders but not others – in the
first case those that are self-destructive, in the
second those that are self-indulgent. What does the
evidence show?
In this case, there does appear to be a link
between low self-esteem and the subsequent
appearance or development of problem behaviours
(see Appendix, section on ‘Eating disorders’).
Indeed, research has now moved on to inquiries
into the mechanisms underlying this link.
However, a perhaps realistic conclusion for the
present is that self-esteem has an influence on
eating disorders, but that it is just one among
several factors affecting the occurrence and course
of these disorders. This conclusion also seems
appropriate in the light of Veron-Guidry et al.’s
(1997) study of eight to 13 year olds in which low
self-esteem emerged as just one among a number of
risk factors here.
Suicide, parasuicide and suicidal thoughts
According to Rittner and Smyth (1999), suicide is
the third leading cause of death among US
adolescents, after accidents and homicides. In
many other countries, it is the second most frequent
cause of death in this age group. It is certainly a
sufficiently serious matter to have attracted
extensive attention from the World Health
Organization. But it is also a relatively uncommon
occurrence. One of the highest national rates
recorded is for Hungary with an annual rate of 600
per million males or 0.06 per cent. For Britain, the
overall rate is around 0.015 per cent. It is also an
31
The consequences of self-esteem
event related to age; it is least common among
children and most common among adults. It is
therefore not conspicuously a problem of youth
(though in the UK the rate for males aged 25 to 44
has recently overtaken that for older men). Finally,
rates everywhere seem to be lower among females,
partly because males tend to use more lethal
methods.
The low incidence of suicide makes it
particularly difficult to study, and perhaps by
virtue of its rarity there are hardly any prospective
studies. A sample of 10,000 young people might
contain one individual who will complete a suicide
attempt in any one year. This rarity has also
favoured attention to phenomena thought to be
related, such as suicide attempts and thoughts
about suicide.
As regards attempts, some researchers prefer
the term ‘parasuicide’ (cf. Kreitman, 1977) for
deliberate acts that could have resulted in the death
of the individual concerned. This term is preferred
to ‘suicide attempt’ on the grounds that the
intentions surrounding the action will often be
difficult to determine and may not even be
apparent to the person who makes the attempt.
Suicidal thoughts, or ‘suicidal ideation’, refers to
‘thoughts implying a desire, intention, to end life
by one’s own hand’ (Diekstra et al., 1995, p. 688),
though many studies assessing such thoughts have
used looser definitions.
A further advantage of studying parasuicide
and suicidal ideation is that those concerned are
still alive to be studied. The disadvantage is that
observations of people who have been identified as
making suicide attempts or thinking regularly
about suicide are potentially observations about the
consequences of such identification and not the
causes of these thoughts or actions. A further
problem is the validity of the assumption that
parasuicides or people with suicidal thoughts are
similar to successful suicides – their thoughts and
behavour will be driven by the same factors – and
differ only in that they have not yet succeeded or
reached the extremes that will produce more lethal
consequences. Are the differences therefore really
just a matter of degree?
Many investigations, whether of suicides,
parasuicides, or suicidal ideation, have considered
low self-esteem as a risk factor, perhaps for reasons
too obvious to state. The only surprise might be in
finding that low self-esteem was quite unrelated to
any of these phenomena. Research has yet to
provide such a surprise. On the other hand, simply
demonstrating that one variable quality – self-
esteem – is correlated with occurrence of any of the
outcomes is virtually useless.
The reason why discovery of a simple
association between self-esteem and any suicide-
related outcome will be, in the absence of any other
information, uninformative is that these outcomes
are associated with a wide range of factors.
Moreover, at least some of these factors, most
obviously depression, are themselves related to
self-esteem. Thus, minimally, one wants to know
not just whether self-esteem is associated with the
outcomes, and beyond that whether such an
association reflects a causal influence of self-
esteem, but also how important this causal
influence is compared to the many other potential
causal influences.
This being so, informative research will assess
several potential risk factors at the same time and
will employ statistical procedures with the capacity
to separate out their respective independent effects
if any.
The conclusions with respect to suicide, and
thoughts and actions related to suicide must be as
tentative as those for eating disorders (see
Appendix, section on ‘Suicide, suicide attempts and
suicidal thoughts’). On the one hand, there is a
strong case for concluding that negative feelings
about the self increase the risk of these outcomes and
these negative feelings are part of what is captured
by some measures of self-esteem. On the other hand,
there are many other quite independent risk factors.
What we do not yet know, and will not know until
32
Self-esteem
more evidence from sufficiently well-designed
studies is available, is the relative importance of
these feelings as risk factors. Nor do we yet know
whether they mediate the impact of some other
factors, or whether they amplify the risk in
combination with particular other factors.
Outcomes: overview
The available research supports the following
conclusions about the role of low self-esteem in the
social problems listed earlier.
With respect to a range of problems, no impact
of low self-esteem is apparent. That is to say, the
patterns of behaviour constituting or contributing
to the problem cannot be attributed to lack of self-
esteem. These problems include:
crime, including violent crime
racial prejudice
teenage smoking
child maltreatment.
In the case of racial prejudice, high self-esteem
rather than low appears to be related to the
outcome. In the case of violence, there are some
indications that high self-esteem in combination
with other factors carries a risk.
There is a second category of problems for
which the influence of low self-esteem is not
proven or its influence is very slight (the ‘not
proven’ cases may merit further attention):
educational underachievement
alcohol abuse
•drug abuse.
With respect to four problems, low self-esteem
does appear to be a risk factor. These are:
teenage pregnancy and possibly unprotected
sexual contact carrying a risk of sexually
transmitted infection
eating disorders
suicide attempts, whether or not successful,
and suicidal thoughts
low earnings and extended unemployment
(males).
In each of these cases, it is also evident,
however, that low self-esteem is one among a
number of risk factors and the indications are that,
apart from the risk for females of teenage
pregnancy and for males of extended
unemployment and lower earnings in their
twenties, its impact is relatively minor. It would be
productive to focus further research in each case
upon the ways in which self-esteem interacts with
other risk factors. The following questions in
particular remain to be resolved:
1Does self-esteem mediate the impact of
certain of the other risk factors? If it can be
shown to do so, then we would be in a better
position to decide whether interventions
should be directed at these more remote
causes or at breaking the impact they have
on low self-esteem
2Does self-esteem operate as a risk factor
quite independently of any others and, if so,
to what extent does it affect risk compared to
the other factors? If we can determine this
more precisely, we are in a better position to
decide whether resources should be focused
upon this risk factor rather than others. Such
a decision, however, should also consider the
relative costs of alternative interventions.
3Does self-esteem amplify or moderate the
impact of other risk factors? If this can be
determined, we will be in a better position to
decide which of the factors, self-esteem or
those others with which it interacts, is the
more appropriate focus for intervention.
33
The consequences of self-esteem
At this point, one might ask why low self-
esteem does not have a wider range of negative
effects. Or, rather, why has it not been possible to
identify negative effects in so many of the areas
considered? Has the science for some reason failed
us because it does not confirm what intuition and
common experience tell us is true?
The most obvious way in which it might have
failed is in its detection of the presence of low self-
esteem. In other words, the methods of
measurement have been inappropriate or
insufficiently sensitive. It is true that some
researchers, notably Greenwald and Banaji (1995),
have strongly criticised the methods most widely
used to assess self-esteem. The substance of their
criticism is that methods in which people answer
direct questions about their feelings towards
themselves are more likely to detect what people are
prepared to claim about their feelings than about the
true character of these feelings. Answers will reflect
either beliefs about what is the socially desirable
thing to say, or the degree to which a person is
prepared to be modest or boastful about themselves.
It has yet to be shown that the alternative
method of measurement advocated by Greenwald
and Banaji can satisfy the basic requirements of
precision and validity, or that any of the other
alternatives – such as observers’ ratings – can do so.
There is also a question about the practicality of
these alternatives, particularly in large-scale
research with young people. But these problems are
beside the point. If Greenwald and Banaji are right,
then the facts that a widely employed measure
such as Rosenberg’s scale is practical to use and
that it achieves a high level of precision are not
adequate justifications for its use.
On the other side of the argument, one can ask:
does the pattern of findings make sense? I think
that, very largely, they do make sense and in the
next chapter, where I look at the determinants of
self-esteem, the justification for this confidence will,
I hope, become clearer. But, to anticipate, the
pattern indicates the following: people who have, or
admit to, negative feelings about themselves also treat
themselves badly (and may be badly treated by others).
They do not tend to treat others badly.
The apparent anomalies of drug abuse, alcohol
abuse and cigarette smoking are less anomalous if
one considers that (a) the ‘abusers’ are not
primarily intent on self-harm and (b) they may be
aware of health risks in their habits but their risk
taking stems from confidence, however unrealistic,
that they can beat the odds; these activities do not
stem from lack of confidence. Pelham (1993), for
example, reports that young adults with high self-
esteem are the ones more likely to take up risky
pursuits, such as riding motorcycles, and to take
greater risks in these, such as driving too fast and
driving while under the influence of alcohol.
The pattern also makes sense once one
recognises (anticipating evidence reviewed in
Chapter 3) that there is little connection between
having positive or negative feelings about oneself
on the one hand and one’s objective
accomplishments or failures on the other.
Greenwald is undoubtedly right that the
commonly used measures of self-esteem detect
differences in what people are prepared publicly to
admit or claim about themselves. But it does not
follow that these admissions or claims bear no
relation to what they privately feel. What we can
learn from this observation, however, is something
quite informative about self-esteem. It partly
describes how people behave publicly; it describes
what they are and are not willing to say about
themselves to others. Consequently, we should ask:
1Why are some people willing to admit that
they think themselves worthless?
2What are the consequences of this kind of
public admission?
Answers to both will be considered in the next
chapter. But, to anticipate those to the second
question, if you tell others you have no value, you
are inviting them to treat you as if this were true.
34
Self-esteem
This admission therefore carries a risk of
victimisation.
One other way in which the science may have
failed is in the detection of relatively hidden
influences of low self-esteem. These influences
could be hidden if self-esteem primarily operated
as a moderator of the impact of other factors. This
would be the case, for example, if low self-esteem,
compared to high, increased levels of alcohol abuse
among young people also exposed to high levels of
stress, but decreased these levels among those not
exposed to stresses. The influence could also be
hidden if, for example, low self-esteem in
combination with a deferential attitude to authority
produced educational underachievement and if
this effect also resulted from high self-esteem
combined with a hostile attitude to authority.
I have already noted that moderator effects can
be harder to spot. Moreover, despite their potential
importance, in few studies have they been
systematically investigated or ruled out. There may
therefore be a case for considering such effects in
future research. But, if the necessary effort is to be
expended, there should be a reasonable and
reasoned presumption as to where these effects will
be found. This requires an informed understanding
of what differences in self-esteem are and how they
arise. I turn next, therefore, to these questions.
35
The scientific search for the determinants of self-
esteem has been guided by the various theories as
to its nature. The view of William James (1890) that
self-esteem is success divided by pretensions
potentially directs the search to two places. Does
self-esteem result primarily from the degree to
which a person succeeds in their aspirations?
Alternatively, does it depend primarily upon the
nature of those aspirations? Both possibilities have
been explored. Cooley’s (1902) emphasis on the
perceived or anticipated reactions of others might
seem to suggest that experience of others’
disapproval, or experience of hostility, rejection or
stigmatisation by others will lead those who
experience these reactions to devalue themselves.
In fact, much attention has been given to the
consequences of belonging to low status categories.
What has emerged about the roots of self-
esteem is not entirely what was anticipated. And
this is leading to a reappraisal of the nature of self-
esteem. Many of the factors which might be
expected to result in low self-esteem do not do so. I
will consider in turn: factors that have weak effects
or none; factors that have modest effects; factors
that have a more significant impact.
Factors that have weak effects or none
Ethnicity or race
Given that membership of a racial or ethnic
minority so frequently results in exposure to
rejection, abuse, discrimination and persecution,
such membership carries with it a clear message
that one is not valued by the majority culture. The
impact of this kind of experience on self-esteem is
very clear. It has none.
The relation between ethnic identity and self-
esteem has been studied extensively. A recent
review of the research literature identified 261
studies comparing the self-esteem of black and
white Americans (Gray-Little and Hafdahl, 2000).
The authors of the review were able to determine
not only whether this research indicated any
difference between the two groups but, using the
techniques of meta-analysis, the precise size of the
difference. The research reviewed covered children,
adolescents and adults.
In every age group except the youngest, the
average self-esteem of black Americans was not
lower than that of whites; it was higher. The
difference is not large but it is highly consistent. It
is present among both males and females and it
increases with age.
It is possible that black Americans are a special
group and that their self-esteem owes something to
a shared culture, which has vigorously and
successfully promoted the status of black identity.
The authors of the review suggest that other ethnic
groups in America, such as Hispanics, may not
show this advantage. The implication is that they
belong to a less cohesive culture, which has
collectively done less to promote its distinctive
virtues.
It is also possible that the meaning of responses
to self-esteem measures varies across cultures. If
the cultural norms prescibe modesty then the
members of that culture may be less inclined to
claim that they are highly worthy people. If a
degree of boasting or aggressive self-promotion is
culturally approved, self-esteem scores could be
higher. Is this, for example, why the self-esteem
scores of Caribbean adolescents are higher than
those of Indian adolescents (Richardson, 1987)?
These possibilities should be taken seriously,
but there are also good theoretical grounds for
concluding that membership of an ethnic minority
will in itself have no adverse effect on self-esteem.
Crocker and Major (1989) spell out three reasons
why self-esteem is not damaged by membership of
a stigmatised group:
The negative reactions to which they are
exposed are attributed to prejudice. The fault
is located in the person who reacts and not in
the target of their negative reaction.
3The sources of differences in self-esteem
36
Self-esteem
Minority group members do not directly
compare their circumstances with those of
higher status groups. Their social
comparisons are made with other members
of their own group.
Minority groups reject the value of the
qualities they supposedly lack. So, for
example, if their persecutors allege lack of
academic competence, the relevance of this
particular quality will be discounted and
other qualities will be emphasised, for
example athletic talent.
Gray-Little and Hafdahl (2000) suggest a fourth
reason:
The approval that matters most to people
and that has the greatest impact on their self-
esteem is the approval of those close to them,
their family and friends, and not the
approval of strangers or of a wider society.
Each of these reasons has a sound basis in
research (extensively reviewed by the authors cited
above). But their relevance is not restricted to the
consequences of ethnic identity.
Social class
Social class membership carries some of the same
implications for personal identity as ethnic group
identity. Because social classes correspond to an
order of status and prestige, and because they carry
implications of relative social value, a person’s
position in the class structure might be expected to
have consequences for their view of their own
personal worth. However, position in the class
structure differs from ethnic identity in at least one
important respect. Whereas people cannot change
their race or skin colour, it is implied that they can
alter their own social class position. Aspirations to
upward mobility are regarded as both appropriate
and realistic. Correspondingly, if one occupies a
lowly position, the implication is that one lacks the
wit or talent or application necessary to have
escaped it. Class position therefore seems to carry a
different and perhaps clearer message about one’s
relative worth as a person.
Social class position is linked to adult self-
esteem (e.g. Rosenberg and Pearlin, 1978) but only
modestly. One reason for this is that level of self-
esteem in adulthood is already substantially
determined in adolescence. The same study shows
that adolescent and childhood levels of self-esteem
are not related to social class position. Rosenberg
and Pearlin argue this is because class position is an
acquired or inherited status for children and
adolescents, one derived from their parents’
position. It therefore carries no direct implications
for their own worth or lack of it. Later, I will
consider why adults are not more affected by a
status that is for them apparently an achieved
position.
Wiltfang and Scarbecz (1990) used data from a
large-scale study of American adolescents, the
Richmond Youth Project, to check on Rosenberg
and Pearlin’s conclusions about this age group.
This project is based on a sample of some 4,000
young people aged 12 to 19. Wiltfang and Scarbecz
found that the self-esteem of the teenagers in this
study was quite unrelated to father’s occupation,
the traditional indicator of social class position.
They also, however, explored the possibility of
other ‘hidden injuries’ of social class. Their analysis
revealed three such injuries to self-esteem: father’s
education; whether or not the father was
unemployed; and perceived levels of
unemployment in the neighbourhood. It should be
added that, although each of these effects was
statistically significant, in such a large sample this
will be true even of very small effects. These were
small effects which together accounted for little
more than 5 per cent of the overall differences in
self-esteem within the sample.
37
The sources of differences in self-esteem
Gender
Entering adolescence as spirited and self confident
girls, the subjects of the study often emerged as
defeated young women lacking a belief in themselves
and their abilities.
(John Hewitt, 1998, p. 6, summarising the
conclusions to emerge from the study ‘Shortchanging
girls, shortchanging America’)
In 1991, the American Association of University
Women (AAUW) launched a campaign to promote
the view that the system was severely damaging
the self-esteem of adolescent girls. In the view of
the campaigners, the damage was not a product of
any general stigmatisation of females in society. It
did not result from cultural attitudes that women
as a category have lower status than men. Rather, it
reflected the demoralising personal experiences of
most girls as they moved through the education
system.
The AAUW had a clear view that women do
lack self-esteem compared to men and also a clear
view as to how this comes about. Nonetheless,
other arguments can be adduced for such a
difference (cf. Kling et al., 1999). One is that the
gender roles for males and females prescribe
different qualities. Boys are encouraged to be
assertive and self-promoting, girls are not; in other
words, girls, compared to boys, are not encouraged
to make strong claims about their self-worth.
Another is that boys and girls develop, within the
single-sex peer groups that dominate childhood,
different interpersonal strategies. When they do
interact in mixed-sex groups, the strategies
developed by boys tend to prevail, leaving girls
feeling less competent, important or powerful.
Differences in the size and body strength of males
and females might lead one to the conclusion that
females will more often be the victims of male
physical violence than the reverse. This also could
have damaging effects on their self-esteem.
There are, indeed, several arguments leading to
the conclusion that the self-esteem of women will
be lower than that of men. But, before considering
the relative merits of these as explanations, we
should ask whether there is a difference to explain.
Fortunately, the question has been examined
extensively and meta-analysis allows clear
conclusions about the scale of the difference.
Kling and colleagues (1999) identified 216
studies of gender differences in self-esteem in
which sufficient information was available to
estimate the size of the difference. Males score
higher on measures of global self-esteem. The
difference is highly consistent, but it is also small.
One factor influencing the size of the difference is
age. The largest differences are apparent in late
adolescence; they are smaller both before and after.
One problem this leaves for the explanations of
gender differences considered above is that
collectively they would appear to over-explain the
difference. It is considerably less than one would
anticipate if all these explanations were
appropriate. The alternative is that only some of
these explanations apply and/or that the
consequences they anticipate are partly countered
in other ways. Moreover, there may be
circumstances specific to the experience of males
that disproportionately damage their self-esteem.
For example, if athletic prowess or muscularity are
attributes more valued in males than in females,
then boys but not girls who lack them might suffer
loss of self-esteem. Later, I will consider factors
influencing self-esteem that are likely to affect
males and females differentially.
Finally, is a small difference necessarily also a
trivial difference? The overall ‘effect size’ as
estimated by Kling et al. was 0.21. One useful way
of deciding what this means in practice is to
consider its implications for selection. It means that
if, for example, males and females were selected for
jobs in a way that perfectly reflected their
respective self-esteem scores (not in reality
remotely the case), ten more males out of every 100
would be selected for the job than females. Clearly,
this is not a trivial difference.
38
Self-esteem
Kling and her colleagues also pose the question:
what might the cumulative effects of such a
difference be? Career success, for example, may be
the cumulative consequence of a succession of
decisions taken over many years from primary
school onwards. If self-esteem influences each of
those decisions, the ultimate effect of a ‘small’
gender difference in self-esteem could be a large
difference in career outcome. On the other hand,
the effects of self-esteem on each of these choices
could be small. An effect size of 0.21 for self-esteem
differences between males and females will almost
certainly not translate into the same effect size for
differences in the choices they make. And further
caution is suggested by the narrowing differences
in male versus female attainments, both
educational and occupational.
Factors that have a modest effect
Successes and failures
Real successes should raise self-esteem. Real
failures should lower self-esteem. A history of
continual success should secure permanently high
self-esteem. Experience of continual failure should
result in chronic low self-esteem. These
assumptions are embedded not just in popular
suppositions about self-esteem but in much of the
scientific thinking about the phenomenon. They
also underlie several measures of self-esteem,
which essentially assess people’s beliefs about their
successes and failures, their assets and liabilities. It
is tempting to suppose that these perceptions and
beliefs are shaped quite directly by realities. But are
they?
Experimental research, in which the objective is
to manipulate levels of self-esteem and observe the
effects, commonly uses the ploy of giving
participants false feedback on their performance.
Typically, they will take a test or perform a task and
then be told either that they have succeeded (or
done very well compared to the average) or that
they have failed (or done poorly compared to the
average). Self-esteem does appear temporarily to
rise or fall depending on the feedback. However,
the tasks used tend, whether explicitly or by
implication, to require intellectual competence. The
participants in these studies are almost invariably
college students. And one might suppose that a
sense of intellectual competence will be more than
usually central to the self-worth of such people.
The feedback threatens, or endorses, a belief that is
particularly important to them. Would other kinds
of people care equally about their performance of
such tasks?
However, it is perhaps more pertinent to show
that successes and failures have more than short-
term effects. The assumption that this is the case is
the logic for some measures of self-esteem. So-
called aggregate measures presuppose that a
person’s self-esteem is based on a kind of audit of
their successes and failures in various domains.
The results of this audit are added together, either
in the mind of the individual or through the
scoring procedure for the measure, to produce an
overall or summary self-esteem.
One really wants to know two things here. First,
how objective or at least how unbiased are people’s
estimates of their own successes and failures?
Second, is their overall sense of their own worth –
their global self-esteem – really built up through
mental aggregation of these estimates? Can we
assume an inference is made from ‘good at X’ to
‘good/worthy person’? In neither case does the
answer turn out to be straightforward.
There is a general bias towards inflated
estimates of one’s own excellence in any area of
human activity in which particular qualities of
performance are culturally valued. So, for example,
a majority of people are convinced that their sense
of humour is superior to the average. Similarly,
most people believe their own driving skills are
better than those of the average driver. Judgements
of such matters are fallible, therefore, but it does
not follow that judgements are also invariably
wrong on a relative scale. The worst driver may
39
The sources of differences in self-esteem
think he is just above the population average, the
best may believe himself far superior to this
average. Consequently, self-evaluations and self-
esteem could still be sensibly related to objective
differences in performance.
The relationship is, however, far less perfect
than should be the case if people really do derive
their self-evaluations from their performances. This
is particularly true of valued qualities that lack
clear and objective standards of evaluation, such as
qualities of personality and character. People’s own
estimates of their relative standing with respect to a
range of personal virtues agree only imperfectly
with the estimates their acquaintances make of
them (Kenny, 1994; Taylor and Brown, 1988).
There are, however, areas of activity in which
performance standards are more explicit and
relative performance levels are routinely published.
It is not only professional tennis players who are
exposed to public rankings. Every schoolchild is
regularly measured against classmates; all know
just how well they are doing relative to every other
child in the class and, ultimately, where they stand
in achievement relative to national averages. In
such areas of performance, it is hard to see how
self-evaluations could not reflect achievements.
But another step is required to link
achievements to self-esteem. Moreover, this step is
not necessarily present if aggregate measures are
used to assess self-esteem. A person could honestly
and accurately evaluate themselves as physically
unco-ordinated, lacking in academic
accomplishments and bereft of musical talent, and
also remain convinced that they are of great worth.
Furthermore, this does happen and to a
considerable extent. People’s feeling about
themselves, their global sense of self-worth, is only
modestly influenced by their actual
accomplishments and imperfectly related to their
own estimates of these.
The effects of academic achievement upon self-
esteem have received particular attention and so
there is no longer much room for doubt about
either the existence of these effects or their extent.
Comprehensive reviews of the evidence have
appeared regularly since the 1960s and all tell the
same story. Research consistently finds an
association between academic achievements,
however measured, and self-esteem. We have
already considered this evidence in looking at the
possible effects of low self-esteem on educational
underachievement. And we saw that there were no
strong grounds for attributing this association to
the effects of self-esteem on academic performance.
The research is also very consistent in its
conclusion that the association is rather small. West
et al. (1980) found, reviewing around 100 studies,
an average correlation of 0.18. To take a single
example, the Wiltfang and Scarbecz (1990) analysis
of the Richmond Youth Project evidence produced
an estimate for the correlation between school
grades and self-esteem of around 0.17. So, taking
more optimistic estimates, the implications are that
if achievement in school were the same for
everyone the amount by which self-esteem varied
in the population would be reduced by about 4 per
cent. What explains the remaining 96 per cent?
Actually, it is unlikely the figure to be explained
is 96 per cent, or that this amount of variation ever
could be explained. The figure assumes that self-
esteem has been measured without any error at all.
It is rather more likely that the degree of error in
measurement is between 25 and 40 per cent. If this
seems alarmingly high, it is not unusual for
psychological measures of this kind. As noted
earlier, measurement precision can be increased but
at a cost. A more sensible option is to take the
measurement error into account when deciding
how much we have understood about the causes of
variations in self-esteem.
Before turning to other possible causes, it is
instructive to consider why achievement does not
have more impact on self-esteem. Part of the reason
seems to be that there are options for explaining
performance that have few implications for one’s
worth as a person. A poor performance can be
40
Self-esteem
attributed to bad luck, lack of effort or a biased
teacher unwilling to give good marks. In the longer
run, additional tactics are available. Poor memory
helps. Poor performances are forgotten and only
good ones remembered. Even if the poorer
performances are recalled, they can be remembered
as rather better than they actually were. Optimism
also helps. Unrealistic expectations are sustained
about future performances even though past ones
have been poor.
The greater puzzle perhaps is why some people
will discount good performances to protect a view
of themselves as worthless? Yet it does seem that
the nature of these biases reflects self-esteem. Those
blessed with high self-esteem ignore all evidence of
inadequacies. Those who lack esteem equally
consistently deny that there is any positive
evidence, using many of the same tactics in reverse.
Successes are attributed to luck or overly
sympathetic examiners; only failures are
remembered with any accuracy and the future is
expected to be bleak.
Even so, Brown and McGill’s (1989) finding that
good outcomes can actually damage the health of
those with low self-esteem is surprising. They
found in two studies, respectively of high school
and college students, that those who had low self-
esteem and experienced high levels of positive life
events – a number of good things happened to
them (such as addition of a new family member or
the start of a new relationship)1 – subsequently
displayed more symptoms of illness. It is as if,
having concluded that you are worthless, strong
evidence to the contrary is distressing and difficult
to manage.
At least one authority on the development of
self-esteem, Susan Harter (1998), has argued that
we need to take William James more seriously here,
in the following respect. What matters is not just
how successful you are, but what kinds of success
you want – James’s ‘pretensions’. Harter reports
that the relation between self-esteem and
competence in areas that a person regards as
important is far stronger than the relation in areas
judged unimportant. This only helps, however, if it
can be shown that these judgements of what
matters precede evidence of performance.
Otherwise, it is entirely possible, as others have
proposed, that this is just another tactic to preserve
an already adopted view of the self.
To decide between these possibilities, Harter
does a strange thing. Whether self-esteem
determines what you value or whether it works the
other way around is a key issue. Research evidence
that could settle it would be extremely valuable.
Instead, Harter asks adolescents which alternative
they think is more likely. It turns out that a
moderate majority believe their self-esteem is
shaped by qualities they see as particularly
important (the quality actually considered here was
appearance – young people, and particularly girls,
claim their own physical appearance is highly
important to them).
There is now sufficient evidence of people’s
willingness and ability to deceive themselves to
suggest that beliefs in this case are not a sound
guide to what is really going on. On the other side,
there is good evidence that people perceive the
things they are not good at as less important and
do so precisely because they are not good at these
things. Even so, Harter still may be partly right but
it would help to have better tests of her claims here.
Finally, the Jamesian point about pretensions
suggests that high self-esteem may be more
difficult to sustain than low self-esteem.
Presumably, there are some people who are good at
so few things that they risk running out of options
on which to hang their claims to high self-worth. It
is more difficult to imagine that anyone could run
out of things to think themselves bad at. Despite
this, very high self-esteem is far more common than
very low self-esteem (Baumeister et al., 1989).
41
The sources of differences in self-esteem
Rejections and acceptances
Another possible source of esteem to have been
studied in some detail relates to people’s
experience of the labour market. In a sense, this
represents another domain of successes and
failures, though the judgement of an intermediary
is more obviously involved. An employer accepts
the application for employment or rejects it,
continues the employment or terminates it.
The evidence is quite consistent here too. Losing
one’s job, failing to find work and spending time
unemployed are all associated with lower self-
esteem. Moreover, these experiences appear to
produce the differences in self-esteem rather than
being produced by them (but recall that childhood
self-esteem does affect the chances of experiencing
longer periods of unemployment in adulthood, cf.
Feinstein, 2000).
Several studies compare the self-esteem of
employed and unemployed adults and report that
the latter score lower on measures of self-esteem
(e.g. Muller et al., 1993). But this evidence leaves the
causal direction of influence unresolved. More
informative evidence comes from longitudinal
studies. A number of researchers have taken
advantage of the data available from the US
National Longitudinal Study of Youth. This
included information about the self-esteem of
young people during their high school education
and about post-education employment history.
Using these data, Goldsmith et al. (1996, 1997),
Dooley and Prause (1995) and Prause and Dooley
(1997) were able to determine that experience of
both unemployment and unsatisfactory
employment was associated with lower self-
esteem, and that the size of the effects was related
to the length of these experiences. Dooley and
Prause, taking into account earlier self-esteem,
could refine the nature of the impact. In the sample
as a whole, self-esteem actually increased over a
seven-year period, but increased significantly less
for those who had the more negative employment
experiences.
However, as with educational attainment, the
effects found are generally small. Goldsmith et al.
(1997) described one of the main effects as
equivalent to a blemish. Many of the same options
are available here either to discount misfortune in
the labour market or to discount good fortune. And
some new ones are available. The human agent –
the employer – can be blamed and/or general
economic conditions can be held responsible.
Though unemployment undoubtedly is linked
to loss of esteem, even if the link is attenuated by
various kinds of denial, it is not necessarily direct.
Unemployment can have a number of
consequences each of which may themselves have a
direct impact on esteem. Among these are social
isolation and loss of social support, economic
stresses and loss of routine.
Finally, we have already seen that a range of
public attacks on a person’s worth – being
diagnosed an alcoholic or convicted of child abuse,
for example – can lower self-esteem. Some of the
standard defensive tactics may be less effective
against these assaults.
Zimmerman et al.’s (1997) finding that in a
sample of around 1,100 young people a group
could be identified whose self-esteem fell steadily
from age 12 to 16 is open to a similar interpretation.
This group also increased their misuse of alcohol
more than others and their academic performance
declined more. It may be that a personal sense of
failure – loss of self-control through addiction to
drugs or, as perhaps in this case, through frequent
inebriation – damages self-esteem. It may also,
however, be damaged by the very public nature of
the failures. On the other hand, in the cases of
delinquency, drug use and to some extent academic
failure, the impact of public disapproval will be
offset by choosing as friends other young people in
the same position.
42
Self-esteem
Appearance
One factor young people consistently mention
when asked what particularly affects the way they
feel about themselves is their physical appearance.
Furthermore, the correlations between self-esteem
and perceptions of physical appearance are high,
and exceptionally so in adolescence. Harter (1998)
reports correlations from her own research with
teenagers in the range 0.65 to 0.82. At the upper
end, this is close to the theoretical maximum. It
would mean that self-esteem in some groups of
young people, therefore, is entirely dependent on
physical appearance.
Here, at last, in physical attributes, is a form of
difference between people that is highly obvious,
conspicuous and undeniable. Additionally,
whatever comforting myths may say about beauty
and the eye of the beholder, shared standards for
attractiveness do exist. To be beautiful or
handsome, to have the ideal body shape is to be
desirable and desired. To differ from these ideals is
to be less desirable, in direct proportion to the
disparity. Is it not therefore to be expected that
physical appearance will have a powerful influence
on self-esteem?
It may be a reasonable expectation, particularly
given this compelling evidence, but for one thing.
The evidence concerns self-perceptions of physical
appearance, not actual physical appearance. The
relation between the two, or rather the relation
between self-evaluated appearance and evaluations
made by uninvolved observers (i.e. not family
members or friends) is only moderate. And it is
clear that the self-esteem is related to the self-
evaluation, not to the objective reality. So, it is still
to be explained why people believe what they do
about their own appearance. The larger part of
what they believe is not determined by the reality.
Similar things have been found with respect to
body shape and body weight. Beliefs are
imperfectly aligned with reality. One recent study
nicely illustrates the consequences. Kostanski and
Gullone (1998) found that body mass index (a
measure of the appropriateness of weight given
height) was related to dissatisfaction with body
weight, but not perfectly related. Self-esteem was
also related to dissatisfaction, but again imperfectly
related. At the same time, self-esteem was quite
unrelated to the body mass index. What this
strongly suggests is that satisfaction with one’s
body is partly influenced by its objective
proportions. But it is also and quite independently
influenced by self-esteem.
In the cases of shape and weight, however, the
ideals are culturally rather than medically
determined. And this relates to the slightly lower
average self-esteem of females noted above and
most marked towards the end of adolescence, 15 to
18 years. An ideal in our culture at variance with
the average has been particularly salient for women
– much more exaggerated slimness than is typical.
It is noteworthy that one of the few reasonably
clear effects of low self-esteem is on eating
disorders and that these disorders are far more
prevalent among women.
Factors that have a substantial effect: (the
behaviour of) parents
To the question, ‘what are the most important
influences on self-esteem?’, the simple answer is
parents. Cooley (1902) and then Mead (1934)
anticipated that the self-concept would be shaped
by the appraisals of significant others. More
precisely, Cooley thought that the appraisals
anticipated would matter, and Mead similarly
discussed seeing ourselves as we imagine others see
us. But, as psychologists were to point out later, we
do not have to imagine what our parents think of
us. Their views will be difficult to avoid while we
remain with them.
What is more, throughout childhood at least, no
other people will assume so much emotional
significance for us. Our parents’ views will matter
and they will matter rather a lot.
43
The sources of differences in self-esteem
Coopersmith (1967) was one of the first to
emphasise the key role of parents in the
development of self-esteem. He concluded that
four qualities of their behaviour towards their
children would be crucial. These were:
the amount of acceptance, approval and
affection shown
the degree to which clear standards of
behaviour were promoted and expected
the degree to which discipline and control
were based on explanation rather than force
or coercion
the extent to which they invited their children
to express views about family decisions, in
effect valuing the child as a contributor.
Subsequent research has supported these
conclusions. It has also indicated that some of these
qualities play a larger part than others. A recent
review of this evidence (Feiring and Taska, 1996)
singles out approval and acceptance. There are also
indications (e.g. Richards et al., 1991) that the
support of mothers is more important to sons
whereas the support of fathers is more important to
daughters, a surprising endorsement of Freudian
theory.
It is as yet less clear whether this remains true
into adolescence. Some recent British research
points to the key role of paternal support and
interest in sustaining the self-esteem of sons as they
move through adolescence (Katz, 2000). Rosenberg
(1979) anticipated that parental influence on self-
esteem would decline across adolescence, to be
replaced in importance by the approval and
acceptance of peers. Other research only partly
supports this prediction. Self-esteem does become
more aligned with peer approval but parents’
opinions remain significant well into the adolescent
and even adult years (e.g. Kashubeck and
Christensen, 1995; van Aken and Asendorpf, 1997;
Welsh and Stewart, 1995).
Quality of communication between parents and
their children also regularly emerges as linked to
levels of self-esteem. This may be, however,
because the effort by parents to communicate well
signals the degree to which they value the child.
Given the manifest importance of the quality of
parental involvement, it will come as no surprise
that parental abuse should have a devastating
effect on self-esteem. Study after study shows that
experiencing physical abuse in childhood at the
hands of one’s parents or guardians causes
significant and lasting damage to self-esteem. The
effects of sexual abuse are if anything even more
damaging.
One review of research on child sexual abuse
(Browne and Finkelor, 1986) singled out low self-
esteem as one of the more conspicuous long-term
effects. In one of the reviewed studies, victims of
this abuse were four times more likely than others
to be the lowest scorers on a self-esteem measure.
The reviewers also concluded that the damage is
greater to the extent that a father figure was
involved, genital contact was involved and force
was involved. A more recent review (Kendall-
Tackett et al., 1993) for which rather more evidence
was by then available – 45 studies – came to almost
identical conclusions. Similar effects of abuse could
be expected from anyone else acting in loco parentis
during childhood or early adolescence.
Another unsurprising source of low self-esteem
is family breakdown (e.g. Armistead et al., 1995).
Precisely how this effect occurs, however, is not
clear. The damage could be done by the conflict
between parents leading to the breakdown.
Alternatively, the damage could be done by the
apparent lack of parental concern for the child
signalled by the breakdown, or by the loss of social
support that results from the breakdown.
Similarly, the documented association between
homelessness and low self-esteem is difficult to
untangle from those of conditions that resulted in
homelessness. But the state of homelessness can
44
Self-esteem
have its own, magnifying effects, for example
through social isolation, lack of social support or
the daily experience of rejection.
Do other kinds of victimisation – being bullied
at school or work, harassed or verbally abused in
public because, for example, one is homeless, being
assaulted or abused by a partner or spouse, being
raped – damage self-esteem? All these kinds of
victimisation are associated with lower self-esteem.
For example, a recent meta-analysis confirmed this
very clearly for victimisation by peers (Hawker and
Boulton, 2000). But there is a complication. Some
recent work shows that the probability of being
victimised in at least some of these ways is higher
for children and adults whose self-esteem is
already low (e.g. Egan and Perry, 1998). In another
recent longitudinal study (Horowitz, 1999), low
self-esteem predicted risk of subsequently being a
victim of domestic violence. This being so, it is not
clear what the earlier evidence of an association
between low self-esteem and victimisation actually
means. This is one area that would certainly benefit
from further research.
Genes
There is one significant respect in which biological
parents may influence the self-esteem of their
children, namely through the genes. Thus far, there
are few studies of the scale of genetic influences on
variations in self-esteem, so any conclusions for the
present must be tentative. Perhaps the most useful
piece of evidence on this point to date comes from a
study of 3,793 twin pairs in America (Kendler et al.,
1998). Both twins in each of these pairs – the age
range was 18 to 60 years – completed the
Rosenberg measure of self-esteem. Heritability
estimates were similar for both sexes; just under
one-third of the variation in self-esteem scores
could be attributed to inherited differences in the
sample. This would make the genes, by a large
margin, the single most important source of
variations in self-esteem.
Knowing this is important for at least two
reasons. First, it indicates that self-esteem can
independently influence such outcomes as suicide
attempts, eating disorders, or teenage pregnancy. In
other words, in respect of these kinds of outcome, it
is not necessarily a mediator of the effects of other
circumstances such as experience of physical abuse
in childhood.
Second, it means that most of the differences
between people in their self-esteem – though it will
be less than 70 per cent because some allowance
must be made for measurement error – is produced
by the different things that happen to people in the
course of their lives, that is to say by variations in
experience or circumstances. So, in principle at
least, self-esteem is amenable to change through
planned intervention, i.e. by changing experiences
and circumstances. This is also strongly suggested
by the no more than moderate stability of self-
esteem test scores over time.
The relative immunity of established self-
esteem: are there any other significant others?
After parents and beyond mid-adolescence, no one
else seems to achieve the same level of influence
over self-esteem. In this respect, the expectations of
symbolic interactionists have not been borne out.
Their key prediction was that opinions of the self
would be based on the anticipated reactions of
others, or on what were referred to as ‘reflected
appraisals’. It seems that the actual reactions of
others may have very little influence on what we
think of ourselves. It is almost as if, after our
parents have had their say – and their genetic
influence – we become increasingly deaf to other,
especially dissenting, voices.
The range of tactics for coping with failures that
contradict self-evaluations (or successes if those
self-evaluations are low) turn out to have more
general application. Feedback from others that
contradicts self-evaluations is similarly discounted.
45
The sources of differences in self-esteem
These defensive patterns bear on the question of
whether self-esteem is primarily affective (in which
case judgements are driven by feelings) or
cognitive (in which case feelings are driven by
judgements).
If judgement – a cognitive process – was
primary, one might expect it to be progressively
adjusted to reality so that eventually (e.g. by
adulthood) the fit would be pretty good. In other
words, children’s judgements about themselves
may not be very accurate. But the progressive
accumulation of experience combined with
growing ability to make accurate judgements
should in the longer term result in judgements
about the self that would concur with those of a
detached observer. The fact that this is just not the
case – that people’s views of themselves are only
weakly related to any independent assessment of
their relative worth or standing – indicates the
primacy of feelings. It suggests the way we feel
about ourselves in general terms strongly biases the
judgements we make about our various qualities
and attributes, and likewise biases the way we treat
feedback from others about these qualities.
It also needs to be emphasised here that very
few people have low self-esteem in an absolute
sense – in that they more often describe themselves
in negative than in positive terms. Baumeister and
his colleagues have shown in a careful analysis of
the ways in which responses to self-esteem
measures are distributed that the average position
is moderately positive, indeed on the high side of
moderately positive (Baumeister et al., 1989).
Therefore, the references in research to low versus
high self-esteem almost always mean a distinction
between those whose self-esteem is very positive
and those whose self-esteem is slightly positive.
The very positives are likely to have an
unrealistic view of themselves. And, among other
things, their unrealistic optimism leads them to
take risks. They are more likely to believe
(unrealistically) that they will not suffer negative
consequences in doing so. This would, for example,
entail unrealistic optimism about the risks of drug
abuse, smoking, excessive alcohol consumption,
getting caught for crimes, or engaging in a range of
physically hazardous pursuits (like driving fast).
They also effectively take risks in the claims they
make about their own worth.
Those below the average in self-esteem – which
means slightly positive – are more realistic, more
cautious and also pessimistic. Their behavioural
strategies seem to be based on self-protection rather
than self-promotion. They don’t want to run the
risk of failure or having their claims discredited, so
they predict failure.
To return to the question of significant others,
our relationships with others may affect our self-
esteem not just because we care whether they
applaud our successes or criticise our failures. It
may be as important and perhaps more important
that we are accepted, liked and loved. Recall the
evidence that a key quality of parent–child relations
is acceptance. Recall also Leary’s proposal that self-
esteem is a form of barometer, reflecting the degree
to which we are included or excluded by others. So,
do peers, partners, friends, spouses become
significant others as we move into adolescence and
adulthood for these kinds of reasons?
Unfortunately, research evidence to date is not
entirely clear on this question. One reason is the
now familiar problem of deciding what is cause
and what is effect. There are moreover entirely
good reasons to expect that self-esteem will have an
effect on relationships. A second reason is the sheer
number of aspects of relationships with others that
could in principle be relevant. Is it, for example,
important to be popular with many people or to be
liked by a few? Does it matter who likes you and
who does not? Does the degree of intimacy in key
relationships matter? A third reason is that the
researcher’s source of information about aspects
and qualities of relationships is often the same as
that about self-esteem. That is to say the researcher
46
Self-esteem
compares people’s self-esteem with their own
perceptions of their relationships with others.
Bearing in mind these difficulties, what does the
evidence show? First, self-esteem is clearly related
to perceptions of various aspects of relationships
with others. For instance, both Vaux (1988) and
McWhirter (1997) found that low self-esteem was
associated with feelings of loneliness. However,
evidence reported by Olmstead et al. (1991)
indicates that this could be an effect of self-esteem
rather than one of social or emotional isolation.
They found that self-esteem in adolescence
predicted loneliness ten years later.
Turning to more specific qualities of
relationships, findings are mixed but the majority
indicate some connection with self-esteem. The
study by Field et al. (1995) of 455 teenagers showed
that self-esteem was related to perceived level of
intimacy with parents but not especially with a best
friend. In contrast, Franco and Levitt’s (1998) study
of a younger group, ten to 11 year olds, did reveal a
clear association between self-esteem and
perceived friendship quality. But their data also
raise the possibility that both self-esteem and
perceived friendship quality may be consequences
of the quality of their relationships with their
parents. Wiltfang and Scarbecz (1990) found that
adolescents’ perceptions of the number of friends
they had and the degree to which they occupied a
leadership position in the peer group were related,
if weakly, to self-esteem.
On the basis of her own review of the evidence,
Harter (1998) concludes that, in adolescence at least,
friendship is of less consequence than indications of
social standing within the wider peer group. But not
all the evidence points unambiguously in this
direction. For example, Townsend et al. (1988) found
that, for a sample of 13 to 15 year olds, their self-
esteem was more closely related to their perceptions
of the intimacy of their friendships than to their
popularity. Popularity may also be less of an issue in
adulthood.
Self-esteem appears to be correlated with
various indicators of marital satisfaction and
harmony, though only moderately (e.g. Lee and
Shelan, 1989; Shackelford, 2001; Voss et al., 1999).
More specifically, Ferroni and Taft (1997) found in a
study of 656 Australian women aged between 30
and 50 that higher self-esteem went with better
communication with their partners.
It may be a mistake, however, to focus
exclusively on marriage. People are typically
embedded in a network of relationships. The
potential importance of this is indicated by various
studies including Winefield et al.’s (1992) survey of
483 adults. This revealed a clear link between self-
esteem and perceived social support. A series of
studies of adult women by Brown and his
colleagues (e.g. Brown et al., 1990) pointed to quite
strong associations between their self-esteem and
the negative and positive qualities of their close
relationships. Lee and Shelan (1989) found that
extent of association with friends was related to
self-esteem in older age. Finally, Leary’s attempts to
test his barometer interpretation of self-esteem
deserve a mention here. He and his colleagues
found, in a sample of college students, that self-
esteem was quite strongly associated with
perceived degree of inclusion and acceptance by
others (Leary et al., 1995).
Each of the above studies relies on relating
individuals’ self-esteem to their own perceptions of
their relationships with others. Their conclusions are
therefore vulnerable to the possibility that self-esteem
itself distorts the relevant perceptions. Thus, high
self-esteem may produce unrealistically positive
views of relations with others while low self-esteem
may have the opposite effect. Significantly,
Borhnstedt and Felson (1983) found that judgements
about matters that tend to be rather ambiguous,
like one’s personal popularity, are influenced by
one’s self-esteem rather than the reverse.
Independent evidence about relationships
would be desirable for these reasons, and a few
47
The sources of differences in self-esteem
studies do provide such evidence. With respect to
adolescence, Bishop and Inderbitzen (1995) found
that self-esteem was unrelated to actual popularity
or to the sheer number of friends. But it was higher
among those with at least one reciprocated
friendship. Keefe and Berndt (1996) found that
adolescents who had stable friendships also had
higher self-esteem, though this stability was no
more likely than its absence to lead to any
subsequent increase in self-esteem. Stanley and
Arora’s (1998) study of 101 teenage girls indicated
that those who were frequently excluded from
friendship groups had lower self-esteem. Finally,
Emler et al. (2000) found a modest relation between
the self-esteem of young adults and others’
judgements of the intimacy of their relationships
with these individuals.
Though these studies confirm that links
between self-esteem and qualities of relationships
are not entirely illusory, the question of causal
direction remains. Longitudinal evidence is of more
help here, but to date there is still very little of it.
One ten-year study, by Giordano et al. (1998),
suggests no link at all between the quality of close
relationships and later self-esteem. This is what
they found when comparing the intimacy of
adolescent friendships with the self-esteem of 620
of their sample ten years on and into early
adulthood.
The picture is different in other studies,
however. Aron and colleagues (1995) followed up a
group of 529 undergraduates over a much shorter
period and found that self-esteem went up after
falling in love. Cramer has also studied this
population over short periods and has found clear
evidence of a causal influence running from
relationship quality to self-esteem (e.g. Cramer,
1990). One of the qualities that appears to be crucial
is unconditional acceptance by a close friend.
Andrews and Brown (1995) made a special study of
102 adult women initially identified as having low
self-esteem. This group was followed up over
seven years and positive changes in self-esteem
appeared to be linked to improvements in
relationship quality. It may be, therefore, that our
self-esteem is more dependent on the current
quality of our relationships with others than it is
upon how close we may have been to other people
in the past.
When it comes to self-esteem, in the long run,
parents are not the only significant others in our
lives, even though they may remain pre-eminent.
But the influence in the other direction – of self-
esteem on relationships – also needs to be taken
seriously. People with high self-esteem, as we have
already seen, pay little attention to adverse
feedback, and this is also true of relationship-
relevant feedback (Emler et al., 2000; Nezlek et al.,
1997).
Though this may at first sight appear to be a
disadvantage, it could help to overcome the
conflicts and low points that are features of almost
all relationships. People with high self-esteem
appear to have better social skills (Riggio et al.,
1990), and to have more of the social competencies
relevant to forming and developing close
relationships (Burhmester et al., 1988). They also
perceive conflicts in their relationships as less
serious and their friendships as more robust
(Azmitia et al., 1999). They seem to have better
options for coping with conflict when it arises in
their relationships (Schuetz, 1998). They are more
confident that friendly overtures will be
reciprocated (Baldwin and Keelan, 1999), that the
people they like will like them (Wiest, 1965). And
they disclose more about themselves to others
(Dolgin et al., 1991), an inclination that has been
found to be important in forming and developing
close ties with others.
All in all, people with high self-esteem seem to
have a number of inclinations that together with
their generally more optimistic demeanour should
be assets in forming, developing and sustaining
successful close relationships. There are indications
48
Self-esteem
to this effect earlier in life. For example, Hart and
his colleagues (Hart et al., 1997) found that a group
of Icelandic children, distinguished from their
peers at age seven in being more overcontrolled,
had lower self-esteem and were more socially
withdrawn in adolescence. Similarly, Fordham and
Hinde (1999), following a small sample of children
from five to ten years, found that self-esteem
related to observed shyness as well as to several
aspects of their relations with peers. Another
longitudinal study, this time of adolescents
(Armistead et al., 1995), indicated that self-esteem
predicted the quality of peer relations six years on.
Finally, there is a question about the effects of
social exclusion – in the sense of limited personal
contacts. Employment status has a dramatic effect
on the social contacts of young people. Those who
leave school and either fail to find work or to go
into further training have substantially less regular
contact with many fewer people than their peers of
the same age who stay in full-time education, enter
employment or embark upon further education
(Emler, 2000). Given other evidence for a link
between social support and self-esteem (e.g.
Winefield et al., 1992), this raises a question about
the possible effects of such impoverishment of
social life upon the self-esteem of young people. As
yet, we do not have the evidence to answer this
question.
Conclusions: the sources of self-esteem
The largest single source of variations in self-
esteem is genetic. It now seems that at least one-
third of the variation may be attributable to this
one factor. Next in importance come the various
things that parents do to their children. But these
effects do not end with childhood; parents continue
to be potent influences into adolescence and
beyond. Other close relationships may in the longer
run assume considerable importance but the very
existence and success of such relationships are
quite probably also effects of self-esteem, and thus
indirectly of parental influences.
Next, there are various circumstances,
experiences and conditions that have some effect
on self-esteem, but not effects of the same order.
Real successes and failures do matter, but not so
much as perceptions of these. How well one does in
one’s career has effects on self-esteem but here, too,
perceived and actual accomplishments are not the
same thing. Appearance also matters, but not
remotely so much as beliefs about appearance. It is
clear that self-esteem is not simply the sum of the
judgements one makes about oneself. It shapes
those judgements. Self-esteem profoundly affects
the ways in which evidence about the self is
interpreted.
This is apparent with respect to some of the
factors that have little or no discernible impact on
self-esteem. Whether one is male or female does
have an effect, and several explanations have been
advanced as to why this might be so. But the effect
is small and these explanations predict far more
difference than has ever been shown. It has, for
example, been suggested that the relative social
prestige of the categories of male and female is an
influence here. But it does not seem to be an
influence with respect to ethnicity or social class.
Knowing something about the normal
influences on self-esteem, about the nature of self-
esteem and about the sources of resistance to
change in self-esteem now puts us in a better
position to consider the prospects for interventions
intended to raise self-esteem.
49
This chapter can be relatively short. It would be
short if self-esteem were impossible to modify, or if
such change had rarely been attempted. But neither
of these are true. However, brevity is also
appropriate when there is little relevant to be said,
as is the case here. The reality is that there are still
very few firm conclusions about what works in
planned interventions or why.
Ignorance in these respects has clearly been no
impediment to confidence in the possibility of
raising self-esteem. Much of the popular literature
on self-esteem is sold on the promise of raising self-
esteem, either one’s own, one’s partner’s or one’s
children’s. And, beyond the self-help manuals, a
vast army of therapists, social workers, educators,
youth workers and other professionals is engaged
in delivering programmes intended to improve the
self-esteem of those who receive them. The
impression is that for many of those involved the
enterprise is more than a service, or even an
industry, it is a noble and righteous crusade.
One programme, POPS (the Power of Positive
Students), which has been disseminated to several
thousand schools in the United States, has been
promoted on the claim that ‘the key to performance
and behavior is self-esteem’ (POPS International
Foundation, 1994, p. 2). The expectations of its
promoters are hardly modest: ‘eighty-eight to
ninety-two percent of success is due to attitude’
(Weisman, 1991, p. 17), a curiously precise if wildly
inflated estimate. But this is also proselytising
language. It is not a dispassionate, let alone a
disinterested, appraisal of the merits of the
enterprise.
A problem with crusades and to some extent
with industries is that the vested interests of those
involved are at odds with critical evaluation. If you
are selling a product – and rewarded materially or
otherwise for doing so successfully – you have a
strong interest in believing that it works. This
inevitably favours one of two responses to
evaluation, to interpret the evidence optimistically
or not to take the risk of collecting any in the first
place. It should therefore come as no surprise that
the level of effort invested in developing and
running programmes to raise self-esteem has not
been remotely matched by efforts to evaluate these
programmes. But what we really need to know is
whether they work.
In fact there are several things we need to know:
Do the programmes work at all?
How well do they work (how substantial and
enduring are the changes produced)?
•With which target groups do they work best?
How efficient are they (what is the relation
between the gains achieved and the costs
involved)?
Why do they work?
This last is practically relevant for two related
reasons. First, many programmes will contain a
number of diverse elements. If they are not all
relevant then the cost of the programme could be
reduced and, in principle, offered more widely.
Second, a clear understanding as to why an
intervention works should allow us to devise more
efficient and effective programmes. As we shall see,
however, at present there is little basis for
decisively answering any of these questions except
perhaps for the first. There are the beginnings of
answers to the second and last questions, but they
are so far only the sketchiest of answers.
Before considering these answers, the options
for raising self-esteem merit a brief look. There are
three sources of ideas about how self-esteem could
be raised through deliberate intervention, namely
theory, the research evidence on the determinants
of self-esteem (reviewed in the previous chapter),
and the methods that have in practice been
developed and tried.
4Changing self-esteem: the effectiveness of
planned interventions
50
Self-esteem
How self-esteem might be raised: theory as a
source of ideas
A sensible place to start is with a theory of the
phenomenon and then to follow through its
implications for changing self-esteem. The
Jamesian successes/pretensions formula contains
two clear implications for such change. The first is
to alter the level of success a person enjoys. This
may not appear to be very practical but this option
is not to be dismissed out of hand. Programmes
that concentrate on developing skills of various
kinds could, through their impact on performance,
produce improvements in self-esteem.
Nevertheless, the second implication looks
more promising: modify aspirations. In principle at
least, it should be easier to modify people’s goals
than the abilities they need to achieve these goals.
Two kinds of option can be distinguished here. One
is to alter the relative importance of different goals.
The related message here may be that we need to
change public attitudes about the kinds of
accomplishment that are valued and move away,
particularly in secondary education, from
privileging one form of success – narrowly defined
academic – over all others (cf. Robinson et al.’s
[1990] observations on the relative merits of English
and French secondary education). The other option
is to change the level of particular goals, in effect to
move goals to more realistic and achievable levels.
The implication of Cooley’s ‘looking-glass self’
is perhaps that self-esteem can be improved by
altering patterns of association: avoid exposure to
conspicuously talented, successful or attractive
people. The reach and content of contemporary
mass media clearly make this very difficult for
young people. Accomplished and beautiful people
are massively over-represented in magazines,
television and film. But, if this is a problem, it may
also have a solution, namely education in the
interpretation of these media (cf. Kusel, 1999).
From Rosenberg’s interpretation of self-esteem
as an attitude, we could take the message that
attention should be given to the optimal conditions
for attitude change. Contemporary research into
the nature of these conditions tells us the following
(cf. Eagly and Chaiken, 1993; Petty and Wegener,
1998): a large number of conditions affect the
likelihood of attitude change but among these the
quality of arguments can actually be very
important; the impact of good arguments itself
depends on a variety of conditions.
When an issue is important to people, when
they are highly involved, they are more inclined to
put effort into examining the arguments intended
to change their views. Under these circumstances,
the quality of the arguments becomes particularly
relevant; people are more persuaded by good
arguments than by poor ones. Insofar as the self is
an important issue, then one’s self-esteem is more
likely to be changed when one is presented with
good arguments for doing so. This common-sense
view seems almost too straightforward to be true.
What makes it less straightforward is the number
of circumstances that can undermine the impact of
good arguments.
Rudimentary requirements are that the
arguments actually be noticed and then be
understood. People can fail to understand because
an argument is garbled, confused, or not clearly
expressed. An elementary if often neglected
requirement therefore is that arguments are
presented in a straightforward manner that can be
readily understood by those for whom they are
intended. People may also fail to notice the
argument because too many other things are
simultaneously competing for their attention. On
the whole it is easier to capture and hold the
attention of small groups than large groups.
Recall also that people with low self-esteem are
less readily persuaded than those whose self-
esteem is moderate (see Chapter 2, section on
‘Health risks and susceptibility to influence’). This
seems to be because they fail to detect attempts at
persuasion. Thus, programmes aimed at raising
low self-esteem do need to give special attention to
51
Changing self-esteem: the effectiveness of planned interventions
these basic requirements. And there is probably still
much that could be learned in this respect from the
research literature on attitude change. Among the
techniques that might be borrowed is ‘counter-
attitudinal role-playing’, a process shown to be
capable of producing enduring changes in
attitudes. This involves acting out or rehearsing the
arguments for a position that is contrary to one’s
own initial views.
Finally under the heading of theory, the so-
called hierarchical model deserves mention. This
model interprets self-esteem as the sum of specific
evaluations of oneself in different domains. It is the
model underlying ‘aggregate’ measures of self-
esteem. Its implication is that self-esteem is most
likely to be changed by altering each of the
elements that contribute to it. For example, an
intervention might seek to change individuals’
perceptions and evaluations of their appearance,
their level of competence and success in various
domains, their standing with peers, classmates,
teachers, family and so on. A further implication is
that individuals will differ in the areas of their self-
perceived weaknesses so that the impact of a single
intervention will vary from one individual to
another. Its effectiveness will vary as a function of
its ‘fit’ with the particular weaknesses of each
individual who participates.
How self-esteem might be raised: research
evidence as a source of ideas
The most obvious message from evidence of the
determinants of self-esteem for programmes
intended to raise low self-esteem, particularly in
childhood and early adolescence, is: change the
behaviour of the parents. Many programmes seek
to do just this. The research also tells us what to try
and change in their behaviour. Acceptance and
approval, together with practices that convey these
– making time for their children, paying attention,
taking an interest, listening, encouraging initiative,
being fair, having clear and positive expectations –
seem to be key. But there are also practical limits to
what can be done with parents, limits that include
their own willingness to change. Moreover, when
self-esteem has been damaged by family
breakdown, the limits may be insurmountable.
For these reasons, we need to consider the other
significant influences on self-esteem. Insofar as
close friendships are valuable, then interventions
that enhance ability to form and hold on to these
relationships could be expected to benefit self-
esteem. We have also seen that physical appearance
together with real successes and failures has some
impact on self-esteem. But we have seen as well
that perceptions are consistently more important
than the realities. It does not follow that there is no
point in trying to change the realities and there may
be some, albeit limited, scope for doing so. Thus,
theory favouring interventions that increase skills
and competencies is also consistent with the
evidence.
It does follow, however, that attempting to
change perceptions can be more profitable, not to
mention cheaper. This brings us back to attitude
change. But the options depend on the existing
discrepancies between perceptions and realities.
Some children who are by any objective test well
above the average in academic ability or attainment
also have low self-esteem. Their self-esteem could
be raised by altering the perception to match the
reality. But this is hardly an option for those other
children who have equally low self-esteem but also
below average academic attainment.
Generally, a focus on aligning perceptions with
real successes, real talents, real assets is a risky
strategy, given that there are genuine differences in
these or else social rankings deeply rooted in the
culture. Covington (1989), who reviewed the links
between low self-esteem and failure in school for
the California Task Force, wished to indict the
culture of achievement. Ranking, he argued, was
built into the system; it created failure. The Task
Force was unwilling to go this far and effectively
ignored his conclusions (Kahne, 1996). Intervention
52
Self-esteem
to change people’s beliefs about themselves is one
thing. Changing cultural belief systems and entire
socio-economic structures is quite another. There is
therefore a considerable advantage to be had from
the fact that self-esteem is not naturally tied so very
closely to real successes and failures, real talents or
liabilities.
The hope that everyone may turn out to have at
least one significant talent on which to hang some
self-esteem is ultimately equally risky. A more
realisable approach might be to encourage each
individual to use themselves as their own
benchmark. We are back with James’s point about
adjusting pretensions or, in the modern parlance,
setting achievable personal goals. In other words,
rather than emphasising a common standard
against which some will inevitably perform better
than others, individuals could be led to pursue
realistic goals based on their own current levels of
achievement.
A final point that might be taken from the
evidence about self-esteem is to notice how it is
normally defended. Low self-esteem, like high self-
esteem, seems to be sustained by a variety of
defences – selective attention, biased evaluation of
confirming and disconfirming evidence, biased
attributions of successes and failures, selective
memory and so on. This suggests that interventions
should directly attack the various defences.
How self-esteem might be raised: varieties of
intervention in practice
The practice arena abounds with acronyms. More
or less widely tried if not tested programmes
include KICK, DARE, GREAT, SMILE, GOAL (and
POP) among others, as well as suggestively named
interventions like Little Acorns and Big Buddies,
each with an implicit if not explicit theory as to
what damages or depresses self-esteem and what
can raise it. Indeed, there are so many of these that
in the United States there is a National Council for
Self-esteem providing details on the range of
curricula available. There are also by a long way
too many to describe here.
The variety is immense. Some programmes
focus on providing particular kinds of information,
others on developing competencies, or training
particular patterns of behaviour or modifying
existing habits of behaviour, yet others on
modifying attitudes or perceptions. Many are
eclectic packages of measures. There are also
immense variations in forms of delivery –
individual therapy, self-help, physical exercises,
group-based, peer-tutoring, whole family – in
intensity and in length. The following is intended
as illustrative of the range and variety.
Pope and his colleagues (1988) have developed
a programme specifically for children and
adolescents and based upon the Jamesian idea that
low self-esteem results from a discrepancy between
aspirations and achievements. The programme is
intended to change both. It seeks to change the
former by modifying the standards the child
aspires to, the latter by training skills to enable
greater achievements. It makes use of well-
established principles of learning to produce these
changes. To be more specific, it relies on
demonstrations of actions or arguments by a
teacher that the participants are then encouraged to
imitate and practice, and their efforts are then
rewarded through approval and praise (positive
reinforcements) from the teacher.
The approach assumes that self-esteem is
shaped by achievements in different domains –
school, social life, family, body – and the
programme proceeds from diagnosis of each
individual’s profile of self-esteem needs. A separate
module of the programme is devoted to each
domain. Within each module, eight skill areas are
addressed in turn: learning to solve social
problems, developing positive self-statements,
using a realistic attributional style, improving self-
control, setting appropriate standards, developing
social understanding and skills, enhancing
communication skills, improving body image.
53
Changing self-esteem: the effectiveness of planned interventions
The programme as a whole is strongly oriented
to skill acquisition. It emphasises rehearsal and
practice so that performance becomes increasingly
habitual and automatic. It also emphasises
generalisation of new habits; participants are
encouraged to apply these skills to their lives
outside the programme. Although the programme
is promoted as ‘individualised’ – shaped to the
particular needs of each individual – it is also
claimed that it can be delivered to groups, typically
in one or two 30- to 60-minute sessions per week.
‘Homework’ between sessions provides some of its
individualised character while regular and frequent
sessions are necessary to ensure that feedback will
help consolidate learning.
In contrast, Bednar et al. (1989) have developed
a system that is much closer to traditional
psychotherapy. It is based on one-to-one sessions
with a highly trained and experienced clinician. It
is intensive and long-term, and therefore requires
considerable commitment on the part of the patient.
It is also therefore a very expensive solution.
Mruk (1999), discussing these and some of the
other better-established programmes, suggests they
indicate that there are several effective techniques
to enhance self-esteem. Improving problem-solving
skills is just one of these. Also on his list are: being
accepting and caring; providing consistent
affirming feedback (emphasising the positive);
cognitive restructuring (essentially changing
attitudes and perceptions); assertiveness training
(empowerment); modelling (showing by doing –
for example, demonstrating a more effective
method for handling conflict; the Pope et al. [1988]
programme does actually include this as a teaching
tool); using ‘natural self-esteem moments’.
This last refers to the observations (e.g. Epstein,
1979) that self-esteem does change spontaneously
in response to various events, particularly to
transitions in life, and that interventions can exploit
these to magnify their potential positive effects.
Most programmes use some combination of
these techniques. But do they actually work?
Does anything work at all?
Given the discussion in the previous chapter of the
range of conditions which seem to have little or no
effect on self-esteem and of the range of defences
with which an established level of self-esteem is
sustained, we should not expect it to be easily
changed. However, total pessimism would be
inappropriate. Epstein’s interest in ‘natural self-
esteem moments’ concerned events in adulthood
that seemed capable of moving self-esteem in either
direction. But there is also clear evidence of change
at various transition points in adolescence. For
example, the move from primary to secondary
appears to produce a downward change. This effect
is also greater and more long-lasting if the move
occurs early. The timing of puberty likewise has an
effect – early maturing girls, for example, are at a
disadvantage.
On the positive side, self-esteem does increase
over the course of adolescence. Hart et al. (1993)
suggest this because young people become
increasingly adept at remaking themselves, shedding
less desirable attributes and habits. There is also a
clear upward movement at the end of secondary
education (e.g. Schulenberg et al., 2000). Self-esteem
change in a positive direction clearly is possible
beyond the end of childhood. But the question is: can
deliberate interventions produce positive changes?
There are certain general requirements for ideal
outcome evaluation and these apply equally to the
evaluation of self-esteem enhancement
programmes. The most basic of these is the
inclusion of an appropriate control group. Some
evaluations are limited to comparing self-esteem at
the start and completion of the programme. Given
that the programme may last a considerable time –
a year is not uncommon – and may also span some
significant transition points, spontaneous gains are
entirely possible. One has to show that any
improvement over the course of the programme is
greater than any change in this direction that
would have occurred anyway.
54
Self-esteem
It is also desirable that the control group have
something equivalent to a placebo. Positive change
can result from incidental features of interventions,
for example the fact of being singled out and given
special attention.
A third requirement is that inclusion in the
intervention rather than the control group should
be entirely random. Interventions frequently rely
on volunteers. Non-volunteers may differ from
volunteers in crucial respects. If the control group
consists of young people who did not volunteer or
whose parents were unwilling for them to be
included in the programme, then both differences
and lack of differences become difficult to interpret.
The literature on evaluation is limited, but it is
growing all the time. There have also been some
reviews of this literature. The most recent and most
useful review to date is Haney and Durlak’s (1998)
meta-analysis of 116 studies, though it only covers
studies published before 1992. Haney and Durlak
point out that many interventions have assessed
self-esteem as an outcome while having a different
primary purpose, for example to improve social or
learning skills. Their analysis includes relevant
studies of these interventions. They were relevant if
additionally the targeted groups were 18 years or
younger, and if the evaluation included a control
group drawn from the same population.
The programmes they review therefore
included a wide range of methods and populations.
They included well-established curricula such as
DUSO (Developing Understanding of Self and
Others), classroom-based programmes delivered by
teachers, interventions involving relaxation
techniques, training in social problem solving and
interventions involving role-playing exercises.
Just over half of the studies reviewed involved
prevention as opposed to treatment (for specific
diagnosed problems). Just over half were of school-
based programmes and the majority were delivered
to groups rather than on a one-to-one basis. The
mean length of a programme was around 20 weeks
with an average of 16 sessions, though the range
for both was considerable – from two weeks to
three years and from one to 95 sessions. The
majority were targeted at the six to 12 year age
range. Just under a quarter of the programmes had
employed commercially produced curricula. Most
of the evaluations of self-esteem effects were based
on established and published scales, such as the
Coopersmith inventory, the Rosenberg scale or the
Piers-Harris scale. Because of the way in which
many of the findings were reported, it was not
possible for Haney and Durlak to examine the
moderating effects of age or gender.
Over 60 per cent of the programmes did
produce measurable positive change in self-esteem
(though worryingly some 12.5 per cent actually
produced clear negative changes). The mean effect
size was modest. However, the size of the effects
varied significantly with a number of factors.
Among these factors was whether the
intervention was specifically intended to raise self-
esteem or whether it had some other purpose and
included self-esteem as an outcome measure.
Interventions of the former kind were significantly
and substantially more effective.
The design of the evaluation also made a
difference. Designs involving randomised
assignment to either the intervention programme
or the control group showed larger effects of the
intervention. What this indicates is that anything
involving non-random assignment results in
children being in the programme who are less likely
to benefit from it (and correspondingly more of the
children who would have been most likely to
benefit from not being in it).
The type of control group was responsible for
some additional differences in apparent
effectiveness. If the control group simply involved
no treatment of any kind, the difference between it
and the programme was greater. This indicates that
incidental features of interventions, such as
singling children out for special attention and
55
Changing self-esteem: the effectiveness of planned interventions
treatment, do have some effects additional to those
features explicitly intended and expected to raise
self-esteem.
Next Haney and Durlak established that the
rationale for the intervention influenced its
effectiveness, though it was only possible to reach
quite general conclusions here. Interventions with a
rationale based on prior research findings were the
most successful. In other words, if research
evidence had already shown that certain conditions
reliably influence self-esteem, then an intervention
which created these conditions was likely to be
particularly successful. Next in effectiveness came
interventions based on a clear theoretical
justification, followed by interventions set up to
test particular hypotheses. It is a reasonable guess
that these latter were therefore derived from some
theoretical view of self-esteem, even if more
indirectly. Least successful were those without any
clear rationale.
Finally, treatment interventions were
substantially more effective than preventative
interventions. This is not really surprising because
interventions to treat particular problems
associated with low self-esteem are almost by
definition working with a segment of the
population with the most scope for upward
change. Unless prevention is focused on children at
risk, initial levels of self-esteem should be average.
As we have already seen, average self-esteem is
likely to be high in absolute terms. The scope for
further upward change is therefore necessarily
more limited. Nonetheless, the impact of
prevention programmes for self-esteem appears to
be ‘well within the range achieved by other
primary prevention interventions’ (Haney and
Durlak, 1998, p. 429).
It is also worth mentioning features that had no
discernible impact on effects. These included
whether the programme was delivered to groups or
individuals, the level of training or experience of
those delivering the programme and its length.
Given that each of these has a significant impact on
costs, these are important findings.
Given that the durability of effects is also highly
important, it was unfortunate that so few of the
programme evaluations – in fact only five –
included any long-term follow-up. The average
was a mere 16 weeks.
Haney and Durlak found that programmes did
have effects on other outcomes, such as
improvements in behaviours supposedly linked to
self-esteem. Moreover, the scale of these effects was
directly related to the scale of the effects on self-
esteem. So, for example, a programme intended to
raise self-esteem might also result in improved
social skills or relations with peers, changes in
eating patterns towards less harmful practices, or
changes towards less risky sexual behaviour.
This is strongly suggestive, if for the moment no
more than that, of the conclusion that self-esteem
does indeed influence various forms of behaviour
and performance. But it is still only suggestive.
Equally possible is that the changes in behaviour or
performance are responsible for the self-esteem
changes, or that both are influenced by some other
unmeasured change produced by the intervention.
These questions require a better understanding as
to why interventions work and what precisely are
the crucial elements of those that do work.
Since 1992, there have been more evaluation
studies. And the quality of evaluation methods has
been improving. The consequences have not been
uniformly positive except in the sense that we now
have fewer excuses for wasted efforts. Some widely
used programmes do not have the claimed effects
on self-esteem. A notable example is DARE (Drug
Abuse Resistance Education). This programme was
developed for adolescents and designed to reduce
drug use by raising self-esteem. It has been very
widely used in the United States. And it has been
the subject of several evaluations. The conclusions
from these are clear and consistent. Its effects on
self-esteem are either very limited or non-existent
56
Self-esteem
(e.g. Ennett et al., 1994; Harmon, 1993; Lynam et al.,
2000). The Lynam et al. study provided a ten-year
follow-up of impact on self-esteem. There was
none. Sadly, it appears to have little impact on the
target outcome either; it does not affect drug use.
Some of the other acronyms seem also to have
promised more than they could deliver. For
example, Gang Resistance Education And Training
(GREAT) had, according to Palumbo and Ferguson
(1995), no effect on self-esteem. The same story has
emerged for the Big Buddies programme
(Dennison, 2000), Rainbow for Children (Skitka and
Frazier, 1995) and Project Charlie (Hurry and
McGurk, 1997). Significantly, many of the failures
are drug use/abuse prevention programmes (cf.
also Stoil et al., 2000). They are therefore focused on
a problem to which the contribution of low self-
esteem is at the very best questionable.
There are success stories and moreover
successes which are confirmed by longer-term
follow-ups. Moreover, the successes concern
problems in which the case for an influence of low
self-esteem looks clearer. These include a couple of
interventions focused on eating problems.
McFadden (1998) has reported self-esteem gains for
NECTAR, a programme addressing food attitudes
and behaviour. The gains, relative to a control
group, were sustained at six- and 12-month follow-
ups. A study by O’Dea and Abraham (2000),
focusing on body image (see Appendix, section on
‘Eating disorders’), showed improvements in both
self-esteem and diet that were sustained one year
after completion of the programme.
There is also accumulating evidence that some
forms of psychotherapy work and have clear
advantages over others in raising self-esteem. In
particular, cognitive-behavioural therapies appear
to be effective (e.g. Durham et al., 1994). The term
‘cognitive-behavioural’ actually refers to a variety
of different methods but what they have in
common is an emphasis on changing the beliefs of
the patient in conjunction with behaviour
modification techniques. Given that these forms of
therapy have proved so effective in alleviating the
symptoms of depression (e.g. Hollon and Garber,
1990), it is perhaps not surprising that they should
also prove particularly effective when the outcome
measure is self-esteem (e.g. Garner et al., 1993). This
is also consistent with Pelham and Swann’s (1989)
conclusions that the determinants of self-esteem are
both affective (feelings) and cognitive (judgements
or beliefs).
Rational emotive therapy (RET) (Ellis, 1973),
although also regarded as a cognitive-behavioural
technique, concentrates in particular upon altering
maladaptive or irrational beliefs. It functions as a
form of persuasion or attitude change, relying on
rational arguments. Recall the earlier observations
about self-esteem as an attitude and about the
value in changing attitudes of strong arguments.
Recall also the evidence that low self-esteem
appears to entail irrational, inappropriate beliefs
about the self. In the light of these, RET might
appear a particularly appropriate technique for
overcoming very low self-esteem. It does seem to
produce improvements in self-esteem (e.g. Rieckert
and Moeller, 2000), though it has not consistently
been shown to be superior to other cognitive-
behavioural techniques in this regard (Warren et al.,
1988).
The major disadvantage of these therapeutic
techniques is their cost. As might be expected of
techniques focused on changing attitudes and
beliefs, they work well because they create
conditions in which the patient is likely to attend to
the message and to understand it (cf. the earlier
comments about the importance of these conditions
to attitude change). But these are typically
conditions of one-to-one contact between patient
and therapist. However, there are encouraging
indications that, for example, rational emotive
techniques can form the basis for group-based
interventions (e.g. Leaf et al., 1992) and that in this
form they can successfully enhance self-esteem
(Hajzler and Bernard, 1991).
57
Changing self-esteem: the effectiveness of planned interventions
Conclusions: rasing self-esteem – what works
and what works best?
Despite the apparent immunity of established self-
esteem to any evidence that challenges it, it is
evident that low self-esteem can be raised by
interventions intended to have this effect.
Moreover, the evidence on the effectiveness of such
interventions, although still limited, does allow us
to go a little further than this. We can begin to
answer some of the questions with which this
chapter began.
How well do interventions work? The answer of
course is: it depends. On average, effects of
interventions are modest but they are distinctly
stronger if the intervention was specifically
intended to raise self-esteem and not to produce
some other change believed, perhaps erroneously,
to be a product of low self-esteem. This appears
particularly the case for programmes aimed to
reduce drug use among young people, for example.
Interestingly, so far, some other factors have not
been shown to influence the scale of effects, such as
the length of the programme, the training and
experience of those delivering it, or whether those
for whom it is provided participate individually or
in groups. Interventions also show clearer effects if
participation versus non-participation is decided
on a random basis. But there is an exception to this,
the answer to the next question.
With which target groups do interventions work
best? The clear answer here is that they work best
for those identified with a relevant problem. They
work less well as ‘prevention’ programmes. In
other words, if the participants have relatively low
self-esteem at the outset, their self-esteem is more
likely to be raised than if their self-esteem is
already at an average level.
Some of the other crucial questions remain to be
answered. We know little about the long-term
effects of interventions because they have been so
seldom considered. Likewise, little is known about
cost-effectiveness because evaluation studies have
rarely involved direct comparisons of different
kinds of intervention or treatment. Finally, we still
know very little about why interventions work,
though there are all kinds of promising hints that
theories of self-esteem and research into its natural
causes are sound bases for effective interventions.
More progress might be made here through proper
evaluation of process – without knowing what has
been delivered and how, it is hard to make sense of
what might be working and why. We need to know
much more about each of these issues if
interventions to raise self-esteem are to merit the
investment of resources.
58
In the popular imagination, low self-esteem has
become an all-purpose explanation for any
significant social or personal problem, from crime
to racism to drug abuse. Or, as Oprah Winfrey put
it, nicely capturing the consensus position, lack of
self-esteem is ‘the root of all the problems in the
world’. Its full range of supposedly baleful
consequences have also been the subject of literally
thousands of research studies. And, because the
effects of low self-esteem have been assumed to be
so damaging, there has been particular interest in
identifying its causes and even greater enthusiasm
for potential remedies.
One consequence of the enormous interest that
social scientists have shown in this topic is that we
are now able to move beyond popular supposition
– in Smelser’s terms, what we all know to be true –
and take a reality check. And, though there are not
yet clear answers to all the questions we may have,
a more dispassionate appraisal reveals numerous
faults with the popular view.
Defining and measuring self-esteem
The first requirements for good research are clear
definitions of the variables at stake and sound
procedures to measure these variables. Research
into self-esteem has never been blessed with
unanimity over definitions. Nonetheless, it has
remained fairly close to the dictionary or common-
sense definition – the opinion a person has of him
or herself. The main point of difference is whether
this opinion is primarily a general feeling (positive
or negative) or a set of judgements as to whether
and in what degree one has the various qualities
one desires – good looks, moral virtue, social
competence, artistic talents, intellectual skills. Or, as
Coopersmith put it, self-esteem is the extent to
which one judges oneself to be ‘capable, significant,
successful and worthy’.
These two interpretations have led to two kinds
of measure. These two options, assessing
respectively global feelings (Rosenberg’s self-
esteem measure, the RSE) and the separate
components of self-evaluations (e.g. Coopersmith’s
measure), produce correlated assessments. But they
are not identical and neither are the outcomes they
predict. There have also been arguments about
measurement methods; all the research examined
in this review has relied upon self-reports. But
these are cheap and simple to use and do work
reasonably well and as yet there are no strong
reasons to question their value.
Behavioural consequences of self-esteem
Self-esteem is potentially linked to behaviours in
complex ways. The simplest possibility is that self-
esteem has its own direct effect on behaviour. But
the simplest possibility is only one of many. And
these include the possibilities that self-esteem is
either consequence rather than cause or that self-
esteem and the behaviour of interest are both
influenced by something else. Unfortunately, much
research has not been up to the task of analysing
these links adequately and is therefore virtually
useless in answering the critical question: does self-
esteem affect behaviour or not?
The most informative research for our purposes
is prospective or longitudinal – it follows people
over time and assesses the relevant variables at
several time points. And it is multivariate – it
assesses self-esteem but also several other variables
that are plausibly influences on the outcomes of
interest. Because this kind of research is expensive
and requires a long-term commitment by
researchers, there is relatively little of it. Another
useful source of evidence therefore, if one which
requires to be interpreted with caution, is
experimental research. This includes the better-
designed evaluations of interventions intended to
raise self-esteem.
Bearing these qualifications in mind, the
following conclusions are supported, albeit with
varying degrees of certainty, by research (I
concentrate here, as does most of the published
5General conclusions
59
General conclusions
research, on outcomes affecting young people –
between the ages of ten and 25).
Young people with very low self-esteem are
more likely to:
show symptoms of depression; be more often
unhappy
become pregnant as teenagers (girls)
have suicidal thoughts and make suicide
attempts
experience in their twenties longer periods of
unemployment and earn less (males)
suffer from eating disorders (if they are
female)
be victimised
fail to respond to social influence
have more difficulty forming and sustaining
successful close relationships.
Young people with low self-esteem are not more
likely as a result to:
commit crimes, including violent crimes
use or abuse illegal drugs
drink alcohol to excess or smoke
as parents, physically or sexually abuse their
own children
fail academically.
As a generalisation, it might be said that people
who have or admit to low self-esteem – a poor
opinion of themselves – treat themselves badly and
may invite bad treatment by others. They do not,
however, tend to treat others badly.
High self-esteem is therefore very unlikely to be
the all-purpose social vaccine that some have
supposed it to be. Indeed, it seems to have some
disadvantages. Thus, young people with very high
self-esteem are more likely to:
hold prejudiced attitudes towards ethnic
minorities
•reject social influence
engage in physically risky pursuits.
There are other ways in which self-esteem may
be implicated in behaviour but which have yet to
be explored to any significant extent. Among these,
perhaps the most interesting and potentially
important is that self-esteem modifies the effect of
other variables upon behaviour or outcomes such
as physical health. Because self-esteem may even
modify the direction of such effects, these
influences will be more difficult to detect. One
intriguing example suggests that positive life
events enhance the health of those with high self-
esteem but adversely affect the health of those with
low self-esteem.
Finally, we need to recognise that self-esteem
can be simultaneously cause and effect. Two
examples here are victimisation and the quality of
personal relationships.
The causes of low and high self-esteem
The most important influences on a person’s level
of self-esteem are their parents. This influence is
partly genetic and partly produced by the degree of
love, concern, acceptance and interest shown by
parents through childhood and adolescence.
Physical and particularly sexual abuse by parents
has especially damaging and enduring effects. It
also seems that after parents have had their say
little else in life will be able to modify the opinion
of self thus formed.
Indeed, one of the clearer messages of research
concerns the relative immunity of established levels
of self-esteem to disconfirming feedback. A range
of strategies are deployed to discount any evidence
that contradicts the opinions people have of
themselves. These allow people to hold on to very
positive opinions even when to the detached
60
Self-esteem
observer these would seem to have little basis. But
the same strategies are also used by people with
very low opinions of themselves to hold on to these
estimations.
The operation of these strategies helps to clarify
why so many conditions and circumstances do not
have the impact on self-esteem that might
otherwise be expected. The social prestige of the
categories to which people belong have little or no
effect on their self-esteem. This is true of social class
and ethnicity. Being male confers a slight
advantage over being female but the precise
reasons for this have yet to be determined. Real
successes and failures do have an effect but it is not
large. Actual physical appearance – including both
body shape and facial attractiveness – has far less
impact on the individual than his or her self-image.
Time and again it turns out that what matters is not
the reality but what the individual believes to be
the case. And this latter is often only tenuously
related to the former.
The quality of close relationships with others
does appear to be a significant determinant of self-
esteem. But, as noted above, the likelihood of
forming these relationships is itself a function of
self-esteem.
Finally, self-esteem can be damaged by
repeated, unambiguous and public failures and
rejections – such as, for example, may be involved
in being diagnosed an alcoholic, convicted for child
abuse, or being unable to find employment. But it is
not at all clear that there are correspondingly
beneficial effects of public successes.
Planned interventions to raise self-esteem:
what works?
Raising self-esteem is a massive and apparently
profitable enterprise. It is also an enterprise
without any strong inbuilt concern for proper
evaluation. Consequently, our knowledge of what
works and why is quite limited. But this is not to
say we know nothing.
Some interventions undeniably do work – they
produce measurable increases in self-esteem that
cannot be attributed merely to the passage of time.
What we can be less certain of is whether the gains
achieved are sustained in the longer term; too few
evaluations include long-term follow-ups.
It is also evident that some kinds of intervention
work much better than others. But we do not know
what it is about these interventions that makes
them more or less successful. This is partly because
there are few systematic replications. Any
programme includes a host of elements that singly
or in combination may be responsible for the
programme’s effects. Unless the programme is
repeated, under varying conditions, the reasons for
its effectiveness are likely to remain opaque.
More optimistically, however, programmes with
a good grounding in theory and/or relevant
research evidence consistently emerge as more
effective. The message is that a well-founded
understanding of the phenomenon one is trying to
change will produce more effective efforts than
facile intuitions of the ‘positive feedback – good;
negative feedback – bad’ variety that permeate the
self-esteem industry. Thus, research into the
patterns of belief and the ways in which these are
defended underpins the relative success of
interventions based on cognitive-behavioural
therapeutic techniques. Likewise, when the
behavioural focus has been on outcomes affected,
according to research evidence, by self-esteem,
interventions have been more successful than when
it has been on outcomes with no demonstrated link
to self-esteem. Clear examples here are
interventions to modify eating patterns compared
to interventions to modify drug use.
But this brings us to the most conspicuous
weakness to date of programme evaluations and to
the very rationale for such programmes. We know
next to nothing about the cost-effectiveness of
interventions in this area. The efforts to raise self-
esteem represented by so many programmes,
projects and therapies are not driven primarily by
61
General conclusions
the belief that high self-esteem is desirable in its
own right. Rather, it is to be desired because of the
benefits it delivers.
We have seen that many of these supposed
benefits are illusory and this weakens the case for
investing in high self-esteem as a general-purpose
social vaccine. There may, however, be some
specific benefits. The following question must
therefore arise: is it more efficient to concentrate on
raising self-esteem or on achieving these benefits
more directly? An obvious example here is risk of
teenage pregnancy. Low self-esteem appears to be a
risk factor but improving the knowledge and skills
required to use contraception effectively may
nonetheless be a more cost-effective way of
reducing the risk.
Future research needs
One hesitates to argue for more research when
studies are already being published at a rate that
threatens to overwhelm our capacity to register
their conclusions, let alone absorb their
implications. There is nevertheless a strong case for
more good research. As noted above with respect to
consequences of self-esteem, this includes
longitudinal and multivariate research adequate to
the task of teasing out the potentially quite complex
ways in which self-esteem might be implicated in
these consequences.
Research designs, and the analyses of the data
generated by these designs, need to be capable of
detecting moderator effects and non-linear
relationships. The evidence regarding conformity
and persuasion is an important lesson here. In this
case, the clear difference turns out to be between
those whose self-esteem is moderate and those
whose self-esteem is either very high or very low.
Turning to more specific research questions,
there are five links with self-esteem that merit
further clarification, those with teenage pregnancy,
eating disorders, victimisation, quality of personal
relationships and adult economic circumstances.
The case of victimisation is interesting because the
link appears to be reciprocal, as it does for quality
of personal relationships. With respect to teenage
pregnancy, low self-esteem does seem to be a
significant risk factor but it is one among several. It
is not clear how it generates the risk or how it
interacts with other factors. Similar uncertainties
remain with respect to eating disorders. Finally, the
apparent consequences of low self-esteem in
childhood for economic circumstances in the
twenties is intriguing and not at all
straightforward. But the scale of the effects found
are such as to merit further inquiry.
Whether any of these questions are in the end
adequately addressed will depend on the
conviction that the answers are worth having.
Expensive research is not necessarily good research
but good research is not likely to be cheap. But
evidence-based practice is surely as desirable in the
domain of mental health and well-being as it is in
medicine. And, just as surely, good research to
provide this evidence would be a better investment
of our resources than unproven treatments
promising illusory benefits.
Final word
It is worth remembering that our language contains
many other words to describe people with high
self-esteem – narcissistic, big-headed, braggarts,
boastful, arrogant, smug, self-satisfied, vain,
conceited – and that these reflect the wisdom of
culturally accumulated experience: there is also a
downside to very high self-esteem. It is not an
unconditional benefit. Recall the evidence on
racism, violence and risk taking. Perhaps we
should be more willing to acknowledge that very
high self-esteem, as much as self-esteem that is
exceptionally low, is a problem in need of
treatment, and more open-minded to the benefits of
moderation.
62
Chapter 1
1There are versions that expand upon the
alternative responses allowed so that degrees of
agreement can be signalled. This effectively also
extends the scale, from 10 to 50 or more points.
Chapter 2
1In this and succeeding sections considering the
possible consequences of low self-esteem, a more
extensive discussion of the research evidence
upon which the conclusions are based is
provided in the Appendix.
Notes
Chapter 3
1The researchers also checked that these events
were perceived as positive. However, these
kinds of major life events also entail changes for
the person to whom they happen and any kind
of change carries with it an element of stress. It
may be, therefore, that the associated stress,
however positive the events may feel, has effects
that interact with self-esteem.
63
Aberson, C., Healy, M. and Romero, V. (2000)
‘Ingroup bias and self-esteem: a meta-analytic
review’, Personality and Social Psychology Review,
Vol. 4, pp. 157–73
Abood, D.A. and Conway, T.L. (1988) Health Value
and Self-esteem as Predictors of Wellness Behaviors. US
Naval Health Research Center Report No. 89-27
Abrams, K.K., Allen, L.R. and Gray, J.J. (1993)
‘Disordered eating attitudes and behaviors,
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83
Crime and delinquency
Jensen (1973) found some relation between low
self-esteem and delinquency, but the strength of the
association varied with other characteristics of the
sample studied. The association was clearest
among black adolescents from advantaged social
backgrounds. Zieman and Benson (1983), however,
found no relation between self-esteem and
delinquency in their sample. More recently,
Neumark-Sztainer et al. (1997) have had access to
evidence collected from 12,000 adolescents which
included measures of both self-esteem and
delinquency. The correlations found in this cross-
sectional study indicated a moderate effect size.
A couple of other studies (Gold and Mann, 1972;
Kelly, 1975) have tested the proposition that low
self-esteem is the mediator of an effect of poor
academic performance on delinquency. In neither
case was any clear support found for such a
mediating role.
The more informative research, however, has
gone beyond looking for simple correlations and
has asked whether these correlations are consistent
with low self-esteem causing delinquency, directly
or indirectly. It should be recalled from the earlier
discussion that simple correlations can by
themselves reflect a number of different
possibilities, including the influence of a third
variable, and the best available option to
distinguish between the possibilities is longitudinal
research.
Rosenberg and Rosenberg (1978) claimed to find
an effect of self-esteem on delinquency in the data
from the American ‘Youth in Transition’ study. This
is a study of almost 1,500 adolescents, surveyed on
three successive occasions. However, John Bynner
and colleagues (Bynner et al., 1981) argued there
were flaws in the methods used by the Rosenbergs
to analyse these data. Using more rigorous
techniques, they could find little evidence that self-
esteem influences delinquency. Wells and Rankin
(1983) also reanalysed the Youth in Transition
evidence, using different statistical techniques and
including some appropriate controls for third
variable effects, but came to the same conclusion as
Bynner et al.
McCarthy and Hoge (1984) had a new
opportunity to explore the influence of self-esteem
on delinquency in a sample of almost 2,000
adolescents who were surveyed at age 13, 15 and
17. Their self-esteem measures included the
Rosenberg scale and a shortened version of the
Coopersmith SEI. They also assessed delinquency
on five dimensions. The design of the study
allowed them to examine the effects of self-esteem
on delinquency reported two years later. One major
weakness of cross-sectional designs in which self-
esteem and delinquency are assessed at the same
time point (as in the Neumark-Sztainer et al. study
cited above) is that any self-reported delinquency
predates current self-esteem. Consequently, any
association found between the two is more
reasonably interpreted as an influence of
delinquency on self-esteem than the reverse.
McCarthy and Hoge found that, whichever
measure of either self-esteem or delinquency they
considered, and whether they looked at influences
between 13 and 15 or between 15 and 17, the links
from self-esteem to delinquency were uniformly
very weak (not even a weak effect size). Moreover,
about half the effects were positive, half were
negative. In their view, the only reasonable
conclusion was that low self-esteem has no
coherent effect on delinquency. The one criticism
that might be raised here is that two years was too
long an interval and that self-esteem might have
changed in this time.
Kaplan’s efforts to test his own esteem
enhancement explanation involved a survey of
over 3,000 11 to 13 year olds (Kaplan, 1980) at
yearly intervals for three years. This is potentially
therefore an important source of evidence as to the
Appendix: Research into the possible
consequences of low self-esteem
84
Self-esteem
relationship if any between self-esteem and
delinquency. What he expected to find was that
children who were not already involved in deviant
activities and whose initial self-esteem was low
were more likely to become involved subsequently.
He did find this relationship but most clearly
among middle-class children and among girls.
Kaplan’s explanation also requires that self-
esteem should rise as a result of involvement in
deviant activities. This he did not find. Critics have
pointed to several problems with his methods of
testing his explanation. Among these was his
analysis of links between self-esteem and each of 28
forms of deviance separately. This dramatically
increases the likelihood of measurement error and,
on the face of it, combining the 28 forms into a
single scale would have seemed a better strategy.
Kaplan may have proceeded as he did to allow
a clear distinction between those who had and had
not adopted deviant behaviours. Yet anyone who
has undertaken research in this area would find it
puzzling that such a distinction could be made
within a population of 11 to 13 year olds. Taking
any one of the 28 deviant activities by itself, one
might identify a reasonable number of children
who have not engaged in this activity. But the
number who have engaged in none of them will be
vanishingly small. It is more realistic to describe
this age group as more or less involved in
delinquencies, that is, as lying at different points
along a continuum from low to high involvement.
At all events, evidence from the other
longitudinal studies (Bynner et al., 1981; McCarthy
and Hoge, 1984) is mixed. In the first case, an
impact of delinquency on subsequent self-esteem is
evident, but both the nature and the direction of
this impact depend on initial self-esteem and age.
The impact is clearest for those with low initial self-
esteem (‘initial’ here means when first tested,
which was at age 16). In this group, prior
delinquency has a negative effect at 16, a positive
effect at 17, but a negative effect on self-esteem at
18. At no age is the effect particularly strong. The
sample examined by McCarthy and Hoge was 13,
15 and 17 at the three ages tested. The effects of
prior delinquency on self-esteem were, at all three
age levels, negative but small and progressively
diminishing with age. In other words, delinquency
seemed to have a small effect – it lowered self-
esteem. The effect therefore was in the opposite
direction to that predicted by Kaplan’s argument.
Kaplan nonetheless performed further analyses
on his own data to try and find his predicted effects
(Kaplan et al., 1986, 1987). Confusingly, in the first
of these, it was also predicted that low self-esteem
would have both positive and negative effects on
delinquency. However, low self-esteem was found
to have a weak negative effect on subsequent
deviance: low self-esteem resulted in less, not more
deviance.
The second analysis introduced a new variable,
deviant peer association. Interestingly, they found,
as others have, that a delin