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The "Self-Esteem" Enigma: A Critical Analysis



Despite popular beliefs that self-esteem plays a causal role in a wide range of both positive and negative social behaviors, research shows that it actually predicts very little beyond mood and some types of initiative. This is likely attributable to myriad conceptual and methodological problems that have plagued the literature. Consequently, this article utilizes specific critical thinking principles (metathoughts) to address five key questions: Why does there continue to be a lack of consensus in defining and understanding self-esteem? Given the heterogeneity of selfesteem, where do the distinctions lie? What are the most prominent problems with self-esteem research? Why does our obsession with selfesteem persist? What are the clinical implications for misunderstanding and misusing self-esteem? Metathoughts include: availability bias, confirmation bias, linguistic bias, naturalistic fallacy, nominal fallacy, emotional reasoning, correlation-causation conflation, reification error, assimilation bias, fundamental attribution error, belief perseverance, insight fallacy, and Barnum effect. Recommendations for improvement are discussed.
Author info: Correspondence should be sent to: Dr. David A. Levy, Psychology
Department, Pepperdine University.
North American Journal of Psychology, 2019, Vol. 21, No. 2, 305-338.
The “Self-Esteem” Enigma: A Critical Analysis
David A. Levy
Pepperdine University
Despite popular beliefs that self-esteem plays a causal role in a wide
range of both positive and negative social behaviors, research shows that
it actually predicts very little beyond mood and some types of initiative.
This is likely attributable to myriad conceptual and methodological
problems that have plagued the literature. Consequently, this article
utilizes specific critical thinking principles (metathoughts) to address five
key questions: Why does there continue to be a lack of consensus in
defining and understanding self-esteem? Given the heterogeneity of self-
esteem, where do the distinctions lie? What are the most prominent
problems with self-esteem research? Why does our obsession with self-
esteem persist? What are the clinical implications for misunderstanding
and misusing self-esteem? Metathoughts include: availability bias,
confirmation bias, linguistic bias, naturalistic fallacy, nominal fallacy,
emotional reasoning, correlation-causation conflation, reification error,
assimilation bias, fundamental attribution error, belief perseverance,
insight fallacy, and Barnum effect. Recommendations for improvement
are discussed.
is one of the oldest concepts in psychology, ranking
among the top three covariates in personality and social psychology
research (Rhodewalt & Tragakis, 2003). As of 2003, it was the subject of
more than 18,000 published studies, and, by 2019 that number had
increased to more than 25,000 publications (based on current database
The term can be traced to 1890 and the work of William James
(1983/1890; see Harter, 1999). Following James’s early theoretical
efforts, it was largely ignored for 75 years as a result of both academic
and socioeconomic factors. A shift occurred in the 1960s, however, with
the rise of wealth and consumerism. Along with these social and
economic changes came the individual’s ability to see himself or herself
at the center of his or her own destiny (Seligman, Reivich, Jaycox, &
For purposes of this article, self-esteem (without quotation marks) is used to
refer to the concept, construct, or idea of self-esteem, while “self-esteem” (in
quotation marks) is used to refer to the term itself, as used by a wide range of
sources, from theorists, researchers, and clinicians, to the general population.
Gillham, 2007). As humanistic psychology (see Maslow, 1970; Rogers,
1959) gained prominence, concepts such as self-determination, the power
of free will, and human potential became major areas of interest;
subsequently, self-esteem arose as an important and popular idea.
For over half a century, self-esteem has been viewed as the
psychologist’s “…Holy Grail: a psychological trait that would soothe
most of individuals’ and societies’ woes” (Baumeister, 2005, p. 34). Not
only did self-esteem grow to be one of the most prominent individual
concerns in Western civilization, it became a household word and even a
widespread societal concern. North American culture in particular came
to embrace the idea that high self-esteem is not only desirable in and of
itself, but it is also one of the central psychological sources from which
all positive behaviors spring (Baumeister, Campbell, Kruger, & Vohs,
During the 1970s, when the “self-esteem movement” emerged as a
powerful social force, many Americans came to believe that we suffer
from an epidemic of low self-esteem (Baumeister, 2005). Proponents of
the movement embraced a positive self-view as a panacea for an
extraordinarily wide range of social problems, from academic,
occupational, and interpersonal difficulties, to issues of public health,
violence, and teenage pregnancy (Dawes, 1994; Mecca, Smelser, &
Vasconcellos, 1989).
With this conviction as the driving force, in the 1980s, the California
Task Force to Promote Self-Esteem and Personal and Social
Responsibility was established (Dawes, 1994). The task force had high
hopes of pioneering the quest to identify causes and cures of many social
ills plaguing society, so much so that it compared its efforts to both
unlocking the secrets of the atom in the 1940s and attempting to plumb
the reaches and mysteries of outer space in the 1960s (Mecca et al.,
1989). The results of its findings were published in Mecca’s et al. (1989)
book The Social Importance of Self-Esteem, in which one of its editors
declared: “The causal link is clear: low self-esteem is the causally prior
factor in individuals seeking out kinds of behavior that become social
problems. Thus, to work on social problems, we have to work directly on
that which deals with the self-esteem of the individuals involved.…We
all know this to be true, and it is really not necessary to create a special
California task force on the subject to convince us. The real problem we
must address – and which the contributors to this volume address – is
how we can determine that it is scientifically true” (p. 7).
This statement is remarkable for a number of reasons, not the least of which is
that the editors claimed to know something to be true, but they had yet to
determine that it is “scientifically true.”
The editor and contributors were confronted with a profound
problem, however, in that what they “knew to be true” turned out not to
be scientifically true. Despite the lofty aspirations of that wide-ranging
investigation, results failed to support virtually any of its assumptions
and hypotheses, namely, that self-esteem plays a major causal role in
determining nearly any significant social behaviors, let alone that
government programs designed to enhance self-esteem would have
beneficial social effects (Dawes, 1994; Mecca et al., 1989).
In 2003, Baumeister and colleagues published a comprehensive
review of empirical research on the relationships between self-esteem
and a multitude of variables of broad social relevance, including health,
sexual behavior, financial status, grades, intelligence, job performance
and satisfaction, and interpersonal relations. Their findings reached a
similar conclusion, that self-esteem is not a major predictor of almost
anything, with the notable exceptions of mood (happiness for high self-
esteem and depression for low self-esteem) and some correlations with
“enhanced initiative” (e.g., romantic intimacy).
Based on the results of these investigations, psychologists faith in
self-esteem has been deeply shaken. Not only has the research shown that
self-esteem fails to accomplish what proponents of the movement hoped
it would, but it has also been shown to be associated with a host of
liabilities. For example, people who score high on measures of self-
esteem tend to overestimate their intelligence, likeability, and
attractiveness, making them less realistic about their strengths and
weaknesses than people with lower scores (Taylor & Brown, 1988).
Conversely, individuals with low self-esteem have been shown to make
more balanced and unbiased assessments about the future (Ruehlman,
West, & Pasahow, 1985; Taylor & Brown, 1988).
Even efforts to simply pursue self-esteem could, in some cases,
backfire and contribute to some of the very problems it was thought to
thwart (Baumeister et al., 2003; Blaine & Crocker, 1993; Crocker &
Park, 2004; Kernis, 2003; Raskin, Novacek, & Hogan, 1991).
Specifically, attempts to bolster self-esteem have been shown to interfere
in several areas of functioning, such as learning and mastery (Covington,
1984; Deci & Ryan, 2000; Dweck, 1999). Moreover, when people seek
to boost their self-esteem, interpersonal relationships can be hindered
because they are focused on themselves at the expense of others’ needs
and feelings (Crocker & Park, 2004).
And what of the popular belief that we suffer from a low self-esteem
“epidemic”? There are ample data on the American population showing
that it is not, in fact, the case; if anything, we tend to overvalue ourselves
(Taylor & Brown, 1988), with the average American perceiving himself
or herself as above average
(Baumeister, 2005). The fact that most
individuals in the United States score toward the high end of self-esteem
measures, therefore, casts serious doubts on the key assumption
underlying the self-esteem movement, namely that there is a widespread
deficit of self-esteem: How can American society be suffering from a
widespread low self-esteem epidemic if the average American person
regards himself or herself as above average?
These findings notwithstanding, the body of research and other works
on self-esteem continue to grow. Even in the face of scant empirical
evidence that self-esteem plays a direct causal role in most every social
sphere, countless efforts to boost self-esteem are still being made by
teachers, parents, and therapists alike (Baumeister et al., 2003). As a
testament to the ubiquity of interest in self-esteem, a search conducted at
the time of this writing in the WorldCat
bibliographic database yielded
6,317 books (both print and electronic) the titles of which include “self-
esteem,” and 18,473 books on the subject of self-esteem.
How are we to reconcile this apparent disjuncture? How are we to
account for the enigma of self-esteem? A useful starting point would be
to recognize and analyze the numerous conceptual and methodological
shortcomings extant in the literature (see, for example, Baumeister et al.,
2003; Eromo & Levy, 2017). As such, it appears that the “widespread
epidemic” from which we suffer is not one of low self-esteem per se, but
rather of thinking critically about self-esteem. The purpose of this article,
therefore, is to apply specific critical thinking principles to problematic
areas in theory, research, and usage of “self-esteem.”
Thinking Critically About “Self-esteem”
In his book, Tools of Critical Thinking (2010), Levy identifies and
examines 30 principles of critical thinking (termed metathoughts), whose
goal is to ameliorate deficits in this area by providing strategies for
inquiry and problem solving. He notes that our judgment and decision
making, although reasonably accurate much of the time, are frequently
This perception is, of course, statistically impossible. Most people cannot be
“above average” of anything. This type of self-favoring bias is akin to the
research showing that 93% of the U.S. population consider themselves to be
better than average drivers (Svenson, 1981), an example of what social
psychologists have called the above-average effect or illusory superiority
(Hoorens, 1995).
WorldCat, published by the Online Computer Library Center, is the world’s
largest and most comprehensive catalog of library resources from around the
globe, with more than 347 million bibliographic records that represent more
than 2.3 billion items held by participating libraries (Online Computer
Library Center, 2015).
clouded by a vast array of cognitive errors in the form of various biases
and heuristics.
Further, there is widespread consensus that these errors
reflect the workings of basically adaptive processes that are misapplied in
specific circumstances (Gigerenzer, Todd, & ABC Research Group,
1999; Lilienfeld, Ammirati, & Landfield, 2009; Lilienfeld, Ritschel,
Lynn, Cautin, & Latzman, 2014; Shepperd & Koch, 2005; Tversky &
Kahneman, 1974). Unfortunately, despite the considerable amount of
psychological research that exists concerning the impact of these errors
on human judgment, psychologists have made far more progress
cataloguing them than they have in finding ways to correct or prevent
them (Lilienfeld, et al., 2009). Even among scholars, the capacity to think
critically is frequently and surprisingly non-generalizable across
disciplines (see Feynman, 1985; Lykken, 1991).
Research studies on self-esteem have revealed numerous problems
and contradictions leading to a plethora of unanswered questions. It is
proposed here that identifying errors in critical thinking can provide a
useful lens through which to examine such questions. With the goal of
reducing these areas of confusion, Levy’s metathoughts are applied to the
following five questions:
1) Why does there continue to be a lack of consensus when it comes to
defining and understanding self-esteem?
2) Given the heterogeneity of the construct “self-esteem,” where do the
distinctions lie?
3) What are some of the most prominent problems with the existing self-
esteem research?
4) Despite the lack of evidence for its validity, why does our self-esteem
obsession persist?
5) What are the clinical implications if we continue to misunderstand and
misuse “self-esteem”?
1. Despite the fact that the construct has been in existence for nearly
130 years, why does there continue to be a lack of consensus when it
comes to defining and understanding self-esteem?
It should be noted that, although biases and heuristics are closely related terms
that are often confused with one another, they are distinct and separate concepts.
A bias is a “prejudicial inclination or predisposition that inhibits, deters, or
prevents impartial judgment” (Levy, 2010, p. 264), such as cognitive biases and
motivational biases (see also Fiske & Taylor, 1984, 2007). A heuristic is a
“mental shortcut or rule-of-thumb strategy for problem solving that reduces
complex information and time-consuming tasks to more simple, rapid, and
efficient judgmental operations, particularly in reaching decisions under timed
conditions of uncertainty” (Levy, 2010, p.270), such as the availability heuristic
and representativeness heuristic (see also Fiske & Taylor, 1984, 2007).
What constitutes self-esteem is a fundamental question that has
concerned personality and clinical psychologists for decades. Given the
long history of the term “self-esteem,” it is not surprising that numerous
individuals have attempted to define it.
But if self-esteem has been viewed as not only psychologists’ Holy
Grail, but also as a prominent concern of American educators, mental
health professionals, and Westernized civilizations at large, why is it still
so misunderstood? Why is there still a lack of consensus in the field
about the very definition of self-esteem? Two potential problems are
identified and examined here: linguistic bias and the nominal
fallacy/tautologous reasoning.
Linguistic bias
Two of the most essential functions of language are description and
evaluation. While we typically assume that descriptions are objective and
evaluations are subjective, whenever we attempt to describe people (both
others and ourselves), the words we use are almost invariably evaluative,
in that they reflect our own personal values and preferences. As such, our
use of any particular term serves not only to describe but also to
prescribe what is desirable or undesirable to us. This confusion between
objective description and subjective evaluation can be clearly illustrated
by different connotative meanings of the term “self-esteem.” For
example, person A might perceive person C as having “high self-esteem”
meaning that C is confident, self-assured, and assertive; however, person
B – who possesses a different set of values or is from a different culture –
might view that same person C as pushy, narcissistic, and overly
ambitious. In like manner, person A might say that person D has “low
self-esteem” because A perceives D to be self-doubting, insecure, and
anxious; in contrast, person B might view D as deferential, humble, and
respectful of authority. Thus, whether in the case of social scientists or
the general population, the very use of the labels “self-esteem,” “high
For example, James (1890/1983) defined self-esteem as the ratio or relationship
between one’s achievements and one’s aspirations. Rogers (1959) and Satir
(1967) characterized self-esteem primarily in terms of self-worth. Maslow (1970)
separated esteem needs into two levels: a lower form (needs for status,
recognition, and fame) and a higher form (self-confidence, self-respect, and
competence). Rosenberg (1965) viewed self-esteem as comprised of positive or
negative attitudes towards the self that are a product of social interactions.
Branden (1969) described self-esteem as a disposition to experience oneself as
competent and as worthy of happiness. Eromo and Levy (2017) conceptualized
self-esteem as multidimensional (viz., a function of its accuracy, directionality,
and level of stability), and consisting of both emotional components (self-worth)
and cognitive components (self-efficacy).
self-esteem” or “low self-esteem” can be largely contingent on one’s own
set of personal values and beliefs.
Nominal fallacy and tautologous reasoning
In a world where descriptive labels are a fundamental and
indispensable part of science and everyday life, it is important not to
conflate naming something with explaining it. This error in thinking,
called the nominal fallacy (Pope & Vasquez, 2016), also typically
involves circular or tautological reasoning. A tautology is a needless
repetition of an idea or statement, using different words that essentially
say the same thing twice (Tautology, 2018). For example, “People who
like themselves have self-esteem; therefore, people who have self-esteem
like themselves.” When it comes to self-esteem and the field of
psychology, examples of the nominal fallacy and tautological reasoning
are commonplace in the conversations of clinicians, educators, and
researchers alike. For instance:
“Why does that teenager think negatively about himself?”
“Because he has low self-esteem.”
“How do you know he has low self-esteem?”
“Can’t you see how negatively he thinks of himself?”
As another example:
“Why is that woman so happy with who she is?”
“Because she has high self-esteem.
“How do you know she has high self-esteem?”
“Well, just look at how happy she is with herself!”
These kinds of circular “explanations” are, of course, not explanations at
all. To label someone as having “high self-esteem” or “low self-esteem”
does not account for why they are happy or sad, why their interpersonal
relationships are functional or dysfunctional, why they engage in healthy
or unhealthy behaviors, or why they are successful or unsuccessful.
2. Given the heterogeneity of the construct “self-esteem,” where do
the distinctions lie?
By and large, both theorists and researchers have concluded that self-
esteem is heterogeneous in nature (e.g., Baumeister et al., 2003; Kernis &
Waschull, 1995; Schneider & Turkat, 1975); however the specific
distinctions between the various facts of self-esteem have been – and
continue to be – widely debated. Generally speaking, “high self-esteem”
is viewed as involving positive feelings of self-worth, self-liking, and
acceptance; in contrast, “low self-esteem” is typically seen as reflecting
negative feelings of self-worth, self-dislike, and lack of self-acceptance.
Further, many theorists have invoked some differentiation between being
conceited, narcissistic, and defensive on one hand, versus being
accepting of oneself with an accurate appreciation of one’s strengths and
worth on the other (see Eromo & Levy, 2017).
In this regard, a key issue in examining the heterogeneity of self-
esteem is its relation to narcissism
, or, in its extreme form, narcissistic
personality disorder. Narcissism is associated with an extremely
favorable, even grandiose sense of self-importance, arrogance, sense of
entitlement, need for admiration, fantasies of personal brilliance or
beauty, and lack of empathy (American Psychiatric Association, 2013).
Research in this area has shown that although some people who score
high on measures of self-esteem are narcissistic, others are not. However,
the reverse is not true: narcissists rarely score low on measures of self-
esteem (Baumeister et al., 2003). In other words, narcissism is a
relatively reliable predictor of high self-esteem, but high self-esteem is
not a reliable predictor of narcissism. Further, research has shown that
the high self-esteem of narcissists tends to be both unstable (Rhodewalt,
Madrian, & Cheney, 1998) and self-defensive (Paulhus, 1998). Taken
together, these lines of research imply that the category of people with
high self-esteem is a “mixed bag” of individuals whose self-concepts and
feelings of self-worth differ in important ways (Baumeister et al., 2003).
Various other researchers (e.g., Crocker & Wolfe, 2001; Deci &
Ryan, 1995; Kernis, 2003) have maintained that self-esteem falls along a
continuum, from true or optimal to inauthentic or contingent. More
recently, Eromo and Levy (2017) proposed a new model of self-esteem,
which attempts to account for the construct’s heterogeneous nature by
incorporating three dimensions of self-appraisal: accurate versus
distorted, inflated versus deflated, and stable versus unstable/fragile.
Below is a discussion of three critical thinking principles linguistic
bias, conflating dichotomous variables with continuous variables, and
the similarity-uniqueness paradox that should be considered in
understanding the heterogeneous nature of the construct and determining
wherein the distinctions lie.
Linguistic bias
As noted above, the words we use are almost always value laden, in
that they reflect our own personal preferences. This concept should be
considered not only in terms of defining “self-esteem,” but also in
Closely related to narcissism is the concept of hubris, which is also marked by
over-confidence, pride, and arrogance; however, in contrast to narcissism, hubris
does not necessarily involve a need for admiration or a lack of empathy for
examining the heterogeneity of the term. Where do the distinctions lie
and to what degree are they in the eye of the perceiver? Regardless of the
ostensibly “descriptive” words one chooses in regard to self-esteem
whether authentic, true, optimal, arrogant, defensive, fragile,
inauthentic, or narcissistic – it is imperative that we realize how our own
personal biases influence our language; we should, therefore,
communicate our values as openly and clearly as possible, as opposed to
presenting these subjective judgments as if they were objective
reflections of truth.
When viewed through a broader sociocultural lens, many believe that
concerns with self-esteem are largely idiosyncratic features of Western
individualistic cultures (see Eromo & Levy, 2017). Therefore, according
to this perspective, the quest for high self-esteem is not inherently a
universal human motive, but differs based on largely sociocultural
factors. For example, in collectivistic cultures (e.g., Japanese, South
American, & some African cultures), the motivation to “have” high self-
esteem is virtually nonexistent (Heine, Lehman, Markus, & Kitayama,
1999). Even within Western civilization, cultural differences exist based
on a number of sociocultural factors (e.g., gender, ethnicity,
socioeconomic status). Some historians have noted that the need for high
self-esteem appears to be a relatively recent development in Western
culture (Eromo & Levy, 2017). For example, the Judeo-Christian
tradition, which has long reigned supreme in Western society, has
historically considered excessive self-love to be suspect because it leads
to attitudes of self-importance and arrogance, as opposed to modesty and
humility – which are virtues believed to be conducive to spiritual growth
(see Baumeister, 1987). These examples underscore the fact that,
regardless of intent, the words we use – especially regarding people – are
invariably value laden. Therefore, in attempting to reach consensus on
where the distinctions lie within the heterogeneous category of self-
esteem, the evaluative bias must be taken into account.
Conflating dichotomous variables with continuous variables
A dichotomous variable is comprised of two, mutually exclusive
categories; in contrast, a continuous variable consists of a theoretically
infinite number of points lying between two polar opposites. Most
person-related phenomena, especially psychological constructs, are
continuous variables, in that they are a matter of magnitude or degree,
rather than of type. A common problem, however, is that of false
dichotomization, wherein a continuous variable is erroneously treated as
if it were a dichotomous variable.
Self-esteem is a prime example of a continuous variable that may be
confused with a dichotomous variable. Within the general population,
throughout the popular media, and even sometimes in clinical settings,
people are guilty of referring to individuals as either “having” or “not
having” self-esteem. But, unlike say pregnancy, self-esteem is not
equivalent to an on/off switch. (One can’t be “just a little bit” pregnant.)
It is more akin to a dimmer knob, which operates in terms of degree
rather than discrete type. As such, self-esteem is both a heterogeneous
construct and a continuous variable that is more appropriately
represented as dimensional, rather than two opposite categories.
In this way, according to Eromo and Levy’s (2017) multidimensional
model, “optimal” self-esteem does not lie at either extreme (high vs.
low); rather, it consists of self-appraisal assessed on three continua,
characterized by (a) a high degree of accuracy (based on both objective
outcomes of one’s behavior and one’s interpersonal interactions), (b) a
self-evaluation that is by and large positive, and (c) a minimal influence
of external events or standards across time and situation.
It also should be noted that the most widely used psychological
assessments of self-esteem do, rightfully, represent self-esteem as a
continuous variable. For example, Rosenberg’s (1965) Self-Esteem Scale
is a unidimensional measure of self-esteem, resulting in a range of 0-30,
with higher scores representing higher self-esteem. The individual’s
score therefore lies somewhere on a continuum, rather than falling within
one of two distinct categories.
However, regardless of the fact that such scales are typically used to
measure self-esteem in formal research or clinical settings, it continues to
be mistakenly regarded as a dichotomous variable across many other
contexts. Thus, as we move towards more valid conceptualizations of
self-esteem, it is important that we avoid the error of false
Similarity-uniqueness paradox
Identifying the similarities and differences between any set of events
is a function of the perspectives from which one chooses to view them. In
other words, all phenomena are both similar to and different from each
other, depending on the variables or dimensions that have been selected
to compare and contrast them. As an example, anxiety and depression are
similar in that they both involve feelings of psychological distress and
emotional dysphoria. With respect to their differences, however, anxiety
is marked by fear, worry about the future, and physiological activation.
In contrast, depression typically manifests by feelings of sadness,
ruminations about the past, and physiological inhibition.
Keeping these principles in mind, how do we differentiate between
self-appraisal, self-esteem, self-efficacy, and narcissism? How are they
similar? How are they different? First, they all are a part of one’s self-
concept. Second, self-esteem, self-efficacy, and narcissism may be seen
as different forms or subsets of the broader term, self-appraisal. Further,
the appraisal is in a positive direction and they all lie on a continuum
rather than in dichotomous categories. With respect to their distinctions,
self-esteem and self-efficacy are typically judged positively in Western
society and are seen as aspirational goals; in contrast, narcissism is
generally eschewed and, from a clinical standpoint, is deemed to be
pathological. In terms of delineating self-esteem versus self-efficacy, the
former is typically defined with an emphasis on affect (i.e., how one feels
about himself or herself), whereas the latter is usually defined with a
focus on thoughts and cognition (i.e., one’s beliefs about his or her
ability to complete tasks or reach goals; see Bandura, 1986, 2001).
Thus, as we attempt to delineate where the distinctions lie within the
heterogeneous concept of self-esteem, it is important to keep in mind that
the variables selected for the purposes of evaluation will determine just
how similar or unique the various types or categories of self-esteem turn
out to be.
3. What are some of the most prominent problems with the existing
self-esteem research?
The research literature on self-esteem is plagued with a variety of
conceptual and methodological problems. Some of these include:
imprecise definitions and operationalizations, dependence on unreliable
and poorly validated self-report measures, lack of external validity,
haphazard instrumentation variance, failure to rule out the influence of
third variables, and claiming “significant” findings on the basis of
relationships that are not necessarily meaningful, substantive, or useful
(see Eromo & Levy, 2017, for discussion). Below is a brief examination
of four potential sources of error: reactivity, correlation-causation
conflation, bidirectional causation, and multiple causation.
Given the ultimately subjective nature of self-esteem, the vast
majority of research on self-esteem relies solely on self-report measures
(Blascovich & Tomaka, 1991). While self-report instruments are a
relatively efficient method of measuring self-esteem, such measures are
associated with a host of potential biasing factors. One of those biasing
factors is reactivity, a phenomenon in which the conduct of research or
measurement, in itself, affects the very entity that is being studied. In
other words, reactivity refers to the extent to which measuring something
causes it to change (Heppner, Wampold, & Kivlighan, 2008; Kazdin,
Almost without exception, the moment subjects become aware that
they are being observed, they develop expectations and hypotheses about
the purpose of the study and how they may be expected to behave. Based
on this awareness, they may be motivated to behave in ways that they
believe to be socially desirable. For example, in an individualistic,
Western culture where it is considered desirable to present oneself as
possessing high rather than low self-esteem, one might be likely to
respond – even unintentionally – to face-valid items accordingly, thereby
artificially inflating self-esteem scores. Alternatively, under other
circumstances, sociocultural factors (e.g., valuing humility over self-
importance) or variables such as the research subject’s level of
cooperativeness, passivity, or modesty, might affect responding to test
items in a manner that deflates his or her self-esteem score. Moreover,
simply asking subjects to think about self-esteem (e.g., by administering
the Rosenberg [1965] Self-Esteem Scale) may stimulate them to consider
the topic in a new way, or even prompt them to formulate an opinion
when they previously had none. Therefore, due to the effects of
reactivity, researchers using self-report measures of self-esteem are
hindered in assessing naturalistic, authentic attitudes or feelings, which
would invariably compromise the validity of their observations.
Correlation-causation conflation
While the statistical links between high self-esteem and happiness,
and low self-esteem and depression, appear to be strong, the
methodological limitations of the research that has been conducted thus
far must be addressed prior to determining the exact nature of these
relationships (Eromo & Levy, 2017). In particular, given the fact that
virtually all of the published self-esteem research consists of correlational
designs, it is essential to bear in mind that a correlation between variables
demonstrates only the direction and strength of a relationship, but not
causality. In other words, cause and effect is not implied, should not be
inferred and in fact, cannot be proven – simply by virtue of a
correlation (Bleske-Rechek, Morrison, & Heidtke, 2015; Hatfield,
Faunce, & Job, 2006).
Nevertheless, several studies in the literature (e.g., Cheng &
Furnham, 2003; Michalak, Teismann, Heidenreich, Ströhle, & Vocks,
2011; Sowislo and Orth, 2013) inappropriately imply a causal
relationship between low self-esteem and depression, and between high
self-esteem and happiness, simply by virtue of statistical correlations.
Such presumptive inferences are reflected in unsubstantiated conclusions
and wording choices such as: “…the detrimental effects of low self-
esteem on depression” (Michalak, et al., 2011, p. 751) and “…the effect
of self-esteem on depression was significantly stronger than the effect of
depression on self-esteem” (Sowislo & Orth, 2013, p. 213).
To take another example, low self-esteem is considered to be an
associated feature of eating disorders (e.g., anorexia, bulimia nervosa),
along with a negative or distorted body image. Further, evaluation of
body appearance has been shown to be significantly correlated with
global self-esteem among both clinical populations (O’Brien & Epstein,
1988) and normal populations (Harter, 1999). However, such
relationships do not prove a causal link between these variables. It
certainly is plausible that a negative evaluation of body appearance
causes low self-esteem. Conversely, it is also possible that low self-
esteem might cause a negative evaluation of body appearance. Further,
low self-esteem and negative body evaluations may be a cause and effect
of each other (see discussion below of bidirectional causation).
Moreover, some other “third-factor” variables such as family
upbringing, environmental influences, or emotional dynamics (e.g.,
anxiety, depression) – might cause both low self-esteem and negative
body evaluations. In sum, caution must be exercised when attempting to
determine causal relationships based solely on correlational relationships.
Bidirectional causation
Causal relationships frequently are thought of as being unidirectional
(wherein variable A causes variable B); however, often times the causal
relationship between two variables is bidirectional (A causes B and B
causes A). Consider, for example, beliefs about the relationship between
self-esteem and popularity (see Chambliss, Muller, Hulnick, & Wood,
1978; Lorr & Wunderlich, 1986), namely that people with high-esteem
are more popular than people with low-esteem. It is reasonable to
suppose that high self-esteem might improve interpersonal relationships
or popularity (A causes B). Under this assumption, high self-esteem
causes a person to be more likeable or attractive in that others might
prefer to be around confident, outgoing individuals, while avoiding
interacting with individuals who are more insecure.
At the same time, the reverse causal relationship (B causes A) could
also be true. This is illustrated by Leary’s (2005) sociometer theory of
self-esteem, which maintains that self-esteem evolved in order to monitor
social acceptance and avoid social rejection. In other words, self-esteem
is an internal measure of one’s interpersonal appeal and success, and
virtually all influences on self-esteem involve factors that have real,
potential, or imagined implications for the individual’s acceptability to
other people (Leary & Baumeister, 2000; Leary & Downs, 1995; Leary,
Tambor, Terdal, & Downs, 1995). Therefore, popularity, according to
this model, would cause self-esteem to rise, while social rejection would
cause it to diminish. As such, it is not a question of whether popularity
causes self-esteem or self-esteem causes popularity because both
directions of causality are, to some degree, likely to be valid.
The same principle would hold true for any number of other
relationships involving self-esteem: high self-esteem and happiness and
social initiative, low self-esteem and depression and eating disorders, and
so on. Owing to the principle of bidirectional causation, “cause” and
“effect” are relative terms, with cause in one instance becoming effect in
another. Therefore, from this perspective, attempting to understand which
phenomenon came first, in many instances, may be both unanswerable
and moot.
Multiple causation
Practically every behavior has multiple determinants; any single
explanation is almost invariably an oversimplification. For example,
what is the cause of overeating? Is it feelings of stress and tension? Or
early childhood trauma? Or maladaptive learning patterns? Or some
biochemical malfunction? Or feelings of emptiness or loneliness? Or low
The reality is that any given effect may be and typically is the
result of not just one single cause, but numerous causes that are
interacting together. The question “what is the cause of?” any particular
phenomenon can be linguistically misleading in that it suggests there is a
single cause of that event – when, in fact, there are likely to be multiple
causes. In this way, the question of “what is the cause of…” should be
replaced with “what are the causes of…” In other words, rather than
assuming either/or, the question of causation is usually a matter of
Viewed through this lens, what, then, are the potential causes of low
self-esteem? An unhappy or even traumatic childhood? Repeated failure
experiences? A weak sense of self-efficacy? Poor academic
performance? Chronic social problems? Genetic vulnerability?
Conversely, what might be the causes of high self-esteem? A loving and
supportive upbringing? Repeated success experiences? A strong sense of
self-efficacy? Academic achievement? Fulfilling interpersonal
relationships? Genetic resiliency? The existing research findings that
have sought to answer these questions are hazy at best, likely because no
single cause alone produces the effects in question. Instead, they are a
result of multiple factors interacting with one another, a principle that
some researchers of self-esteem have failed to explicitly address.
As discussed above, not only has research (Baumeister et al., 2003)
shown that self-esteem does not have a direct causal effect on most
phenomena but the lack of conceptual clarity and consensus in the field
on a definition of self-esteem also suggest that the findings on what
causes self-esteem are about as unclear as what self-esteem causes.
Overlooking the principle of multiple causation might help to explain, at
least in part, why the California Task Force to Promote Self-Esteem and
Personal and Social Responsibility failed to confirm their hypothesis that
low self-esteem is the [emphasis added] causally prior factor in
individuals seeking out kinds of behavior that become social problems”
(Mecca, et al., 1989, p. 8).
4. In light of the lack of empirical evidence for self-esteem as
psychology’s “Holy Grail,” why does our obsession with self-esteem
Despite the striking dearth of empirical support that self-esteem plays
a direct causal role in most objective outcomes, and regardless of the
weaknesses of even the correlational data, countless efforts to boost self-
esteem continue to be made by teachers, parents, and therapists alike.
Our culture still seems to be characterized by this self-esteem obsession,
as the quest to raise self-esteem continues to be both an individual
fixation and a national preoccupation, as evidenced by the multitude of
self-help books, popular psychology articles, talk shows, and
advertisements that center around boosting self-esteem. The following
section applies seven metathoughts to help explain why the self-esteem
obsession persists: availability bias, assimilation bias, the Barnum effect,
the fundamental attribution error, emotional reasoning, confirmation
bias, and the belief perseverance effect.
Availability bias
In everyday life, we are often called upon to make rapid judgments
and draw conclusions under circumstances that may not lend themselves
to thoroughness or accuracy. Thus, while the ideal strategy to make
certain decisions might involve a complete systematic analysis of the
issue at hand, we typically do not have the luxury of conducting such
analyses and must therefore rely on the use of a variety of mental
shortcuts or heuristics. Because we are limited in our capacity to process
complex information accurately, we often draw on instances that are
easily accessible or “available” from our memory, a specific cognitive
strategy that has been termed the availability heuristic (Tversky &
Kahneman, 1973).
If examples are readily available in our memories, we tend to
overestimate the frequency of those phenomena. Conversely, if we are
unable to quickly recall examples of a particular phenomenon, we are
quick to assume that it is uncommon. However, there are numerous
biasing factors (e.g., life experience, cultural background, level of
education) that affect the availability of particular events in our
memories. When our use of the availability heuristic to make judgments
results in systematic errors, this is referred to as the availability bias.
In his book, House of Cards: Psychology and Psychotherapy Built on
Myth, Dawes (1994) strongly criticizes “New Age psychology” for the
widespread belief that all human distress can be traced to deficient self-
esteem. As part of his discussion, Dawes mentions how the availability
bias affects psychotherapists in reaching conclusions about self-esteem.
Namely, if psychotherapists are seeing people who have psychological
problems every day and many of those people do not feel good about
themselves (a common motivation to seek therapy), therapists might be
quick to link psychological problems to poor self-esteem simply because
of the availability of such examples in their memories. Of course many
people who behave in personally or socially destructive ways may suffer
from low self-esteem, and low self-esteem can be considered a
psychological problem in and of itself. However, that does not
necessarily mean that poor behavior is necessarily traceable to low self-
esteem or that good behavior is traceable to high self-esteem. Further, the
term “self-esteem” pervades our culture. Information and endorsements
of high self-esteem are so accessible to us at any given moment – on
news programs, in literature, on television shows and movies, in
classrooms, and within clinical settings the availability bias may lead
us to overestimate the ubiquity and importance of self-esteem simply
because we are inundated with it.
Assimilation bias
Human beings have an innate predisposition to classify, group, or
otherwise structure the world around us into categories, which we
conceptualize as mental representations or schemas. While this
propensity does have helpful attributes in terms of organizing
information and processing data, it can also become problematic in that it
leads us to overlook, misconstrue, or even reject valid information when
it is not consistent with our existing schemas (Fiske & Taylor, 1984,
With the self-esteem movement having found its way into
mainstream psychotherapeutic, educational, and occupational practices,
we may have become so accustomed to viewing behavior through a
prism of self-esteem that we simply do not even question whether or not
it is valid. Your co-worker abuses drugs? Hmm, sounds like a self-
esteem problem. Your child is acting out in school? Must be due to
damaged self-esteem. Your friend has an eating disorder? Clearly self-
esteem issues. You continue to select the wrong partners to date? Yep,
gotta be low self-esteem all right.
To the extent that we are inclined to make the data fit into our
schemas (a process which Piaget, 1954, 1970 termed assimilation) versus
modifying our schemas in order to fit new data (accommodation), this
common cognitive bias could lead us to overlook the overwhelming
amount of evidence that contradicts our common assumptions about self-
esteem. Moreover, because of the remarkable pervasiveness of the term
in our culture, we may have become accustomed to viewing the world
through “self-esteem colored glasses,” making it easier to view every
problem – irrespective of its nature or cause – as a self-esteem issue,
rather than modifying our existing schemas to account for disconfirming
Barnum effect
The famous circus master P.T. Barnum was reputed to have asserted,
“A good circus should have a little something for everybody.” This
axiom led to coining the term Barnum statement, which involves a
personality description or interpretation about a particular person that is
true of practically all human beings (Vohs, 2016). In other words, the
statement is general and vague enough to apply to a vast range of people,
and consequently, has “a little something for everybody.” The Barnum
effect refers to one’s tendency to accept the validity of such generic
interpretations (see Meehl, 1956, 1973). This error in critical thinking can
be seen as an explanation for the pervasive acceptance of such practices
such as astrological horoscopes, fortune telling, numerology, aura
readings, and certain types of popular personality questionnaires.
Unfortunately, in the context of clinical psychology, Barnum
statements can also parade in the guise of psychological evaluations or
assessments. For instance, a therapist may confidently conclude, “My
client’s problem is that he has ambivalent feelings toward his parents.”
(Who doesn’t?) Or, “My client doesn’t want to be rejected.” (Who does?)
Or, “My client is her own worst enemy.” (Who isn’t?) The same holds
true for declaring that one’s client has “control issues,” “trust issues,” or
“self-esteem issues.” To some degree, everybody has these issues it’s
just a matter of specific form and magnitude.
As such, at least part of the reason for the persistent focus on “self-
esteem issues” is that so many people are easily subsumed under that
category. Put another way, when the psychological net is cast wide
enough, virtually everybody can become ensnared in its web. Thus, the
ostensible ubiquity of “self-esteem issues” (whether too high, too low, or
some combination thereof) leads us to overuse the term, without regard
to specific meaning. Although Barnum statements might and by their
very nature usually do – have prima facie validity, they are practically
useless in describing anything distinctive about a particular individual.
Yet, because of their semantic elasticity, people continue uncritically to
use and accept them.
Fundamental attribution error
Nearly all significant behaviors can be attributed to multiple
determinants (see discussion of multiple causation above) that vary in the
degree to which they are responsible for causing a person’s actions.
However, in arriving at causal attributions, we have a tendency to weigh
internal determinants (i.e., personality traits, characteristics, attitudes) too
heavily, and external determinants (i.e., one’s circumstances,
surroundings, environment) too lightly. This attributional bias, termed
the fundamental attribution error (FAE), leads us to minimize or ignore
the importance of the particular situations in which people find
themselves, and therefore to explain the behavior of others as resulting
predominately from their personalities (see Heider, 1958; Ross, 1977).
For instance, we may attribute people’s behavior to their level of self-
esteem while overlooking any number of situational factors that also
could account for their behavior. Consider, as an example, a person at a
job interview who comes across as timid, insecure, and lacking in
confidence. The interviewer, due to the FAE, might therefore explain the
interviewee’s behavior in terms of “low self-esteem.” But, in fact, the
circumstance itself may be highly intimidating or even hostile, which
could be the primary (but of course not only) cause of the observed
behavior. To take another example, a person who generally struggles
with feelings of low self-worth might be perceived by others as confident
and outgoing – but only while under the influence of alcohol at a lively
party. In this instance, observers might be inclined to make a
dispositional attribution (“high self-esteem”), essentially disregarding
situational factors (i.e., alcohol and social setting) that could be chiefly
responsible for producing these observed behaviors. In this way, the FAE
can lead to over-attributions to “self-esteem,” thereby perpetuating the
self-esteem obsession.
Emotional reasoning
We can be prone to rely erroneously on our subjective experiences of
emotional comfort or discomfort as a gauge for differentiating what is
true from what is false. In other words, we have a tendency to use our
feelings – both good and bad – as a basis on which we formulate
appraisals of events around us. This process of assuming that what we
feel must be true has been termed emotional reasoning (Beck, 1976). But
emotions are not intrinsically a valid barometer of veracity: what feels
good is not necessarily correct, and what feels bad is not necessarily
incorrect. Put another way, feelings aren’t facts.
As previously discussed, we know from the research literature (e.g.,
Baumeister et al., 2003) that “having self-esteem” does not necessarily
inherently make people perform better in school or at work, nor end
problems associated with violence and aggression, nor ensure that people
engage in healthier lifestyle behaviors, and so on. At the same time, the
research also demonstrates that high self-esteem is directly linked to
happiness. Clearly, then, having self-esteem feels good – even if the
evidence shows that it doesn’t actually predict very much. How do we
reconcile this disjunction between feelings and facts? We might
mistakenly believe that because self-esteem feels good then it somehow
must produce all kinds of other positive outcomes. Perhaps high self-
esteem is such a “feel-good” phenomenon that we are willing to overlook
the overwhelming lack of support for its validity.
Even the belief in the very idea of “self-esteem” can produce good
feelings which, in turn, might lead us to cling to false assumptions as
valid and true. As a construct, in and of itself, “self-esteem” is simple,
easy for nearly everyone to understand, and internally based (see
fundamental attribution error, above). Thus, it is something that seems
manageable and controllable, which holds out the hope (even if false)
that we can actually do something constructive with it. These points
might shed further light as to why the pervasive quest to boost self-
esteem persists in our society.
Confirmation bias
As discussed previously, when attempting to explain phenomena, we
are faced with a multitude of obstacles that can impair our ability to reach
trustworthy and valid conclusions. One such obstacle involves the biased
manner in which we gather information forming the basis of our
decisions. Specifically, we tend to selectively seek out information or
evidence that is consistent with our prior expectations, thereby
confirming our own beliefs; conversely, we are much less likely to seek
evidence that will refute them. Our propensity to search for information
in this way is called confirmation bias (see Higgins & Bargh, 1987;
Jonas, Traut-Mattausch, Frey, & Greenberg, 2008). Confirmation bias
can lead us to draw distorted conclusions regarding evidence that runs
counter to our views by guiding us to seek out evidence in a self-
fulfilling manner (Lilienfeld, et al., 2009).
For instance, in an article on why ineffective psychotherapies appear
to work, Lilienfeld et al. (2014) assert that confirmation bias can
predispose clinicians to attend to “hits” and forget the “misses,” thereby
overestimating the extent to which their interventions are associated with
ensuing improvement. In this way, confirmation bias can foster a
propensity toward illusory correlation, which is defined as the perception
of a statistical association in its absence (Chapman & Chapman, 1967).
With regard to the persistence of our popular assumptions about self-
esteem, part of the reason for our continual disregard of contradictory
evidence may be a result of this common cognitive bias. As researchers
and clinicians, we may be unknowingly gathering data and thereby
eliciting information that affirms our common misconceptions about self-
esteem (for many of the reasons described in this section), causing us to
cling to the same conclusions that have been refuted by the evidence time
and again.
To take a clinical example, suppose a therapist assumes that all of the
problems of his or her prospective clients stem primarily from low self-
esteem. On this basis, in the course of gathering information in the intake
interview, the therapist poses the following questions: “Are you prone to
judge yourself too harshly? Is your self-worth what it should be? Would
you be better off if you had more self-confidence? Do you ever doubt
your value? Do you have any issues around self-esteem?” In addition to
their Barnum-like quality (see above), such leading questions are
virtually certain to yield a diagnostic impression of “low self-esteem.”
Belief perseverance effect
Over the course of a lifetime, we develop a wide range of different
beliefs, the content of which ranges from the ordinary to the profound.
One of the most significant characteristics of our beliefs is the degree to
which we become emotionally attached in them. The more personally
invested we are in our beliefs, the more likely we are to cling to them,
even in the face of contrary evidence, a bias in thinking that is referred to
as the belief perseverance effect (Anderson, 1983; Lord, Ross, & Lepper,
But what happens when our beliefs are questioned, particularly those
beliefs that we have come to hold dear or accept as truths? The more
emotionally attached we are to our beliefs, the more we are prone to feel
personally criticized – perhaps even threatened – when our beliefs are
challenged. As discussed above, in Western, individualistic society,
beliefs about the importance of high self-esteem are not only widely
accepted, but as research has shown, high self-esteem also feels good.
Therefore, it is highly likely that our emotional investment in these
beliefs about self-esteem contributes significantly to our tendency to
discount, deny, or simply ignore any information that runs counter to
5. What are the clinical implications if we continue to misunderstand
and misuse “self-esteem?
Despite the striking lack of empirical support that self-esteem plays a
significantly direct role in nearly every outcome, the pursuit of self-
esteem continues to be a central preoccupation of North American
culture. Thousands of books offer strategies to boost self-esteem,
childrearing manuals coach parents on how to raise children high in self-
esteem, and schools across the United States continue to implement
programs aimed at cultivating self-esteem, all in hopes of reducing an
array of problematic feelings and behaviors.
One might be inclined to ask, why not try to raise self-esteem? If self-
esteem essentially involves feeling good about oneself, what’s the harm
in that? However, we should not assume a priori that having self-esteem
or even pursuing self-esteem is without costs; in fact, as discussed
above, it has been shown to be associated with an array of potential
negative consequences. To take one example, contrary to the popular
belief that people benefit from positive self-statements (such as the self-
affirmations found in self-help books), when those with low self-esteem
repeat highly positive self-statements, their moods, their feelings, and
their self-related thoughts actually can become worse, not better (Wood,
Anthony, & Foddis, 2006).
While additional research is needed to explore further such liabilities,
we have adequate evidence to warrant some serious concerns when it
comes to indiscriminately boosting self-esteem. This section utilizes six
metathoughts relevant to the clinical application of self-esteem:
reification error, naturalistic fallacy, conflating dichotomous variables
with continuous variables, intervention-causation fallacy, self-fulfilling
prophecy, and the insight fallacy.
Reification error
The reification error involves mistakenly treating an abstract concept
as if it were a tangible object. The litany of psychological constructs that
are routinely reified is virtually limitless: the mind, the unconscious,
personality traits, intelligence, motivation, the self, and so on. In this
context, it’s easy to forget that self-esteem is not some objective thing
that an individual actually “has” (although it can be tempting to regard it
as such); rather, it is a hypothetical concept that we have created to help
us organize and make sense out of people’s behavior. Unfortunately,
however, many clinicians are prone to reify this construct, for instance,
by advising their clients, “Your self-esteem is too low, so you need to get
more of it” (as if self-esteem were some kind of commodity that can be
purchased at your local automotive supply store).
If people view self-esteem as though it is a thing that objectively
exists in the world, they are likely to pursue its literal attainment. But
there is no “there” there. Being stuck in a relentless quest of something
that does not tangibly exist can be experienced as failure, which
paradoxically could lead to even lower levels of self-esteem. On the other
hand, accepting self-esteem for just what it is – a human-made, imperfect
construct is more conducive to an appropriate, manageable
understanding of one’s self-directed appraisals and feelings. In the final
analysis, the construct of self-esteem should be evaluated more in terms
of it clinical utility, rather than its actual attainment.
Naturalistic fallacy
As described above, our perceptions and consequent descriptions of
the world are inescapably affected by our personal beliefs. Further, we
tend to equate our descriptions of what is with our prescriptions of what
ought to be. Specifically, we typically consider what is typical to be
normal and therefore good, while what is atypical to be abnormal and
therefore bad. In other words, if most people do something, we may be
inclined to think that it’s acceptable, and if most people don’t, we may
think it’s unacceptable. The converse can also be true, such as idealizing
someone simply for being different from the crowd or condemning
someone solely for doing as most others do. This error in thinking is
called the naturalistic fallacy (see Hume, 1978). As responsible
clinicians, educators, and researchers, it is important to be aware of this
bias and to avoid presenting our value judgments as objective reflections
of truth.
Examining self-esteem through a cross-cultural lens highlights the
importance of acknowledging the bidirectional nature of our perceptions
and our personal beliefs and biases (see Shiraev & Levy, 2017). As
applied here, just because the quest for high self-esteem is common in
North American society, it does not inherently make it good or right.
From the perspective of European-American culture, the self is defined
primarily in terms of its internal attributes, such as personality traits,
competence, and abilities. Thus, in this cultural context, self-enhancing
perceptions are encouraged, reinforced, and subsequently internalized as
an automatic response tendency. Individuals within this type of culture
would therefore be highly motivated to confirm the positivity of their
internal attributes of the self (Paulhus & Levitt, 1987).
On the other hand, many Asian cultures adhere to a very different
model of the self as interdependent, in which the self is defined primarily
in terms of its relationship to others. Within this collectivistic cultural
context, self-esteem as a positive appraisal of the self is often antithetical
to the objective of interdependence. Therefore, in Asian interdependent
cultures, an expression of the Westernized concept of “high self-esteem”
is prone to be perceived as a sign of insecurity, incompetence (Yoshida,
Kojo, & Kaku, 1982), and psychological vulnerability (Miller, Wang,
Sandel, & Cho, 2002). Further, self-critical or self-effacing self-
perceptions – the very attributes that Western cultures might view as
“low self-esteem” – are frequently encouraged, reinforced and eventually
internalized as a habitual response tendency (Kitayama, 2006).
As these examples illustrate, the quest to obtain high self-esteem is
not intrinsically a universal human motive. Nonetheless, in the United
States and other Westernized societies, countless mental health providers,
educators, and parents behave as if it is. From a clinical perspective, what
might be the consequences of a therapist consistently encouraging a
client to strive for higher self-esteem if, in fact, that client does not share
the therapist’s Westernized belief system? Similarly, how might a
therapy intern be affected by a clinical supervisor who regularly instructs
him or her to work toward increasing a client’s self-esteem (or even his
or her own self-esteem), if the intern does not adhere to the same cultural
values? In other words, as clinicians, how often are we confusing what is
with what should be? By confusing what is with what should be,
clinicians and educators are not only failing to uphold a commitment to
cultural awareness and sensitivity, but could also be contributing to or
even creating the clinical problems they are seeking to alleviate.
Conflating dichotomous variables with continuous variables
As discussed above, “self-esteem” is a prime example of a continuous
variable that is often erroneously viewed as if it were a dichotomous
variable. One significant problem with this particular error is that it can
lead to psychological distress across a range of clinical presentations.
The dynamic of false dichotomization has been addressed by several
theoretical orientations in the field of clinical psychology. Psychoanalytic
theory, for example, identifies the ego defense mechanism of splitting
(i.e., falsely categorizing the world into good versus bad components and
treating them in an all-or-none fashion), which can contribute to unstable
relationships and intense emotional experiences (Fairbairn, 1952; Klein,
1937). From this perspective, the therapeutic objective would be one of
integrating or synthesizing these disparate psychological elements.
Alternatively, from a cognitive therapy orientation, a common goal is to
help clients modify their dichotomous “black-or-white” thinking into
seeing more middle ground or “shades of grey” (see Beck, 1976; Ellis,
1984). By learning to see their situations in less absolute terms, clients
can gain a greater sense of flexibility, acceptance, and realistic control
over their lives.
Just as there are potential negative effects of binary thinking for an
individual with an eating disorder (“fat or “thin”), depression (“success
or failure”), or paranoia (“safe or unsafe”), so too can viewing self-
esteem through an all-or-none prism have equally undesirable
consequences. For example, if we regard self-esteem as something that
one either “has” or “does not have,” what might be the effects on a
person who is constantly seeking the “attainment” of high self-esteem,
but to no avail? That individual is much more likely to perceive himself
or herself as ineffective, inadequate, and unsuccessful. In contrast, by
learning to view self-esteem in less rigid or absolute ways, the individual
is likely to experience a more positive self-appraisal and a decrease in
emotional distress.
Intervention-causation fallacy
The intervention-causation fallacy (sometimes termed the treatment-
etiology fallacy) refers to a common misattribution wherein the cause of
an event is erroneously determined simply on the basis of its response to
an intervention. In point of fact, however, the resolution of a problem
does not necessarily prove its cause.
For example, suppose a psychotherapist implements a treatment
intervention designed to boost self-esteem. Let’s assume further that the
strategy yields favorable outcomes. Can we conclude therefore that low
self-esteem must have been the cause of the client’s original distress? Not
necessarily. There are other plausible explanations for the beneficial
results in this scenario. For instance, the intervention may have
inadvertently ameliorated other separate but related symptoms, such as
dysphoric mood, passivity, apathy, or social isolation. In addition, the
results could have been due, at least in part, to the placebo effect.
As such, a positive response to an intervention aimed at boosting self-
esteem does not inherently prove the etiology of the individual’s
problems as being due to low self-esteem. Further, incorrectly concluding
that the primary cause must be low self-esteem could potentially
undermine the efforts of clinicians to accurately understand and treat an
individual’s specific needs. As discussed above, having (or even
pursuing) high self-esteem is not without risks. Therefore, to draw this
fallacious conclusion could lead not only to continuing the relentless
and potentially detrimental – pursuit of self-esteem, but also to the
clinician overlooking the real causal factors at play.
Self-fulfilling prophecy
The self-fulfilling prophecy is a phenomenon whereby a perceiver’s
assumptions about another person lead that person actually to adopt those
attributes. In perhaps the most famous study of the self-fulfilling
prophecy, the researchers (Rosenthal & Jacobson, 1968) found that by
simply informing elementary school teachers that some of their pupils
would show dramatic improvement in academic performance during the
upcoming school year, the children who had been identified as
“intellectual bloomers” (students who were really chosen at random) did
in fact show an improvement in their schoolwork and even their IQ
scores. Thus, their teachers had unwittingly helped to create the very
behaviors they expected.
While the expectations of the teachers in this study were socially
desirable, the self-fulfilling prophecy has been demonstrated with a wide
range of both positive and negative perceiver expectancies, including
hostility (Snyder & Swann, 1978), extraversion (see Snyder, 1984),
gender and racial stereotypes (Ferguson, 2003; Skrypnek & Snyder,
1982; Word, Zanna, & Cooper, 1974), and even stereotypes concerning
physical attractiveness (Snyder, Tanke, & Berscheid, 1977).
Applying this principle in a clinical setting, suppose that a therapist
expects his or her new client to be fragile, resistant, or manipulative, or to
have low self-esteem? In these cases, and countless more, the therapist’s
prior beliefs may unknowingly produce the very behaviors they expect to
find – both for better and for worse. Regardless of our intent, assuming a
priori that clients suffer from a core problem of low self-esteem can be
more pernicious than we might think.
Insight fallacy
One of our most widespread and enduring societal myths, especially
in the field of clinical psychology, is that insight alone produces
meaningful change. And nowhere is the insight fallacy more apparent
than in beliefs about the conduct of psychotherapy. Therapists and clients
alike cling to the alluring conviction that understanding a psychological
difficulty will somehow inevitably cause the problem to resolve itself.
Understanding the “roots” of a problem, however, is not necessarily the
key to solving the problem.
This is not to suggest that insight is without value. There are
numerous potential benefits to insight in psychotherapy, such as
providing a sense of relief or comfort by helping the client to grasp an
unexplained phenomenon, serving as a critical initial step toward the
client adopting specific problem-solving strategies, and providing clients
with the ability to generalize their therapeutic gains to other situations
and challenges. These advantages notwithstanding, the problem lies in
failing to recognize that insight alone has significant limitations.
As discussed above, low self-esteem is regularly identified as the root
cause of a vast array of negative psychological conditions, including
narcissism, depression, addictions, eating disorders, abuse (both as
perpetrator and victim), dysmorphia, and relationship problems, to list
but a few. But what exactly do clinicians actually accomplish by
diagnosing low self-esteem as a (or even the) root cause of people’s
One potential benefit of guiding clients to gain insight about their
feelings of low self-worth is helping to pave a pathway toward improved
psychological health, based on the correlation between high self-esteem
and enhanced mood or happiness. That notwithstanding, however, it is
essential to remember that insight alone into one’s feelings or perceptions
about himself or herself will not necessarily change those feelings or
In fact, some critics have argued that emphasizing insight can be
detrimental to the therapeutic process in that focusing primarily on
cognitive understanding allows both clients and therapists to avoid
unpleasant emotions (see A. Freud, 1936; Holland, 2003). In sum, insight
might be useful in some ways, but clinicians should recognize its
limitations and therefore seek to explore alternative avenues of change,
such as emotion-focused therapy (Greenberg, 2016), cognitive behavior
therapy (Beck, 2011), or solution-focused therapy (de Shazer & Dolan,
Summary of Applications and Recommendations
Self-esteem, viewed for decades as psychology’s “Holy Grail,” has
proved to be an elusive and surprisingly porous vessel, rife with a
plethora of conceptual and methodological fissures. This section
summarizes the application of specific metathoughts to address areas of
concern. Researchers, clinicians, educators, and others should be mindful
of these errors in critical thinking regarding self-esteem as they attempt
to surmount these cognitive errors and improve the quality and
effectiveness of their professional work.
Understanding Self-Esteem
Part of the reason for the continued lack of consensus in defining and
understanding self-esteem is a deficit in critical thinking. More
specifically, we sometimes fail to realize and accept that: (a) the terms
“self-esteem,” “high self-esteem,” and “low self-esteem” are value laden
and highly contingent on one’s own personal set of attitudes and beliefs
(linguistic bias); and (b) to simply label someone as having high or low
self-esteem does not actually explain his or her behavior (nominal fallacy
and tautologous reasoning).
The Heterogeneity of Self-Esteem
Research supports the heterogeneity of self-esteem, but insufficient
success has been achieved at determining where the distinctions lie. In
attempting to delineate these differences, it is important to remember
that: (a) various facets of self-esteem should be viewed through multiple
sociocultural lenses (linguistic bias); (b) self-esteem is often erroneously
regarded as if it fits into dichotomous categories, when it rightfully
belongs on a continuum (conflating dichotomous variables with
continuous variables); and (c) self-esteem, self-concept, self-appraisal,
self-efficacy, and narcissism are all both similar to and different from
each other, depending on the variables or dimensions that are selected as
the basis of comparison (similarity-uniqueness paradox).
Problems with the Research on Self-Esteem
Self-esteem research has been hindered by insufficient attention to the
following factors: (a) while self-report measures are an efficient and the
most commonly used method of measuring self-esteem, they are
associated with a host of biasing factors which can compromise the
validity of researchers’ observations (reactivity); (b) cause and effect
cannot be proven simply on the basis of a statistically significant
correlation (e.g., self-esteem and mood) (correlation-causation
conflation); (c) “cause” and “effect” are relative terms, with cause in one
instance becoming effect in another (e.g., self-esteem and popularity)
(bidirectional causation); (d) most effects (such as low self-esteem) are
likely the result of not just one cause but numerous causes that are
interacting together (multiple causation).
The Obsession with Self-Esteem
Why does our obsession with self-esteem persist? The answers to this
question can be summarized by the following errors in critical thinking:
(a) we tend to draw conclusions based on information that is readily
available in our memories, thereby erroneously assuming a causal
connection between self-esteem and other variables simply by virtue of
their mental salience (availability bias); (b) we are inclined to force data
to fit into our existing schemas about self-esteem, rather than modifying
our schemas to account for data about self-esteem (assimilation bias); (c)
statements about individuals’ self-esteem are often so generic and overly
inclusive that they are true of practically all human beings, resulting in
people continuing to accept them uncritically (Barnum effect); (d) we
have a tendency to weigh internal determinants (e.g., self-esteem) more
heavily than external determinants (e.g., environmental or sociocultural
factors) (the fundamental attribution error); (e) the fact that self-esteem
feels good might lead us to overlook the lack of empirical evidence for its
value in shaping behavior and psychological well-being (emotional
reasoning); (f) we have a propensity to selectively gather information
that is consistent with our popular beliefs about self-esteem, while
ignoring evidence that refutes them (confirmation bias); (g) we tend to be
personally invested in our beliefs about self-esteem, which makes us
more likely to cling to them (belief perseverance effect).
Clinical Implications of Misusing “Self-Esteem”
We should not assume a priori that having self-esteem – or even
pursuing self-esteem is without costs. There is adequate evidence that
indiscriminately boosting self-esteem is associated with an array of
potential negative outcomes. While further research is needed to explore
further such liabilities, the following are some of the more important
clinical implications: (a) if we continue to treat “self-esteem” as though it
were an objective thing rather than a subjective construct, people risk
feeling failure when they can’t “attain” it (reification error); (b) by
confusing what is with what should be, clinicians are not only failing to
uphold a commitment to cultural awareness and sensitivity, but could
also be contributing to the clinical problems they are seeking to alleviate
(naturalistic fallacy); (c) by learning to view self-esteem in less absolute
terms, clients can gain a greater sense of flexibility, acceptance, and
realistic control over their lives (conflating dichotomous variables with
continuous variables); (d) incorrectly concluding that a positive response
to self-esteem boosting interventions proves that the client initially
suffered from low self-esteem could lead to overlooking true etiology
(intervention-causation fallacy); (e) clinicians’ assumptions that their
clients must be suffering from low self-esteem might inadvertently
contribute to the lowering of self-esteem (the self-fulfilling prophecy); (f)
insight alone into one’s feelings about himself or herself will not
necessarily change those feelings (insight fallacy).
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... As described above, however, these assumed ontologies are not made explicit by researchers in the field of state self-esteem research. Researchers do, however, communicate particular ontological assumptions via their methodological and empirical practices, as well as their linguistic norms (Levy, 2019). These philosophical commitments to specific ontologies -or "what actually exists" -are thus enacted through our research actions (Derksen & Morawski, 2022). ...
... A unifying stance adopted by researchers within the Coactive-Processes assemblage is the explicit rejection of a substance metaphysical principle that views (trait, fragile, or secure) self-esteem as a "thing-like" property that individuals "have" or "possess" (e.g., Cigman, 2004;Levy, 2019;Pomagalska, 2005;Sabat et al., 1999;Strandell, 2017). Rather, the Coactive-Processes assemblage communicates a commitment to a process metaphysical principle or process ontology. ...
... The answers to these types of questions are thus not directly comparable across assemblages, as it is impossible to disentangle the methodological approach from the specific knowledge that is produced (Van Geert & De Ruiter, 2022). Self-esteem is indeed always going to be a construct (Levy, 2019), and that construct will vary depending on the philosophical position that motivates the specific pursuit. This is good news, as it means that results produced by both approaches to dynamic self-esteem do not resemble opposing hypotheses, such that one must be false. ...
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Methodological and empirical questions concerning state self-esteem are contingent upon very specific underlying commitments to “what” state self-esteem and its dynamics actually are. These are questions concerning ontology. These underlying commitments or views about “what actually exists” are not explicit, but enacted through our research actions. It is vital to bring these implicit underlying ontologies to the surface, so that we as researchers can reflect upon them, and on the assumptions that we are communicating and reinforcing with our methodological and empirical practices. In service of a conceptually solid and unambiguous framework of theoretical and methodological approaches to state self-esteem, I aim to lay bare the ontological commitments enacted in current research on state self-esteem. I show that state-self-esteem research forms two different assemblages of practices, which are repertoires of conceptual assumptions, discourse norms, methods of analysis, and operationalizations. One assemblage sketches a narrative of daily self-esteem in mechanistic terms, the other sketches a narrative of daily self-esteem in processual terms. After analyzing how concrete practices enact these ontological commitments, I reflect on how the two research assemblages might converge to benefit research on state self-esteem in the future, emphasizing the need for reflexivity from researchers.
... Avant-propos L'engouement pour la recherche empirique sur l'estime de soi il y a quelques années a permis de découvrir les différentes implications comportementales de l'estime de soi ainsi que ses conséquences en termes de santé mentale. Une illustration de cet engouement est le « Self-Esteem Movement », né dans les années 1970-80 aux Etats-Unis, qui a placé l'estime de soi au centre de nombreuses problématiques sociales et politiques en postulant qu'avoir une haute estime de soi pouvait avoir un impact positif sur l'éducation, les relations sociales, la santé mentale, la violence, la délinquance, etc. (Levy, 2019). Cependant, le manque de preuves scientifiques étayant ce postulat a contribué à mettre fin à ce mouvement, les réelles conséquences de l'estime de soi étant limitées ou difficilement objectivables (Baumeister et al., 2003). ...
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Self-esteem is recognized as an essential psychological resource. Low self-esteem is a trans-diagnostic symptom of many psychological disorders. Considering its association with coping skills and psychological adjustment strategies, the preservation of self-esteem appears to be an important clinical issue in oncology care as it would allow patients to better cope with the diagnosis and treatment of cancer. This thesis, through a meta-analysis of the interventions proposed to increase self-esteem in adults, has highlighted some of their characteristics that limit their efficacy and clinical applicability. Then, seven randomized controlled studies were conducted and allowed the development of a new short and self-administered technique for self-esteem increase, easily applicable to cancer patients. The lexical association technique aims at improving self-esteem by reinforcing the associative links between the Self and positive concepts stored in memory, through the activation of semantic and episodic forms of self-knowledge. This reinforcement is based on a reading and mental visualization exercise. In this thesis, the efficacy of the lexical association technique on global self-esteem was highlighted in students and breast cancer patients. Various studies aiming to simplifying and increasing the clinical applicability of the technique have demonstrated the need for retrieval of detailed memory traces, as well as the importance of contact with the experimenter in the efficacy of our technique. These results enabled us to develop and test a second format of the lexical association technique on global self-esteem, optimizing the activation of episodic self-perceptions, and proposing personalized and engaging exercises. Self-perceptions, on which self-esteem is based, are rooted in the individual's memory system. This thesis has contributed to highlighting that their reinforcement requires a combined activation of the different forms of self-knowledge that constitute them. However, the clinical applications of the lexical association technique as a transdiagnostic intervention have yet to be defined.
Psychological science constructs much of the knowledge that we consume in our everyday lives. This book is a systematic analysis of this process, and of the nature of the knowledge it produces. The authors show how mainstream scientific activity treats psychological properties as being fundamentally stable, universal, and isolable. They then challenge this status quo by inviting readers to recognize that dynamics, context-specificity, interconnectedness, and uncertainty, are a natural and exciting part of human psychology – these are not things to be avoided and feared, but instead embraced. This requires a shift toward a process-based approach that recognizes the situated, time-dependent, and fundamentally processual nature of psychological phenomena. With complex dynamic systems as a framework, this book sketches out how we might move toward a process-based praxis that is more suitable and effective for understanding human functioning.
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Self-esteem, viewed for decades as psychology’s Holy Grail, has proved to be an elusive and surprisingly porous vessel. Despite popular beliefs that self-esteem plays a causal role in numerous social behaviors, research shows that it actually predicts very little beyond mood and some types of initiative. This is likely attributable to myriad conceptual and methodological problems that have plagued the literature. Consequently, this review proposes a new theoretical model that accounts for the construct’s heterogeneous and multidimensional nature. Self-esteem is defined as the appraisal of one’s own personal value, including both emotional components (self-worth) and cognitive components (self- efficacy). The multiple forms of self-esteem are a function of its accuracy, directionality, and level of stability. The permutations of these sorting variables deductively yield eight forms of self-esteem: optimal high, fragile high, accurate low, fragile low, non-compensatory narcissism, compensatory narcissism, pessimal, and disorganized. Specific recommendations for clinicians and researchers are provided.