Self-esteem (SE) is the overall value that one places on oneself as a person. Few topics have received more attention in psychology than SE, and indeed, a search of the PsyclNFO database in 2005 identified more than 25,000 articles with self-esteem as a keyword. There are several reasons for the enduring interest in SE. First and foremost, most people are inherently curious about SE because it encompasses important information about the self, such as how worthy, competent, and well-liked one is. In that sense, possessing self-knowledge necessitates understanding ones’ SE, and few can be indifferent to this kind of information. Second, researchers and practitioners alike have assumed that high SE has many positive outcomes, and in fact, much of the research on SE has been focused on exploring what enhances SE. Third, SE has been shown to be related to many important variables of interest, such as subjective well-being, job satisfaction, performance, competition, causal attribution, achievement, and helping. Therefore, understanding SE appears to enhance knowledge in many other areas of psychology. Because SE seems to have such major importance to researchers, practitioners, and people in general, it is not surprising that more than 150 articles are published every month on SE. Despite this proliferation of studies and decades of empirical research, the topic is not free of controversies, and there is no universal agreement about some aspects of the validity of the construct and its effects.
Theoretical and Measurement Issues
Because SE involves an evaluation of how worthy one is as a person, by definition, it seems that people with high SE should have positive self-regard and those with low SE should have negative self-regard. However, though it is true that people with high SE have positive, well-defined views of the self, people with low SE do not necessarily hold negative views of themselves. Instead, low-SE individuals tend to evaluate themselves neutrally, and their self-views tend to vary considerably from situation to situation.
This neutrality and variability in evaluations of the self raises several important theoretical, methodological, and practical questions that have not been clearly answered in the SE literature. For example, it is not completely clear why people with low SE have variable views of themselves; several incompatible theoretical explanations may account for this phenomenon. On one hand, it is possible that people with low SE lack a clear notion of who they are, and therefore they describe themselves in noncommittal, middle-of-the-road terms. Indeed, people with low SE exhibit less stability of self-evaluations and tend to give inconsistent responses to questions asking them to describe themselves (compared with those with high SE). Thus, according to the self-concept clarity explanation, low-SE individuals are confused and ambivalent about who they are and therefore tend to be variable and noncommittal in their self-views.
On the other hand, it is also possible that people with low SE are actually more accurate in their self-evaluations than high-SE individuals. In this sense, the neutrality and inconsistency of self-evaluations associated with low SE actually represent a more accurate perception of the self that truly varies across situations and circumstances. Because we sometimes act as worthy and capable individuals and sometimes do not, people with low SE may be correct in their self-descriptions, and those with high SE may be positively biased and even detached from reality. Indeed, there is some evidence to suggest that people with high SE consistently exaggerate their positive views of the self. For example, several studies have shown that people with high SE overevaluate how much other people like them, and some researchers have even claimed that the interpersonal success of high-SE individuals exists only in their own minds. Indeed, high SE has often been equated with narcissism.
These two theoretical explanations of SE have opposite practical implications. If, in fact, people with low SE have variable and neutral self-views because they lack a clear notion of who they are, then the goal of practitioners should be to enhance SE. However, if those with low SE are actually more accurate and those with high SE are self-deceivers who tend to be narcissistic, then enhancing SE may be counterproductive. These two theoretical explanations also raise some methodological difficulties: If SE represents either a lack of self-concept clarity (on the low end) or narcissism and self-deception (on the high end), then how does SE differ from these constructs, and what is its distinctive contribution as a concept? Is it a unitary concept at all? The literature on SE is not clear on this point; therefore, theories that account for SE as a self-reported descriptor have some difficulty explaining the concept and its uniqueness.
Perhaps a better approach is to look at the behavioral patterns of people with high and low SE and explain the psychological processes that underlie these behavioral patterns. The SE literature clearly shows that people with high SE are much less plastic in their behavior than people with low SE. For example, people with low SE are more reactive to external social cues and therefore more susceptible to negative feedback and more accepting of it than high-SE individuals. Low-SE individuals are also more susceptible to attempts to influence, more sensitive to anxiety-causing stimuli, and prone to be influenced by self-focus and expectancy manipulations. This tendency to be “behaviorally plastic” may be especially important in performance situations—performance has been shown to be influenced by expectancies and self rather than task-focused manipulations.
Two underlying psychological motives may explain the behavioral plasticity pattern of low-SE individuals. On one hand, individuals want to feel good about themselves and feel that they are worthy, capable, and likable; therefore, one motive that drives people is self-enhancement. On the other hand, people also desire to be self-consistent and protect their self-conceptions from change. In other words, people are driven by the desire to predict and control important life experiences and to tell themselves a consistent story about who they are. For those with positive SE, self-consistency and self-enhancement operate in concert, but for people with negative self-views, these two drives operate in opposite directions. Low-SE people want to maintain their negative self-view in order to maintain self-consistency, but at the same time, they want to think better of themselves. Because they have contradictory motives, they look outside for cues to who they are and rely on social information to determine their future actions. For example, when people with high SE encounter negative information about themselves in the form of failure or negative feedback, they tend to reject it and do not let the information affect their expectancies or behaviors. In contrast, those with low SE often accept the information and let it influence their behaviors.
Methodologically, SE presents other difficulties. A recent analysis of the relationship between SE, neuroticism, locus of control, and generalized self-efficacy found very strong correlations among all of these constructs, which are essentially representing the same underlying construct. The discriminant validity of SE as a unique construct is therefore open to debate.
Despite these issues, research on SE has made some significant contributions. First, measures of SE are highly correlated with each other and generally show high reliabilities. In particular, the Rosenberg
Self-Esteem Scale, named for Morris Rosenberg, seems to be content- and face-valid, and it is reliable and unitary and therefore can be used with confidence.
Second, meta-analytic research has shown some of the relationships between SE and important variables of interest in industrial and organizational psychology to be quite significant. For example, SE has been shown to be an important predictor of job satisfaction (r = .26). People with high SE actually attain more challenging jobs, and even in jobs that are not particularly complex, they see more challenges and therefore are more excited about their jobs than people with low SE. People with high SE also have higher subjective well-being (r = .47) and cope better with stressful situations. Self-esteem is significantly correlated with job performance (r = .26), and the relationship is actually stronger than the usual relationship between conscientiousness and performance, which is considered the strongest personality predictor of job performance. Another major variable of interest in the organizational literature is leadership—indeed, several studies have shown that SE is a good predictor of leadership behavior and efficacy. In addition, a recent large-scale study showed that people with high SE exhibit more “voice behavior” in organizations and therefore are less susceptible to groupthink. Overall, despite the theoretical and methodological controversies, SE has been shown to be a valuable variable of interest in industrial and organizational psychology.
- Baumeister, R. F., Campbell, J. D., Kruger, J. I., & Vohs, K. D. (2003). Does self-esteem cause better performance, interpersonal success, happiness, or healthier lifestyle? Psychological Science in the PublicInterest, 4,1-44.
- Brockner, J. (1988). Self-esteem at work: Research, theory, and practice. Lexington, MA: Lexington Books.
- Campbell, J. D., & Lavallee, L. F. (1993). Who am I? The role of self-concept confusion in understanding the behavior of people with low self-esteem. In R. F. Baumeister (Ed.), Self-esteem: The puzzle of low self-regard (pp. 3-20). New York: Plenum Press.
- Judge, T. A., & Bono, J. E. (2001). Relationship of core self-evaluations traits—self-esteem, generalized self-efficacy, locus of control, and emotional stability—with job satisfaction and job performance: A meta-analysis. Journal of Applied Psychology, 86, 80-92.
- Judge, T. A., Erez, A., Bono, J. E., & Thoresen, C. J. (2002). Are measures of self-esteem, neuroticism, locus of control, and generalized self-efficacy indicators of a common core construct? Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 83, 693-710.
- La Ronde, C., & Swann, W. B. (1993). Caught in the crossfire: Positivity and self-verification strivings among people with low self-esteem. In R. F. Baumeister (Ed.), Self-esteem: The puzzle of low self-regard (pp. 147-166). New York: Plenum Press.