Self-esteem has become a very widely used term over the last thirty years as teachers, parents, and therapists have expended enormous effort and expense on increasing it, on the assumption that raising self-esteem will provide beneﬁts and improve outcomes in many areas of life, including school performance, relationships, discipline, and general quality of life. First, a deﬁnition: self-esteem is generally used to refer to how much value people place on themselves. High self-esteem would, therefore, refer to a highly favorable evaluation of the overall self, whereas low self-esteem refers to an unfavorable evaluation of the self. It is important to note, however, that measures of self-esteem carry with them no promise of accuracy: self-esteem represents perception rather than reality. High self-esteem may be the result of an accurate, justiﬁed measure of one’s successes and abilities, but it may also indicate an arrogant, narcissistic, conceited, and thoroughly unwarranted self-impression. Low self-esteem may represent a well-founded dissection of one’s shortcomings, or it may indicate an undeserved and inaccurate sense of inferiority and insecurity.
It is not unreasonable to expect increased self-esteem to bring some beneﬁts or for reduced self-esteem to create problems. Classic psychological research has shown repeatedly that inaccurate beliefs about the self or about others can become self-fulﬁlling prophecies, inﬂuencing both the opportunities for success that arise and how those opportunities are received. It has become widely accepted among researchers, clinicians, parents, and school ofﬁcials that high self-esteem will produce positive outcomes, a belief which has been based almost entirely on anecdotal evidence rather than any sort of solid research. This idea became so popular that in 1986, the California legislature funded a task force to increase the self-esteem of the people of California, with the idea that reductions in welfare dependency, school failure, crime, drug abuse, homelessness, and many other social problems would surely follow. This is based on the idea that too many people have low self-esteem, so raising it should improve many people’s outlook. Empirical evidence casts some doubt on this assumption, however. When self-esteem scales are given to large numbers of Americans, most people’s scores fall at the upper end of the distribution. In other words, self-esteem in America is, if anything, excessively high. The average American regards himself or herself as above average. This pattern holds regardless of race, gender, and socioeconomic status.
A recent large-scale review of available research on self-esteem, published by the American Psychological Society, calls into question a number of the other standard assumptions about self-esteem’s beneﬁts. The relationship between self-esteem and school performance, for example, is modest at best, and it suggests that high self-esteem is partly the result of good school performance, rather than indicating that high self-esteem leads to good school performance. The relationship between self-esteem and occupational success is just as problematic: success in a job increases self-esteem, but higher self-esteem does not necessarily improve job performance.
Objective measures also shoot down the notion that higher self-esteem improves the quality or duration of relationships. Unsurprisingly, however, people in high-quality, long-term relationships do lean toward higher self-esteem than people whose relationships have failed. As for the relationship between self-esteem and crime or disciplinary problems, successful bullies and thieves often have high self-esteem, whereas their victims often do not. Furthermore, high self-esteem does not appear to prevent children from engaging in substance abuse or sexual activity. In fact, though the effect is a very small one, higher self-esteem may actually lead to more experimentation.
Self-esteem is associated with greater happiness, conﬁdence, and initiative; but the causal direction is not clear. High self-esteem may well be a consequence of those things rather than a cause of them. There is little or no evidence that efforts aimed speciﬁcally at increasing self-esteem will actually produce improved outcomes. High self-esteem is not a bad thing; it just may not be the most important thing on which to focus intervention efforts.
- Baumeister, R. F., Campbell, J. D., Krueger, J. I., and Vohs, K. D. “Does High Self-Esteem Cause Better Performance, Interpersonal Success, Happiness, or Healthier Lifestyles?” Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 4(1) (2003).