Threatened Egotism Theory

Threatened Egotism Theory Definition

The threatened egotism theory of aggression states that violence is related to a highly favorable view of the self, combined with an ego threat. This theory does not suggest that high self-esteem necessarily causes violence or that there is any direct relationship between self-esteem and violence. Furthermore, although there is evidence that most violent criminals, bullies, and terrorists tend to think highly of themselves, most people who think highly of themselves are not violent. An accurate characterization of the theory is that violence is perpetrated by a subset of people who exhibit an unstable and overly inflated high self-esteem. They respond with hostile aggression to what they perceive as challenges to these self-views to express the self’s rejection of ego-threatening feedback.

Context and Importance on Threatened Egotism Theory

Threatened Egotism TheoryThis theory runs counter to the widely held belief that low self-esteem is the cause of violent behavior. High self-esteem has traditionally been viewed as an unqualified asset and something that everyone should strive to achieve. Much of the self-help literature stems from this notion that high self-esteem is essential for success in one’s relationships and careers and that one can develop high self-esteem by adhering to prescribed formulas. Many school systems have adopted policies that operate on this premise and offer praise and rewards to children for effort as much as for achievement. The threatened egotism theory of aggression casts serious doubt on this school of thought and instead suggests that artificially inflating self-esteem without accompanying boosts in achievement or other bases for feeling good about one’s self can do more harm than good. The theory suggests that it is these people—those with grandiose, unstable self-esteem— who are most likely to respond violently in response to unfavorable feedback or other types of threats to their self-conceptions. It is these people who find criticism particularly threatening and lash out against its source.

Evidence for Threatened Egotism Theory

Evidence supporting this theory comes from diverse sources, such as studies of violence in laboratory settings, criminological surveys, and historical accounts, and includes a wide range of violence, such as murder, assault, rape, domestic violence, bullies, youth gangs, terrorism, repressive governments, tyranny, warfare, prejudice, oppression, and genocide. The common theme throughout these studies is that those who perceive a threat to their high self-esteem are most likely to perpetrate violence. Threatened egotism has been measured in a variety of ways as well, such as perceived disrespect, wounded pride, insults, verbal abuse, or unfavorable feedback. In addition, the same pattern was found for nations, medium and small groups, and lone individuals. It is important to note that the theory does not claim that threatened egotism is the only cause of aggression since there are likely numerous other factors, such as biochemical or genetic causes, family environment, and other factors that have yet to be identified. Studies indicate that threatened egotism is a cause of violence in a substantial number of con-texts, but there are other possible variables that might play important roles in predicting violence.

Evidence from research examining how violent groups and individuals view themselves provides support for this theory, as does an examination of how egotism predicts violent behavior. Research studies with narcissistic people (those who are likely to have high self-esteem that is not well founded) have shown that they respond to negative interpersonal feedback with aggression toward the source of the feedback. In one laboratory study, participants were instructed to write an essay expressing a particular attitude toward abortion and were then led to believe that another participant was going to evaluate the essay and give feedback. The feedback was construed so that it was positive for half the participants and negative for the rest of the participants. The researchers found that when the essay was evaluated negatively, participants were more likely to blast the other participant with loud noise on a subsequent competitive task that involved punishments for incorrect answers. These aggressive responses were the strongest among the participants who scored high on a narcissism scale, indicating that an inflated view of the self that is challenged is most associated with aggressive behavior.

Some research compares rates of aggression between groups that are known to differ on egotism. Psychopaths, for example, commit a disproportionately high level of violent crimes and exhibit a highly inflated view of their abilities and importance in the world. In addition, the well-documented relationship between alcohol consumption and aggression can be understood in the context of this theory. Evidence indicates that when people drink, they tend to rate themselves more favorably than they would otherwise, creating a temporary state of high self-esteem. An examination of violent offenders also suggests strong tendencies toward egotism. Men who are imprisoned for murder or assaults tend to commit these crimes in response to when they perceive they were insulted, belittled, or simply had their pride wounded.

Threatened Egotism Theory Implications

This theory has had a strong influence on how violent behavior has been understood and on the development of appropriate interventions. Although it may, in some ways, seem counterintuitive that high self-esteem would not be protective against ego threats, an important component of this theory is that an unstable, inflated sense of self is the type that is most harmful. This form of self-esteem is particularly vulnerable to threats and proneness to violence. This theory provides compelling evidence that attempting to boost self-esteem to cure underachievement, social exclusion, and aggressive tendencies is counterproductive and potentially harmful.


  1. Baumeister, R. F., Smart, L., & Boden, J. M. (1996). Relation of threatened egotism to violence and aggression: The dark side of self-esteem. Psychological Review, 103, 5-33.
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  3. Kernis, M. H., Grannemann, B. D., & Barclay, L. C. (1989). Stability and level of self-esteem as predictors of anger arousal and hostility. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 56, 1013-1022.