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In psychology, self-esteem reflects a person's overall self-appraisal of their own worth.

Self-esteem encompasses both beliefs (for example, "I am competent/incompetent") and emotions (for example: triumph/despair, pride/shame). Behavior may reflect self-esteem, in (for example: assertiveness/timorousness, confidence/caution).

Psychologists usually regard self-esteem as an enduring personality characteristic (trait self-esteem), though normal, short-term variations (state self-esteem) occur.

Self-esteem can apply specifically to a particular dimension (for example: "I believe I am a good writer, and feel proud of that in particular") or have global extent (for example: "I believe I am a good person, and feel proud of myself in general").

Compare and contrast self-esteem with:

Definitions of self-esteem

The term "self-esteem", one of the oldest concepts in psychology, first appeared as a coinage of American psychologist and philosopher William James in 1890.

Self-esteem has become the third most frequently occurring theme in psychological literature: as of 2003 over 25,000 articles, chapters, and books referred to the topic.[1]

Given a long and varied history, the term has, unsurprisingly, no less than three major types of definitions in the field, each of which has generated its own tradition of research, findings, and practical applications:

  1. The original definition presents self-esteem as a ratio found by dividing one’s successes in areas of life of importance to a given individual by the failures in them or one’s “success / pretensions”.[2] Problems with this approach come from making self-esteem contingent upon success: this implies inherent instability because failure can occur at any moment.[3]
  2. In the mid 1960s Maurice Rosenberg and social-learning theorists defined self-esteem in terms of a stable sense of personal worth or worthiness, measurable by self-report testing. This became the most frequently used definition for research, but involves problems of boundary-definition, making self-esteem indistinguishable from such things as narcissism or simple bragging.[4]
  3. Nathaniel Branden in 1969 briefly defined self-esteem as "…the experience of being competent to cope with the basic challenges of life and being worthy of happiness". This two-factor approach, as some have also called it, provides a balanced definition that seems to be capable of dealing with limits of defining self-esteem primarily in terms of competence or worth alone.[5]

In Branden’s description (1969) self-esteem includes the following primary properties:

  1. self-esteem as a basic human need, i.e., "…it makes an essential contribution to the life process", "…is indispensable to normal and healthy self-development, and has a value for survival."
  2. self-esteem as an automatic and inevitable consequence of the sum of individuals' choices in using their consciousness
  3. something experienced as a part of, or background to, all of the individual's thoughts, feelings and actions.

Compare self-love, self-confidence.

Measuring self-esteem

For the purposes of empirical research, psychologists typically assess self-esteem by a self-report questionnaire yielding a quantitative result. They establish the validity and reliability of the questionnaire prior to its use.

Popular lore recognizes just "high" self-esteem and "low" self-esteem.

Maslow's approaches to esteem

Maslow described two kinds of esteem needs — the need for respect from others and the need for self-respect. Maslowian self-esteem entails competence, confidence, mastery, achievement, independence, and freedom. Respect from others entails recognition, acceptance, status, and appreciation. Without the fulfillment of these needs, Maslow suggests, an individual feels discouraged, weak and inferior.

Quality and level of self-esteem

Level and quality of self-esteem, though correlated, remain distinct. Level-wise, one can exhibit high but fragile self-esteem (as in narcissism) or low but stable self-esteem (as in humility). However, investigators can indirectly assess the quality of self-esteem in several ways:

  1. in terms of its constancy over time (stability)
  2. in terms of its independence of meeting particular conditions (non-contingency)
  3. in terms of its ingrained nature at a basic psychological level (implicitness or automaticity).

Excessive self-esteem

Humans have portrayed the dangers of excessive self-esteem and the advantages of more humility since at least the development of Greek tragedy, which typically showed the results of hubris. Ongoing social concern with too much perceived self-esteem reflects in everyday language: we speak of "overweening" types and of the need to "take a person down a peg or two". Spiritual practices (notably Eastern spiritual practices) which de-emphasize the self may lead to a more socially acceptable balance in the personal self-esteem stakes.


Critics see the all pervading importance given to self-esteem in popular culture and in modern psychology as misleading and dogmatic. A review of self-esteem literature by Roy Baumeister confirmed that high self-regard per se is not necessarily good nor does it translate into higher estimates by others of a person's intellect, appearance or virtue. Self-esteem as panacea is "a very compelling illusion," because it correlates with happiness and other good things, says Baumeister, but psychologists "were a little too eager in promoting the program before the data were in." Some social constructionists argue that modern day America with its overwhelming cultural bias towards self-enhancement has fabricated and validated the dogma of self-esteem as a universal human goal that all must strive towards perfecting. This fails to consider the absence of such an emphasis in other flourishing cultures, where high self-esteem is not as celebrated and central a concept.

Psychological literature and popular culture both concentrate on the presence or absence of high self-esteem, however some evidence suggests that the overemphasis on the self-esteem mantra can lead to rapid falls when the self becomes invalidated in the domains that one considers important. In addition this pursuit may have negative consequences on the welfare of society as a whole. Eastern philosophy, particularly Buddhist and Hindu thought, see the self in its limited form as illusory; it perceives a "true self" as a sublime and transcendent entity, whose nature remains hidden from the limited or egoic self.

Self-esteem, grades and relationships


From the late 1970s to the early 1990s Americans assumed as a matter of course that students' self-esteem acted as a critical factor in the grades that they earn in school, in their relalmjknjnhtionships with their peers, and in their later success in life. Given this assumption, many American groups created programs to increase the self-esteem of students, assuming thaij9iji9j9ij9j9j9ji9i9j9ji9t grades would increase, conflicts would decrease, and that this would lead to a happier and more successful life. Until the 1990s little peer-reviewed and controlled research took place on this topic.

The concept of self-improvement has undergone dramatic change since 1911, when Ambrose Bierce mockingly defined self-esteem as "an erroneous appraisement." Good and bad character are now known as "personality differences". Rights have replaced responsibilities. The research on egocentrism and ethnocentrism that informed discussion of human growth and development in the mid-20th century is ignored; indeed, the terms themselves are considered politically incorrect. A revolution has taken place in the vocabulary of self. Words that imply responsibility or accountability — self-criticism, self-denial, self-discipline, self-control, self-effacement, self-mastery, self-reproach, and self-sacrifice — are no longer in fashion. The language most in favor is that which exalts the self — self-expression, self-assertion, self-indulgence, self-realization, self-approval, self-acceptance, self-love, and the ubiquitous self-esteem.

—Ruggiero, 2000

Peer-reviewed research undertaken since then has not validated previous assumptions. Recent research indicates that inflating students' self-esteem in and of itself has no positive effect on grades. One study has shown that inflating self-esteem by itself can actually decrease grades.[6]

High self-esteem correlates highly with self-reported happiness. However, it is not clear which, if either, necessarily leads to the other.[7]

Bullying, violence and murder

Some of the most interesting results of recent studies center on the relationships between bullying, violence, and self-esteem. People used to assume that bullies acted violently towards others because they suffered from low self-esteem (although supporters of this position offered no controlled studies to back up this belief).

These findings suggest that the low-esteem theory is wrong. But none involves what social psychologists regard as the most convincing form of evidence: controlled laboratory experiments. When we conducted our initial review of the literature, we uncovered no lab studies that probed the link between self-esteem and aggression.

—Baumeister, 2001

In contrast to old beliefs, recent research indicates that bullies act the way that they do because they suffer from unearned high self-esteem.

Violent criminals often describe themselves as superior to others - as special, elite persons who deserve preferential treatment. Many murders and assaults are committed in response to blows to self-esteem such as insults and humiliation. (To be sure, some perpetrators live in settings where insults threaten more than their opinions of themselves. Esteem and respect are linked to status in the social hierarchy, and to put someone down can have tangible and even life-threatening consequences.)
The same conclusion has emerged from studies of other categories of violent people. Street-gang members have been reported to hold favourable opinions of themselves and turn to violence when these estimations are shaken. Playground bullies regard themselves as superior to other children; low self-esteem is found among the victims of bullies, but not among bullies themselves. Violent groups generally have overt belief systems that emphasise their superiority over others.

—Baumeister, 2001

The presence of superiority-complexes can be seen both in individual cases, such as the criminals Baumeister studied, and in whole societies, such as Germany under the Nazi régime.

The findings of this research do not take into account that the concept of self-esteem lacks a clear definition and that differing views exist of the precise definition of self-esteem. In his own work, Baumeister often uses a "common use" definition: self-esteem is how you regard yourself (or how you appear to regard yourself) regardless of how this view was cultivated. Other psychologists believe that a "self esteem" that depends on external validation of the self (or other people's approval), such as what seems relevant in the discussion of violent people, is not, in fact, "true" self-esteem. Nathaniel Branden labeled this "pseudo self-esteem", arguing that "true self-esteem" comes from internal sources, such as self responsibility, self sufficiency and the knowledge of one's own competence and capability to deal with obstacles and adversity, regardless of what other people think.

Psychologists who agree with this view dismiss Baumeister's findings. Such psychologists say that Baumeister mistakes narcissism as "high self-esteem" in criminals. They see such narcissism as an inflated opinion of self, built on shaky grounds, and opine that violence comes when that opinion comes under threat. Those with "true" self-esteem who valued themselves and believed wholly in their own competence and worth would have no need to resort to violence or indeed have any need to believe in superiority or prove superiority.

See also


  1. Rodewalt & Tragakis, 2003
  2. James, 1890
  3. Crocker and Park, 2004
  4. Baumeister, Smart, & Boden, 1996
  5. Mruk, 2006
  6. Baumeister 2005
  7. Baumeister, 2003


  • Baumeister, R., Smart, L. & Boden, J. (1996). "Relation of threatened egotism to violence and aggression: The dark side of self-esteem". Psychological Review, 103, 5–33.
  • Baumeister, Roy F. (2001). "Violent Pride", in Scientific American, 284, No. 4, pages 96–101; April 2001.
  • Baumeister, Roy F., et al. (2003). "Does High Self-Esteem Cause Better Performance, Interpersonal Success, Happiness, or Healthier Lifestyles?", Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 4 (1), pages 1–44; May 2003. (ed: other researchers: Jennifer D. Campbell, Joachim I. Krueger and Kathleen D. Vohs)
  • Baumeister, Roy F., et al. (2005). "Exploding the Self-Esteem Myth" Scientific American, January 2005. (ed. This study also involved Jennifer D. Campbell, Joachim I. Krueger and Kathleen D. Vohs)
  • Branden, N. (1969). The psychology of self-esteem. New York: Bantam.
  • Branden, N. (2001). The psychology of self-esteem : a revolutionary approach to self-understanding that launched a new era in modern psychology. San Francisco : Jossey-Bass, 2001. ISBN 0787945269
  • Crocker, J., & Park, L. E. (2004). "The costly pursuit of self-esteem". Psychological Bulletin, 130(3), 392–414.
  • James, W. (1983). The principles of psychology. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. (Original work published 1890)
  • Lerner, Barbara (1985). "Self-Esteem and Excellence: The Choice and the Paradox", American Educator, Winter 1985.
  • Mecca, Andrew M., et al., (1989). The Social Importance of Self-esteem University of California Press, 1989. (ed; other editors included Neil J. Smelser and John Vasconcellos)
  • Mruk, C. (2006). Self-Esteem research, theory, and practice: Toward a positive psychology of self-esteem (3rd ed.). New York: Springer.
  • Rodewalt, F. & Tragakis, M. W. (2003). "Self-esteem and self-regulation: Toward optimal studies of self-esteem". Psychological Inquiry, 14(1), 66–70.
  • Ruggiero, Vincent R. (2000). "Bad Attitude: Confronting the Views That Hinder Student's Learning" American Educator.
  • Sedikides, C., & Gregg. A. P. (2003). "Portraits of the self." In M. A. Hogg & J. Cooper (Eds.), Sage handbook of social psychology (pp.110-138). London: Sage Publications.
  • Twenge, Jean M. (2007). Generation Me: Why Today's Young Americans Are More Confident, Assertive, Entitled — and More Miserable Than Ever Before. Free Press. ISBN 978-0743276986

Further reading

  • Hill, S.E. & Buss, D.M. (2006). "The Evolution of Self-Esteem". In Michael Kernis, (Ed.), Self Esteem: Issues and Answers: A Sourcebook of Current Perspectives.. Psychology Press:New York. 328-333. Full text

External links

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