Self-esteem is of central importance to the psychological health and well-being of individuals in Western cultures. This importance is well documented, as self-esteem has been implicated in a vast array of phenomena, including depression and suicidal ideation, loneliness and peer rejection, academic achievement, and life satisfaction. When scholars and laypeople use the term self-esteem, they generally are referring to people’s self-esteem level. In recent years, however, it has become clear that self-esteem is a multifaceted construct of which only one component is its level. We describe these various components later in this entry. For now, we focus on self-esteem level, which refers to the extent to which people’s global feelings of self-worth, liking, and acceptance typically are positive (high self-esteem level) or negative (low self-esteem level). We use the term self-esteem more generally to refer to global feelings of self-worth, liking, and acceptance.
Distinguishing Self-Esteem Level from Related Constructs
People encounter the term self-esteem frequently in everyday conversation, novels, newspaper and magazine articles, television and radio programming, and so forth. Self-help books heartily proclaim to have the secret to improving your self-esteem and that of loved ones. Unfortunately, although everyday usage of a scientific term can buttress laypeople’s knowledge of the construct, in the process the scientific term itself often becomes much less precise, sometimes to the point of total ambiguity. This ambiguity can be costly, as two people using the term may be doing so in extremely different ways and therefore draw very different, perhaps opposite, conclusions. Two terms with which self-esteem often is confused are self-confidence and self-evaluations (self-appraisals).
Self-confidence refers to the expectations that individuals have regarding whether or not they can bring about desired outcomes. For example, individuals high in social self-confidence have positive expectations that most other people will like them or that audiences will be attentive to them when they are giving a presentation. These positive expectations may emanate from positive self-evaluations of their own speaking ability and/or from the belief that most people are friendly and easy to get along with. Conversely, individuals who are low in social self-confidence expect that others will not enjoy conversing or listening to them. Recall that high self-esteem level reflects people’s own feelings of self-worth, liking, and acceptance. Whether people like and accept themselves need not relate to their expectations that others will share in those feelings. Although high self-esteem and high self-confidence often go hand-in-hand, it is easy to think of people who possess a great deal of self-confidence (in the social domain, or in other domains, such as achievement or athleticism) yet who do not like or value themselves very much. In fact, high self-confidence with respect to a given activity (such as expecting to get away with cheating) may also produce decreases in one’s feelings of self-worth.
Self-evaluations refer to people’s judgments or ratings of their standing along specific dimensions that comprise their self-concepts. Frequently, self-evaluations are made of one’s physical attractiveness (one’s body or facial characteristics), intelligence (global or more specific components, such as mathematical or writing ability), social skills (how funny one is), and so forth. Given that these appraisals have a “good versus bad” quality to them, some researchers have taken to referring to these self-appraisals as domain-specific self-esteem. We think that this is wrong, because in so doing, people are giving short shrift to both self-evaluations and self-esteem. Each is a meaningful construct, with differing antecedents, structural and functional properties, and consequences. Moreover, the relation between specific self-evaluations and global self-esteem is a matter of some consequence. Over the years, several different viewpoints have emerged.
The first view is that global self-esteem is not separable from specific self-evaluations; instead, it is reducible to the total of an individual’s success/ aspiration assessments. This view, made famous by William James in 1890, asserts that self-esteem reflects the ratio of one’s “successes” to one’s “pretensions” or aspirations (i.e., what is important to the person). Stated differently, self-esteem is a summary evaluation that reflects the sum total of these success/ aspiration assessments (i.e., “How well am I doing in those domains that are important to me?”). While this summary evaluation will certainly be informative with respect to the person’s achievements, it is not the same thing as a person’s feelings of self-worth, liking, and acceptance. A second view maintains the distinction between self-evaluations and self-esteem and holds that specific self-evaluations comprise the building blocks of individuals’ global self-esteem. An empirically driven approach, this bottom-up perspective says that we can best predict global self-esteem from specific self-evaluations when we weight them by qualities such as importance to the person’s self and the certainty with which the person makes the evaluation. Although not without controversy, research generally supports some of the contentions of the bottom-up perspective. However, strong associations between self-evaluations and self-esteem do not mean that they are substitutable for each other, nor does it mean that they each possess the same functional significance. A third view suggests that global self-esteem spreads out and affects domain-specific self-evaluations (a top-down approach) and not vice versa (a bottom-up approach). For example, a top-down approach suggests that if people generally like themselves, they will tend to rate themselves positively across a wide variety of specific domains.
Our view, shared by others in the field, is that both top-down and bottom-up directions of influence can occur, and that which direction of influence is more powerful varies from person to person and dimension to dimension. Regardless of one’s stance on the directionality issue, we believe that it is crucial to maintain the distinction between specific self-evaluations and global self-esteem (feelings of self-worth, liking, and acceptance). A couple of examples highlight this distinction. For example, it is easy to think of individuals who dislike and generally are unhappy with themselves, despite being very competent and proficient in a number of aspects of their lives; conversely, other people are very happy and content with themselves despite not being “superstars” at anything. Consequently, we believe that it is confusing and misleading to claim that someone has low self-esteem in some domains (school achievement) but high self-esteem in others (e.g., social acceptance). Rather, we argue that the correct terminology is that people have domain-specific self-evaluations, some of which may be high and some of which may be low.
Measuring Self-Esteem Level
Self-esteem measures generally consist of a series of potentially self-descriptive statements. The number and content of specific items, as well as what form responses take, vary considerably from measure to measure. Typically, respondents indicate the extent to which they agree or disagree with each statement or the extent to which each statement is true or characteristic of them. Two of the most widely known and used self-esteem measures are Susan Harter’s Self-perception Profile for Children and Morris Rosenberg’s Self-esteem Scale.
The Self-perception Profile for Children is designed to measure both global levels of self-esteem and specific self-evaluations (i.e., scholastic and athletic competence, social acceptance, physical appearance, and behavioral conduct). Researchers frequently use it in research involving elementary school children in Grades 3 and higher. One of its valuable features is that it allows researchers to examine whether self-evaluations relate to global self-esteem. Research and theory indicate that, in general, self-evaluations of competence, social acceptance, and physical attractiveness relate to global self-esteem.
The Rosenberg Self-esteem Scale is the most commonly used instrument to assess self-esteem levels in adolescents and adults. Examining its items reveals a considerable strength of the measure as well as a potential weakness (shared by all self-esteem measures). Its strength is that it is very brief, consisting of only 10 items that clearly tap global feelings of self-worth and satisfaction. A potential downside is that the items’ obviousness may prompt people to give responses reflective of psychological health even if these responses are not accurate self-descriptions.
The Nature of Low Self-Esteem
Considerable research and theory suggest that low-self-esteem individuals are generally unhappy and dissatisfied with themselves. However, some researchers have suggested that rather than having an intense dislike for themselves, low-self-esteem individuals are uncertain and confused individuals whose self-feelings are predominantly neutral. Data from numerous studies suggest that low-self-esteem individuals typically give responses on self-esteem inventories that hovered around the midpoint of response scales (which therefore on average seemed to reflect neutral self-feelings). Very few low-self-esteem individuals in these studies consistently endorsed statements reflecting clear dislike or dissatisfaction with themselves.
Moreover, other influential research showed that low-self-esteem individuals possessed self-concepts lacking in internal consistency and temporal stability, which they held with little confidence (i.e., low-self-concept clarity). Still other important work showed that low-self-esteem individuals had pockets of favorable self-judgments, which seemed inconsistent with the idea that believing that one possessed no redeeming qualities is a core characteristic of low self-esteem.
The view that low-self-esteem individuals possess neutral self-feelings seems to contradict longstanding findings linking low self-esteem to depression and suicidal tendencies, especially among children and adolescents. Moreover, it seems inconsistent with clinical observations that portray the therapeutic setting as heavily concerned with issues of poor self-worth and negative self-concepts.
How, then, is the controversy to be resolved? One possibility is that only a small percentage of people in the general population truly have low self-esteem. A second possibility is that pressures to present oneself in a positive light mitigate against individuals giving extremely negative responses on a self-esteem measure. Stated differently, self-presentational concerns may temper the negativity of low-self-esteem individuals’ public responses but not their actual personal feelings of self-worth. Additional research is needed to assess the validity of these explanations.
The Nature of High Self-Esteem
Considerable theory and research on self-esteem reveals that high self-esteem confers many benefits to individuals and that it relates to many positive psychological outcomes. Increasingly, however, it has become clear that high self-esteem also has a dark side, as it sometimes relates to maladaptive outcomes such as heightened aggressive behavior. Therefore, it is extremely important to determine when high self-esteem relates to positive psychological functioning and outcomes and when it does not. One critical factor is the extent to which high self-esteem is fragile or secure. Individuals with fragile high self-esteem appear willing to go to great lengths to preserve, maintain, and enhance their positive, yet vulnerable, feelings of self-worth. Defensiveness and other maladaptive processes characterize these individuals. In contrast, individuals with secure high self-esteem like, value, and accept themselves, “warts and all.” They have well-anchored feelings of self-worth and generally display healthy psychological and interpersonal functioning.
Recent theory and evidence suggest several ways to distinguish between secure and fragile high self-esteem that employ theoretical distinctions between various kinds of self-esteem. Importantly, existing research indicates that these constructs behave in parallel fashion across studies, suggesting that they are tapping a broader construct reflecting fragile versus secure self-esteem.
Stable Versus Unstable Self-Esteem
One way to distinguish between secure and fragile high self-esteem involves the extent to which a person’s current feelings of self-worth fluctuate across time and situations. These short-term fluctuations in one’s immediate, contextually based feelings of self-worth reflect the degree to which one’s self-esteem is unstable; the greater the magnitude of fluctuations, the more unstable one’s self-esteem. Stability of self-esteem is conceptualized as distinct from self-esteem level, which reflects the positivity of one’s typical or general feelings of self-worth.
Unstable self-esteem reflects fragile and vulnerable feelings of self-worth that are subject to the vicissitudes of internally generated and externally provided positive and negative experiences. Moreover, people with unstable self-esteem are highly ego-involved in their everyday activities, that is, they experience their self-esteem as continually “being on the line.” Researchers have examined a number of implications of this characterization. For example:
- Daily negative events have a greater adverse impact on individuals with unstable as opposed to stable self-esteem. Individuals with unstable self-esteem have especially adverse reactions to daily hassles, as reflected in the greatest increases in depressive symptoms.
- Everyday positive and negative events have a greater immediate impact on the self-feelings of people with unstable rather than stable self-esteem.
- People with unstable self-esteem have a weaker sense of self than do people with stable self-esteem. Researchers found that the more individuals’ self-esteem was unstable, the more they regulated their goal strivings in terms of external pressures and guilt avoidance and the less in terms of personal importance and interest, the less confident they were in their self-knowledge.
Importantly, a growing body of research supports the usefulness of distinguishing among high-self-esteem individuals based on how much their immediate feelings of self-worth fluctuate. That is, people with unstable high self-esteem are more defensive and self-aggrandizing than are their stable high-self-esteem counterparts. For example, unstable as compared to stable high-self-esteem individuals are more prone to anger and hostility and increased depression in the face of daily hassles, and they report increased tendencies to “get even” in response to hypothetical partner transgressions. Moreover, the more high-self-esteem individuals’ feelings of self-worth are unstable, the lower their psychological health and well-being. These and other findings indicate that whereas unstable high self-esteem can be characterized as fragile, stable high self-esteem can be characterized as secure.
Contingent Versus True Self-Esteem
A second way to distinguish between fragile and secure high self-esteem is to determine the extent to which individuals’ feelings of self-worth are dependent upon the attainment of specific outcomes or the matching of interpersonal or intrapsychic standards of excellence. Individuals with contingent high self-esteem are preoccupied with their standings on specific evaluative dimensions (e.g., “How smart am I?”), how they are viewed by others (“Do people think I am attractive?”), and they continually engage in setting and meeting evaluative standards to validate themselves. High self-esteem that is contingent is fragile, because it remains high only as long as one is successful at satisfying relevant criteria. Moreover, the strong need for continual validation drives the person to seek more and more successes. Should these successes cease, the person’s self-esteem likely will plummet. In contrast, true high self-esteem reflects well-anchored and secure feelings of self-worth that neither depend on the attainment of specific outcomes nor require continual validation. Theorists speculate that true high self-esteem develops when one’s actions are self-determined and congruent with one’s inner core self rather than a reflection of externally imposed or internally based demands. Activities are chosen and goals are undertaken because they are of interest and importance and feelings of self-worth arise naturally out of these activities. In contingent self-esteem, pursuing self-esteem is the individual’s “prime directive.” In true self-esteem, feelings of self-worth are the byproduct of pursuing one’s interests and developing one’s skills in a self-determined manner.
Researchers have developed several measures of contingent self-esteem that promise to be useful in fleshing out its relation to various aspects of psychological functioning and well-being. For example, people with highly contingent self-esteem (similar to individuals with unstable high self-esteem) react especially strongly to potentially threatening events. Moreover, researchers have provided evidence that individual differences exist in the specific contingencies on which people base their high self-esteem. Whereas some people base their self-esteem primarily on outcomes related to competence and performance, other people base their self-esteem on outcomes related to their physical attractiveness or social acceptance. Researchers have shown that the particular domains on which self-esteem is based influence people’s behavioral choices, goal strivings, and emotional reactions. For example, among medical school applicants, the daily self-esteem of individuals whose self-esteem was contingent on academic competence was especially likely to rise with news of acceptance and decline with news of rejection.
Another way to distinguish secure from fragile high self-esteem involves a consideration of both explicit and implicit feelings of self-worth. Researchers generally characterize implicit self-esteem as relatively automatic emotional or evaluative associations with the self that involve little or no effort or conscious guidance. A similar definition is that implicit self-esteem involves self-evaluations that occur unintentionally and outside of awareness. Explicit self-esteem involves deliberate, consciously held self-evaluations that are measured by self-reports.
Several different procedures have been used to examine implicit self-esteem and its implications for psychological functioning. One procedure, called the Implicit Association Test (IAT), involves the use of reaction time methods to assess the strength of associative links between self-defining or non-self-defining terms and various positive and negative stimuli. A second procedure, the “name letter task,” involves comparing people’s ratings of letters in their names with ratings of letters not in their names.
A number of recent studies have focused on discrepancies between implicit and explicit self-esteem and defensiveness or self-promotion. Findings from this research warrant several conclusions. First, both the IAT and the name letter effect appear to be reliable and valid measures of implicit self-esteem. Second, discrepant explicit/implicit self-esteem appears to reflect fragile high self-esteem. Using the name letter effect measure, a team of researchers reported that heightened compensatory self-enhancement (i.e., unrealistic optimism, claiming that a highly flattering personality profile is self-descriptive) was observed among individuals with high explicit/low implicit self-esteem. Using the IAT, a different research team found that individuals with high explicit/low implicit self-esteem scored highest on a measure of narcissism and were especially defensive (exhibited high in-group bias and dissonance reduction), compared to individuals with high explicit/high implicit self-esteem. Thus, a growing body of research suggests that whereas high explicit self-esteem coupled with low implicit self-esteem is fragile, high explicit self-esteem coupled with high implicit self-esteem is secure.
The foregoing review reinforces the view that self-esteem has multiple components and that to understand fully its place in psychological functioning we must understand these components. Although they differ in their specifics, all are based on the conviction that there is more to self-esteem than whether it is high or low. Importantly, existing research supports the contention that each component reflects an aspect of self-esteem fragility and/or vulnerability. Moreover, researchers increasingly are finding interrelations among these various constructs. For example, measures of unstable and contingent self-esteem are significantly correlated. In short, evidence attesting to the interrelations among these various “fragility” components is quickly accruing, much of it within the past few years. We hope that future researchers will ride this wave of activity and push toward the direction of a complete understanding of complex self-esteem processes.
- Crocker, J. and Wolfe, C. T. 2001. “Contingencies of Self-worth.” Psychological Review 108:593-623.
- Deci, E. L. and Ryan, R. M. 1995. “Human Agency: The Basis for True Self-esteem.” Pp. 31-50 in Efficacy, Agency, and Self-esteem, edited by M. Kernis. New York: Plenum.
- Kernis, M. H. 2003. “Toward a Conceptualization of Optimal Self-esteem.” Psychological Inquiry 14:1-26.
- Kernis, M. H. 2005. “Measuring Self-esteem in Context: The Importance of Stability of Self-esteem in Psychological Functioning.” Journal of Personality 73(6):1569-1605.
- Kernis, M. H., ed. 2006. Self-esteem Issues and Answers: A Sourcebook of Current Perspectives. New York: Psychology Press.