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Self & identity
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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").

Synonyms or near-synonyms of self-esteem include:

  • self-worth[1]
  • self-regard[2]
  • self-respect[3]
  • self-confidence (a sometimes disparaging term which can (more than self-esteem) suggest excessive self-regard[4]
  • self-love (which can express overtones of self-promotion)[5]


History of the concept of self-esteem

The Oxford English Dictionary (OED)[6] traces the use of the word "self-esteem" in English back as far as 1657. After a career in the proto-psychological lore of phrenology in the 19th century[7]

the term entered more mainstream psychological use in the work of the American psychologists and philosophers Lorne Park[How to reference and link to summary or text] and 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.[8]

Definitions of self-esteem

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”.[9] Problems with this approach come from making self-esteem contingent upon success: this implies inherent instability because failure can occur at any moment.[10]
  2. In the mid 1960s Morris 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.[11]
  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.[12]

Branden’s (1969) description of 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 the usage of terms such as self-love or 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.

The "Rosenberg Self-Esteem QuestionnaireRosenberg Self Esteem Scale" and the "Coopersmith Self-Esteem Inventory" are among the most widely used systems for measuring self-esteem.

The Rosenberg Test is seen as the "standard" and usually uses a ten question battery scored on a four-point response system.

The Coopersmith Inventory uses a 50 question battery over a variety of topics and asks the subject whether positive or negative characteristics of someone are considered to be similar or dissimilar to themselves.[13]

Maslow's approaches to esteem

Maslow described two kinds of esteem needs — the need for respect from others and the need for self-respect.[How to reference and link to summary or text] Respect from others entails recognition, acceptance, status, and appreciation.[How to reference and link to summary or text] Without the fulfillment of these needs, Maslow suggests, an individual feels discouraged, weak and inferior.[How to reference and link to summary or text]

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[How to reference and link to summary or text] 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. Baumeister describes the view of self-esteem as panacea as "a very compelling illusion" because it correlates with happiness and other good things; he sees psychologists as "a little too eager in promoting the program before the data were in." Some social constructionistsTemplate:Who? 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, in which people neither celebrate high self-esteem so much nor regard it as so 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, tends to 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 relationships with their peers, and in their later success in life. Given this assumption, many American groups created programs which aimed to increase the self-esteem of students, assuming that grades would increase, conflicts would decrease, and that this would lead to happier and more successful lives. 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.[14]

High self-esteem correlates highly with self-reported happiness. However, it is not clear which, if either, necessarily leads to the other.[15]

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, does not, in fact, equate to "true" self-esteem. Nathaniel Branden labeled external validation as "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 Branden's view dismiss Baumeister's findings. Such psychologistsTemplate:Who? 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.

Contingencies of self-worth

Contingencies of self-worth comprise those qualities a person believes he or she must have in order to class as a person of worth and value; proponents claim the contingencies as the core of self-esteem.[How to reference and link to summary or text]

Contingencies of self-worth can motivate well, but often have great costs to relationships, learning, autonomy, self-regulation, and mental and physical health.[How to reference and link to summary or text] Using their contingencies of self-worth, peopleTemplate:Who? attempt to validate or “prove” their abilities and qualities to themselves and to others.

In the field of social psychology, Jennifer Crocker has carried out major research on the topic of contingencies of self-worth. She says that her research "explores what it is that people believe they need to be or do to have value and worth as a person, and the consequences of those beliefs". She claims that people pursue self-esteem by trying to prove that they have worth and value, and this pursuit affects "the satisfaction of the fundamental human needs for learning, relationships, autonomy, self-regulation, and mental and physical health" (Crocker, 2007). Crocker argues that this pursuit of self-worth affects not only the individual, but everyone around the person as well.

According to the "Contingencies of Self-Worth model" (Crocker & Wolfe, 2001) people differ in their bases of self-esteem. Their beliefs — beliefs about what they think they need to do or who they need to "be" in order to class as a person of worth — form these bases. Crocker and her colleagues (2001) identified seven "domains" in which people frequently derive their self-worth, including:

  1. virtue
  2. God’s love
  3. support of family
  4. academic competence
  5. physical attractiveness
  6. gaining others' approval

Individuals who base their self-worth in a specific domain (such as, for example, academic success) leave themselves much more vulnerable to having their self-esteem threatened when negative events happen to them within that domain (such as when they fail a test at school). A 2003 study by Crocker found that students who based their contingency of self-worth on academic criteria had a greater likelihood of experiencing lower-state self-esteem, greater negative affect, and negative self-evaluative thoughts when they did not perform well on academic tasks, when they received poor grades, or when graduate schools rejected them (Crocker, Karpinski, Quinn, & Chase, 2003; Crocker, Sommers, & Luhtanen, 2002).

Crocker and her colleagues (2003) have constructed the "Contingencies of Self-Worth Scale", which measures the seven domains mentioned above that previous research[How to reference and link to summary or text] had hypothesized as providing important internal and external sources of self-esteem. Crocker argues that the domains on which people base self-worth play a greater role than whether self-worth is actually contingent or not. Contingencies of self-worth can function internally, externally, or somewhere in between. Some research has shown that external contingencies of self-worth, such as physical appearance and academic success, correlate negatively to well-being, even promoting depression and eating-disorders (Jambekar, Quinn, & Crocker, 2001). Other work has found internal contingencies, on the other hand, unrelated or even positively related to well-being (Sargent, Crocker, & Luhtanen, 2006).

Research by Crocker and her colleagues also suggests that contingencies of self-worth have self-regulatory properties (Crocker, Luhtanen, Cooper, & Bouvrette, 2003). Crocker et al. define successful self-regulation as “the willingness to exert effort toward one’s most important goals, while taking setbacks and failures as opportunities to learn, identify weaknesses and address them, and develop new strategies toward achieving those goals” (Crocker, Brook, & Niiya, 2006). Since many individuals strive for a feeling of worthiness, it makes sense that those people would experience special motivation to succeed and actively to avoid failure in the domains on which they base their own self-worth. Accordingly, successful self-regulation can prove difficult for people aiming to maintain and enhance their self-esteem, because they would have to actually embrace failure or criticism as a learning-opportunity, rather than avoid it. Instead, when a task which individuals see as fundamental to their self-worth proves difficult and failure seems probable, contingencies of self-worth lead to stress, feelings of pressure, and a loss of intrinsic motivation.[How to reference and link to summary or text] In these cases, highly contingent people may withdraw from the situation.[How to reference and link to summary or text] On the other hand, the positive emotional affect following success in a domain of contingency may become addictive for the highly contingent individual (Baumeister & Vohs, 2001). Over time, these people may require even greater successes to achieve the same satisfaction or emotional “high”. Therefore, the goal to succeed can become a relentless quest for these individuals (Crocker & Nuer, 2004).

Researchers such as Crocker believe that people confuse the boosts to self-esteem resulting from successes with true human needs, such as learning, mutually supportive relationships, autonomy, and safety (Crocker & Nuer, 2004; Crocker & Park, 2004; Deci & Ryan, 2000). Crocker claims that people do not seek "self-esteem", but basic human needs, and that the contingencies on which they base their self-esteem has more importance than the level of self-esteem itself.

See also


  1. Defined as "self-esteem; self-respect" in The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language: Fourth Edition, 2000. Online at, retrieved 2007-11-15
  2. Defined as "consideration of oneself or one's interests; self-respect" in The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language: Fourth Edition, 2000. Online at, retrieved 2007-11-15
  3. Defined as "due respect for oneself, one's character, and one's conduct" in The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language: Fourth Edition, 2000. Online at, retrieved 2007-11-15
  4. The Macquarie Dictionary. Compare The Dictionary of Psychology by Raymond Joseph Corsini. Psychology Press, 1999. ISBN 158391028X. Online via Google Book Search.
  5. Defined as "the instinct or desire to promote one's own well-being; regard for or love of one's self" in The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language: Fourth Edition, 2000. Online at, retrieved 2007-11-15
  6. "self-esteem" in Oxford English Dictionary. Oxford: Oxford University Press, second edition, 1989.
  7. "self-esteem" in Oxford English Dictionary. Oxford: Oxford University Press, second edition, 1989.
  8. Rodewalt & Tragakis, 2003
  9. James, 1890
  10. Crocker and Park, 2004
  11. Baumeister, Smart, & Boden, 1996
  12. Mruk, 2006
  13. From the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Research Network on Socioeconomic Status and Health from the University of California, San Francisco. Online at, retrieved 2008-02-17
  14. Baumeister 2005
  15. 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

Contingencies of self-worth references

  • Baumeister, R. F., Campbell, J. D., Krueger, J. I., & Vohs, K. D. (2003). "Does high self-esteem cause better performance, interpersonal success, happiness, or healthier lifestyles?" Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 4(1), 1-44.
  • Crocker, J. (2007). Professional Profile: Jennifer Crocker. Retrieved September 27, 2007 from
  • Crocker, J., Brook, A. T., & Niiya, Y. (2006). The pursuit of self-esteem: Contingencies of self-worth and self-regulation. Journal of Personality, 74(6), 1749-1771.
  • Crocker, J., Karpinski, A., Quinn, D. M., & Chase, S. (2003). When grades determine self-worth: Consequences of contingent self-worth for male and female engineering and psychology majors. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 85, 507-516.
  • Crocker, J., & Luhtanen, R. K. (2003). Level of self-esteem and contingencies of self-worth: Unique effects on academic, social, and financial problems in college freshmen. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 29, 701-712.
  • Crocker, J., Luhtanen, R. K., Cooper, M. L., & Bouvrette, S. (2003). Contingencies of self-worth in college students: Theory and measurement. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 85, 894-908.
  • Crocker, J. & Nuer, N. (2004). Do people need self-esteem? Comment on Pyszczynski et al. Psychological Bulletin, 130, 469-472.
  • Crocker, J., & Park, L. E. (2004). The costly pursuit of self-esteem. Psychological Bulletin, 130, 392-414.
  • Crocker, J., Sommers, S., & Luhtanen, R. (2002). Hopes dashed and dreams fulfilled: Contingencies of self-worth in the graduate school admissions process. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 28, 1275-1286.
  • Crocker, J., & Wolfe, C. T. (2001). Contingencies of self-worth. Psychological Review, 108, 593-623.
  • Jambekar, S., & Quinn, D. M., & Crocker, J. (2001). Effects of weight and achievement primes on the self-esteem of college women. Psychology of Women Quarterly, 25, 48-56.
  • Sargent, J. T., Crocker, J., & Luhtanen, R. K. (2006). Contingencies of self-worth and depressive symptoms in college students. Journal of Social & Clinical Psychology, 25(6), 628-646.

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

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