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Self-esteem refers to a global judgment of the worth or value of the self as a whole (similar to self-regard, self-respect, and self-acceptance), or to evaluations of speciﬁc aspects of the self (e.g., appearance self-esteem or academic self-esteem). The focus of this research paper is on global self-esteem, which has distinct theoretical importance and consequences (Baumeister 1998, Rosenberg et al. 1995). Although thousands of studies of self-esteem have been published (Mruk 1995), many central questions about the nature, functioning, and importance of global self-esteem remain unresolved (Baumeister 1998).
1. The Importance Of Self-Esteem
Global self-esteem is a central aspect of the subjective quality of life. It is related strongly to positive aﬀect and life satisfaction (Diener 1984), less anxiety (Solomon et al. 1991), and fewer depressive symptoms (Crandall 1973). High and low levels of self-esteem appear to be associated with diﬀerent motivational orientations. High self-esteem people focus on self-enhancement and ‘being all that they can be,’ whereas low self-esteem people focus on self-protection and avoiding failure and humiliation (Baumeister et al. 1989). Low self-esteem has been proposed as a cause of many social problems, such as teenage pregnancy, aggression, eating disorders, and poor school achievement. However, evidence that low self-esteem is a cause, rather than a symptom, of these problems is scarce (Baumeister 1998, Dawes 1994, Mecca et al. 1989), and some researchers have suggested that high self-esteem may actually be the cause of social problems such as aggression (Baumeister 1998). Because of unresolved issues regarding the nature and functioning of self-esteem and how to measure it, ﬁrm conclusions about whether high self-esteem is or is not socially useful seem premature.
2. Issues In The Self-Esteem Literature
2.1 Trait Or State?
Psychologists assume typically that self-esteem is a psychological trait (i.e., that it is stable over time and across situations). In support of this view, self-esteem tends to be highly stable over long periods of time (see, e.g., Rosenberg 1979). Self-esteem is also a state, however, changing in response to events and experiences in the course of life (Heatherton and Polivy 1991). James (1890) suggested that self-esteem has qualities of both a state and a trait, rising and falling in response to achievements and setbacks relevant to one’s aspirations. On the other hand, he recognized that people tend to have average levels of self-esteem that are not linked directly to their objective circumstances. Although research supports James’ intuition, for some people self-esteem is relatively stable and trait-like across time, whereas for others it is more state-like, ﬂuctuating daily (Kernis and Waschull 1995).
2.2 Aﬀect Or Cognitive Judgment?
Researchers disagree about whether self-esteem is fundamentally a feeling or a judgment about the self. Global self-esteem and mood are correlated strongly, leading some to conclude that aﬀect is a component of self-esteem (e.g., Brown 1993, Pelham and Swann 1989). Others argue that self-esteem is a cognitive judgment, based on standards of worth and accessible information about how well an individual is meeting those standards (see, e.g., Moretti and Higgins 1990). Current mood may be one source of information on which judgments of self-worth are based (Schwarz and Strack 1999). It seems likely that the relationship between self-esteem and mood is complex: both mood and self-esteem may be aﬀected independently by life events; mood may be a source of information on which judgments of self-esteem are based; and mood may also be a consequence of having high or low self-esteem.
2.3 Where Does Self-Esteem Come From?
Why are some people high and others low in self-esteem? James (1890) suggested that global self-esteem is determined by successes divided by pretensions, or how well a person is doing in areas that are important. Although it might seem logical that high self-esteem results from success in life (e.g., being smart, attractive, wealthy, and popular), these objective outcomes are related only weakly to self-esteem. For example, socioeconomic status (Twenge and Campbell 1999), physical attractiveness as rated by observers (Diener et al. 1995, Feingold 1992), obesity (Miller and Downey 1999), school achievement (Rosenberg et al. 1995), and popularity (Wylie 1979) are related only weakly to global self-esteem. A stronger relationship is observed between global self-esteem and how well people belie e they are doing in important domains, but the direction of this relationship is unclear. Believing one is doing well in important domains might cause high self-esteem, or people may think they are doing well because they have high self-esteem. Experimental studies have demonstrated that speciﬁc self-evaluations are sensitive to manipulated success or failure, but evidence that global self-esteem responds to such feedback is very scarce (Blascovich and Tomaka 1991). Mead (1934) and Cooley (1902) proposed that self-esteem develops in social relationships. Cooley (1902) argued that subjectively-interpreted feedback from others is a main source of information about the self. The self-concept arises from imagining how others perceive and evaluate the self. These ‘reﬂected appraisals’ aﬀect self-perceptions and self-evaluations, resulting in what Cooley (1902) described as the ‘looking glass self.’
Mead (1934) argued that the looking glass self is a product of, and essential to, social interaction. To interact smoothly and eﬀectively with others, people need to anticipate how others will react to them, and so they need to learn to see themselves through the eyes of others, either the speciﬁc people with whom they interact, or a generalized view of how most people see the self, or a ‘generalized other.’ Research indicates that self-esteem is related only weakly to others’ evaluations of the self, but is related strongly to beliefs about others’ evaluations (Shrauger and Schoeneman 1979). Evidence regarding the causal direction of this eﬀect is scarce.
A third view, which can encompass these others, is that self-esteem is a judgment of self-worth constructed on the basis of information and standards for the self that are available and accessible at the moment. People may diﬀer in the self-standards that are chronically accessible to them (see, e.g., Higgins 1987). For example, some people may judge their self-worth chronically according to whether they are competent in important domains, whereas others judge their self-worth chronically according to whether others approve of them (Crocker and Wolfe 2001). In this view, self-esteem will be stable over time if the standards used to evaluate the self and information about how well an individual is doing relative to those standards are stable. When circumstances make alternative standards salient, or alter beliefs about how well the individual is doing relative to those standards, then self-esteem changes (Crocker 1999, Quinn and Crocker 1999).
2.4 Defensive Or Genuine?
Genuine self-esteem is usually assumed to be synonymous with self-worth, self-respect, and self-acceptance, despite awareness of one’s ﬂaws and shortcomings. Yet, many studies have demonstrated that people who are high in self-esteem are more likely to make excuses for failure, derogate others when threatened, and have unrealistically positive views of themselves (see Baumeister 1998, Blaine and Crocker 1993, Taylor and Brown 1988 for reviews), behaviors which appear to be quite defensive. These ﬁndings have fueled the suspicion that many people who are outwardly high in self-esteem inwardly harbor serious doubts about their self-worth, and have defensive, rather than genuinely high, self-esteem. Although the distinction between genuine and defensively high selfesteem has a long history in psychology, researchers have had little success at distinguishing these two types of high self-esteem empirically.
One view is that implicit, or nonconscious, evaluations of the self are dissociated from conscious self-evaluations (see, e.g., Greenwald and Banaji 1995). According to this view, genuine high self-esteem results from having high explicit (conscious) and implicit (nonconscious) self-esteem, whereas defensively high self-esteem results from having high explicit self-esteem and low implicit self-esteem. A measure of implicit self-esteem based on the Implicit Associations Test (Greenwald et al. 1998) shows the predicted dissociation between implicit and explicit measures, but to date research has not demonstrated that defensive behaviors such as blaming others for failure are associated uniquely with the combination of high explicit and low implicit self-esteem. Another view is that people who have stable high self-esteem are relatively nondefensive in the face of failure, whereas people with unstable high self-esteem are both defensive and hostile when they fail (see Kernis and Waschull 1995 for a review). According to Kernis and his colleagues, people with unstable high self-esteem have a high level of ego-involvement in everyday events, consequently their self-esteem is at stake even when relatively minor negative events occur. Considerable evidence has accumulated supporting the view that people with unstable high self-esteem are defensive, whereas people with stable high self-esteem are not. Crocker and Wolfe (2001) argue that instability of self-esteem results when outcomes in a person’s life are relevant to their contingencies, or conditions, of self-worth. Consequently, Crocker and Wolfe argue that people are defensive when they receive negative or threatening information in do- mains in which their self-esteem is contingent. To date, however, they have not provided empirical support for their view.
In general, the issue of defensive vs. genuine self-esteem has focused attention on dimensions of self-esteem that go beyond whether it is high or low. This broader perspective on multiple dimensions of self-esteem might help resolve several issues in the self-esteem literature (Crocker and Wolfe 2001). For example, the role of self-esteem in social problems such as substance abuse and eating disorders may be linked to instability or contingencies of self-esteem as well as, or instead of, level of self-esteem.
2.5 A Cultural Universal?
Psychologists have long assumed that there is a universal need to have high self-esteem. Consistent with this view, most people have high self-esteem, and will go to great lengths to achieve, maintain, and protect this. Yet, almost all of this research has been conducted in a North American cultural context, leaving open the possibility that the need for high self-esteem is a culturally speciﬁc phenomenon (see Heine et al. 1999 for a review). Levels of self-esteem in Asians are related to how much time they have spent in the USA or Canada (Heine et al. 1999). Furthermore, Asians and Asian-Americans, on average, do not show the same self-enhancing tendencies so characteristic of North Americans. Heine et al. argue that there are fundamental cultural diﬀerences in the nature and importance of self-esteem. Taking Japan as an example, they argue that, whereas in the USA and Canada people are self-enhancing and motivated to achieve, maintain, and protect high self-esteem, in Japan people are self-critical and motivated to improve the self. This self-critical orientation in Japan, they argue, is adaptive in a culture that values self-criticism and self-improvement, and considers them to be evidence of commitment to the group. Consequently, in contrast to North America, self-criticism may lead to positive self-feelings resulting from living up to cultural standards that value self-criticism. The notion that the need for self-esteem and the motivation to self-enhance are not universal is a crucial development in self-esteem research.
3. Measurement Of Self-Esteem
In 1974, Wylie reviewed research on self-esteem and criticized researchers for developing idiosyncratic measures of self-esteem, rather than well-established, psychometrically valid and reliable instruments. Although measurement of self-esteem has improved somewhat since Wylie’s critique (see Blascovich and Tomaka 1991 for a review), there remains a tendency for researchers to develop idiosyncratic measures for particular studies. Issues in the measurement of self-esteem tend to reﬂect issues in its conceptualization. Measures of trait self-esteem assess global judgments of self-worth, self-respect, or self-regard that encourage respondents to consider how they usually or generally evaluate themselves (see, e.g., Rosenberg 1965), or assess evaluations of the self in several domains and create a composite score, on the assumption that such a composite is an indicator of global self-esteem (see, e.g., Coopersmith 1967). Measures of state self-esteem, on the other hand, focus on how the person feels at a speciﬁc moment in time. Some state measures assess momentary evaluations of the self in one or more domains such as appearance or performance (see, e.g., Heatherton and Polivy 1991). Others assess current mood or self-related aﬀect with self-ratings on items such as feeling proud, important, and valuable (see, e.g., Leary et al. 1995). Both types of state self-esteem measures appear to be responsive to positive and negative events. Researchers interested in state self-esteem tend not to measure momentary or current self-worth, self-regard, or self-respect (i.e., global state self-esteem). Consequently, studies of state self-esteem and studies of trait self-esteem tend to measure diﬀerent constructs, making results across these types of studies diﬃcult to compare.
4. Future Directions
Several important issues remain to be addressed by research. First, additional progress is needed in measurement and conceptualization of self-esteem, and in identifying and validating diﬀerent types of self-esteem (e.g., defensive vs. genuine, implicit vs. explicit, stable vs. unstable, and contingent vs. noncontingent). Possible cultural and subcultural diﬀerences in the nature and functioning of self-esteem are a very important area needing further exploration. Only after progress has been made in these areas will researchers be able to provide deﬁnitive answers to questions about the social importance of self-esteem.
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