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Hello and welcome to the Your Parenting Mojo podcast – today’s episode is about self-esteem. Now I have to say that when I first started researching this episode I thought it would be a bit of a slam-dunk. Self-esteem is a good thing, right? So I could find some studies talking about the detrimental effects of not having self-esteem, and some others talking about the benefits of having it, and conclude with studies on how to get more of it.
But, you know, I actually enjoy these episodes a lot more when the findings are counter-intuitive. It turns out that the concept of self-esteem has been very well studied – I saw an estimate of 23,215 articles, chapters, and books on this topic, and that was a decade ago– and the reason for that is it’s actually a bit of a hard topic for us to get our arms around. It’s difficult to even get a definition of what self-esteem is – you can try this yourself by defining it and then asking someone else to define it, and by trying to rationalize the two definitions into one statement – it’s very difficult to incorporate different opinions into one defensible definition. It’s also hard to study, because people tend to fib when you ask them about their self-esteem. And I was really surprised to find that there’s disagreement among psychologists about whether encouraging self-esteem is necessarily a good thing. So let’s see what the research says…
It seems like virtually every article I found on this topic begins by citing an essay that the psychologist William James wrote in 1890 that purportedly describes what self-esteem is, and it is a bit dense: “So our self-feeling in this world depends entirely on what we back ourselves to be and do. It is determined by the ratio of our actualities to our supposed potentialities; a fraction of which our pretensions are the denominator and the numerator our success, thus: self-esteem = successes/pretentions. Such a fraction may be increased as well by diminishing the denominator as by increasing the numerator” – in other words, self-esteem increases when your successes are greater than your pretentions, and you can increase your successes or decrease your pretentions – or both – to increase your self-esteem. And it’s important that those successes be successes that are important to you – if you have “pretensions” of being good at something then it’ll be more important to you that you be successful in that arena than in a field that you know you don’t know much about. So for James, self-esteem is fundamentally related to competence, but other researchers see it as being related to worth, or value as a person, which introduces new things that can help us (for example, if self-esteem is an attitude then it can be measured) as well as things that make the definition more difficult (for example, it may be different in different cultures and we’d need to find out if any of the factors that make it up are found across all cultures). The most recent work puts these two together and say it’s about both competence and worthiness – we have a need to feel worthy and we achieve that need by feeling competent, so that’s the definition we’re going to go with for now, and we’ll have to live with some of the squishiness around self-esteem being related to two qualities, like the fact that it can be higher from one moment to the next or when the person thinks about one specific trait rather than another.
So how do children develop self-esteem? An influential psychologist named Erik Erikson developed what he called a series of psychosocial stages that all people pass through as they go through their lives. It’s kind of like Freud’s psychosexual stages except Erickson focuses on our interactions with culture and society rather than Freud’s emphasis on the conflict between the id and the superego within the individual’s brain. Erikson says that our ego develops as it resolves crises that it goes through. The first stage runs from birth to about 18 months and is concerned with developing a trusting relationship with parents as the child resolves the trust vs. mistrust crisis – two other prominent psychologists, John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth would call this the attachment relationship. The next stage is autonomy vs. shame which runs from 1 ½ to 3 years, where children develop physical skills – success results in autonomy, while failure results in shame and doubt. Between ages 3 and 5 children achieve greater independence and must resolve the initiative vs. guilt crisis as they take on self-directed activity and achieve a sense of direction and purpose. And between ages 5-12 children must resolve the industry vs. inferiority conflict by managing the demands of learning school-based and other skills to achieve a sense of competence or a sense of inferiority if they fail. There are other stages as well that are relevant to individuals in later stages of life but we’ll stop here for our purposes. As I read through these stages I could see how the ideas of competence and worthiness could be superimposed on each stage – as the individual goes through the stage (except maybe the first one) she receives signals about her competence and her need to feel worthy that are either positive and reinforce her competence and worthiness or are negative and undercut them.
Very young children, between the ages of about three and five, can develop ideas about their strengths and things they find difficult, but they don’t generalize this to a global self-evaluation. Sometime between the ages of five and seven this generalization does occur, possibly as repeated successes, probably combined with parental encouragement to keep developing those skills, that becomes a self-fulfilling loop that promotes the development of self-esteem. One study noted that children are more likely to experience social success outside the family when three conditions are met – firstly they have an unwavering sense of acceptance by their family, second that they feel confident that they can meet age-appropriate expectations, and thirdly that they value their own autonomy. They compare their successes with those of friends and seek out friends who reinforce their self-esteem. This does seem to me to be a very western-centric definition of self-esteem – very focused on comparing oneself to others and being better than others in at least some domains. The majority of self-esteem research has been done on white children in North America, but it does make me wonder how children in cultures where this individual success is less important and may actually be frowned upon develop self-esteem – or if they do. A brand new study from 2016 actually measured self-esteem in five year-olds, which is something that hadn’t been done before because five year-olds don’t normally have the cognitive maturity or the vocabulary to discuss abstract concepts like the ‘self.’ Some researchers at the University of Washington set up an experiment where children were given flags to represent themselves (and some stickers representing the flags that they could take home after the experiment). They used flags because children understand what flags are; the fact that they used flags is sort of irrelevant, but it’s based on the idea that once you own something – whatever it is – you become associated with it. The children had to sort icons on a computer screen to state which flags on the computer were like their own flags, and then make associations between their own flags and “good” and “bad” flags. Overall children associated their own flags with “good” flags more than “bad” ones, meaning that they had fairly high self-esteem the researchers didn’t collect any other data about the children’s life circumstances that could help us to understand whether we should have expected this result in these or other children because their main objective was to see if it was even possible to test for self-esteem in five year-olds.
So now we’ve determined what self-esteem is and that young children can have it, let’s talk about whether it’s a good thing. Perhaps it should come as no great surprise that my own home state of California actually led the charge in promoting the idea of self-esteem as a “social vaccine” – the state created a task force which released a report in 1990 that defined self-esteem rather more broadly than we have defined it: “appreciating my own worth and importance and having the character to be accountable for myself and to act responsibly toward others.” I have no quibbles with the first part of the definition, which is pretty much the one we’ve been working with, but being accountable and acting responsibly is much more in the interests of the state – which wants to increase social goods and reduce social ills – than any specific individual. The research report – which is available in full online; there’s a link in the references – say that low levels of self-esteem are linked to academic success, drug and alcohol abuse, crime and violence, poverty and chronic welfare dependency – all factors that cost the state an enormous amount of money. The study was based on a literature review, which means the researchers read a lot of books and papers by other authors, much like I did for this episode. But I should note that the average Your Parenting Mojo episode has a longer reference list than the average chapter in the task force report. The report’s authors also relied mostly on other reports and on books rather than original research papers. The reason I use so many journal articles in my references is because articles published in journals go through a peer review process, which means that probably three people not involved in the research read the article and try to make sure the methods make sense, that reasonable conclusions were reached, and so on. It’s not a foolproof system, but it is an extra layer of corroboration that doesn’t exist when you reference books and other reports.
Perhaps it was inevitable that the pendulum would swing the other way. In 2003, Roy Baumeister and his colleagues published a 44-page literature review (which is really long, in the journal world) that contained almost five full pages of references, the vast majority of them original research published in peer-reviewed journals, which basically called into question all of the findings of the California Task Force report. Let’s go through the findings. Firstly, the link between violence and self—esteem is very unclear, because people who are narcissistic – that is, they have an inflated sense of their own self-importance – score highly on self-esteem measures. Some people with low self-esteem are violent, but so are some of the narcissists, which makes the non-narcissists with high self-esteem look bad. Some studies from the 1980s looking at prejudice found that people with low self-esteem expressed more negativity about people who weren’t like them than people with higher self-esteem. Then other researchers noticed that the low self-esteem people also expressed negativity about people who *were* like them – and once you they took that into account they could see that people with high self-esteem were actually more prejudiced toward people in other groups than people with low self-esteem. Several studies have looked at global self-esteem (so, the kind that’s not linked to a specific task) and its connection with attractiveness. It’s not hard to believe the results that self-esteem is mostly linked to how attractive a person thinks they are – one study found a correlation of 0.85, which is extremely high. But if we try to introduce a more objective assessment of assessing attractiveness than just asking people how attractive they are by having judges rate full-length photographs of the same people, the correlation between attractiveness and self-esteem dropped to 0.06. Photographs of just the individuals’ heads and shoulders fared slightly better with a correlation of 0.14, but then the researchers realized that people who were rated as more attractive were often wearing nice jewelry and clothes. Take those away, and the correlation dropped to precisely zero. So people with high self-esteem think they are attractive, even if other people don’t.
Given our society’s focus on body weight you might also think there would be a high correlation between actual body weight and self-esteem. Just a quick primer on correlations in case you haven’t looked at a math textbook for a while: a correlation of 0 represents no alignment between two variables in question and -1 and 1 represent perfect correlations, the first negative and the second positive. It turns out that there is a correlation of about -0.24 between actual body weight and self-esteem, but there’s a much stronger link between how people rate their own weight and self-esteem – that correlation was -0.72. So people with high self-esteem are a bit thinner than the rest of us, but not by as much as they think. When we turn our attention from “normal” people to those with diagnosable eating disorders, we actually find quite a strong link between self-esteem and bulimia although again, we do not fully understand which causes which and so we don’t know that interventions to improve self-esteem can reduce the symptoms of bulimia. It seems that the combination of low self-esteem plus having perfectionist standards for yourself (i.e. a slim body) which you can’t possibly meet (exhibited by feeling overweight) is predictive of bulimic symptoms. One study found that teasing about an elementary school girl’s weight was more important than the girl’s actual weight in predicting self-esteem, and girls who were teased about their weight had lower self-esteem even if they believed the teasing had no effect on how they felt about themselves. This research implies that school-based efforts to improve self-esteem are likely to fall flat if they don’t address other causes of low self-esteem related to body weight like teasing.
Let’s look at a topic that’s pretty important to us parents: the link between self-esteem and school performance. Since the California Task Force Report there has been a big push to increase self-esteem in school children so they will set higher aspirations for themselves and persist in the face of initial failure to learn new skills. Many studies have noted the correlation between self-esteem and school performance, but few have looked at the direction of causality – whether self-esteem causes higher academic performance or the academic performance causes improved self-esteem. A variety of studies have concluded that factors like...