Effects of Self-Esteem Overstated

This post addresses number one from Facts that Impact Therapy.

1. global self-esteem is not a major predictor of anything with the exception of happiness [3]

Self-esteem is defined here as trait (global) self-esteem in the absence of aversive social experiences.  This is a specific type of self-esteem measured on the Rosenberg Self-Esteem Scale (RSES) to detect the overall attitude that we have towards the self.

William James over a century ago said it best when he described this measurement as “a certain average tone of self-feeling which each one of us carries about with him, and which is independent of the objective reasons we may have for satisfaction and discontent” [12].

Effects of Global Self-Esteem Overstated

Although global self-esteem has been associated with a host of problems – delinquent behaviors, promiscuity, substance abuse, depression, hostility, and life satisfaction [12] – that, for example, educators have attempted to artificially inflate to improve grades to no avail and that our culture seems obsessed with, the social psychologist Dr. Roy Baumeister correctly reminds us that these are just correlations.

Dr. Baumeister bases this on a survey conducted in 2001 of over 15,000 publicized studies on self-esteem, where only primary studies were chosen in order to see the original data.  The conclusion is most astounding, and I will quote below but in essence global self-esteem is not that important too much of anything but our overall happiness, which, of course, is significant in its own right [3].

With the exception of the link to happiness, most of the effects are weak to modest. Self-esteem (global) is thus not a major predictor or cause of almost anything (again, with the possible exception of happiness). [3]

Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised with these findings since if you look at the questions from the RSES (see Figure 1), they don’t detect extremes in attitudes and feelings about the self, with the exception of numbers 3, 9, and 10.  To me, it is obvious that it’s in the extremes of our ego states that we may exhibit detectable behaviors but not from measuring our biased, aggregated opinion towards ourselves.

This does not mean that other forms of self-esteem, say state or specific [21], can’t have a measurable effect on behaviors; for example, we can feel a state of inferiority after someone disparages us prompting retaliatory measures on our end, but this is state self-esteem.  State self-esteem along with self-esteem instability, which underlies the narcissistic trait, is tied to behaviors, but these are more difficult to measure [7, 8, 13, 26].

Figure 1:  Rosenberg Self-Esteem Scale – RSES

  1. I feel that I am a person of worth, at least on an equal plane with others.
  2. I feel that I have a number of good qualities..
  3. All in all, I am inclined to feel that I am a failure.
  4. I am able to do things as well as most other people.
  5. I feel I do not have much to be proud of.
  6. I take a positive attitude toward myself.
  7. On the whole, I am satisfied with myself.
  8. I wish I could have more respect for myself.
  9. I certainly feel useless at times.
  10. At times I think I am no good at all.


[1] Aron, Elaine.  Ranking and Linking, For Better and For Worse. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/attending-the-undervalued-self/201001/ranking-and-linking-better-and-worse

[2] Baumeister, Roy.  Advanced Social Psychology. Oxford University Press.

[3] Baumeister, Roy.  Does High Self-Esteem Cause Better Performance, Interpersonal Success, Happiness, or Healthier Lifestyles?

[4] Brown, J. D., & Marshall, M. A. (2006). The three faces of self-esteem. In M. Kernis (Ed.), Self-esteem: Issues and answers (pp. 4-9). New York: Psychology Press.

[5] Caine, Susan.  NYT.  Shyness: Evolutionary Tactic?

[6] Crozier, Ray.  Shyness and Embarrassment. Perspectives from Social Psychology.  Cambridge University Press.

[7] De Ruiter, Naomi M. P.  Explaining the “How” of Self-Esteem Development: The Self-Organizing Self-Esteem Model.  Review of General Psychology.

[8] De Ruiter, Naomi M. P. Hindawi Complexity.  Self-Esteem as a Complex Dynamic System: Intrinsic and Extrinsic Microlevel Dynamics

[9] Gilbert, Paul. Subordination and Defeat: An Evolutionary Approach To Mood Disorders and Their Therapy.

[10] Harris, Judith Rich. The Nurture Assumption: Why Children Turn Out the Way They Do.

[11] Heatherton, Todd. development and evaluation of a scale for measuring state self-esteem.  Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

[12] Hoyle, Rick. Selfhood. Taylor and Francis.

[13] Jordon, Christian.  Self-esteem Instability. Encyclopedia of Personality and Individual Differences

[14] Knopik, Valerie.  Behavioral Genetics.  Worth Publishers.

[15]  Leary, Mark R. Interpersonal Rejection.

[16] Leary, Mark R.  Making Sense of Self-Esteem.  Current Directions in Psychological Science.

[17] Marsh, Herbert. What is the Nature of Self-Esteem: Unidimensional and Multidimensional Perspectives

[18] Nesse, Randolph M.. Good Reasons for Bad Feelings. Penguin Publishing Group.

[19] O’brien, Edward J. Global Self-Esteem Scales: Unidimensional or Multidimensional?  Research Article.

[20] Robins, Richard.  Measuring Global Self-Esteem: Construct Validation of a Single-Item Measure and the Rosenberg Self-Esteem Scale.  Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin.

[21] Rosenberg, Morris. Global Self-Esteem and Specific Self-Esteem: Different Concepts, Different Outcomes.  American Sociological Review.

[22] Self-Esteem Issues and Answers (p. 424). Taylor and Francis.

[23] Schmidt and Schulkin. Extreme Fear, Shyness, and Social Phobia (Series in Affective Science).

[24] Simpson, Jeffrey.  Evolutionary Social Psychology.  Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc., Publishers.

[25] Tafarodi, Romin W. Self-Liking and Self-competence as Dimensions to Self-Esteem: Initial Validation of a Measure. Journal of Personality Assessment.

[26] Tracy, Jessica.  The Self-Conscious Emotions. Guilford Publication.

[27] Waytz, Adam.  The Psychology of Social Status. https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/the-psychology-of-social/

[28] Wong, Alexander E. Fractal Dynamics in Self-Evaluation Reveal Self-Concept Clarity.  Nonlinear Dynamics, Psychology, and Life Sciences.


  1. says

    Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised with these findings since if you look at the questions from the RSES (see Figure 1), they don’t detect extremes in attitudes and feelings about the self, with the exception of numbers 3, 9 and 10.

    It’s an inventory of self-reported abstractions. No matter how sciency one tries to get about how it’s processed, it’s still garbage in, garbage out circular logic: “self esteem is defined as ‘what our self-esteem survey measures’ and people with high self-reported self-esteem scores also report something else.” It’s pseudoscience.

    • musing says

      Thanks for the comment. I once held the same sentiments and was frustrated with social psychology’s imprecise methods and progress. The field to me was riddled with problems and was notorious for producing false positive results. I even demonstrated the same contemptuous and sarcastic tone as you are now.

      But after reading about its methods and practices and getting intimate with the discipline, I think pseudoscience is way too strong of a word for it and only reflects our own attitudes when we use it as well as discourages honest inquiry into a field that asks some very important questions.

      As far as your comments on GIGO, this is true in general of course of any field, but I don’t believe it’s true for the RSES, which is the only test I’m discussing thus far. Global self-esteem is arguably a unidimensional trait that shows reproducibility when detected via the RSES, so it reliably reports the same results by any one individual time and time again.

      And many studies have convinced most that the RSES is both psychometrically sound and valid as a construct; that is, it repeatedly and accurately detects what it sets out to measure. Yes, there are some caveats and limitations to self-reports on self-esteem that I will discuss, but does this warrant ranking the field akin to a pseudoscience?

      Please also help me to understand how you conclude that because a method to detect an effect utilizes concepts, at least that is what I think you mean by abstractions, and is a self-inventory that it automatically precludes it from being a valid method? In my view, it only makes it more challenging and interesting. Ironically, the next post was going to be on the unidimensionality of the measurement and to discuss its validity and reliability as a test.

      There are huge obstacle to the field because of trying to capture what a variable even is, as you suggest with the word abstractions, let alone developing a method to reliably and accurately detect it. But more and more sophisticated tests have been developed for detection that boosts reliability and validity of self-reports. One such detection method is that of implicit self-esteem in which it is supposed to be “unfakeable”.

      I would like to hear your comments after my next post and see if I can change your mind. The field is by far the most interesting, at least from my perspective of spending my life in electrical engineering, as well as consistently showing improvement on its methods and research practices. I therefore think we should give it a fair chance before attacking it.

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