Does high self-esteem cause better performance, interpersonal success, happiness, or healthier lifestyles?
“Summary — Self-esteem has become a household word. Teachers, parents, therapists, and others have focused efforts on boosting self-esteem, on the assumption that high self-esteem will cause many positive outcomes and benefits — an assumption that is critically evaluated in this review.
Appraisal of the effects of self-esteem is complicated by several factors. Because many people with high self-esteem
exaggerate their successes and good traits, we emphasize objective measures of outcomes. High self-esteem is also a heterogeneous category, encompassing people who frankly accept their good qualities along with narcissistic, defensive, and conceited individuals.
The modest correlations between self-esteem and school performance do not indicate that high self-esteem leads to
good performance. Instead, high self-esteem is partly the result of good school performance. Efforts to boost the self-esteem of pupils have not been shown to improve academic performance and may sometimes be counterproductive. Job performance in adults is sometimes related to self-esteem, although the correlations vary widely, and the direction of causality has not been established. Occupational success may boost self-esteem rather than the reverse. Alternatively, self-esteem may be helpful only in some job contexts. Laboratory studies have generally failed to find that self-esteem causes good task performance, with the important exception that high self-esteem facilitates persistence after failure.
People high in self-esteem claim to be more likable and attractive, to have better relationships, and to make better impressions on others than people with low self-esteem, but objective measures disconfirm most of these beliefs. Narcissists are charming at first but tend to alienate others eventually. Self-esteem has not been shown to predict the quality or duration of relationships.
High self-esteem makes people more willing to speak up in groups and to criticize the group’s approach. Leadership does not stem directly from self-esteem, but self-esteem may have indirect effects. Relative to people with low self-esteem, those with high self-esteem show stronger in-group favoritism, which may increase prejudice and discrimination.
Neither high nor low self-esteem is a direct cause of violence. Narcissism leads to increased aggression in retaliation for wounded pride. Low self-esteem may contribute to externalizing behavior and delinquency, although some studies have found that there are no effects or that the effect of self-esteem vanishes when other variables are controlled. The highest and lowest rates of cheating and bullying are found in different subcategories of high self-esteem.
Self-esteem has a strong relation to happiness. Although the research has not clearly established causation, we are persuaded that high self-esteem does lead to greater happiness. Low self-esteem is more likely than high to lead to depression under some circumstances. Some studies support the buffer hypothesis, which is that high self-esteem mitigates the effects of stress, but other studies come to the opposite conclusion, indicating that the negative effects of low self-esteem are mainly felt in good times. Still others find that high self-esteem leads to happier outcomes regardless of stress or other circumstances.
High self-esteem does not prevent children from smoking, drinking, taking drugs, or engaging in early sex. If anything, high self-esteem fosters experimentation, which may increase early sexual activity or drinking, but in general effects of self-esteem are negligible. One important exception is that high self-esteem reduces the chances of bulimia in females.
Overall, the benefits of high self-esteem fall into two categories: enhanced initiative and pleasant feelings. We have not found evidence that boosting self-esteem (by therapeutic interventions or school programs) causes benefits. Our findings do not support continued widespread efforts to boost self-esteem in the hope that it will by itself foster improved outcomes. In view of the heterogeneity of high self-esteem, indiscriminate praise might just as easily promote narcissism, with its less desirable consequences. Instead, we recommend using praise to boost self-esteem as a reward for socially desirable behavior and self-improvement.” [my emphasis]
Here’s the link. A bit more from the paper:
“The role of self-esteem in romantic relationships has received fairly little attention. In particular, little is known about whether self-esteem predicts the durability of romantic relationships. One study with a very small sample (N=30) found that couples with low self-esteem were more likely than couples with high self-esteem to break up over a 1-month period (S.S. Hendrick, Hendrick, & Adler, 1988). Data on love styles and self-esteem support this finding, showing that low self-esteem is related to feelings of manic love, which is characterized by extreme feelings of both joy and anguish over the love object (W.K. Campbell, Foster, & Finkel, 2002). High self-esteem is related to passionate, erotic love, which is marked by the escalation of erotic feelings for the love object. These findings are consistent with other studies showing that, compared with people with high self-esteem, those with low self-esteem experience more instances of unrequited love (Dion & Dion, 1975) and more intense feelings of love for others (C. Hendrick & Hendrick, 1986).
Several findings indicate that relationship behavior differs as a function of self-esteem. Murray, Rose, Bellavia, Holmes, and Kusche (2002) found that people low in self-esteem engage in a variety of potentially destructive behaviors. They tend to distrust their partners’ expressions of love and support, and so they act as though they are constantly expecting their partners to reject and abandon them. Thus far, however, these patterns have not translated into any evidence that the relationships are actually more likely to dissolve.
Thus, despite the relationship problems caused by low self-esteem, relationships are no more likely to break up if a partner has low self-esteem than if a partner has high self-esteem. Possibly the reason for this is that high self-esteem leads to relationship problems, too. Rusbult, Morrow, and Johnson (1987) examined four types of responses to problems within close relationships, and found that self-esteem produced the largest difference in the active-destructive (“exit”) category of responses. People with high self-esteem were significantly more likely than others to respond to problems and conflicts by deciding to leave the relationship, seeking other partners, and engaging in other behaviors that would actively contribute to the deterioration of the relationship. These results were based on responses to hypothetical scenarios, which share many of the drawbacks of self-report measures. However, as the authors noted, it seems unlikely that their findings can be attributed to a simple response bias because people with high self-esteem were admitting to more undesirable, rather than desirable, behaviors.
Shackelford (2001) found that self-esteem was intertwined with a variety of patterns in marriage, although he did not provide evidence as to whether high self-esteem affects the durability of marriages. Spouses showed similar levels of self-esteem, with global self-esteem of spouses correlating at .23 and physical self-esteem (including self-rated attractiveness) correlating fairly strongly at .53. Significantly, Shackelford regarded self-esteem as an outcome rather than a cause of marital interactions, although his data were correlational. Wives’ fidelity was the strongest predictor of husbands’ self-esteem. This might indicate that men with high self-esteem cause their wives to remain faithful, or—as Shackelford speculated—that cuckolded husbands experience a loss of self-esteem.
Most important, women complained more about husbands with low than with high self-esteem. Low self-esteem men were derided by their wives as jealous, possessive, inconsiderate, moody, prone to abuse alcohol, and emotionally constricted. Again, the direction of causality is difficult to determine. Possibly, husbands’ low self-esteem elicits negative perceptions among wives. Conversely, being disrespected or despised by his wife may lower a man’s self-esteem. Yet another possibility is that having a variety of bad traits leads both to low self-esteem and to being disrespected by one’s wife. Meanwhile, the self-esteem of wives was unrelated to their husbands’ complaints about them, except that husbands who criticized or insulted their wives’ appearance were generally married to wives with low self-esteem, and indeed Shackelford (2001) found that this was the most consistent predictor of low self-esteem among wives.” (pp.18-19)
This is interesting stuff, worth pondering. Incidentally, my level of self-esteem is higher than it has been for a long time. That’s not saying much, but even so…
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