Self-esteem (I)

I’m currently reading this book. I’ve written about this kind of stuff before here on the blog, so there are some observations from the book which I’ve decided not to repeat here even if it’s stuff that’s nice to know – instead I refer to these posts on the topic (I should perhaps clarify that a few of the observations made in those posts are observations I’d have liked the authors to include in the book as well, though they decided not to..). It’s worth mentioning that many other psychology-related posts in the archives also deal with stuff covered in the book, though the focus has often been different – one example would be this post, but there are lots of others as well.

I like the book and it’s certainly worth reading even if at times it’s been somewhat speculative and I have disagreed with a few of the authors about the interpretation of the research results they’ve presented. Reading a book like this one may easily make you question what you know about yourself and how you think about yourself, and this is probably a very good thing for me to do. People reading along here may not know this, but I have quite low self-esteem – I however along the way got curious about where I’d actually score on metrics usually applied in the literature, and so I decided to have a go at the Rosenberg self-esteem scale before publishing this post. You should check it out if you’re the least bit interested, there are only 10 questions and it shouldn’t take you very long to answer the questions. My score was 6. It’s best thought of as a state estimate, not a trait estimate, but I doubt I’d ever score anywhere near 15 if not on illegal drugs or severely intoxicated by alcohol. It’s perhaps noteworthy in the context of this test that “average scores for most self-esteem instruments are well above the midpoint of their response scales (more than one standard deviation in many cases[)]”.

The book is not a self-help book, it’s a research book dealing with (parts of) the psychological literature written on the topic (a lot of stuff has been written on this topic: “Self-esteem is clearly one of the most popular topics in modern psychology, with more than 35,000 publications on the subject of this construct”). That said, a few tentative conclusions about how ‘healthy self-esteem’ may be different from ‘unhealthy self-esteem’ can be drawn from the literature – or anyway have been drawn from the literature by some of the authors of the book, whether or not they should have been drawn – and I’ve included some of these in the post below. An important general point in that context is that self-esteem is a complex trait; “there is far more to self-esteem than simply whether global self-esteem is high or low”. I’ve added a few comments about some key moderating variables below.

The book has a lot of good stuff and unlike a few of the books I’ve recently read it’s relatively easy to blog, in the sense that a somewhat high proportion of the total content would be stuff I could justify including in a post like this. If you like what I’ve included in the post below, I think it’s quite likely you’ll like the book.

With those things out of the way, below some observations from the first half of the book.

“self-esteem is generally considered to be the evaluative aspect of self-knowledge that reflects the extent to which people like themselves and believe they are competent […]. High self-esteem refers to a highly favorable view of the self, whereas low self-esteem refers to evaluations of the self that are either uncertain or outright negative […] self-esteem reflects perception rather than reality.
Self-esteem is considered to be a relatively enduring characteristic that possesses both motivational and cognitive components […]. Individuals tend to show a desire for high levels of self-esteem and engage in a variety of strategies to maintain or enhance their feelings of self-worth […] Individuals with different levels of self-esteem tend to adopt different strategies to regulate their feelings of self-worth, such that those with high self-esteem are more likely to focus their efforts on further increasing their feelings of self-worth (i.e., self-enhancement), whereas those with low self-esteem are primarily concerned with not losing the limited self-esteem resources they already possess (i.e., self-protection[)] […] In contrast to the self-enhancing tendencies exhibited by those with high self-esteem, individuals with low levels of self-esteem are more likely to employ self-protective strategies characterized by a reluctance to call attention to themselves, attempts to prevent their bad qualities from being noticed, and an aversion to risk. In essence, individuals with low self-esteem tend to behave in a manner that is generally cautious and conservative […] the risks taken by individuals with low self-esteem appear to have a greater potential cost for them than for those with high self-esteem because those with low self-esteem lack the evaluative resources necessary to buffer themselves from the self-esteem threats that accompany negative experiences such as failure and rejection.”

“According to the sociometer model, self-esteem has a status-tracking property such that the feelings of self-worth possessed by an individual depend on the level of relational value that the individual believes he or she possesses […] In essence, the sociometer model suggests that self-esteem is analogous to a gauge that tracks gains in perceived relational value (accompanied by increases in self-esteem) as well as losses in perceived value (accompanied by decreases in self-esteem). […] Although the sociometer model has been extremely influential, it may provide only a partial representation of the way this information is transferred between the individual and the social environment. That is, status-tracking models of self-esteem have focused exclusively on the influence that perceived standing has on feelings of self-worth […] without addressing the possibility that self-esteem also influences how others perceive the individual […] The status-signaling model of self-esteem […] provides a complement to the sociometer model by addressing the possibility that self-esteem influences how individuals present themselves to others and alters how those individuals are perceived by their social environment. […] The existing data has supported this basic idea”

“A wide array of studies have shown clear and consistent evidence that individuals who report more positive feelings of self-worth are also more emotionally stable and less prone to psychological distress than those who do not feel as good about themselves […] There is little debate that self-esteem is positively associated with outcomes such as self-reported happiness […] and overall life satisfaction […] Although there is a clear link between low self-esteem and psychopathology, the reason for this connection [however] remains unclear.”

“The model of evaluative self-organization measures the distribution of positively and negatively valenced self-beliefs across self-aspects (i.e., contexts). This model highlights individual differences in the organization of positive and negative beliefs into same- or mixed-valenced self-aspects, labeled compartmentalization and integration, respectively […] the basic model outlines two types of self-organizations: Evaluative compartmentalization, wherein individuals separate their positive and negative self-beliefs into distinct self-aspects, and evaluative integration, wherein individuals intermix positive and negative self-beliefs in each of their multiple self-aspects […] Compartmentalized selves are highly differentiated. […] This suggests that compartmentalized individuals have [relatively high] affect intensity […] with evaluative integration, there appears to be lower affective intensity. Trait self-esteem is gauged less heavily on affect, but more by cognitive features. Integratives possibly weigh their positive and negative beliefs by more objective standards, such as overall social position. Moreover, state self-esteem is often consistent with trait self-esteem because the situation does not often change the qualities of self-beliefs […] A second important feature of evaluative self-organization is differential importance […]. Some selves are considered subjectively more important than others and, naturally, these important selves weigh heavily in self-esteem judgments.”

“Individuals whose positive self-aspects are more important than their negatives (differential importance) are referred to as positively compartmentalized or positively integrative; and those whose negative selves are most important are referred to as negatively compartmentalized or negative integrative. […] Both negatively compartmentalized and integrative individuals feel as though acceptance from others is beyond their control, but their reactions and approaches to life may differ dramatically. […] negatively compartmentalized individuals strive to obtain belongingness in much the same way as their positively compartmentalized counterparts, but they fail in their efforts to live up to contingencies. This likely makes social acceptance particularly desirable and the inability to achieve it all the more frustrating, culminating in a despairing form of low self-esteem (a judgment they might arrive at reluctantly). On the other hand, negative integratives’ response to rejection seems more accepting, as if they can simply conclude that they are not worthy of acceptance and concede that their needs are unlikely ever to be met: a defeated form of low self-esteem.”

“People with HSE [high self-esteem] vs LSE [low self-esteem] have very different ways of orienting to their social worlds and regulating feelings of safety and security in response to self-esteem threats. HSE people’s self-confidence and interpersonal security motivates them to strive for positive end states (e.g., positive affect, social rewards) more than avoiding negative end states (e.g., loss of self-esteem, rejection). For example, following self-esteem threats, HSEs are quicker to access their strengths relative to weaknesses, are likely to dismiss the validity of negative feedback, derogate out-group members, make self-serving biases, and express increased zeal about value-laden opinions and ideologies […] In relational contexts, HSEs often show approach-motivated responses by drawing closer to their relationship partners following threat. […] In close relationships, LSEs [on the other hand] typically adopt avoidance strategies following threat, such as distancing from their romantic partner and devaluing their relationship […] When LSEs fail, they feel ashamed and humiliated […], generalize the failure to other aspects of themselves […], have difficulty accessing positive thoughts about themselves […], are less likely to show self-serving biases […], and are thought to possess fewer positive aspects of their self-image with which to affirm themselves […] Such findings support the idea that people who feel relationally devalued prioritize self-protection goals over self-enhancement goals or relationship-promotion goals, especially under conditions of heightened threat or perceived risk […] [various] findings support the idea that whereas HSEs regulate their responses to threat by defending and maintaining their favorable self-views, LSEs regulate their emotional reactions by withdrawing from the situation […] to avoid further loss of self-esteem. […] Overall, then, these studies suggest that interpersonally motivated responses – to draw closer or distance from others following threat – depends on one’s global level of self-esteem, the degree to which self-worth is invested in a domain, and whether or not one experiences a threat to that domain.”

“We define consistency in this chapter as rank-order stability, which is typically assessed using test-retest correlations […] The degree of rank-order stability is an important consideration when evaluating whether the construct of self-esteem is more state- or trait-like […]. Psychological traits such as the Big Five typically exhibit high stability over time, whereas mood and other states tend to exhibit lower levels of stability […]. Although debate persists […], we believe that the evidence now supports the conclusion that self-esteem is best conceptualized as a stable trait. Most notably, Trzesniewski and colleagues (2003) examined the rank-order stability of self-esteem using data from 50 published articles (N = 29,839). They found that test-retest correlations are moderate in magnitude and comparable to those found for personality traits […] The rank-order stability of self-esteem showed a robust curvilinear trend [as a function of age] […] Recent studies have replicated the curvilinear trend for the Big Five personality domains […], suggesting that the pattern observed for self-esteem may reflect a more general developmental process. […] The increasing consistency of self-esteem from childhood to mid-life conforms well to the cumulative continuity principle […], which states that psychological traits become more consistent as individuals mature into adulthood. […] After decades of contentious debate […], research accumulating over the past several years suggests that there are reliable age differences in self-esteem across the life span […]. A broad generalization is that levels of self-esteem decline from childhood to adolescence, increase during the transition to adulthood, reach a peak sometime in middle adulthood, and decrease in old age […] there is […] a biological component to self-esteem that is being increasingly recognized. Twin studies indicated that genetic factors account for about 40% of the observed variability in self-esteem
(Neiss, Sedikides, & Stevenson, 2002). The relatively high heritability of self-esteem […] approaches that found for basic personality traits”

“Perceptions by others may shape self-esteem and these reflected appraisals have long been implicated in self-esteem development […] perceiving one’s partner as supportive and loving leads to greater self-esteem over time, and perceiving a partner to view one less positively leads to diminished self-esteem over time. Similarly, being viewed as competent and liked by peers may promote self-esteem, whereas being viewed as incompetent and disliked by peers may diminish self-esteem […]. One complicated issue […] is that self-esteem may actually shape how individuals perceive the world […]. Individuals with low self-esteem may perceive peer rejection and negativity even when peers do not actually harbor such perspectives. These self-perceptions – whether true or not – may reinforce levels of self-esteem. […] An emerging body of evidence suggests that people with low self-esteem elicit particular responses from the social environment. […] For example, people report being more interested in voting for presidential candidates that are perceived as having higher self-esteem and people perceived as having higher self-esteem are thought to make more desirable relationship partners, particularly when the high self-esteem target is male […] In many cases, the environmental stimuli evoked by self-esteem seems to follow the “corresponsive principle” […] of personality development, the idea that life experiences accentuate the characteristics that were initially responsible for the environmental experiences in the first place. For instance, when low self-esteem invites victimization, it is likely that peer victimization will further depress self-esteem. Similarly, Holmes and Wood (2009) found that individuals with low self-esteem are less disclosing in interpersonal settings, which tends to hamper the development of close relationships. As they note, “the avoidance of risk is self-defeating, resulting in lost social opportunities, the very lack of close connection that [individuals with low self-esteem] fear, and the perpetuation of their low self-esteem””

“differences in traits motivate individuals to select certain situations over others. These processes will also facilitate continuity by the corresponsive principle […] The idea that self-esteem is related to the kinds of environments individuals select for themselves is also consistent with Swann’s self-verification theory, which proposes that individuals are motivated to confirm their pre-existing self-views […]. That is, individuals with low self-esteem seek contexts that confirm and maintain their low self-regard whereas individuals with high self-esteem seek contexts that promote their high self-regard. This process might explain why individuals with low self-esteem prefer certain kinds of relationships that can involve negative feedback […]. An important caveat is that individuals with low self-esteem will prefer negative feedback in relationship contexts with a low risk of rejection. The gist is that a romantic partner can be negative but not rejecting. Nonetheless, the upshot of self-verification motives is that they tend to promote the consistency of self-views.”

“Direct measures of self-esteem do a good job of assessing one’s overall level of self-esteem (i.e., global self-evaluation) but individuals with both secure and fragile forms of high self-esteem will report feeling good about themselves and they should score equally high on these measures of self-esteem. Consequently, researchers have begun considering factors beyond self-esteem level in order to identify individuals with the fragile form of high self-esteem. The three main approaches have been to consider whether high self-esteem is contingent, unstable, or accompanied by low implicit self-esteem […] Contingent self-esteem refers to self-evaluations that depend on meeting standards of performance, approval, or acceptance in order to be maintained. This is a fragile form of high self-esteem because individuals only feel good about themselves when they are able to meet these standards […] Deci and Ryan […] argued in their self-determination theory that some people regulate their behavior and goals based on introjected standards – most typically they internalize significant others’ conditional standards of approval – which causes them to develop contingent self-esteem. These individuals become preoccupied with meeting externally derived standards or expectations in order to maintain their feelings of self-worth. As a result, their self-esteem is continually “on the line.” […] Tellingly, drops in self-esteem that result from failures in contingent domains are often greater in magnitude than boosts that result from successes […]. This asymmetry may contribute to the overall fragility of contingent self-esteem.
As a result of their positive self-views being continuously on the line, individuals with contingent high self-esteem may go to great lengths to guard against threatening information by engaging in practices such as blaming others for their failures, derogating people who criticize them, or distorting or denying information that reflects poorly on them […] Taken together, this evidence suggests that contingent high self-esteem is fragile and related to defensiveness.”

“Another indicator of fragile self-esteem is self-esteem instability […] Unstable high self-esteem is considered to be a form of fragile high self-esteem because these fluctuations in feelings of self-worth suggest that the positive attitudes these individuals hold about themselves are vulnerable to challenges or threats. Contingent self-esteem can contribute to self-esteem instability. […] Some self-esteem contingencies are more likely to induce self-esteem instability than others. For example, those contingencies of self-worth that have been identified by Crocker and her colleagues […] as external […] appear to be more closely associated with self-esteem instability than those contingencies that are internal […] individuals with unstable high self-esteem are more self-aggrandizing and indicate they are more likely to boast to their friends about their successes than individuals with stable high self-esteem […] When they actually do perform well (e.g., on an exam), individuals with unstable high self-esteem are more likely to claim that they did so in spite of performance-inhibiting factors […] The final major indicator of fragile self-esteem is high self-esteem that is accompanied by low levels of implicit self-esteem […]. A number of longstanding theories suggest that some individuals with high self-esteem are defensive, aggressive, and boastful because they harbor negative self-feelings at less conscious levels […] We can now offer a provisional answer to the question of what constitutes “healthy” self-esteem: it is high self-esteem that is relatively non-contingent, stable, and accompanied by high implicit self-esteem. […] The key to healthy self-esteem may […] be to take one’s focus away from self-esteem. Self-determination theory posits that secure (or “true”) high self-esteem arises from acting in accordance with one’s authentic values and interests rather than regulating behavior around self-esteem concerns […] Somewhat ironically, the most effective way to cultivate healthy self-esteem may be to worry less about having high self-esteem.”


November 6, 2014 - Posted by | Books, Psychology

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