Character  &  Context

The Science of Who We Are and How We Relate
Editors: Mark Leary, Shira Gabriel, Brett Pelham
May 09, 2019

Is it Time to Give Up on Self-esteem?

by Mark Leary
man looking at his reflection in a mirror

At first glance, our obsession with self-esteem is understandable.  Thousands of studies have shown that high self-esteem is associated with a wide variety of beneficial outcomes, including happiness, life satisfaction, stronger relationships, and achievement in school and at work. Furthermore, people with lower self-esteem more often suffer from undesirable outcomes such as depression, alcohol and drug abuse, and victimization. 

Findings such as these have led many to conclude that high self-esteem promotes a wide array of positive outcomes and that lacking self-esteem predisposes people to a host of problems. If that is true, we should probably be doing everything we can to raise people’s self-esteem.  But is it true?

There is no question that high self-esteem is associated with better life outcomes – and feels better – than low self-esteem.  If someone was handing out low and high self-esteem, you’d certainly want to get in the high self-esteem line. But, the fact two things are related does not tell us whether one causes the other. For example, daily temperature is associated with ice cream sales, but eating ice cream doesn’t cause heat waves.  So the fact that self-esteem is related to many good outcomes doesn’t mean that self-esteem actually causes them.

A close look at the research evidence raises serious questions about whether self-esteem causes the good and bad outcomes that are correlated with it.  If anything, it looks like self-esteem is mostly a consequence of the things that happen to people.  For example, high self-esteem seems to be an effect of achievement, success, and good relationships – not their cause.  Conversely, it looks like low self-esteem is more often a consequence than a cause of failure, alcoholism, or victimization.  

If self-esteem is an effect, rather than a cause, of good and bad behaviors, then it makes little sense to try to improve people’s behavior by enhancing their self-esteem.  But that’s what pop psychologists have been promoting for decades. 

Even after more than 100 years of studying and writing about self-esteem, psychologists still debate the nature of self-esteem.   One theory of self-esteem – sociometer theory -- answers this question by suggesting that, rather than causing behavior or emotions, self-esteem is part of a system that monitors and manages the degree to which we are being valued and accepted by other people. 

Being accepted by others is critically important to our well-being.  People who feel valued and accepted tend to flourish in life.  According to sociometer theory, self-esteem serves a crucial function by providing us with ongoing feedback about where we stand in the eyes of others.  This view suggests that self-esteem is something like a meter, or perhaps a balance sheet, that keeps track of something important, specifically how we are regarded by others. Just as your checking account balance lets you know whether you have the money you need to make a purchase, self-esteem lets you know whether you have the social connections you need to influence others or receive their help. Self-esteem helps us keep track of how well we are doing socially.  Thus, our self-esteem rises when we feel valued and accepted, and it decreases when we feel devalued and rejected, thereby providing us with ongoing information about how we are doing.

When we succeed or feel loved, our self-esteem increases because our relational value to other people is high. But when we fail, feel rejected, do bad things, or think about our weaknesses and shortcomings, our self-esteem may go down. The positive and negative outcomes that are associated with high and low self-esteem are things that make us feel more or less valued by other people. 

Like our checking account balances, self-esteem provides us with important information about our relational value, but it doesn’t really do anything that affects our behavior directly.  That means that trying to raise people’s self-esteem won’t directly change their behavior or emotions, just like changing the numbers on your banking statement to make it look like you have money in your account won’t pay your bills.

So, we should probably stop acting as if self-esteem is a key to happiness and success and focus instead on what’s actually important – the degree to which people are valued and accepted by others.  That’s what’s fundamentally essential for happiness and well-being.  Almost anything we can do that makes people feel accepted will increase their psychological well-being, promote desirable behaviors, and reduce the likelihood of undesirable behaviors. 

Making other people feel more valued and accepted requires two kinds of changes. Some of these changes involve how we treat others.  Treating people in ways that convey acceptance and respect are central to making them feel valued, promoting their well-being, and fostering positive behaviors.  Treating others in ways that convey rejection or disrespect undermines well-being and promotes undesirable behaviors.  So, we can enhance human well-being across the board by being nicer to each other.

But sometimes, people are devalued and rejected because of their own actions. Some people are simply not very good friends, partners, or group members. For good reason, this can get them in trouble.  In such cases, people who have been behaving poorly must find desirable ways to get others to like and value them.  Programs that improve people’s social skills or that increase their socio-emotional intelligence can help them live in ways that cause others to like, value, and accept them more, thereby improving their well-being. Their self-esteem will likely increase as well, which is a good thing, but their heightened sense of acceptance – and not their self-esteem – is what promotes their well-being.     

Social acceptance is important throughout life, but there is a particularly important lesson here for parents and teachers: To promote the happiness, well-being, and success of children, stop trying to raise their self-esteem.  Instead, focus on helping them develop into the kinds of people who are naturally valued and accepted by others and providing them with ongoing feedback that they are valued and accepted. 

For Further Reading:
Baumeister, R. F., Campbell, J. D., Krueger, J. I., & Vohs, K. D. (2003). Does high self-esteem cause better performance, interpersonal success, happiness, or healthier lifestyles? Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 4, 1–44. 

Leary, M. R. (2006). Sociometer theory and the pursuit of relational value: Getting to the root of self-esteem. European Review of Social Psychology, 16, 75-111.

Mark Leary is the Garonzik Family Professor of Psychology and Neuroscience at Duke University and author of The Curse of the Self: Self-awareness, Egotism, and the Quality of Human Life.  He is also Editor of Character and Context.

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Why is this blog called Character & Context?

Everything that people think, feel, and do is affected by some combination of their personal characteristics and features of the social context they are in at the time. Character & Context explores the latest insights about human behavior from research in personality and social psychology, the scientific field that studies the causes of everyday behaviors.  

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