|Review of Self-Esteem Research
Robert W. Reasoner, President
Following are excerpts from the booklet Self-Esteem and Youth: What Research
Has To Say About It. The topics addressed here in brief form are these:
- Self-Esteem and Academic Achievement
- Interpersonal Relationships
This entire book of 60+ pages is available as an e-book for just $9.95. It
contains an expansion of the topics below as well as more research other
topics, together with the references referred to in these excerpts. To
obtain the book, click on the "e-book" section on the left of this website.
SELF-ESTEEM AND ACADEMIC ACHIEVEMENT
There is general agreement that there is a close relationship between
self-esteem and academic achievement. However, there is considerable
disagreement as to the specific nature of this relationship. It has been
argued that students have to do well in school in order to have positive
self-esteem or self-concept; another position is that a positive self-esteem
is a necessary prerequisite for doing well in school.
Covington(1989) reported that as the level of self-esteem increases, so do
achievement scores; as self-esteem decreases, achievement scores decline.
Furthermore, he concluded that self-esteem can be modified through direct
instruction and that such instruction can lead to achievement gains.
Specifically, students’ perceived efficacy to achieve, combined with personal
goal setting, has been found to have a major impact on academic achievement.
Holly (1987) compiled a summary of some 50 studies and indicated that most
supported the idea that self-esteem was more likely the result than the cause
of academic achievement. He did acknowledge that a certain level of
self-esteem is required in order for a student to achieve academic success
and that self-esteem and achievement go hand in hand. They feed each other.
Conrath (1986) states that the best way for a child to sustain a sense of
confidence is to acquire and demonstrate competence. He found that
self-confidence will emerge with success in skill development and learning.
Thus, the key point is to help students set meaningful and realistic goals.
However, the debate about which comes first--a positive self-concept or
academic achievement-is more academic than practical. The most important
thing is to appreciate the interaction and the reciprocal dynamics between
self-concept and achievement. They are mutually reinforcing. While there may
be little justification for embarking on a program to raise the level of
self-esteem with the intent of raising academic achievement, there are many
other justifications for raising self-esteem of students.
It has been my experience that self-esteem programs can be implemented in
schools without sacrificing academic excellence and no school has reported a
decline in academic achievement while focusing on self-esteem.
ALCOHOL AND DRUG ABUSE
The use of alcohol and drugs among our young people continues to be of
serious concern. More than 50% of high school seniors in
the U.S. report using illicit
drugs and 66% report that they are regular users of alcohol; 71% reported
getting drunk and 14% appear to be highly involved with drugs on a regular
basis. While a high percentage of youths become involved as a part of the
peer social scene, many grow to depend upon drugs or alcohol to fill a
Studies have found that 18 year olds who used drugs frequently were using
them as early as age seven, already more psychologically troubled than their
peers. They were already anxious and unhappy, alienated from their family
and peers, and overly impulsive. Low self-esteem, lack of conformity, poor
academic achievement and poor parental-child relationships are also
indicators of young children likely to end up using drugs.
Low self-esteem is the universal common denominator among literally all
people suffering from addictions to any and all mind altering substances such
as alcohol--not genes. In the book Alcoholism: A False Stigma: Low
Self-Esteem the True Disease, (1996) Candito reports, "Those who have
identified themselves as "recovered alcoholics" indicate that low self esteem
is the most significant problem in their lives. Low self-esteem is the true
problem and the true disease. Alcohol is but a symptom of an alcoholic’s
Candito comes to the conclusion that low self-esteem is the underlying origin
of all problematic behaviors, and the true disease that plagues the world,
resulting in alcohol abuse, drug abuse, and all other obsessive behavior
including criminal behavior.
This conclusion is also shared by Andrew Keegan (1987) who maintains that low
self-esteem either causes or contributes to neurosis, anxiety, defensiveness,
and ultimately alcohol and drug abuse. The reason why some become alcoholic
while others do not is dependent upon their ability to contend with low
CRIME AND VIOLENCE
There are multiple factors that contribute to crime and delinquency, making
it difficult to determine the role that self-esteem plays. Such factors
include drugs, alcohol, hostility, frustration, class and cultural conflict,
and jealousy to name but a few.
Johnson(1977) documented that juvenile delinquents not only had low
self-esteem, but that they also had higher feelings of anxiety. He concluded
that juvenile delinquency prevention programs often fail because they are
based on incorrect assumptions about the sources of delinquency and overlook
the crucial roles of school failure and low self-esteem.
Kelley(1978) reported a direct correlation between delinquency and low
self-esteem. He found evidence of a link between increased self-esteem and a
reduction of delinquent behavior. He found that as programs were implemented
to raise the level of self-esteem, the incidence of delinquent behavior was
On the other hand, in a study reported by Ohio State Research News Grabmeier
(1988)questions whether low self-esteem does cause delinquency. The study
was conducted to test the hypothesis that those with low self-esteem would
engage in more delinquent acts to improve their self-esteem. The study found
that those with low self-esteem frequently associated with a delinquent
support group or gang, but that they did not engage in any more delinquent
acts than those with average or above average self-esteem.
Youth join gangs for many reasons, but low self-esteem often is related.
Those with low self-esteem seem to rely more on group or collective
self-esteem than those with high personal self-esteem. Thus, some
individuals seek gang membership to compensate for feelings of low
self-esteem. Sheriff Block of Los Angeles County stated, "Children join
gangs to fulfill the need to belong and the need to feel important. They
want to be somebody rather than be a nobody. We must focus on enhancing the
self-worth and self-esteem of young people so that they do not seek out and
need the gang to satisfy these most basic human needs."
Kaplan (1975) conducted extensive studies into the causes of violence,
including a study of 7,000 7th graders, and underscores the significance of
self-esteem as a factor in crime and violence. He, too, found that
violations to self-esteem serve as a major source of hostility and
aggression. This conclusion is borne out in the study of those incarcerated
for the most violent acts--murder. Gilligan in his study of murderers
concludes that low self-esteem is the most common reason for engaging in
violence and this is why violent behavior actually increases the self-esteem
of those who commit it.
In studies where self-esteem programs have been introduced into the school
setting, it has been found that such programs can significantly reduce the
incidence of anti-social behavior in schools, as well as reduce vandalism and
the incidents of verbal or physical aggression by 40-50%. (Reasoner,1992,
DEPRESSION AND SUICIDE
Depression and suicide in young people are major concerns today. Both are
closely related to low self-esteem. James Battle (1980) was one of the first
to document the close relationship between depression and self-esteem. He
discovered several years ago that as depression rises, self-esteem tends to
decline, and as self-esteem declines depression rises. However, while low
self-esteem correlates closely with depression and suicide, it is neither
necessary, nor sufficient, to cause most clinically depressive or suicidal
episodes. Often it is the lack of communication skills or close
relationships that are necessary for developing and maintaining self-esteem
that are the underlying cause.
The difference between a person with high self-esteem and one with low
self-esteem isn’t how often they get low or even how low they go, but what
they do with their low moods. Positive people accept the inevitability of
low feelings which will pass, rather than wallowing in their depression.
There is also accumulating evidence that positive self-esteem can be an
antidote to depression. Self-esteem serves as a buffer from the onslaught of
anxiety, guilt, depression, shame, criticism and other internal attacks.
Since a major source of low self-esteem and depression among adolescents is
due to the increased stress currently found among teenagers, helping young
people learn how to deal with this anxiety and stress can enable them to work
through the stress in an effective way to reduce the impact.
Developing an optimistic outlook on life is also an important quality to
develop in children. This means more than just viewing the glass as
half-full. It embodies the belief that setbacks are normal and can be
overcome by one’s own actions. Studies of thousands of children show that
those who are pessimistic are much more prone to depression--both in
childhood and in adulthood--than those who are optimistic. (Rao, 1994) It is
therefore helpful to help children think of more positive thoughts than
negative thoughts and to replace negative thoughts with something more
positive. This provides a foundation for a positive mental life.
All the studies done on eating disorders document a strong relationship with
self-esteem. Low self-esteem seems to be directly linked with disturbed body
image, dropping out of physical activity, eating disorders, substance abuse,
abusive relationships and interpersonal problems. Dr. Yellowlees (1996)
states that low self-esteem seems to operate as a predisposing and
contributory factor in the development of depression, anxiety, eating
disorders, alcohol abuse and drug abuse. In some cases, evidence for this
relationship is so strong that it is even thought by some researchers that
chronic low self-esteem is a necessary prerequisite for disordered eating.
A profile of low self-esteem includes insecurity, negative mood and
depression, poor body image, feelings of inadequacy, social and personal
withdrawal, poor adaptation skills, and unrealistically high aspirations.
All of these traits are seen fairly consistently in patients with eating
disorders.. In addition patients with eating disorders also exhibit other
traits associated with low self-esteem.
The teenage years are full of turmoil and changes that can have a detrimental
affect on a girl’s sense of identity and her self-esteem. Without a strong
sense of identity, adolescent girls begin to feel poorly about themselves.
They see the diet as the answer to all their problems. However, they see any
failure to stick to their diet as a personal failure. This results in even a
lower sense of self-esteem and even more severe dieting. While loss of weight
may temporarily boost their self-esteem, it clearly cannot fundamentally
alter a deep-seated sense of poor self worth. As a result, self-esteem soon
falls, resulting in the individual repeating the dieting process in an
attempt to boost self-esteem again. This ultimately leads to greater levels
of global dissatisfaction and lower self-esteem.
Women with low self-esteem who are vulnerable to societal pressures for
thinness may take on a distorted and negative body image as part of their
belief that they can never be worthwhile. An important thing to remember is
that most of the underlying psychological factors that lead to an eating
disorder are the same for both men and women: low self-esteem, a need to be
accepted, depression, anxiety or other existing psychological illness, and an
inability to cope with emotions and personal issues.
There is a direct relationship between the perception of social success and
self-esteem. This success may include confidence in appearance, academic
ability, athletic ability, or social relationships. Self-esteem might be
viewed then, as a barometer of how well one is doing socially. People seek a
certain amount of social acceptance and belonging in order to view themselves
as successful and have positive feelings about themselves.
Effective interpersonal relationships are greatly determined by the degree of
one’s tolerance, open-mindedness and respect for those who are different. To
relate most effectively it requires that one not be threatened by the
positions of others. A recent series of research studies underscores the
importance and role of self-esteem in that process. A series of studies
conducted by three professors of psychology at three separate universities
acknowledge the infinite variety of cultural perspectives on how mankind
views the world. Yet, they found a universal tendency to feel threatened by
discrepant viewpoints, combined with a reluctance to change one’s own
This seems to be true whether it refers to religion, politics, music, sports,
or tastes in wine. Thus, for centuries mankind has tended to respond
violently to encounters with different others in defense of their cultural
Through studies conducted by these researchers they found that a critical
factor in the type of response one gives is related to one’s level of
self-esteem. The higher the level of self-esteem, the less individuals feel
threatened by different world views. They found that raising the level of
self-esteem significantly reduced the level of anxiety and the human
response, both emotionally and physiologically. Finally, they concluded that
a requirement for cultures that value tolerance, open-mindedness, and
respect for those who are different is the fostering of self-esteem.
PREGNANCY AMONG TEENAGE GIRLS
More than one million girls become pregnant every year in the U.S., a rate of
teen pregnancy greater than those of other industrialized nations. There is
as much research supporting the close relationship between self-esteem and
teenage pregnancy as any other problem behavior. Hayes and Fors (1990)
report that lower self-esteem is often an antecedent to the engagement in
premarital sexual relationships and is more likely to be responsible for teen
pregnancies than any other single factor. They found that as self-esteem
decreases, sexual attitudes and behavior become more permissive.
Many teenage girls feel that pregnancy is the only alternative to feeling
powerless and unimportant. Being pregnant becomes the source of new status,
new power and a way to prove to yourself and everyone else that you are
capable of being loved and that you have someone who will love you
unconditionally. Statistics have shown that 85-90% of the teenage mothers
elect to keep their babies rather than give them up for adoption in the
belief that a baby will provide the kind of unconditional love and acceptance
that they feel they never had.
Studies indicate that a typical profile of teenagers who become pregnant
include: being a poor or disinterested student, having low self-esteem,
lacking basic skills, looking for someone to love her or something to love,
and frequently coming from a dysfunctional family or been sexually abused.
Thus, it is felt that if ways can be found to boost the level of self-esteem
of girls, it will be.