EXTENDING SELF-ESTEEM THEORY AND RESEARCH

A summary by Robert W. Reasoner

This new book by Timothy J. Owens, Sheldon Stryker, and Norman Goodman is recommended for anyone seeking a deeper understanding of self-esteem. The book is dedicated to the research conducted by Morris Rosenberg, a former professor of Social Psychology at the University of Maryland. Rosenberg was a major theorist and researcher in self-esteem. This collection of articles by different authors is dedicated to elaborating on his work, explaining it, and expanding upon it.

ROSENBERG’S CONCEPT OF THE SELF

Rosenberg viewed the self as made up of two elements—"identity" which represents cognitive variables, and "self-esteem" representing affective variables. The cognitive variable, or "identity," involves perceiving and interpreting meaning. He referred to "self-esteem" as the subjective life of the individual, largely one’s thoughts, feelings, and behavior. Like Nathaniel Branden, he determined that self-esteem was made up of two components: 1) feelings of self-worth based primarily on reflected appraisals, and 2)feelings of efficacy, based on observations of the effects of one’s own actions. One’s social behavior is then a product of the two jointly operating cognitive and affective variables.

The cognitive modality of self consists of multiple identities, with as many identities as the person holds distinct roles in networks of social relationships. One’s self emerges from social interaction and reflects the character and structure of the society in which the interaction occurs, consisting of a highly differentiated, complex system of multiple parts—role relationships, social networks, groups, organizations, institutions, communities all bearing on the nature of the self.

COMPLEXITY OF SELF-ESTEEM

Self-esteem, although conceptually viewable as a general global construct measured by a single unidimensional variable, actually reflects a much more complex, multidimensional causal model. It involves many different images, perceptions, identities, and cognitions that vary across situations. Self-esteem is made up of reflected appraisals (looking glass self), the process of social comparison (Festinger), self-attribution (refers to the process whereby people make observations and attributions of their own behavior), and identifications (which may be based on association with a group).

Global self-esteem has been shown to relate to overall psychological well-being, whereas role specific esteem relates more directly to behavior, such as school achievement. It is important to note that most self-esteem instruments are designed to assess global self-esteem. This explains why researchers have found that global self-esteem has little or no relationship to performance. However, self-concept measures or role specific measures have indicated there is a strong relationship between self-efficacy and areas such as school achievement. Global measures of self-esteem don’t tell us what we need to know. For this reason, we need measures of academic self-esteem or measures that can more accurately reflect the relationship between self-esteem and a particular subject. We also need measures that provide scores for more than one dimension of self-esteem.

THE SELF AS A MOTIVATIONAL FORCE

The self is not only a product of social forces and influences, it is also a form of motivational force in itself. Self-esteem may actually be the master motive in personal and interpersonal relations. We have the unique ability to reflect on our perceptions and feelings and then act in response to those feelings. People want to feel good about themselves and are motivated to increase their self-esteem if it is low, and to maintain it if it is high. As self-awareness and self-identity develop they cause individuals to respond in specific ways. People have distinct feelings of esteem regarding each role or identity they hold and these role specific feelings of self-esteem influence self-esteem in proportion to the relative importance or salience of the specific identity or role.

Self-enhancement, for example, is the most common form of motivation whereby individuals seek to feel good about themselves. Self-consistency responds to the need for coherence that prompts people to try to organize their experiences, feelings, and cognitions in a consistent structure. The self-consistency motive asserts that people struggle to validate their self-images, even when their images are negative. Self-verification is the seeking of veracity in their perceptions and evaluations rather than maximal consistency. Self-realization emphasizes growth and self-improvement as a fundamental dimension of human behavior and drive. Thus, human behavior represents a confluence of a number of different, often competing motivational dynamics.

Rosenberg studied the means individuals utilize in defense of their self-esteem. He identified these ego-defense mechanisms: rationalization, compensation, projection, displacement (scapegoating), reaction formation and repression. But even more important as a self-defense mechanism than these is the process of selectivity. We are selective in our interaction, input, and the social comparisons we use. People are selective in which roles, which aspects of a role, and which qualities relevant to a role they emphasize. We more or less unconsciously seek to see ourselves as we think others who are important to us and whose opinion we trust see us. Individuals are selective in choosing their referent others, in setting goals or standards to which they aspire. Thus, selectivity may be the strongest ego-defense mechanism of all.

Self-evaluations of our virtue or moral worth on the one hand, and our competence or efficacy on the other ultimately have the greatest direct impact on our self-esteem. Negative social feedback will only significantly impact self-esteem if the characteristics in question are truly important to the individual.

CHARACTERISTICS OF HIGH AND LOW SELF-ESTEEM

Rosenberg’s conceptualization of self-esteem is heavily slanted toward the positive. He saw the high self-esteem person as likely to seek personal growth, development and improvement by pushing themselves to the limits to exercise their capabilities. He characterized the individual with high self-esteem as not having feelings of superiority, in the sense of arrogance, conceit, contempt for others, overwhelming pride. Rather he saw it as having self-respect, considering oneself a person of work, appreciating one’s own merits, yet recognizing personal faults. The person with high self-esteem doesn’t consider himself better than others, but neither does he consider himself inferior to others.

Rosenberg found that a deficient sense of the self has a profound impact on psychological functioning and mental health as well as on interpersonal behavior. He found that low self-esteem people are more likely to feel awkward, shy, conspicuous, and unable to express themselves with confidence. The low self-esteem person is always worried about making a mistake, being embarrassed or exposing themselves to ridicule. For low self-esteem people the self is a tender and delicate object, sensitive to the slightest touch. They have a strong incentive to avoid people or circumstances that reflect negatively on their feelings of self-worth. They are hypersensitive and hyperalert to signs of rejection, inadequacy or rebuff. They tend to adopt a characteristic strategy for dealing with life that is protective and defensive.

They are more depressed and unhappy; they have greater levels of anxiety; they show greater impulse to aggression, irritability, and resentment, and suffer from a lack of satisfaction with life in general. They have greater vulnerability to criticism, less self-concept stability, less faith in humanity and greater social anxiety. Virtually every feature of the low self-esteem personality undercuts spontaneity and creativity.

They tend to look for evidence that they are inadequate whereas high self-esteem people are motivated to discover evidence confirming their strengths. For low self-esteem individuals accepting positive feedback is a more subtle kind of risk than accepting negative feedback. Where successful performers attribute their successful outcomes to internal characteristics, low self-esteem individuals contribute success to external influences. Thus, their general approach to life is avoiding risk and embarrassment. As a result, they are never able to discover what they can do or be. This results in individual pain and loss of human potential
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SELF-ESTEEM AND CHILDREN

As early as age 5 or 6 children’s role-taking abilities are sufficiently developed to enable them to consider the perceived judgments and reactions of others. However, they are unable to make sophisticated social comparisons or reflected appraisals at least until ages 7 or 8. What matters most to children is that they feel they matter to their parents and that they think their parents care about what happens to them. Rosenberg found that students who believed that their parents lacked interest in them had much lower levels of self-esteem.

When children enter school, the self-portrait consists of a social exterior and their judgment of themselves in seven dimensions: physical appearance, physical abilities, peer relations, parent relations, reading, math, and school subjects. There is also some evidence that by 4th grade they have a perception of their character, their personal responsibilities, as well as the other dimensions.

Low self-esteem youngsters are three times as likely as those with high self-esteem to report average or below average expectations of being successful at their adult work. They are more apt to express negative attitudes towards school and their classmates.

Adolescents tend to be highly introspective and self-conscious. Their thoughts often center on their fears, desires, beliefs, attitudes, and expectations. Their feelings about self varies considerably. On In one extensive study 60% percent had feelings that were unpredictable; 29% had stable self-feelings, and 11% were unstable or oscillating. Most had positive feelings in some situations and negative feelings in others. By the end of 8th grade more that one-third had consistently high global self-esteem. Thirty-one percent experienced reasonably high self-esteem and a modest gain in feelings of self-worth over the past 2 years. One-fifth (12%) reported a decline in self-esteem after entering junior high school and 13% had low self-esteem throughout middle school. Those with declining self-esteem had more psychological symptoms, fluctuating academic records, diminished peer support and increased depression. Findings showed that young people gain greater stability in self-feeling, fewer disruptions, and milder fluctuations as they leave adolescence.

It has been found that parental control is significantly related to self-concept. Authoritative control emphasizing inductive reasoning and explanation, parental supervision, and restrictiveness are related to more positive self-concepts. Authoritarian control involving coercion, threats and use of physical punishment has deleterious consequences on children’s self-evaluations. It was found that the more parents monitor their children’s activities the greater the benefits on children’s self-appraisal.

SELF-ESTEEM AND DEVIANT BEHAVIOR

Because there are multiple dimensions of global low self-esteem it is not plausible to expect a high correlation between self-esteem and deviant behavior. However, it can be both a cause and an effect of deviation. Self-esteem can lead to deviance if one is confident in being able to engage in risky behaviors without devastating consequences. Deviance can thus be related positively or negatively to self-esteem, depending upon circumstances.

Predisposition to engage in deviant behavior is generally a consequence of low self-esteem individuals being more in need of self-enhancing experiences and more vulnerable to further expressions of rejection or failure. Low self-esteem youngsters may turn to delinquency in order to strengthen their feeling of self-worth. Self-esteem can also lead to deviance where engaging in deviant behavior is compatible with the values of one’s positive reference group. There is support for the position that low self-esteem, or self-derogation, does not directly predict delinquent behavior. Rather, low self-esteem causes delinquent dispositions or motivations; these in turn cause delinquent behavior in conjunction with other social situation variables. However, the overall association between self-esteem and delinquency does not look large because the causal relationship between them is complex, and varies according to other variables.

SELF-ESTEEM AND ACADEMIC MOTIVATION

Self-esteem is clearly implicated in the achievement process and variations in self-esteem are closely related to different reasons for learning. Some students are motivated to overcome an impending sense of failure as a person. They struggle to establish and maintain a sense of worth and belonging in a society that values competency and doing well. They combine a sense of obligation to achieve, often stemming from family expectations. They see grades as the surest way to achieve that sense of worth and competency. For failure-avoiding students worth is measured in terms of successfully demonstrating one’s superiority over others by reason of ones’ talents or abilities.

Failure-avoiding students enter the appraisal stage reluctantly, usually out of obligation and not interest. This impairs their quality of study so they are not apt to do well. This results in a host of defensive thoughts which act to disrupt study even further. They then indulge in blame projection, wishful thinking or minimizing the importance of what they are studying. Finally, all this causes poor study habits so they fail more. The fear of being judged as unworthy causes some to study harder while others study little to avoid trying and failing.

Success oriented students, on the other hand, strive for the sake of intellectual development and to produce something worthwhile. For these students the yardstick of success is more internal and is counted in terms of becoming the best one can be, irrespective of the accomplishments of others.

The target of public concern should not be about school achievement per se. For confidence and competency to grow in mutually reinforcing ways, the reasons for learning must be positive rather than just to avoid failure. Increased pressure on students to achieve are apt to have an adverse result. A competitive climate actually becomes a threat to one’s self-worth. Hence, low-achieving students who see school as irrelevant are apt to decline in achievement because of the competitive game which they don’t wish to play. When we fail to strive to convey the proper message about why we should learn, individuals may strive successfully but for the wrong reasons. We must first set right the motives or reasons for learning and then achievement will follow.

We need to change the game from competition to focus on the individual, from an orientation based on failure-avoidance to an orientation of growth and success. Success should depend on the individual’s exceeding his or her own aspirations so that failure becomes a matter of falling short of one’s goals, not feeling that one has fallen short as a person. Learning should be to satisfy one’s curiosity and propagate a sense of wonder; learning to help others, or to help solve society’s problems, and for the ends of mastery and self-improvement and becoming the best that one can be.

Attempts by pro-esteem advocates to encourage self-pride in students solely by reason of their uniqueness as human beings will fail if feelings of well-being are not accompanied by well-doing. It is only when students engage in personally meaningful endeavors for which they can be justifiably proud that self-confidence grows, and it is this growing self-assurance that in turn triggers further achievement.

GENDER DIFFERENCES

It is evident that boys and girls choose different referent others and use different goals and standards to judge themselves by. Throughout elementary school girls judge their athletic abilities to be inferior to boys. Beginning in 4th grade girls have significantly worse images of their bodies and overall physical appearance. However, girls rate themselves as higher than boys in academic self-concept, personal character, and being more responsible. Boys who tend to be observers, calm, socially at ease, and satisfied with themselves at age 14 experience continued growth in self-esteem. Girls described as moralistic, sympathetic, considerate, and sought out by friends for advice reported gains in self-esteem between the ages of 18 and 23.

Boys and girls, men and women have very different values by which they judge themselves. For women, one’s family, peer support, reflected appraisals and family relationships are important determiners of self-esteem. Parental support and family connectedness are especially important for girls. Feelings of mastery, self-actualization and academic performance are more important for males. Similar differences between boys and girls are also found in other countries.

SELF-ESTEEM AND RACIAL DIFFERENCES

Many studies report no significant differences in self-esteem between race. However, differences may be more pronounced in area-specific self-esteem than in general measures. There may be a tendency for blacks to have lower academic esteem but higher self-evaluations related to physical attractiveness. Four features were identified as critical to black self-esteem: value of unity, cooperative effort, collective responsibility, and concern for the community.

A rather consistent finding is that Native Americans have lower self-concepts than white peers. Research finds that Native Americans who became more acculturated have lower self-esteem than those tribes that have retained their tribal traditions. Cultural values served as an important standard for their self-esteem.. Self-feelings were often seen to arise from finding and maintaining one’s identity as an American Indian and practicing cultural precepts, participating in ceremonies, etc.

SELF-ESTEEM AND THE NATURE OF WORK

Self-esteem does have an impact on the nature of the work individuals choose to do. Those who are self-confident to begin with make it more likely that they will engage in relatively complex work later on. Younger persons who start out with self-deprecating tendencies appear significantly more likely to hold jobs that are closely supervised. Self-direction in their jobs makes individuals feel more positively about themselves, more able to do complex work and require less close supervision. Closeness of supervision tends to result in self-deprecating tendencies.

CONCLUSION

This book makes a significant contribution to the understanding of self-esteem and why it should be considered the master motive in personal and interpersonal relations. The material on the complexity of self-esteem and the distinction between global and role specific self-esteem is particularly valuable in helping us to truly understand that although we sometimes think of self-esteem as a single entity, it is far more complex than that. For this reason one must use caution in making generalizations regarding the relationship between self-esteem and societal problems and deviant behaviors. Rosenberg’s research enables us to understand why some individuals seek and feel more comfortable with negative rather than positive feedback. The importance of encouraging learning for the sake of self improvement rather than competing with others for grades has particular significance for parents and educators. Finally, this research stresses that to develop self-esteem we need to focus on having individuals engaged in personally meaningful endeavors for which they can be justifiably proud rather than merely teaching people that they are special. This is a brief summary of some of the research documented in this book. For those that would like additional information, it is recommended that you obtain the book itself. It is published by Cambridge University Press, NY, NY 2001. The ISBN number for ordering is 0-521-63088-6 and it is available through Amazon.com.