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Self-esteem: The Myth 1

Running head: SELF-ESTEEM

Self-esteem: The Myth of the Century

Janice E. Anderson

Campbell University

Social Psychology


July 19, 2002

Self-esteem: The Myth 2

Self-Esteem: The Myth of the Century

Society has placed an unrealistic emphasis on self-

esteem and its role in a person's behavior. Self-esteem,

generally conceptualized as a part of the self-concept, has

been the most commonly researched concept in social

psychology (Baumeister, 1993; Mruk, 1995; Wells & Marwell,

1976; Wylie, 1979). A study in the self cannot be directly

observed, and so measurement of self-esteem is difficult.

The concept and term self-esteem is used by professional

and laymen alike and is a deceptively simplistic construct.

Many seem to know what self-esteem is, but few can define

it precisely as Mruk (1999) observed, "the diversity of

definitions tends to be impressive. Often, it is as though

there are as many ways to define self-esteem as there are

people trying to do so" (p.8).

The evolution of the self-esteem construct is of

interest and started with W. James in 1890 and has been

going for more than a century. According to Guindon

(2002), "it is the consistency of usage within the helping

professions and in the popular consciousness that seems to

be in question" (p.205). For this reason, a reliable

working definition must be formulated to facilitate a

construct that all are measured against.

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Mary H. Guindon has formulated a definition of self-

esteem which is grounded in the professional literature and

is presented in her defining paper, "Toward Accountability

in the Use of the Self-Esteem Construct" (2002, p207). She

defines it as follows:

1. Self-esteem: The attitudinal, evaluative component

of the self; the affective judgements placed on
the self-concept consisting of feelings of worth
and acceptance, which are developed and maintained
as a consequence of awareness of competence, sense
of achievement, and feedback from the external
2. Global self-esteem: An overall estimate of general
self-worth; a level of self-acceptance or respect
for ones-self; a trait or tendency relatively
stable and enduring, composed of all subordinate
traits and characteristics within the self.
3. Selective self-esteem: An evaluation of specific
and constituent traits or qualities, or both,
within the self, at times situationally variable
and transitory, that are weighted and combined
into an overall evaluation of self, or global

Using Guindon's (2002) definition will allow a clearer

understanding of the construct. Findings that stand out in

past research, and must be considered in order to define

self-esteem are that "competence and achievement seem to be

integral elements of self-esteem and seem to be intertwined

with an evaluation and awareness of self-worth" (Guindon,

2002). To do one's best, to achieve, is empowering. Self-

esteem, at least in part, is formed from the judgement of

and feedback from others (A. Cast, P. Burke 2002).

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Additionally, there seems to be more than one type of self-

esteem. This concept has been referred to as a self-esteem


High Self-Esteem

The media, printed journals, textbooks, and videos

have advanced the widespread belief that raising an

individual's self-esteem would be beneficial for the

individual and society as a whole. According to Gegas

(1982), Rosenberg (1965) and Wylie (1974), much of behavior

is determined by how one assesses one's own sense of worth.

They as well as H.B. Kaplan (1975), believe that a positive

sense of self stimulates "dissonance-reducing actions." We

know that freedom of choice is supported in our society and

it is reported that actions taken may depend on the

specific level of self-esteem (Bednar & Peterson, 1995;

Gurney, 1986). Additionally, self-esteem is said to be

significantly related to quality of life and physical and

mental well being (Witmer & Sweeney, 1992). The American

Psychiatric Association (DSM-IV; American Psychiatric

Association, 1994), includes self-esteem among the

diagnostic criteria for some mental disorder categories,

and considers it to be related to depression and dysthymia.

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Ironically, the concepts of self-esteem and self-

concept are two of the oldest and most enduring of

psychological studies of human nature. However, the

profession has not come to a solid consensus of what the

self is and how it gains esteem. Self-esteem and self-

concept have been the target of many studies involving

individuals and groups from all parts of the world.

Professional counselors use interventions targeted at

affecting self-esteem levels. Intervention techniques

continue to be used despite the fact that many writers have

criticized their viability and usage (L. Kaplan, 1995,

Lerner; 1985; London, 1997; Wylie, 1974).

Self-esteem intervention results are variable (Bednar

& Peterson, 1995; L. Kaplan, 1995; Mruk, 1999, Smelser,

1989; Wylie, 1974). A recent study by Nicholas Emler,

Ph.D. (2001), illustrates this schism, wherein he

discovered that persons in his study with high self-esteem

may be more of a threat to society. His controversial

report found that people with high self-esteem are more

likely to be racist, violent and criminal. Studies further

impact the fact that self-esteem conceptualization and

operationalization have not been consistent (Demo, 1985;

Wylie, 1974).
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The dark side of self-esteem research predicts a

negative result in low self-esteem with an increased risk

of depression, drug use, and some forms of delinquency

(Myers, 2002). Equally dark are the results from studies

that reflect the fact that when a person's favorable self-

esteem is threatened, they often react by putting others

down, sometimes violently (T. Heatherton & K. Vohs, 2000).

A renowned researcher of self-esteem, Roy F. Baumeister

(1996), who himself has claimed to have published more

studies on self-esteem than anybody else has said, "The

enthusiastic claims of the self-esteem movement mostly

range from fantasy to hogwash. The results of self esteem

are small, limited, and not all good." He reports that

"high self-esteem folks are more likely to be obnoxious, to

interrupt, and to talk at people rather than with them. My

conclusion is that self-control is worth 10 times as much

as self-esteem."

Academic Achievement

Numerous studies have been conducted with regard to

academic achievement and self-esteem. With this research,

as with the others, there is no clear consensus to support

the model that high self-esteem generates high academic

achievement (Ginter & Dwinell, 1994; Pottebaum, Keith, &

Ehly, 1986). Bachman and O'Malley (1986) have concluded

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that it is one's actual ability rather than perceived

ability that seems to be a determinant of self-esteem, and

is the impetus that makes a difference in academic success.

Emler (2001) surmised from his study that genes are more

important than parenting and environment, and that low

self-esteem is not a risk factor for poor academic

performance. He found that people with high self-esteem

may have an unrealistic sense of themselves. "They expect

to do well at things, discount failure and feel beyond

reproach" (Emler, 2001).


In conclusion, the self-esteem debate rages on in

social psychology, but hopefully with an eye open to the

difficulty of measuring something that is internal. The

American self-help industry is keen to new material that

will support and expand their industry. An interesting

exercise is looking at what is available on the Internet

and in bookstores across America. There are more than

3,000 book titles on the Barnes & Noble web site alone

containing the term "self-esteem". At no time in the

definition of self-esteem does it state that to have self-

esteem, a person only need be told that they are

worthwhile. It does not say that self-esteem can be handed

to a person. A healthy self-esteem should not be a threat

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to society. Affective judgement and self-regulation to

respond appropriately in frustrating and stressful

situations is regarded as a principle key from the

definition of self-esteem. External feedback from the

world does not validate inappropriate attitudes and

actions. A level of self-acceptance or respect for one's

self, that is consistent with the other characteristics of

the self, would not validate the poor choices made by some

at the expense of others. Society and the self-help

industry have co-opted the nearly impossible to measure

complex concept of self-esteem in an effort to control

behavior. In turn, the psychology profession uses

intervention and manipulation in an attempt to measure and

adjust self-esteem with little or no validity that these

techniques are successful. Therefore, the unrealistic

emphasis placed by society on self-esteem is unwarranted

and scientifically unsupportable. Perhaps Baumeister

(1996) said it best when he suggested that self-control is

worth 10 times as much as self-esteem.

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American Psychiatric Association (1994). Diagnostic and

statistical manual of mental disorders (4th ed.)

Washington, DC: Author.

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Baumeister, R. F. (1993). Preface to Self-Esteem: The

Puzzle of Low Self-Regard, edited by Roy F.

Baumeister. Plenum.

Baumeister, R. F., Smart, L., & Boden, J. (1996). The dark

side of high self-esteem. Psychological Review. (p 68,


Bednar, R. L. & Peterson, S. R. (1995). Self-esteem:

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