Episode #6 of the course Psychology of the self by Psychology Insights Online
One of the most discussed and often misunderstood topics in psychology is self-esteem. Self-esteem describes an individual’s positive and negative evaluations of themselves. It is the affective (emotional) aspect of the self. Our sense of self-esteem gives us an indication of our worth and can serve as a gauge for how we are doing socially. That is, are we fitting into our social groups or not? If the answer is no, there is a good chance that self-esteem will be low. Notably, self-esteem isn’t set in stone, and rather, it can be modified by both internal and external elements (Leary & Baumeister, 2000).
Beginning in the 1960s, the Self-Esteem Movement highlighted the importance of self-esteem to our mental health. Methods for increasing self-esteem were promoted, and the topic became much more widely known. More books on how to enhance your own self-esteem were being written, and interventions for increasing self-esteem were being introduced in schools. However, the movement also had unintended consequences. More on this in a bit.
What are the benefits of higher self-esteem? There is no doubt that having high self-esteem offers many benefits. For example, we know that children who have higher self-esteem tend to do better in school than kids with lower self-esteem. Similar findings have been discovered at the college and university levels as well (Huang et al., 2016). Socially, people with higher self-esteem tend to have more and better friendships and romantic relationships (Baumeister & Leary, 1995). Lastly, self-esteem is a buffer against mental and physical illness. A large body of research has found that people with lower self-esteem tend to experience more internalizing disorders, such as depression, as well as externalizing issues, like substance abuse (Mann et al., 2004). Clearly, there are many benefits from higher self-esteem.
Are there any negative outcomes of having high self-esteem? Turns out that the answer is yes. The highly influential social psychologist Roy Baumeister conducted numerous experiments on the downside of high self-esteem. In some people, having disproportionately high self-esteem can also be associated with higher narcissism, which results in an exaggerated sense of self-importance and entitlement. Highly narcissistic people tend to lack empathy for others, engage in more risk-taking behavior, and are more likely to abuse alcohol and drugs. Furthermore, narcissists will act out aggressively if they feel emotionally threatened. In other words, their self-esteem is actually quite fragile, and if anyone threatens it (even accidentally), they are likely to act out against them (Bushman & Baumeister, 1998). Despite this, the advantages of higher self-esteem for society at large still outweigh the drawbacks.
A primary aim of the self-esteem movement was to encourage the enhancement of self-esteem as a cultural norm. It was argued that strategies such as providing positive reinforcement and praise could effectively boost self-esteem. On the surface, this sounds like a good idea; however, subsequent research has identified serious concerns with this approach. Instead, research on self-efficacy has identified a better way to raise self-esteem. Recall back in lesson 3, we described self-efficacy as the belief in our ability to achieve what we set out to do. For instance, if you encourage a child to achieve a difficult goal, and they manage to actually do it, they will gain confidence in their ability to do it again in the future. In other words, they have become more confident in themselves. This feeling of accomplishment will then lead to improved self-esteem (Zimmerman & Cleary, 2006).
Well-known Stanford University psychology professor Carol Dweck introduced the theory of growth and fixed mindsets. A growth mindset occurs when an individual believes that they have the ability to achieve goals through effort and determination. They are more likely to see something difficult as a challenge to overcome and to see previous failures as a learning experience. Not surprisingly, people with a growth mindset also have higher self-esteem on average. In contrast, a person with a fixed mindset would be more likely to see skills and abilities as something that someone is born with and that they can’t acquire them through their own efforts (Dweck, 2006). Unfortunately, attempts to improve self-esteem simply through praise may inadvertently create a fixed mindset, having the opposite effect of what was intended. In conclusion, self-esteem is not a straightforward concept, but the promotion of self-efficacy and a growth mindset can play a key role in meaningfully boosting self-esteem.
That brings us to the end of this lesson. In the next lesson, we are going to examine the topic of self-regulation. See you tomorrow!
Mindset: The New Psychology of Success by Carol Dweck
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