Commonly-held beliefs about self-esteem are myths, warns new research review

28 November 2001

Low self-esteem has become one of the most frequently repeated ‘explanations’ for social and personal problems ranging from young people’s involvement in violent crime to adult failures to succeed in business. According to the international TV star, Oprah Winfrey, lack of self-esteem is "the root of all the problems in the world".

But a major new review of research commissioned by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation shows that many of the most commonly-held beliefs about low self-esteem are myths without reliable evidence to support them. Individuals who have an unjustifiably high opinion of themselves can, in many cases, pose a far greater threat to those around them than people whose sense of self-worth is unusually low.

Professor Nicholas Emler, a social psychologist at the London School of Economics, finds that although self-esteem can be reliably measured, much of the published research is inadequate for deciding whether low self-esteem is a causal influence on behaviour. The most reliable evidence, which includes longitudinal studies following the fortunes of children and young people over time, shows that:

  • Relatively low self-esteem is not a risk factor for delinquency, violence towards others (including child and partner abuse), drug use, alcohol abuse, educational under-attainment or racism.
  • Relatively low self-esteem is a risk factor for suicide, suicide attempts, depression, teenage pregnancy and victimisation by bullies. However, in each case it is only one among several related risk factors.
  • Although the causal mechanisms remain unclear, relatively low childhood self-esteem also appears to be associated with adolescent eating disorders and, among males only, with low earnings and employment problems in young adulthood.
  • Young people with very high self-esteem are more likely than others to hold racist attitudes, reject social pressures from adults and peers and engage in physically risky pursuits, such as drink-driving or driving too fast.
  • The most important influences on young people’s levels of self-esteem are their parents – partly as a result of genetic inheritance and partly through the degree of love, concern, acceptance and interest that they show to their children. Physical and sexual abuse are especially damaging for children’s feelings of self-worth.
  • Personal successes and failures also influence self-esteem. But despite the attention given to the effects on high or low achievement in school, the degree of influence of self-esteem is relatively small.
  • Children’s self-esteem can be raised by parenting programmes and other planned interventions, but knowledge of why particular interventions are effective is limited.

Professor Emler said: "Widespread belief in ‘raising self-esteem’ as an all-purpose cure for social problems has created a huge market for self-help manuals and educational programmes that is threatening to become the psychotherapeutic equivalent of snake oil. In America, the State of California even went so far as to invest significant public funds in trying to raise the self-esteem of its citizens.

"Unfortunately, as this research review demonstrates, many of the claims made about self-esteem are not securely rooted in hard evidence. Indeed, where many of the biggest and most expensive social problems are concerned – crime, violence, alcohol abuse and racism – there is no warrant for the view that low self-esteem plays a significant part."

He added: "It is also worth remembering that – as the evidence on racism, violence and risk-taking shows – high self-esteem is very far from being an unconditional benefit. Our language contains many unflattering words to describe people with high self-esteem, such as ‘boastful’, ‘arrogant’, ‘smug’, ‘self-satisfied’ and ‘conceited’, terms that reflect a cultural accumulation of wisdom. Perhaps we should be more willing to accept that very high self-esteem is as much a problem in need of treatment as exceptionally low self-esteem and be more open-minded about the benefits of moderation."

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