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Self-esteem is overrated

For the last decades, self-esteem has been considered one of the most positive character traits. Some psychologist saw and see it as the cure-all to many mental problems.

American psychologist Nathaniel Branden once said:

„Self-esteem has profound implications for every aspect of our existence … I cannot think of a single psychological problem – from anxiety and depression … to spouse battering or child molestation to co-dependency and sexual disorders, to passivity and chronic aimlessness, to suicide and crimes of violence – that is not traceable, at least in part, to the problem of deficient self-esteem.”

American sociologist Neil Smelser suggested that many problems in society – crime, drugs, and welfare dependency, among others – can be cured by increasing self-esteem. The state of California followed this notion in the 1980s and started a state campaign to raise self-esteem, hoping for impacts as far reaching as a balanced state budget.

Self-help books have played a great role in promoting self-esteem as an important factor to our own success and happiness.

This raises two questions:

  1. Is self-esteem truly as important to our lives as these claims indicate?
  2. If it is, why?

By answering these two questions, we can decide whether a scientifically sound life philosophy has to include self-esteem as an essential ingredient or not.

American psychologist Mark Leary has researched the influence of self-esteem on our lives in great detail. This article is largely based on his findings, which shed live on a relationship many take for granted. As he Leary found out, the relationship between self-esteem and positive characteristics is not what it seems.

What is self-esteem?

Self-esteem defines how good or bad we feel about who we are and what we do. In this definition, self-esteem differs from self-confidence. Self-confidence describes the believe that we can do something or generate a certain outcome. Self-esteem isn’t a believe, it describes a feeling.

We can generally have low self-esteem, but still have high self-confidence. Even people with almost no self-esteem have high self-confidence that they can do basic activities such as brushing their teeth, walk, or speak. In this segment, we want to focus on self-esteem, not self-confidence.

There are two types of self-esteem:

  1. Trait self-esteem describes how good we feel about ourselves in general. This is what people mostly mean when they talk about self-esteem.
  2. Situational self-esteem describes how good we feel about ourselves right now. People with high trait self-esteem can feel pretty bad about themselves because of something they did or thought. While our trait self-esteem remains fairly constant during our lives, our situational self-esteem fluctuates.

Now that we have a definition of self-esteem, we can analyze whether self-esteem influences our lives. Those who promote self-esteem as the key to a good life invoke two hypotheses:

  1. High self-esteem makes people happier and more successful.
  2. High self-esteem leads to positive emotions and behaviors.

Are these claims true? To answer this questions, let’s look at the proof the promoters of high self-esteem use to back up their claims: Research seems to suggest a strong connection between self-esteem and desirable character traits and life events. People with high self-esteem are:

  • Better students: People with high self-esteem have better grades, a lower drop-out rate, and are overall better educated.
  • Less addicted: People with high self-esteem are less likely to abuse alcohol or drugs.
  • Happier: People with high self-esteem are more likely to be happy with their lives and less likely to become depressed.
  • Mentally more stable: People with high self-esteem are less likely to be neurotic, anxious, and worried.
  • More successful in their jobs: People with high self-esteem hold higher positions and make more money.

These findings contrast what we know about people with low self-esteem. People with low self-esteem are:

  • Less honest.
  • More likely to become criminals.
  • More likely to join gangs.
  • More likely to underachieve.
  • More likely to fail at what they want to do.
  • More neurotic.
  • More likely to have unwanted pregnancies.

Most of the time, self-esteem isn’t the number factor in determining whether people develop these positive or negative characteristics. Nonetheless, there is a significant, consistent correlation between high self-esteem and positive characteristics, and low self-esteem and negative characteristics.

These correlations have led generations of self-help writers to the conclusion that high self-esteem is important for our lives. On first sight, this seems to be reasonable. On second sight, however, these conclusions neglect the important question whether self-esteem is the cause or the effect of these characteristics.

Is self-esteem really the cause of these effects?

By itself, a correlation is meaningless. We know that the U.S. spending in science, space, and technology correlates strongly with the number of suicides by hanging, strangulation, and suffocation. But does that means that one causes the other? No. When we find a correlation, we have to analyze thoroughly whether this correlation is not just a coincidence, and, if it isn’t, we have to do additional research to determine which of the involved criteria is the cause and which is the effect.

In the same way, we have to determine whether self-esteem is truly the cause of positive and negative characteristics. Only then, we can decide whether we can improve peoples’ lives by increasing their self-esteem. Elevating self-esteem to a cure-all medicine simply because there is a correlation and it fits our narrative is unscientific.

Scientist have researched this question for decades. Their overwhelming answer is: No. Low self-esteem does not appear to cause negative effects in peoples’ lives, and high self-esteem does not appear to cause positive effects in people’s lives.

So how can we explain the strong correlation between high or low self-esteem and good or bad character traits and events? Well, in any correlation, there is a cause and an effect. If self-esteem is not the cause, self-esteem has to be the effect.

This is exactly what researches haves found:

  • Students don’t do well in school because they have high self-esteem. Students that do well in school have higher self-esteem.
  • People with low self-esteem don’t abuse alcohol and drugs. Abusing drugs causes low self-esteem.
  • Low self-esteem doesn’t cause mental illnesses such as depression. Mental illness and the events that cause them lower our self-esteem.

While many self-help books and life-coaches promote self-esteem as the cure-all medicine for our lives, there’s almost no scientific evidence that self-esteem has any influence on our lives.

Studies that focused on changes of self-esteem over time show that positive or negative events precede changes in self-esteem, not the other way around. In other words: What we do influences our self-esteem, not the other way around.

This theory is much more logical than what self-help books have told us so far. There are a few reasons why undesirable emotions and behavior correlate to low self-esteem:

  1. Low self-esteem is a reaction to rejection or feelings of inadequacy. Still, when people get rejected or feel inadequate, low self-esteem isn’t the only feeling they experience. They feel hurt, angry, jealous, ashamed, etc. These negative emotions can cause undesirable behavior. Still, low self-esteem isn’t the cause of these negative emotions, low self-esteem and negative emotions are both effects of the same cause.
  2. Many forms of negative behavior create rejection and thereby lower self-esteem. Most mental illnesses, addictions, or simply forms of bad character traits cause others to distant themselves from us. This rejection lowers our self-esteem. In this case, lower self-esteem is the effect of undesirable behavior, not the other way around.
  3. Lower self-esteem increases our desire to be accepted. Usually, people try to find acceptance through desirable behavior – being nice, helping others, etc. For some people, however, it is almost impossible to be accepted by others, for whatever reason. Some of these people will slide to illegal and/or morally corrupt ways to gain acceptance – they lie, steal, or cheat. Some might join anti-social groups where the levels of acceptance are lower.

So what does self-esteem do?

Self-esteem has a strong influence on how we feel. We all have a strong desire to have high self-esteem. If self-esteem doesn’t cause positive events in our lives, then why do we have a feeling for self-esteem at all? Evolution has formed us in the way that increased our chances to survive ad reproduce. Self-esteem must have some psychological effect that helps us with that. Which?

To answer this question, psychologist have reinterpreted self-esteem. If self-esteem is the effect of our behavior but has no direct influence on what we do, it works like a gauge. This is called sociometer theory. According to sociometer theory, self-esteem is a gauge that measures how much we are appreciated or rejected by others.

Mark Leary related self-esteem to a gas gauge in a car. Instead of monitoring how much gas is in your tank, self-esteem monitors how much other people value or devalue you.

This scientifically sound concept of self-esteem is fundamentally different from what most self-help books tell us about self-esteem. It redefines everything.

As human being, we depend on the acceptance of others. Throughout evolution, those humans who were abandoned by their group had very little chance to procreate. We needed the group to provide us with food and shelter, to help us when we’re sick, and, most importantly for evolution, to meet members of the other sex. Those humans who were better suited to live in groups had higher chances to pass their genes on.

In our modern society, belonging to a group is no longer necessary for survival. Nonetheless, we carry the same genes that helped our ancestors survive. As a result, we still feel the need to belong into a large social construct.

Self-esteem is the gauge that helps us monitor our social acceptance, and, by emitting hormones that make us feel better when we’re accepted, motivates us to fit in with others. Self-esteem is supposed makes sure that we behave in a way that others accept us, and don’t do – or even think – what could cause others to leave us on our own, with no chance to procreate.

When others indicate that what we do increases our value in their eyes, our self-esteem increases and we feel better about ourselves. This motivates us to keep doing what we’re doing. When others indicate that what we do decreases our value in their eyes, our self-esteem decreases and we feel worse about ourselves. This motivates us to change our ways and fit in better with the group.

Researchers have tested and proofed this relation many times. When they led test subjects to believe that others rejected them, or that they failed, the test subjects’ state self-esteem went down. When researchers led test subjects to believe that others approved of them, or that they succeeded, the test subjects’ state self-esteem went up.

Many people claim that they don’t care what other people think of them, and that others’ opinions don’t influence their self-esteem. That’s simply not true. Studies have conclusively proven that all healthy people are concerned with what others think of them. When others value them, their self-esteem goes up. When others devalue them, their self-esteem goes down.

This proves a simple fact: How good or bad we feel about ourselves in a given situation largely depends on how good or bad others think about us. To test this theory, scientists gave test subjects a list of good or bad behaviors. Then they asked the test subjects how good they would feel about themselves if they engaged in a certain behavior and how good they think others would feel about them. The results were conclusive: People felt good about themselves when they expected others to feel good about them, too. This proves that self-esteem works like a gauge.

In that gauge, state self-esteems determines whether the needle is currently moving up or down. Trait self-esteem determines the resting point of the needle. This relation shows that we are genetically equipped with a certain level of self-esteem, our trait self-esteem. Through our actions, we can increase our state self-esteem, and therefore influence our genetic predisposition. When we experience high or low state self-esteem for a long time, our trait self-esteem begins to wander in this direction, too.

Why raising self-esteem does not better our lives

There are three reasons why higher self-esteem doesn’t lead to a better life.

1. Self-esteem is only one of many factors.

Self-esteem is only one of many factors in any decision making process. Focusing on self-esteem takes our focus away from where we need it more.

Self-esteem doesn’t cause our actions directly. This is where Leary’s gas gauge analogy comes fully into play: Much like a gas gauge, self-esteem only indicates what is happening. How we react to this indication depends on many other factors that are more important than the gauge itself.

In any situations, we factor self-esteem into our decision making process. How likely will others approve of different possible options? How do we feel about ourselves right now? When we feel bad because we have low self-esteem, we are more likely to do what we think can give us a boost in self-esteem. Nonetheless, there are far more important factors in any decision making process then self-esteem.

2. There is no shortage in self-esteem.

When we talk about high or low self-esteem in people, we talk about a relative high or low compared to the average person. In this range, however, even relatively low self-esteem means that people have a medium level of self-esteem in total.

Only very few people suffer from generally low self-esteem. Most of us either have certain characteristics that we think make us likable, which gives us at least a moderate level of self-esteem, or feel generally good about themselves, and have high self-esteem. If you are not mentally ill, you are very unlikely to suffer from low self-esteem.

3. Higher self-esteem does not seem to help people lead better lives.

Scientists started to record self-esteem in widespread analyses in the 1960s. Since then, the level of trait self-esteem in people has increased continuously. Culture, parents, and teachers have bought into the myth that high self-esteem will help you lead a better life, which translates to how they raise children. Still, children today are more likely to commit crimes than in the 1960s, they are more likely to abuse alcohol and drugs, they are more likely to be depressed, drop out of school, etc.

In short: While young peoples’ self-esteem is going up, they are not leading better lives. This suggests that higher self-esteem does not lead to a better life.

From a psychological stand point, it seems that we can make the best decisions when our level of self-esteem relates to our real life situation. We need to see the world as it is. Any distortion from reality hurts us. When we consider ourselves better or worse than we actually are, we make bad decisions that decrease our quality of life.


We must avoid increasing our self-esteem artificially:

  • When we have higher self-esteem than reasonable, we will constantly be faced with people who don’t seem to recognize how wonderful we are. That makes us angry and irritable. In the worst case, we become narcissists.
  • Too high self-esteem reduces our desire to improve ourselves. We need to recognize our strengths and weaknesses realistically, and improve where necessary.
  • Overestimating ourselves can get us into situation we can’t handle, thereby increasing our chances for failure.

None of these ways can produce long-lasting positive change.

To stay with Leary’s gas gauge analogy, artificially increasing the gas gauge’s reading won’t solve our problem when we’re low on gas. It can only cloud our awareness, and distract us from doing what’s reasonable.

The same applies to self-esteem. We need to have a realistic picture of ourselves. The only proper way to increase self-esteem is to become a better person. Then, the quality of our lives will increase, and others will react more positively to us, which increases our self-esteem.

We must fix the problem, not the gauge. Be who you are and do your best at what you do. Then self-esteem will follow. But don’t become one of these artificially blown-up self-esteem junkies.

This article is a sample chapter from my book Stop Chasing Carrots. If you liked the article, get the book on Amazon now!

Published in Psychology