Self-esteem has become a household word. Teachers, parents, therapists, and others
have focused efforts on boosting self-esteem, on the assumption that high self-esteem
will cause many positive outcomes and benefits-an assumption that is critically evaluated
in this review. Appraisal of the effects of self-esteem is complicated by several
factors. Because many people with high self-esteem exaggerate their successes and
good traits, we emphasize objective measures of outcomes. High self-esteem is also
a heterogeneous category, encompassing people who frankly accept their good qualities
along with narcissistic, defensive, and conceited individuals. The modest correlations
between self-esteem and school performance do not indicate that high self-esteem leads
to good performance. Instead, high self-esteem is partly the result of good school
performance. Efforts to boost the self-esteem of pupils have not been shown to improve
academic performance and may sometimes be counterproductive. Job performance in adults
is sometimes related to self-esteem, although the correlations vary widely, and the
direction of causality has not been established. Occupational success may boost self-esteem
rather than the reverse. Alternatively, self-esteem may be helpful only in some job
contexts. Laboratory studies have generally failed to find that self-esteem causes
good task performance, with the important exception that high self-esteem facilitates
persistence after failure. People high in self-esteem claim to be more likable and
attractive, to have better relationships, and to make better impressions on others
than people with low self-esteem, but objective measures disconfirm most of these
beliefs. Narcissists are charming at first but tend to alienate others eventually.
Self-esteem has not been shown to predict the quality or duration of relationships.
High self-esteem makes people more willing to speak up in groups and to criticize
the group's approach. Leadership does not stem directly from self-esteem, but self-esteem
may have indirect effects. Relative to people with low self-esteem, those with high
self-esteem show stronger in-group favoritism, which may increase prejudice and discrimination.
Neither high nor low self-esteem is a direct cause of violence. Narcissism leads to
increased aggression in retaliation for wounded pride. Low self-esteem may contribute
to externalizing behavior and delinquency, although some studies have found that there
are no effects or that the effect of self-esteem vanishes when other variables are
controlled. The highest and lowest rates of cheating and bullying are found in different
subcategories of high self-esteem. Self-esteem has a strong relation to happiness.
Although the research has not clearly established causation, we are persuaded that
high self-esteem does lead to greater happiness. Low self-esteem is more likely than
high to lead to depression under some circumstances. Some studies support the buffer
hypothesis, which is that high self-esteem mitigates the effects of stress, but other
studies come to the opposite conclusion, indicating that the negative effects of low
self-esteem are mainly felt in good times. Still others find that high self-esteem
leads to happier outcomes regardless of stress or other circumstances. High self-esteem
does not prevent children from smoking, drinking, taking drugs, or engaging in early
sex. If anything, high self-esteem fosters experimentation, which may increase early
sexual activity or drinking, but in general effects of self-esteem are negligible.
One important exception is that high self-esteem reduces the chances of bulimia in
females. Overall, the benefits of high self-esteem fall into two categories: enhanced
initiative and pleasant feelings. We have not found evidence that boosting self-esteem
(by therapeutic interventions or school programs) causes benefits. Our findings do
not support continued widespread efforts to boost self-esteem in the hope that it
will by itself foster improved outcomes. In view of the heterogeneity of high self-esteem,
indiscriminate praise might just as easily promote narcissism, with its less desirable
consequences. Instead, we recommend using praise to boost self-esteem as a reward
for socially desirable behavior and self-improvement.
© 2003 Association for Psychological Science.