March 1, 2009

the function of self-esteem

As you might notice, this past week’s readings were on the topic of “self-esteem.” Specifically the readings were focused on the function of self-esteem, the benefits of having high self-esteem, and whether we should focus policy on improving the self-esteem of children. A short review of the findings from the articles we read shows that self-esteem is often given a bit more credit than it may deserve. For example, high global self-esteem is not linked to improvements in performance (whether academic or not), although it is linked with persistence in the face of failure. As well, high self-esteem in the form of narcissism is linked with anti-social behavior. Those who have high self-esteem, but are also high in narcissism act more aggressive after an insult than those who are not high in both. Yet, this is not exactly an open and shut case. There are researchers on both sides of the issue that argue whether boosting people's self-esteem is good or not. Please see the Baumeister and Swann citations below for a good review on the debate.

At the moment I’m much more interested in the function of self-esteem than the effects of having high self-esteem, which brings me to the Greenberg article. Greenberg et al. (1992) proposed the “terror management” idea that self-esteem serves as an anxiety-buffer against things that threaten us, and specifically death. In three experiments, the authors showed that people with high self-esteem were less anxious than neutral others when threatened, and this effect was not due to positive or negative affect.

In their experiments, participants were essentially given false feedback on a personality or intelligence test. One group was given feedback meant to elicit feelings of high self-esteem, whereas another group was either given neutral or no feedback. Participants were then asked to watch either a graphic film clip (threat-group), or a neutral clip (no-threat) in one experiment, or, in the other two experiments, they were told that they would receive painful shocks (threat) or receive non-painful sensations from lightwaves (no-threat). The experimenters then measured how anxious the participants were, either by self-report or by physiological measures, such as sweating. They found that people who had high self-esteem were less anxious than low self-esteem individuals in the threat group. And the protection offered by self-esteem was not due to increased positive affect or decreased negative affect.

It’s pretty cool, but I’m still not totally convinced of the terror management interpretation of self-esteem. For instance, as mentioned earlier, the authors primed their participants in the threat condition by making them watch a graphic movie clip (depicting real deaths) or by telling them to expect painful shocks. The painful shock condition was employed as a way of testing the generality of the anxiety-buffer effect. But pain does not seem that far removed from feelings of mortality. Pain and death are often associated with each other, and both are strongly attached to our primal need for survival and safety. I’d like to know, instead, whether self-esteem can buffer against anxiety from weaker threats (e.g., a poor evaluation, a break-up). Additionally, this interpretation of self-esteem needs to be tested against other theories of self-esteem, such as Leary’s sociometer theory. As mentioned in an earlier post, sociometer theory posits that self-esteem acts as a gauge of social acceptance/rejection. When we are threatened with social rejection, our self-esteem should lower. This could then tell us that we need to adjust our behavior, so that we are accepted back into the group. Sociometer theory seems to work better within the evolutionary perspective of the Social Cognitive Interface (SCI).

If you remember, the SCI is a set of cognitive mechanisms that evolved with the purpose of helping us function socially. In essence, evolution has given us a sense of self so that we are better equipped for a social world. One in which staying connected with others is crucial for survival. Now, I am not saying that terror management theory (TMT) is resistant to evolutionary explanations for self-esteem. On the contrary, I think TMT works well within that approach. If self-esteem buffers against anxiety, then I think that would prove to be a very beneficial/adaptive function. But I do think that the sociometer interpretation works better within the SCI approach, than does terror management. Of course, this is assuming that self-esteem, and the self in general, only has one adaptive function and/or is not a by-product of some other cognitive mechanism. All in all, I think that terror management and sociometer theory can be reconciled with each other with-in an evolutionary framework. After all, isn’t death the ultimate form of social exclusion?


Crocker, J., & Park, L. E. (2004). The costly pursuit of self-esteem. Psychological Bulletin, 130, 392-414.

Baumeister, R. F., Campbell, J. D., Krueger, J. I., & Vohs, K. D. (2003). Does high self-esteem cause better performance, interpersonal success, happiness, or healthier lifestyles? Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 4, 1-44.

Bushman, B. J., Baumeister, R. F., Thomaes, S., Ryu, E., Begeer, S., & West, S. G. (in press). Looking again, and harder, for a link between low self-esteem and aggression. Journal of Personality.

Swann, W. B., Chang-Schneider, C., & McClarty, K. L. (2007). Do our self-views matter? Self-concept and self-esteem in everyday life. American Psychologist, 62, 84-94.

Greenberg, J., Solomon, S., Pyszczynski, T., Rosenblatt, A., et al. (1992). Why do people need self-esteem? Converging evidence that self-esteem serves an anxiety-buffering function. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 63, 913-922.

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