Researchers have gradually built up a composite image of what it
is like to have low self-esteem. People who have a negative view
of themselves are typically muddling through life, trying to avoid
embarrassment, giving no sign of a desperate need to prove their
superiority. People with low self-esteem tend to avoid risks and,
when they fail, they usually blame themselves, not others.
Strictly speaking, it is misleading to talk of ‘people high in
self-esteem" as if they were a distinct type, but the need for
efficient communication pushes researchers into using such terms.
By "people high in self-esteem," I refer broadly to those who
scored above the median on our self-esteem scale – based on a
standardized series of questions such as "How well do you get
along with other people?" and "are you generally successful in
your work or studies?" Statistical analyses respect the full
continuum from negative to positive.
Many laypeople have the impression that self-esteem fluctuates
widely, but in fact these scores are quite stable. Day-to-day
changes tend to be small, and even after a serious blow or boost,
a person’s self-esteem score returns to its previous level within
a relatively short time. Large changes most often occur after
major life transitions, such as when a high school athlete moves
on to college to find the competition much tougher.
Quantifying aggression is trickier, but one approach is simply
to ask people whether they are prone to angry outbursts and
conflicts. These self-reported hostile tendencies can then be
compared to the self-esteem scores. One study in the 1980s
distinguished between stable and unstable self-esteem by measuring
each person’s self-esteem on several occasions and looking for
fluctuations. The greatest hostility was reported by people with
high but unstable self-esteem. Individuals with high, stable
self-esteem were the least hostile, and those with low self-esteem
(either stable or unstable) were in between.
ANOTHER APPROACH is to compare large categories of people. Men
on average have higher self-esteem than women and are also more
aggressive. Depressed people have lower self-esteem and are less
violent than non-depressed people. Psychopaths are exceptionally
prone to aggressive and criminal conduct, and they have very
favorable opinions of themselves.
Evidence about the self-images of specific murderers, rapists
and other criminals tends to be more anecdotal than systematic.
but the pattern is clear. Violent criminals often describe
themselves as superior to others—as special, elite persons who
deserve preferential treatment. Many murders and assaults are
committed in response to blows to self-esteem such as insults and
humiliation. (To be sure, some perpetrators live in settings where
insults threaten more than their opinions of themselves. Esteem
and respect are linked to status in the social hierarchy, and to
put someone down can have tangible and even life-threatening
The same conclusion has emerged from studies of other
categories of violent people. Street-gang members have been
reported to hold favorable opinions of themselves and to turn
violent when these views are disputed. Playground bullies regard
themselves as superior to other children; low self-esteem is found
among the victims of bullies but not among bullies themselves.
Violent groups generally have overt belief systems that
emphasize their superiority over others. War is most common among
proud nations that feel they are not getting the respect they
deserve, as Daniel Chirot discusses in his fascinating book Modem
Drunk people are another such category. It is well known that
alcohol plays a role in either a majority or a very large minority
of violent crimes; booze makes people respond to provocations more
vehemently. Far less research has examined the link with
self-esteem, but the findings do fit the egotism pattern:
consuming alcohol rends to boost people’s favorable opinions of
themselves. Of course, alcohol has myriad effects, such as
impairing self-control, and it is hard to know which is the
biggest factor in drunken rampages.
A form of threatened egotism seems to be a factor in many
suicides. The rich, successful person who commits suicide when
faced with bankruptcy, disgrace or scandal is an example. The old,
glamorous self-concept is no longer tenable, and the person cannot
accept the new, less appealing, identity.
Narcissism appears to be linked to aggression – this is defined
as a mental illness characterized by inflated or grandiose views
of self, the quest for excessive admiration, an unreasonable or
exaggerated sense of entitlement, a lack of empathy, an
exploitative attitude towards others, a proneness to envy or wish
to be envied, frequent fantasies of greatness and arrogance.
Self-esteem and narcissism are not the same, although they are
correlated. Individuals with high self-esteem need not be
narcissistic. They can be good at things and recognize that fact
without being conceited or regarding themselves as superior
beings. The converse – high narcissism but low self-esteem – is
quite unusual, however.
Our studies supported the view that aggression is highest among
narcissists who receive insults or criticism. Non-narcissists
(with either high or low self-esteem) are significantly less
aggressive, as are narcissists who are praised. Furthermore,
narcissists tend to reserve their aggression for those who insult
them, ignoring any innocent third parties. His result agrees with
a large body of evidence that violence against innocent bystanders
is, despite conventional wisdom, quite rare.
Violent people actually seem to have a grandiose sense of
personal superiority and entitlement. A common question in
response to these findings is: "Maybe violent people seem on the
surface to have a high opinion of themselves, but isn’t this just
an act? Mightn’t they really have low self-esteem on die inside,
even if they won’t admit it?"
This argument has a logical flaw, however. We know from ample
research that people with overt low self-esteem are not
aggressive. Why should low self-esteem cause aggression only when
it is hidden and not when it is overt? The only difference between
hidden and overt low self-esteem is the fact of its being hidden.
If that is the crucial difference, then the cause of violence
is not the low self-esteem itself but the concealment of it. And
what is concealing it is the veneer of egotism—which brings us
back to the threatened egotism theory.
Various researchers have tried and failed to find any sign of a
soft inner core among violent people. There have been some studies
of gangs that suggest that many gang members have tough exteriors
but are insecure on the inside. This is a mistaken observation.
Another fairly common assumption among psychologists and
psychiatrists, is a link between childhood bullies and insecurity
but studies have found no indicators that the aggressive bullies
(boys) are anxious and insecure under a tough surface.
The case should not be overstated. Psychology is not yet adept
at measuring hidden aspects of personality, especially ones that a
person may not be willing to admit even to himself (hr herself.
But at present there is no empirical evidence or theoretical
reason that aggressors have a hidden core of self-doubt.
Although this conclusion contradicts the traditional focus on
low self-esteem, it does not mean that aggression follows directly
from an inflated view of self. Narcissists are no more aggressive
than anyone else, as long as no one insults or criticizes them.
But when they receive an insult—which could be a seemingly minor
remark or act that would not bother other people— the response
tends to be much more aggressive than normal. Thus, the formula of
threatened egotism combines something about the person with
something about the situation. Whatever the details of cause and
effect, this appears to be the most accurate formula for
predicting violence and aggression.
These patterns raise misgivings about how schools and other
groups seek to boost self-esteem with feel-good exercises.
Counselors, social workers and teachers have been persuaded that
improving the self-esteem of young people is the key to curbing
violent behavior and to encouraging social and academic success.
Many parents and teachers are afraid to criticize kids lest it
cause serious psychological damage and turn some promising
youngster into a dangerous thug or pathetic loser. A number of
people are now questioning whether feel-good exercises are really
the best way to build self-esteem and also questioning the
A favorable opinion of self can put a person on a hair trigger,
especially when this favorable opinion is unwarranted. In my view,
there is nothing wrong with helping students and others to take
pride in accomplishments and good deeds. But there is plenty of
reason to worry about encouraging people to think highly of
themselves when they haven’t earned it. Praise should be tied to
performance (including improvement) rather than dispensed freely
as if everyone had a right to it simply for being oneself.
It would be foolish to assert that aggression always stems from
threatened egotism or that threatened egotism always results in
aggression. Human behavior is caused and shaped by various
factors. Plenty of aggression has little or nothing to do with how
people evaluate themselves. But if this hypothesis is right,
inflated self-esteem increases the odds of aggression
The person with low self-esteem emerges from our investigation
as someone who is not prone to aggressive responses. Instead one
should beware of people who regard themselves as superior to
others, especially when those beliefs are inflated, weakly
grounded in reality or heavily dependent on having others confirm
them frequently. Conceited, self-important individuals turn nasty
toward those who puncture their bubbles of self-love.
extract from Scientific American April 2001 by Roy F Baumeister