Self-Esteem and Aggression: the links


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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 consequences.)

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 Tyrants.

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 underlying assumptions.

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 substantially.

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


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