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Differences in self-esteem

Any study of self-esteem has to ask why it varies from individual to individual. Professor Nicholas Emler in his book Self-Esteem: The Costs and Causes of Low Self-Worth surveys and presents the evidence on the roots of self-esteem under three headings:
1. factors that have weak effects or none
2. moderate effects
3. factors that have a substantial effect

1. Weak/irrelevant factors: race, class, gender 

As Professor Emler points out, it is commonly assumed that an individual's self-esteem will be affected by ethnicity or race. For example, it is often argued that black people, or those from ethnic minorities, will have lower self-esteem than white people given the supremacy of the latter in western culture. However, the evidence does not support this view. In the United States, black people consistently report higher self-esteem than white people. A variety of reasons have been advanced for this finding including the idea that most people care about the approval of friends and family more than the views of others in the wider society. Social class is also commonly thought to be closely correlated to self-esteem but it is only 'modestly' so according to Professor Emler.

Gender is often seen as an important variable in self-esteem and here there is some evidence to support this view. Women, on average, have lower self-esteem than men but as Emler points out: 'The difference is highly consistent but it is also small. One factor influencing the size of the difference is age. The largest differences are apparent in late adolescence; they are smaller both before and after.'

2. Modest factors: success and failures; appearance

It is also commonly assumed that people who are successful in life will have high self-esteem and that those who suffer frequent failure low self-esteem. There is, according to Professor Emler, some evidence to support this but it is not as strong a factor as people think. Emler argues that people who have high self-esteem are better at discounting or ignoring failure (eg they attribute it to bad luck or poor teaching) and so their self-esteem is less damaged by the failure. On the other hand, those with low self-esteem  also tend to 'discount' success. 'Those blessed with high self-esteem', Professor Emler writes, ' ignore all the evidence of inadequacies. Those who lack self-esteem equally consistently deny that there is any positive evidence, using many of the same tactics in reverse.' 

Appearance is routinely advanced as a major factor in the level of a person's self-esteem. However, as we shall see in another section, what matters is not whether a person is objectively attractive but whether they think they are. 

3. Substantial factors: parents; genes 

Professor Nicholas Emler is unequivocal in his view about the source of an individual's self-esteem. 'To the question, what are the most important influences on self-esteem? The simple answer is parents', he writes. Emler agrees with Stanley Coopersmith, one of the early thinkers on self-esteem, on the reasons for this parental influence. Summarising Coopersmith Emler argues that parents' behaviour is of crucial significance in the development of children's self-esteem. The behaviour which is of most significance is:

  • The amount of acceptance, approval and affection parents show their children
  • The degree to which parents make clear expected standards of behavior
  • The degree to which the discipline parents give to children is based on explanation rather than punishment or coercion
  • The extent to which parents involve children in family decisions and value their contributions.

Coopersmith's pioneering work on self-esteem has subsequently been supported by research. Approval and acceptance seem to be particularly important in the development of self-esteem. What is also surprising is that research suggests that the importance of parents to a person's self-esteem does not end with childhood but continues not just into adolescence but into adulthood. 

Given the importance of self-esteem it is hardly surprising that a variety of studies have shown how physical and sexual abuse by parents has what Emler refers to as a 'devastating effect on self-esteem'. One study suggests that victims of child abuse were four times more likely than other people to be the lowest scorers on measures of self-esteem. Family breakdown is also another contributing factor in low self-esteem according to research. 

Emler also argues that parents make another substantial contribution to children's self-esteem through their genetic inheritance. Quoting the famous 1998 study into almost 4,000 twin pairs, Emler argues that 'about a third of the variation in self-esteem scores could be attributed to inherited differences in the sample'. 

Some psychologists have argued that a person's self-esteem will in part be a reflection of how they are seen by others. But Emler disputes this. He writes: 

It seems that the actual reactions of others may have little influence on what we think of ourselves. It is almost as if, after our parents have had their say - and their genetic influence -we become increasingly deaf to other, especially dissenting voices. 

Copyright: Carol Craig, Centre for Confidence and Well-Being, 2006 

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