Todd F. Heatherton and Carrie L. Wyland
It is generally believed that there are many beneﬁts to having a positive view of the self. Those who have high self-esteem are presumed to be psychologically happy and healthy (Branden, 1994; Taylor & Brown, 1988), whereas those with low self-esteem are believed to be psychologically distressed and perhaps even depressed (Tennen & Afﬂeck, 1993). Having high self-esteem apparently provides beneﬁts to those who possess it: They feel good about themselves, they are able to cope effectively with challenges and negative feedback, and they live in a social world in which they believe that people value and respect them. Although there are negative consequences associated with having extremely high self-esteem (Baumeister, 1998), most people with high self-esteem appear to lead happy and productive lives. By contrast, people with low selfesteem see the world through a more negative ﬁlter, and their general dislike for themselves colors their perceptions of everything around them. Substantial evidence shows a link between self-esteem and depression, shyness, loneliness, and alienation—low self-esteem is aversive for those who have it. Thus, selfesteem affects the enjoyment of life even if it does not have a substantial impact on career success, productivity, or other objective outcome measures. Given the choice, however, most people would prefer to have high self-esteem. That self-esteem is vital for psychological health is evident in the popular media and in educational policy. Indeed, some educators have changed course curricula in their attempts to instill children with high self-esteem, even to the point that in some states students are promoted to a higher grade even when they have failed to master the material from the previous grade. These social promotions are based on the belief that positive self-esteem is of cardinal importance, and that many societal ills—such as teenage pregnancy and drug use, violence, academic failure, and crime—are caused by low self-esteem. Accordingly, California enacted legislation that encouraged schools to develop self-esteem enhancement programs, the general idea being that high selfesteem would act something like a “social vaccine” that would prevent many of the serious behavioral problems facing the state (Mecca, Smelser, & Vasconcellos, 1989). Although societal ills are not caused by low self-esteem, it is easy to understand why policy makers and educators are concerned with the emotional consequences of negative self-views. Those who feel ostracized 219
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or rejected experience a variety of negative reactions, including physical illness, emotional problems, and negative affective states. Furthermore, social support is known to be a key ingredient of mental and physical health (Cohen & Wills, 1985), and people who feel disliked may be less likely to receive support from others. Thus, even if the beneﬁts of having high self-esteem have been exaggerated (see Dawes, 1994), there is little doubt that low self-esteem is problematic for those who have it. But how exactly is self-esteem measured? This chapter examines the various ways in which self-esteem is measured and the implications that these methods have on our understanding of what it means for a person to have high or low self-esteem.
Understanding the Construct of Self-Esteem
Self-esteem is the evaluative aspect of the self-concept that corresponds to an overall view of the self as worthy or unworthy (Baumeister, 1998). This is embodied in Coopersmith’s (1967) classic deﬁnition of self-esteem: The evaluation which the individual makes and customarily maintains with regard to himself: it expresses an attitude of approval and indicates the extent to which an individual believes himself to be capable, signiﬁcant, successful and worthy. In short, self-esteem is a personal judgment of the worthiness that is expressed in the attitudes the...