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Whitepaper: The Link Between Self-Esteem and Positive Outcomes

Prepared by the Youth Enrichments research team, March, 2024

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Self-esteem, the subjective evaluation of one's worth, has been a topic of considerable interest in psychological research due to its implications for various life outcomes. While there has been a history of debate about the relative benefits of self-esteem (Baumeister et al., 2003), a recent review conducted by Orth and Robbins (2022) concluded that when examining numerous meta-analyses of longitudinal studies conducted since 2003 with large representative samples and methodologically robust designs, the findings suggest that self-esteem is beneficial across wide-ranging positive domains. Accordingly, interventions aimed at enhancing self-esteem hold promise for improving individuals' overall wellbeing and functioning across the lifespan, ultimately contributing to healthier and more successful lives.

 

This whitepaper provides a high-level overview of select studies examining the link between self-esteem and different domains of life, with a particular emphasis on children and adolescents. The review encompasses six key outcome areas: mental health, academic success, career success, interpersonal relationships, physical health, and risk behaviors. Meta-analytical studies, which statistically combine the results of a set of similar individual studies, are included where available as they represent a powerful tool for synthesizing evidence, resolving inconsistencies, and providing more accurate estimates of effects, thereby advancing scientific knowledge and informing decision-making in various fields. 

Enhanced Mental Health

Numerous research studies have explored the relationship between self-esteem and mental health, especially with regard to its link to depression and anxiety across different stages of life. Orth, Robins, and Roberts (2008) conducted a longitudinal study investigating the predictive power of low self-esteem on depression in adolescence and young adulthood. Their research followed a large sample of participants over several years, utilizing validated measures to assess self-esteem and depression at multiple time points. Their findings revealed that low self-esteem predicted subsequent depressive symptoms. Sowislo and Orth (2013) conducted a meta-analysis of longitudinal studies examining the relationship between low self-esteem and depression and anxiety. Their meta-analysis concluded that low self-esteem predicts depression and anxiety over time, providing robust evidence for the link between self-esteem and mental health outcomes. This meta-analysis emphasized the importance of addressing self-esteem issues as a preventive measure against mental health disorders, highlighting the significance of early intervention and support systems. 

 

Steiger, Allemand, Robins, and Fend (2014) extended these findings by investigating the enduring effects of low and decreasing self-esteem during adolescence on adult depression. Their research assessed participants' self-esteem at multiple time points during adolescence and measured depressive symptoms two decades later. By employing sophisticated statistical modeling techniques, they were able to identify distinct self-esteem trajectories and examine their implications for adult mental health outcomes. Their study revealed that individuals with consistently low or decreasing self-esteem throughout adolescence were at a higher risk of experiencing depression two decades later. Collectively, these studies underscore the critical role of self-esteem in mental health outcomes and suggest that self-esteem dynamics during formative years have lasting implications for mental health outcomes in adulthood, highlighting the importance of fostering positive self-esteem early on. 

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Improved Academic Success

Research suggests that self-esteem and related self-concepts have significant influence on academic outcomes. Trautwein and colleagues (2006) conducted a three-wave longitudinal study to dynamic interplay between self-concept, self-esteem and academic outcomes during adolescence. They found that higher academic self-concept and global self-esteem predicted better academic achievement, while academic achievement also positively influenced academic self-concept and self-esteem. In another longitudinal study, Flouri (2006) found that children’s self-esteem predicted educational attainment in both genders over two decades later, exemplifying the potential long-term impact of self-esteem in this domain. Similarly, Trzesniewski et al. (2006) found that self-esteem measured between the ages of 11-15 predicted later educational attainment, such as obtaining a college degree, even when controlling for gender and socioeconomic status.    

 

A more recent meta-analysis conducted by Wagner et al (2023) extends these findings to diverse cultural contexts.  More specifically, their work synthesized the findings of 45 studies with populations drawn from thirteen countries to examine the interplay of self-esteem, social relationships, and academic achievement during adolescence. When looking specifically at the effect size associated with the extent to which self-esteem predicted academic achievement, they found that self-esteem was a significant predictor of high academic achievement over time, as assessed on a range of measures including standardized tests and grades. Similarly, in their meta-analytic review, Valentine, DuBois, and Cooper (2004) identified a consistent association between positive self-beliefs and academic success across diverse populations and educational settings, reaffirming the pivotal role of self-esteem in shaping educational outcomes.

Career Success

​Turning to occupational outcomes, research by Kuster and colleagues (2013) has shown that individuals with higher self-esteem are more likely to achieve positive work outcomes, including factors such as job satisfaction, performance evaluations and career success.  Their study provided robust evidence of a directional relationship between self-esteem and work-related success by utilizing a prospective design, connecting two independent data sets and controlling for prior levels of work outcomes. In a meta-analysis exploring the relationship between core self-evaluation traits and various work-related outcomes, Judge and Bono (2001) also found a significant relationship between self-evaluations, such as self-esteem, and job performance. Trzesniewski et al. (2006) provide additional evidence of the connection between adolescents' self-esteem and career success. They found that adolescents with lower self-esteem had lower income and were less likely to be employed in prestigious or high-paying occupations as adults. These findings suggest that self-esteem during adolescence assumes a critical function in shaping individuals' economic outcomes later in life. Low self-esteem during this formative period may contribute to difficulties in achieving economic success in adulthood.

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Better Interpersonal Relationships

The quality of interpersonal relationships is intricately linked to individuals' self-esteem, as demonstrated by meta-analytic investigations and longitudinal studies. In their comprehensive review, Harris and Orth’s meta-analysis (2020) revealed a positive association between self-esteem and the quality of social relationships over time. Their analyses, which were based on 35 samples and nearly 22,000 individuals of diverse ethnicity and age ranges, indicated that positive self-esteem is important in fostering healthy interpersonal relationships characterized by trust, connectedness, acceptance, and support. Similarly, Cameron and Granger’s meta-analysis (2019) found evidence of the link between individuals' self-esteem and better interpersonal outcomes in their expanded review, encompassing a wide range of interpersonal indicators, including social behaviors, social outcomes, and external evaluations. The meta-analysis revealed that individuals with higher self-esteem tended to demonstrate more positive interpersonal behaviors and outcomes than those with lower self-esteem. Specifically, higher self-esteem was linked to greater social competence, social acceptance, and relationship quality. Additional longitudinal research by Marshall et al. (2014) focused specifically on adolescents found that self-esteem was a significant predictor of levels of social support quality and network size over time. 

 

Overall, these studies highlight self-esteem's significant role in shaping interpersonal relationships. From influencing subjective perceptions of social interactions to objectively measured indicators of social status and support, self-esteem plays a pivotal part in determining the quality and dynamics of interpersonal relationships. As such, interventions aimed at enhancing self-esteem hold promise for promoting positive social outcomes and fostering healthier interpersonal connections among individuals.

Enhanced Physical Health

The protective role of self-esteem extends beyond psychological wellbeing to encompass physical health and related risk behaviors, such as substance use. Orth and colleagues (2012) examined the role of self-esteem on physical health in a longitudinal study, and found that individuals with higher self-esteem during adolescence were more likely to experience better physical health in adulthood. In a study examining the relationship between self-esteem and specific physical health indicators, Stinson et al. (2008) revealed that lower self-esteem was associated with higher levels of cortisol, a stress hormone, and poorer cardiovascular health. 

Trzesniewski et al. (2006) reaffirm the predictive utility of low self-esteem for health-related outcomes. Their longitudinal study, which tracked adolescents' self-esteem and health outcomes into adulthood, revealed that adolescents with low self-esteem were at a higher risk of experiencing poor physical health in adulthood, including lower physical fitness and higher rates of smoking. Moreover, they found that the effects of low self-esteem on health outcomes were partially mediated by psychological factors, such as depression, highlighting the psychological pathways through which self-esteem influences health outcomes. The studies above provide valuable insights into the importance of fostering positive self-esteem for promoting overall wellbeing across the lifespan. 

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Lower Risk of Antisocial and Criminal Behavior

Research points to an inverse relationship between self-esteem and antisocial and criminal behavior, with low self-esteem serving as a risk factor for engaging in delinquent and violent activities. Mier and Ladny (2018) conducted a meta-analytic review of evidence spanning 25 years examining the impact of self-esteem on crime and delinquency. The meta-analysis included 42 studies and revealed a significant negative relationship between self-esteem and involvement in crime and delinquency, with individuals with higher levels of self-esteem being less likely to engage in criminal behavior or delinquent activities compared to those with lower self-esteem. 

Delving into individual studies focused on children and adolescents, similar trends emerge. For example, Donnellan and colleagues conducted a longitudinal analysis to examine the associations between self-esteem and antisocial behavior over time (Donnellan et al., 2005). The study, which controlled for potential confounding variables such as gender, socioeconomic status, and prior levels of antisocial behavior, found consistent evidence that low self-esteem was related to higher levels of aggression, antisocial behavior, and delinquency across multiple assessments from childhood to adulthood. In a related study, Trzesniewski et al. (2006) reaffirm these findings, with results indicating that low self-esteem during adolescence predicted higher rates of criminal behavior in adulthood, emphasizing the enduring impact of self-esteem on antisocial outcomes. Lei et al. (2020) extend this inquiry to the domain of cyberbullying, highlighting the relevance of self-esteem in understanding contemporary forms of deviant behavior among youth. Their meta-analysis revealed that lower self-esteem is associated with higher levels of involvement in cyberbullying, underscoring the relevance of self-esteem in predicting antisocial behaviors in online environments. Collectively, these studies provide substantial evidence for the relationship between self-esteem and lower risk of antisocial behavior. 

Conclusion

In conclusion, the empirical studies above offer compelling evidence for the multifaceted link between self-esteem and a broad range of positive outcomes. From mental health outcomes to academic success, interpersonal relationships, physical health, and behavior, self-esteem plays a pivotal role in shaping individuals' well-being and life trajectories. By integrating empirical findings from longitudinal studies and meta-analytic reviews, this review underscores the importance of fostering positive self-esteem early in life to promote positive outcomes across different life domains across the lifespan. Moving forward, interventions designed to enhance the self-esteem of children and adolescents could mitigate later mental and physical health issues and hold promise for improving individuals’ success in academic, social, and economic domains.

References

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 : a journal of the American Psychological Society, 4(1), 1–44. https://doi.org/10.1111/1529-1006.01431

 

Cameron, J. J., & Granger, S. (2019). Does self-esteem have an interpersonal imprint beyond self-reports? A meta-analysis of self-esteem and objective interpersonal indicators. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 23(1), 73–102. https://doi.org/10.1177/1088868318756532

 

Donnellan, M. B., Trzesniewski, K. H., Robins, R. W., Moffitt, T. E., & Caspi, A. (2005). Low self-esteem is related to aggression, antisocial behavior, and delinquency. Psychological Science, 16(4), 328–335. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.0956-7976.2005.01535.x

 

Flouri, E. (2006). Parental interest in children's education, children's self-esteem and locus of control, and later educational attainment: Twenty-six-year follow-up of the 1970 British Birth Cohort. The British Journal of Educational Psychology, 76(Pt 1), pp. 41–55. https://doi.org/10.1348/000709905X52508

 

Harris, M. A., & Orth, U. (2020). The link between self-esteem and social relationships: A meta-analysis of longitudinal studies. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 119(6), 1459–1477. https://doi.org/10.1037/pspp0000265

 

Judge, T. A., & Bono, J. E. (2001). Relationship of core self-evaluations traits—self-esteem, generalized self-efficacy, locus of control, and emotional stability—with job satisfaction and job performance: A meta-analysis. Journal of Applied Psychology, 86(1), 80–92. https://doi.org/10.1037/0021-9010.86.1.80

Trautwein, U., Lüdtke, O., Köller, O., & Baumert, J. (2006). Self-esteem, academic self-concept, and achievement: how the learning environment moderates the dynamics of self-concept. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 90 (2), 334-49 . https://doi.org/10.1037/0022-3514.90.2.334

 

Trzesniewski, K. H., Donnellan, M. B., Moffitt, T. E., Robins, R. W., Poulton, R., & Caspi, A. (2006). Low self-esteem during adolescence predicts poor health, criminal behavior, and limited economic prospects during adulthood. Developmental Psychology, 42(2), 381–390. https://doi.org/10.1037/0012-1649.42.2.381

 

Valentine, J. C., DuBois, D. L., & Cooper, H. (2004). The relation between self-beliefs and academic achievement: A meta-analytic review. Educational Psychologist, 39(2), 111–133. https://doi.org/10.1207/s15326985ep3902_3

Kuster, F., Orth, U., & Meier, L. L. (2013). High self-esteem prospectively predicts better work conditions and outcomes. Social Psychological and Personality Science, 4(6), 668–675. https://doi.org/10.1177/1948550613479806

 

Lei, H., Mao, W., Cheong, C. M., Wen, Y., Cui, Y., & Cai, Z. (2020). The relationship between self-esteem and cyberbullying: A meta-analysis of children and youth students. Current Psychology, 39(3), 830–842. https://doi.org/10.1007/s12144-019-00407-6

 

Marshall, S. L., Parker, P. D., Ciarrochi, J., & Heaven, P. C. L. (2014). Is self-esteem a cause or consequence of social support? A 4-year longitudinal study. Child Development, p. 85, 1275–1291. https://doi.org/10.1111/cdev.12176

 

Mier, C., & Ladny, R. T. (2018). Does self-esteem negatively impact crime and delinquency? A meta-analytic review of 25 years of evidence. Deviant Behavior, 39(8), 1006–1022. https://doi.org/10.1080/01639625.2017.1395667

 

Orth, U., & Robins, R. W. (2022). Is high self-esteem beneficial? Revisiting a classic question. American Psychologist, 77(1), 5–17. https://doi.org/10.1037/amp0000922

 

Orth, U., Robins, R. W., & Roberts, B. W. (2008). Low self-esteem prospectively predicts depression in adolescence and young adulthood. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 95(3), 695–708. https://doi.org/10.1037/0022-3514.95.3.695

 

Orth, U., Robins, R. W., & Widaman, K. F. (2012). Lifespan development of self-esteem and its effects on important life outcomes. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 102(6), 1271–1288. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0025558

 

Sowislo, J. F., & Orth, U. (2013). Does low self-esteem predict depression and anxiety? A meta-analysis of longitudinal studies. Psychological Bulletin, 139(1), 213–240. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0028931

 

Steiger, A. E., Allemand, M., Robins, R. W., & Fend, H. A. (2014). Low and decreasing self-esteem during adolescence predict adult depression two decades later. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 106(2), 325–338. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0035133

 

Stinson, D. A., Logel, C., Zanna, M. P., Holmes, J. G., Cameron, J. J., Wood, J. V., & Spencer, S. J. (2008). The cost of lower self-esteem: Testing a self- and social-bonds model of health. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 94(3), 412–428. https://doi.org/10.1037/0022-3514.94.3.412

Wagner, J., Brandt, N.D., Bien, K. et al. (2023). The longitudinal interplay of self-esteem, social relationships, and academic achievement during adolescence: Theoretical notions and bivariate meta-analytic findings. Z Erziehungswiss. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11618-023-01177-5

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