Theories of Self-Esteem: Early & Modern

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  • 0:04 The Beginning of Self-Esteem
  • 0:40 Early Theories of Self-Esteem
  • 2:57 What is the Use of…
  • 4:29 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Sunday Moulton

Sunday recently earned a PhD in Anthropology and has taught college courses in Anthropology, English, and high school ACT/SAT Prep.

In this lesson, we explore the various psychological theories related to self-esteem. We examine theories defining self-esteem, theories on the formation of self-esteem, and theories on the function of self-esteem.

The Beginning of Self-esteem

You've probably heard of self-esteem, how we feel about ourselves, but would it surprise you to know that there was no such thing 150 years ago? Okay, that was a bit misleading, but now that we have your attention, we'll clarify. No one considered self-esteem as a unique trait to be studied and defined until the psychologist William James introduced his theory of self-esteem in 1890. Since that time, other psychologists and psychology theorists have built on that original theory to further define self-esteem, describe how it forms, and ask questions about the purpose or function of self-esteem.

Is self-esteem a quantifiable substance?

Early Theories of Self-esteem

Beginning with the work of William James, let's follow the early development of self-esteem theory.

William James used a simple formula to define self-esteem, stating that self-esteem equals success divided by our pretentions. Pretensions, in this case, refer to our goals, values, and what we believe about our potential. So, if our actual achievements are low and our believed potential and goals are high, we see ourselves as failures. Conversely, and you can probably remember an experience like this, if your success exceeds your expectations, you feel great about yourself, and your self-esteem rises.

William James
William James

We group the contributions of Cooley and Mead, even though they worked in different decades - Cooley in 1902 and Mead in 1934 - because both constructed related theories which contributed to the formation of symbolic interactionism. Symbolic interactionism claims that people base their thoughts and behaviors towards things and people on the basis of the meaning or value they believe those subjects possess. These thoughts and behaviors are further modified through interaction with others and their influence. These two theorists both proposed that self-esteem comes from social interaction rather than a single, inner notion of our worth. We develop our sense of self-worth through the way others treat us and the rules our society sets to define achievement.

A leader in the study of self-esteem in the early second-half of the 20th century, Stanley Coopersmith, introduced the idea that self-esteem begins early in life. Self-esteem builds positively from early childhood if the individual is raised with love and security. Throughout childhood and into our adult lives, our self-esteem builds or falls from that early-childhood baseline through positive and negative experiences.

Morris Rosenberg, a contemporary of Coopersmith, also studied the development of self-esteem, focusing on adolescence rather than early childhood. His theories proposed that self-esteem developed more during the uncertainty of adolescence. During this stage of development, Rosenberg claims that self-esteem is built on an evaluation of the self in comparison with others. This means adolescents compare themselves to peers they see around them to evaluate their value while thinking about how others might see them.

Rosenberg attributed the development of self-esteem to adolescence.
adolescent girls

What Is the Use of Self-esteem?

More contemporary theories focus on the role self-esteem plays in our lives and psychological well-being. This follows the question of why we have self-esteem rather than continuing to theorize about what self-esteem is or how it develops.

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