Social Psychology

Student Learning Program

Chapter 4: Constructing self-esteem: How we feel about ourselves (pp. 107114)

Ask Yourself?

In this topic

  1. Balancing Accurate Self-knowledge and Self-enhancement (pp. 107109)
  2. Evaluating Personal Experiences: Some Pain but Mainly Gain (pp. 109110)
    1. Self-enhancement
    2. Self-complexity
  3. Social Comparisons: Better or Worse Than Others? (pp. 110112)
    1. Social comparison
    2. Biased social comparison
  4. Why Self-enhance? (pp. 112113)
  5. Self-esteem in Cultural Context (pp. 113114)
Balancing Accurate Self-knowledge and Self-enhancement

Self-esteem tells us how well we are doing in successfully adapting to our own social world. To serve its proper role, it should be an accurate reflection of how we are doing. However, people generally tend to inflate their own abilities and accomplishments, seeking to elevate their self-esteem. Our level of self-esteem therefore reflects a compromise between the two motives: accuracy and enhancing self-esteem.

Case study: Implicit egoism and major life decisions

Research activity: Name your choice

Evaluating Personal Experiences: Some Pain but Mainly Gain

Events that affect us positively or negatively influence our self-esteem. However, self-enhancing biases can color the impact of our experiences on self-esteem, so that negative events have less effect and positive events have a large effect on our self-esteem. One bias is that we engage in situations that give us positive feelings, and avoid situations that can lead to negative feelings. Another bias is our selective memory: we have a better memory for success than for failure.


Our self-knowledge is organized around multiple self-aspects. The more self-aspects there are, the higher the level of self-complexity. The lower this level of self-complexity, the greater the impact of failure is on one domain of the self.

Social Comparisons: Better or Worse Than Others?
Social comparison

People evaluate themselves by comparing with others. The result of the comparison can be positive or negative. This outcome depends on two factors: closeness to the person with whom we compare, and importance of the attribute in question.

Biased social comparison

We avoid comparisons that make us look bad. One tactic is establishing distance between ourselves and those who are successful. Another form of protection involves downward comparison: the comparison with others who are less fortunate or successful.

Why Self-enhance?

If an accurate level of self-esteem is needed as an indicator of how we are doing, why are we so prone to biases that create and maintain positively biased views of ourselves?

Self-esteem in Cultural Context

Self-enhancing biases operate somewhat differently in different cultures. In interdependent cultures, people are less prone to this bias, or even show a reverse bias. This difference is explained by the focus on self-worth: in independent cultures, the focus is on autonomous and separate aspects of the self. In interdependent cultures, however, the focus is on the ability to fit in harmoniously with others, and negative information about the self is used as a way to improve this ability. In this respect, self-criticism is a way to improve the self, in both independent and interdependent cultures, and thus both cultures engage in self-enhancement, albeit in different ways. In both cultures, high levels of self-esteem are important, because they are a gauge that gives us information about our success and acceptance.

So what does this mean?

Accurate self-knowledge regarding our capacities is important for guiding us through our lives and for having control over our lives. But accuracy is not the only motive for evaluating the self: Self-esteem is also greatly influenced by motivational pressures to think well of the self. These motivations color many of our thoughts and feelings about the self through self-enhancing biases. We have a whole range of self-enhancing strategies to cope with positive and negative self-relevant information. There are cultural differences in self-enhancement, but self-esteem in all cultures is a sign of how well we are connected with and master our environment.

Next topic

Effects of the self: Processes of self-regulation

In this chapter

  1. Chapter 4 introduction
  2. Constructing the self-concept: What we know about ourselves
  3. Constructing self-esteem: How we feel about ourselves
  4. Effects of the self: Processes of self-regulation
  5. Defending the self: Coping with stresses, inconsistencies, and failures
  6. Chapter overview (PDF)
  7. Fill-in-the-blanks
  8. Multiple-choice questions