What Is Truth?

The myth that low self-esteem is a major cause of psychological problems


It is generally assumed that low self-esteem and self-worth will lead to psychological problems for a person in the long run. Articles assuming this, point towards school shooting incidents as the attackers often were reported afterwards to have had low self-esteem and a plethora of mental health issues which stemmed from that. Similar assumptions have continued when it comes to mass shootings ever since. And this fits with a body of literature in self-help books which states that low self-esteem is tied to a wide range of other psychological issues.

United State legislatures have even invested millions of dollars on self-esteem programmes to try to tackle this perceived social ill. But the problem, as Lilienfeld, Lynn, Ruscio and Beyerstein argue, is that it is a myth. Contrary to the great number of self-help books and misinformed reports in the media, extensive and rigorous psychological studies have determined that self-esteem is not closely related to one’s interpersonal success or to potential mental illness. For instance, a comprehensive study by Baumeister, et al in 2003 concluded that “low self-esteem is neither necessary nor sufficient for depression.”

What they did find is that people with high self-esteem tended to rate themselves higher when it came to physical attractiveness, intelligence and other personal characteristics, but interestingly enough these self-assessments were found to be inaccurate when objective criteria were applied. What this means is that people with high self-esteem simply tend to think more highly of themselves, rather then actually performing better. At the same time, people with low-esteem were not performing more poorly in other areas of their life; their view of themselves was simply more careful.

Moreover, while studies found some limited evidence to suggest that low self-esteem could be associated with a heightened tendency towards physical aggression it was far outweighed by the tendency found in case of people with high self-esteem. Suggesting that high self-esteem are more likely to lead to aggressive behaviour because the person instinctively feels justified in their act. Overall, the findings show that low self-esteem does not result in a greater range of psychological problems nor brings more aggressive behaviour.


Barry, C. T., Frick, P. J., & Killian, A. L. (2003). ‘The relation of narcissism and self-esteem to conduct problems in children: A preliminary investigation’, Journal of Clinical Child and Adolescent Psychology, Vol. 32, pp 139–152.

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, Vol. 4, pp 1–44.

Bushman, B. J., & Baumeister, R. F. (1998). ‘Threatened egotism, narcissism, self-esteem, and direct and displaced aggression: Does self-love or self-hate lead to violence?’, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol. 75, pp 219–229.

Emler, N. (2001). Self-esteem: The costs and causes of low self-worth. York, UK: Joseph Rowntree Foundation.

Joiner, T. E., Alfano, M. S., & Metalsky, G. I. (1992). ‘When depression breeds contempt: Reassurance seeking, self-esteem, and rejection of depressed college students by their roommates’, Journal of Abnormal Psychology, Vol. 101, pp 165–173.

Lilienfeld, S. O., Lynn, S. J., Ruscio, J., & Beyerstein, B. L. (2009). 50 great myths of popular psychology: Shattering widespread misconceptions about human behavior. John Wiley & Sons.

About the author

M. Leblanc

Trainer, martial artist (Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu), avid self-improver

What Is Truth?