The Weird Potency of Self-Esteem

Photo: Silver Screen Collection/Getty Images

Francisco Velazquez, a freshman at Balboa High School in San Francisco, was a pretty cool-looking guy, with spiky hair and sunglasses. He also had a gnawingly empty stomach by lunchtime. The smell of oregano-tinged, cheesy, pepperoni-laced pizza and salty, oily French fries in the cafeteria drove him crazy, but he couldn’t afford to pay for those tasty items. He did, however, qualify for the free government-financed meal, which included an entrée of chicken teriyaki. Despite this, he and most of his friends decided not to eat at all during lunch period.

As it turns out, Francisco was not alone, as only 37 percent of eligible students were eating free lunches in San Francisco schools. Why?

Federal law requires subsidized meals to have nutritional value, so junk foods like pizza, French fries, soda, and candy are sold in a different part of the cafeteria. Students eating the free lunches are well nourished, but they are also easily recognized and stigmatized by their more affluent peers. As Lewis Geist, the student body president at Balboa High, explained, accepting government assistance “lowers your status” because lunch “is the best time to impress your peers. … Kids who wear nice shoes and nice clothes don’t want to be associated with food that says ‘I’m not able to provide for myself.’ 

For Francisco and his friends, nourishing their self-image was more important than nourishing their own body. But why would they go hungry to preserve their self-worth? We have to delve into the nature of self-esteem to find out.

Self-esteem is a concept most people grasp only superficially. It means feeling good about yourself and believing that you are a worthy individual. But what does that actually mean? You might say to yourself, “I feel good about myself because I am a highly regarded member of my profession, a loyal and devoted partner and parent, and I generally try to do the right things.” However, these sources of self-esteem do not spring fully formed from some deep inner self. Rather, they are a reflection of the roles and values provided by your culture’s scheme of things. Your understanding of what the “right” things to do are, what social roles are of value, and how to properly fulfill your own role depends on your worldview. Accordingly, self-esteem is the feeling that one is a valuable participant in a meaningful universe. This feeling of personal significance is what keeps our deepest fears at bay.

Living up to cultural roles and values — whether we are called “doctor,” “lawyer,” “architect,” “artist,” or “beloved mother” — embeds us safely in a symbolic reality in which our identity helps us transcend the limits of our fleeting biological existence.

Hundreds of studies have found that people with durable, high self-esteem enjoy better physical and mental health than those who don’t have a stable sense of self-worth. People who lack self-esteem struggle with anxiety as well as a host of physical, psychological, and interpersonal difficulties. This large body of evidence certainly squares with the idea that self-esteem affords psychological security, but when measured variables — like self-esteem and anxiety — are associated with each other, we can’t be sure which way the causal arrow runs. Does low self-esteem cause anxiety, or does anxiety cause low self-esteem?

In the 1970s, social psychologists began trying to sort out this conundrum by looking at what happens when self-esteem is undermined. In some studies, people were told that they did poorly on an intelligence test. Sure enough, this unwelcome news reduced their self-esteem and increased their anxiety, defensiveness, and hostility. Of course this is hardly surprising. But is the converse true? Does raising people’s self-esteem shield them from anxiety?

To find out, we recruited participants for an experiment billed as “a study of the relationship between personality and reactions to emotionally laden stimuli.” Everyone received a seemingly personalized psychological profile, supposedly based on their responses to questionnaires completed a few weeks earlier. These profiles were constructed to seem applicable to virtually anyone, but they were designed to convey either a very positive or a neutral evaluation of the recipient’s personality. The neutral evaluation included statements such as “While you have some personality weaknesses, you are generally able to compensate for them” and “Some of your aspirations may be a bit unrealistic.” The positive evaluation, designed to momentarily increase self-esteem, included statements such as “While you may feel that you have some personality weaknesses, your personality is fundamentally strong” and “Most of your aspirations tend to be pretty realistic.”

To arouse some anxiety in half of the participants, we had them watch a short clip from a grisly documentary called Faces of Death. Banned in more than forty countries, the film shows shocking footage of napalm bombings in Vietnam, battle scenes from World War II, an autopsy, and a death row electrocution. The other participants watched a benign, death-free film clip of nature scenes.

Afterward, everyone completed questionnaires that measured anxiety and self-esteem. Not surprisingly, participants who received the positive personality assessment reported higher self-esteem than those who received the neutral assessment. And as you might imagine, those who received neutral evaluations reported more anxiety if they watched the clip from Faces of Death than if they watched the benign clip. But those who had their self-esteem momentarily boosted reported no more anxiety after viewing the graphic depictions of death than did those who had looked at the nature footage. This experiment showed that self-esteem buffers anxiety, at least when people tell us how they are feeling.

This is strong evidence that self-esteem keeps the physiological arousal associated with anxiety in check. Self-esteem is more than a mere mental abstraction: it is felt deeply in our bodies. Other studies have since shown that feelings of self-worth also diminish defensive reactions to thoughts of death. People who are reminded of death typically defend their worldviews by becoming especially harsh toward critics of their culture. But when Americans who are naturally high in self-esteem or who are given a self-esteem boost are reminded of their own death, they don’t react negatively toward those who express anti-American sentiments.

All of this may work differently for some non-Americans and recent immigrants, of course, since conceptions of self-esteem vary greatly across different cultures. Back at Balboa High School, for example, while Francisco Velazquez and friends went hungry, teenagers from Thailand, India, Myanmar, and Hong Kong, as well as American-born Chinese, happily ate the free chicken teriyaki. Sitting with a friend from Myanmar, Amruta Bhavsar, a senior from India, said she felt no stigma. “It doesn’t really matter,” she said. “The food is good.”

Excerpted from THE WORM AT THE CORE: On the Role of Death in Life by Sheldon Solomon, Jeff Greenberg and Tom Pyszczynski. Copyright © 2015 by Sheldon Solomon, Jeff Greenberg and Tom Pyszczynski. Excerpted by permission of Random House, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.