How many times have you heard someone explain that a child – or an adult – acted out in anger or violence because they were insecure, had low self-esteem, or were poorly adjusted? This sort of connection, from low self-esteem to aggression – and the reverse, a link between high self-esteem and achievement – is and has been a popular one, reflected in – and maybe propagated by – portrayals in popular media. To take but one example, the authoritative Simpson’s Wiki confidently asserts regarding the school bully, Nelson Muntz, that “the most likely cause of Nelson’s poor behaviour is his low self-esteem…” A key problem with this view – that low self-esteem plays a causal role in violence and aggression – is that, as Boden (2017) recently put it in the similarly authoritative Wiley Handbook of Violence and Aggression, “there is no evidence to suggest that low self‐esteem plays a causal role in violence and aggression.”
So, with the World Cup in full swing, and Brazil still in the running, this seems like a good moment to discuss a forthcoming paper in my old journal, Evolution and Human Behavior, which reports some work that looks at this connection in the context of soccer (hereafter, football, in deference to the Cup) fans. A new paper by Martha Newson and colleagues investigates if hooliganism in football is, as has been suggested, due to “social maladjustment” or, instead, to something more “positive,” the degree to which people feel part of their particular group, or what they call “identity fusion.”
So, Newson et. al surveyed 439 (male) football fans, asking them questions about their fandom, whether they had been in football-related fights, willingness to fight and die for one’s team (!), identity, fusion, social adjustment, and a number of other items. In terms of their Social Adjustment Scale (SAS), they find that “none of the SAS sub-scales correlated with our main variables of interest… Nor was there evidence for social maladjustment contributing to violence [or] a willingness to fight/die” for their team. In contrast, they find that “hooligan acts (both past violence reports and endorsements of future fighting/dying for one’s club) are most likely to occur among strongly fused fans.”
In short, it doesn’t look like, in this context at least, being socially maladjusted makes one prone to violence. Instead, it’s being a super big fan of your team. Now, the usual caveats must be kept in mind. The sample here isn’t completely random. The data are self-reported. And add in there the usual concern about correlation and causation. (Having said that, if it were true that social maladjustment caused violence, then the correlation should have been there. Correlation does not logically entail causation, but usually if there is causation, you should be able to detect a correlation.)
Are there broader lessons from this work? As indicated above, my view is that this work plugs into a larger debate about where antisocial behavior comes from. In contrast to the whimsical example of Nelson from the Simpsons, recent work undermines the view that bullying is driven by having low self-esteem. Reciprocally, the putative benefits of high self-esteem continue to be suspect.
Note that while discussions of self-esteem have often focused on educational settings, the recent work by Baumeister and Vohs (linked above) should be taken seriously by people in the real world in terms of the workplace. As they put it, referring to work by Orth et al,: “Self-esteem mainly affected subjective outcomes, such as relationship satisfaction and depression. The more objective the measure was (e.g., salary, occupational attainment), the less effect self-esteem had…. Despite their large sample, there was no effect whatsoever on occupational status. Thus, high self-esteem leads to being more satisfied with your job but not with getting a better job.”
Finally, results such as these have potentially important implications for anyone trying to improve one’s own – or others’ – behavior. While the idea that increasing self-esteem will produce improved outcomes – better educational attainment, a better job, less aggression – has historically been a popular one, the present state of knowledge should make one cautious, even skeptical of this idea.
Stepping back even further, as some have been suggesting for quite some time, it might be better to stop thinking of self-esteem as a cause but rather an effect. Self-esteem might be the feeling that one gets when one is doing well – professionally, socially, etc. – rather than the feeling that gets one to do the things that will help one do well. If that’s true, then interventions in the classroom and in the workplace shouldn’t focus on making people feel better about themselves, but – and this really shouldn’t be a surprise – to helping people accomplish the sorts of things that will lead to success and, as a consequence, feeling good.
(Note: This entry has been cross-posted on Psychology Today)