Research reveals the cultural origins of self-esteem

by Jacqui Bealing
Research reveals the cultural  origins of self-esteem
What gives you self-worth? University of Sussex research shows our self-esteem is based on the prevailing values of our culture.

(Medical Xpress)—Whatever our personal values, we largely base our self-worth on living up to the prevailing values of our culture, new University of Sussex-led research reveals.

Sussex social psychologists Dr Vivian Vignoles and Dr Maja Becker collaborated with a global team of researchers to address a long-standing debate about what influences our . Their findings are published online this month (12th February, 2014) in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin.

More than 5,000 adolescents and young people in 19 countries spanning Western and Eastern Europe, the Middle East, South America, Africa and Asia took part in the research. Participants were found to base their self-worth on living up to the prevailing values of others in their cultural contexts, but—surprisingly—their own personal values appeared to have little or no influence on self-esteem.

Dr Vignoles explains: "We can all think of different things that make us see ourselves positively, whether it is succeeding at work or school, our relationships with friends and family, behaving morally towards others, or having the right possessions—as well as other aspects of ourselves that we may feel less good about. But what gives these things their importance?

"An intuitive answer would be that every individual bases their self-esteem on living up to the values that they personally see as most important—and this has been the dominant view in psychology for over 100 years. But firm evidence for this idea has been surprisingly elusive.

"Our new findings paint a very different picture, suggesting that it is the value priorities of others in the surrounding context, not the individual's own value priorities, that predict which aspects of ourselves will give us the greatest sense of self-worth."

Funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (UK), the research was conducted by the Culture and Identity Research Network, directed by Dr Vignoles.

Research participants were initially asked to list ten aspects of themselves in answer to the question "Who are you?". Their answers were very wide ranging, including descriptions of their personality characteristics, important relationships, social roles and group memberships. Participants were subsequently asked: "How much does each of these things make you see yourself positively?" The researchers used further data from the questionnaires to predict which aspects of themselves each participant would see as providing the greatest sense of self-esteem.

The results showed that participants derived the most self-esteem from aspects of their identities that best fulfilled the values of their surrounding culture. For example, participants in cultural contexts where people most emphasized values such as self-direction and having a stimulating life (e.g., the UK, Western Europe, and some parts of South America) were more likely to derive self-esteem from controlling their own lives, whereas those in cultures where there was relatively more emphasis on values such as conformity, tradition, and security (e.g., parts of the Middle East, Africa, and Asia) were relatively more likely to derive self-esteem from doing their duty.

Dr Vignoles comments: "Popular psychology and self-help books often seem to imply that people can build self-esteem on their own. These findings should remind us that no-one is an island. Building self-esteem is mostly a collaborative enterprise.

"Our research suggests that the self-esteem system is an important way in which individuals internalise the values of their culture on an implicit level, even if they do not profess to believe in these values when they are asked explicitly. These subtle processes may encourage people to act in ways that are desirable in their society, and thus help to maintain social solidarity."

More information: "Cultural bases for Self-Evaluation: Seeing Oneself Positively in Different Cultural Contexts", lead authors Dr Maja Becker and Dr Vivian Vignoles, is published in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. dx.doi.org/10.1177/0146167214522836

Related Stories

Social media, self-esteem and suicide

Feb 10, 2014

In nations where corruption is rife it seems that citizens these days find an escape from the everyday problems that trickle down to their lives by using online social media more than those elsewhere. Research to be published ...

Are religious people better adjusted psychologically?

Jan 19, 2012

Psychological research has found that religious people feel great about themselves, with a tendency toward higher social self-esteem and better psychological adjustment than non-believers. But a new study published in Psychological Sc ...

Cross-cultural similarities in early adolescence

Apr 18, 2013

Acquiring self-esteem is an important part of a teenager's development. The way in which adolescents regard themselves can be instrumental in determining their achievement and social functioning. New research from Concordia ...

Recommended for you

Mindfulness helps teens cope with stress, anxiety

7 hours ago

As the morning school bell rings and students rush through crowded corridors, teenagers in one Portland classroom settle onto mats and meditation pillows. They fall silent after the teacher taps a Tibetan ...

Study links suicide risk with insomnia, alcohol use

10 hours ago

A new study is the first to show that insomnia symptoms mediate the relationship between alcohol use and suicide risk, and that this mediation is moderated by gender. The study suggests that the targeted ...

Echolocation acts as substitute sense for blind people

16 hours ago

Recent research carried out by scientists at Heriot-Watt University has demonstrated that human echolocation operates as a viable 'sense', working in tandem with other senses to deliver information to people with visual impairment.

User comments

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

PeterD
not rated yet Feb 14, 2014
I am 75 and have a top of the scale intelligence, and I have NEVER needed anyone, or any thing to validate my self esteem. I have never cared at all what anyone thinks of me. Why would I need the approval of morons? I suspect anyone with a real brain would think this article is largely wrong.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.