Development Of Self-esteem
Several processes have been identified as important to the development of self-esteem: reflected appraisals, social comparisons, and self-attributions. Within sociology, reflected appraisals is the most important process because of its emphasis within symbolic interaction theory. The reflected appraisals process states that we come to see ourselves and to evaluate ourselves as we think others see and evaluate us. Based on Charles Cooley's (1902) influential concept of the looking-glass self and George H. Mead's (1934) theory of role taking as a product of symbolic interaction, reflected appraisals emphasize the essentially social character of the self (i.e., that our self-conceptions reflect our perceptions of the judgments of others, especially significant others, in our environment). Empirically, however, there is not much congruence between self-appraisals and the actual appraisals of us by others (Gecas and Burke 1995). This suggests that the appraisals of others are not very accurately perceived, and if accurately perceived, may not be believed. There are a number of reasons for this disparity. One is the difficulty of getting honest feedback from others, especially if it is negative. The norms of social interaction typically emphasize tact and proper demeanor, which serve to protect self-esteem. Another reason is that the feedback from "significant others" may be suspect. For example, parents and teachers and others who seek to boost self-esteem may overemphasize the importance of praise in developing self-esteem in children. Although praise and encouragement may be important for children's self-esteem, successful performance at activities that children value may be more important because they constitute more credible evidence of competence and worth. In fact, Baumeister (2001) suggest that society is doing more of a disservice by not tying praise to performance, and by doling out praise when it is not earned. Baumeister (2001, p. 101) aptly states: "one should beware of people who regard themselves as superior to others, especially when those beliefs are inflated, weakly grounded in reality or heavily dependent on having others confirm them frequently. Conceited, self-important individuals turn nasty toward those who puncture their bubbles of self love." Finally, the self-esteem motive has a distorting effect on all three processes of self-esteem development. To the extent that the self-esteem motive is operative, we are more likely to selectively perceive and remember favorable feedback and ignore or discredit unfavorable feedback from others. For these and other reasons it is important to emphasize that the reflected appraisals process operates primarily through our perceptions of the appraisals of others.
A second process important to the development of self-esteem is social comparison. This is the process in which individuals assess their own abilities and virtues by comparing them to those of others. According to Leon Festinger's (1954) theory, as well as much of the contemporary theory and research on social comparisons (see Suls and Wills 1991 for a review), the main function of this process is reality-testing. This is most likely to occur in situations where knowledge about some aspect of oneself is ambiguous or uncertain. Local reference groups are most likely to be used as standards for these comparisons, especially under conditions of competition, such as athletic contests and classroom performance. Individuals tend to compare themselves with others who are doing slightly better than themselves (upward social comparisons) as a means of gathering information about a specific task. As with reflected appraisals, the reality-testing that occurs by means of social comparisons is biased by the self-esteem motive: we are likely to seek out favorable comparisons, avoid unfavorable comparisons, or to try to neutralize unavoidably unfavorable comparisons with various disclaimers and excuses. Research has also shown that individuals often compare themselves with others who are performing poorly (downward social comparisons) to enhance their self-images (Spencer, Josephs, and Steele 1993).
A third process, self-attributions, refers to the tendency to make inferences about ourselves from direct observation of our behavior and its consequences. Daryl Bem's (1972) self-perception theory proposes that individuals acquire knowledge about themselves in the same way they acquire knowledge about others: by observing behavior and making inferences about internal dispositions and states (e.g., motives, attitudes, self-esteem) from these observations. Self-perception theory can be subsumed under the more general attribution theory, which deals with how individuals make causal attributions about their own and others' behavior. Again, we are hardly neutral observers of what we see. Research suggests that our causal attributions tend to be self-serving. For example, we are more likely to make internal causal attributions for our behavioral successes and external attributions for our failures.
Although all three of these processes are important to the development and maintenance of self-esteem, at any one time one may be more relevant to self-esteem than the others. Also, it is evident that the self does not passively respond to processes that affect it. Rather, it actively shapes and influences these processes in the interests of protecting self-esteem and other self-motivations. In this sense, self-esteem is both a product of social forces and an agent in its own development (Gecas 2001).