Circular Causality of Global and State Self-Esteem


The traditional self-esteem paradigm does not take into account sufficiently the idea of bottom-up causality from state self-esteem (e.g., contextual academic achievement, social status, and appearance) to trait self-esteem (i.e., global self-esteem; e.g., a relatively stable personality characteristic, such as narcissism). This is problematic as it cannot explain, and is contradicted by, many studies showing that development throughout the lifespan is influenced by state self-esteem and self-experiences.

Self-Esteem Definitions. Theories, and Further Research

Global self-esteem can be defined as one’s attitude towards the self, e.g., representing the degree to which one feels being a worthy person [1]. Self-esteem turned out, besides other factors like self-efficacy and life satisfaction, to be decisive for adaptive psychological function and well-being. From the Big5 personality traits, extraversion and conscientiousness in adolescence link most positively with self-esteem at age 40 and 50 [2]. Maslow differentiated between an individual’s need for self-respect earned through life mastery and esteem from others that include external recognition and appreciation [3]. Indeed, peer-approval seems to be necessary for self-esteem, especially in adolescence. Interestingly, causality from the opposite direction could not be confirmed [4]. More recently, researchers developed a theory of Self-Organizing Self-Esteem (SOSE), which attempts to explain the circular interaction between the macro-level (trait self-esteem) and micro-levels (state self-esteem and self-experiences) with an interconnectedness with context. Further investigation is required here [5].

Causalities Related to Self-Esteem

Shyness, for example, in young children was not found to predict the development of self-esteem. A typical trajectory of self-esteem across life stages might follow relatively high levels in middle childhood, followed by lower levels in adolescence, and heightened ones again in young adulthood [6]. There may be significant individual differences in standard levels and development though [1]. Adolescence and old age require particular attention to self-esteem as the vulnerability is high during these times. Unemployment, low household income, low work and relationship satisfaction, and health are factors that negatively influence self-esteem throughout the lifespan [7]. High self-esteem is a favorable condition for starting a relationship. Relationship break-ups diminish self-esteem, but only for one year, while afterward the single status is not negatively affecting self-esteem anymore. This importance of self-esteem on self-esteem holds true for both women and men, as well across the lifespan and different cultures [8].

Photo credit: Free-Photos (


[1] Birkeland, M. S., Melkevik, O., Holsen, I., & Wold, B. (2012). Trajectories of global self-esteem development during adolescence. Journal Of Adolescence, 3543-54. doi:10.1016/j.adolescence.2011.06.006

[2] Millova, K., Jelinek, M., , , , , & … Jelinek, M. (2015). Personality Predictors of Successful Development: Toddler Temperament and Adolescent Personality Traits Predict Well-Being and Career Stability in Middle Adulthood. Plos One, 10(4),

[3] Nasir, A. G., Mirza, M., Din, M. U., & Din, M. U. (2011). The Preference of Self Esteem Needs of Secondary School Students. Language In India, 11(5), 470-480.

[4] Gruenenfelder-Steiger, A. E., Harris, M. A., & Fend, H. A. (2016). Subjective and Objective Peer Approval Evaluations and Self-Esteem Development: A Test of Reciprocal, Prospective, and Long-Term Effects. Developmental Psychology, 52(10), 1563-1577.

[5] De Ruiter, N. P., Van Geert, P. C., & Kunnen, E. S. (2017). Explaining the ‘how’ of self-esteem development: The self-organizing self-esteem model. Review Of General Psychology, 21(1), 49-68. doi:10.1037/gpr0000099

[6] Chung, J. M., Hutteman, R., van Aken, M. A., & Denissen, J. J. (2017). Full Length Article: High, low, and in between: Self-esteem development from middle childhood to young adulthood. Journal Of Research In Personality, 70122-133. doi:10.1016/j.jrp.2017.07.001

[7] Orth, U., Maes, J., & Schmitt, M. (2015). Self-esteem development across the life span: A longitudinal study with a large sample from Germany. Developmental Psychology, 51(2), 248-259. doi:10.1037/a0038481

[8] Luciano, E. C., & Orth, U. (2017). Transitions in romantic relationships and development of self-esteem. Journal Of Personality And Social Psychology, 112(2), 307-328. doi:10.1037/pspp0000109