The Evolution of Self-Esteem

A few weeks ago while sitting in a cafe, I overheard two mothers discussing different ways to build self-esteem. Turning to her friend one mother remarked, "I'm trying to limit the amount of disappointment my daughter experiences, because it may be bad for her self-esteem."  

This conversation got me thinking about our modern approach to self-esteem: avoiding disappointment and criticism, providing only positive feedback, focusing on individual affirmation and positive self-talk.

Does this really build strong self-esteem, or can it result in a fragile form of self-deception? I thought this could be a controversial but interesting topic for discussion.

The Social Evolution of Self-Esteem

In contrast to popular definitions of self-esteem, evolutionary psychology views self-esteem as an objective assessment of social standing. In his book 'Evolutionary Psychology: The New Science of the Mind,' Prof. David Buss states that:

"Humans evolved in groups and needed others to survive and reproduce. This prompted the evolution of motivations to seek the company of others, form social bonds, and [gain] the favor of others in the group. Failure to be accepted by others would have resulted in isolation and premature death... Given that social acceptance would have been critical to survival, selection would have favored a mechanism that enabled an individual to track their degree of acceptance by others. This mechanism, according to sociometer theory, is self-esteem."

While popular culture suggests that self-esteem is individual, evolutionary psychology has explored the idea that self-esteem may be a 'barometer of social standing.' You could think of self-esteem like the warning gauge on your fuel tank, when your social standing gets low, your self-esteem should start to warn you.

According to sociometer theory, for an individual to build their self-esteem they must learn the behaviors that promote social acceptance. For example, when an individual undertakes actions that are socially valued (i.e. volunteering), they increase their standing in society (i.e. gain status), which can lead to higher levels of self-esteem.

The Challenges of Building Self-Esteem

In everyday life, sociometer theory provides some significant challenges and implications for building self-esteem.

It's essential for people to learn which actions and behaviors contribute to higher levels of social acceptance. By learning the social skills necessary to make close friends (like reciprocity), or the behaviors that contribute to workplace success (like discipline) individuals can improve their self-esteem through social bonding.

It's essential for people to learn when they are capable of beating an opponent, and when they should consider making an alliance or playing a subordinate role. By learning how to accurately judge their skill sets, intelligence and power, individuals can avoid unnecessary social conflict and play a more meaningful role in social groups.

It's essential for people to learn which aspects of their personality are appealing to others, and which aspects should be managed or modified (i.e. learning to control neurotic behavior). Building self-esteem that is out of touch with social reality, can disrupt social bonds and may actually lead to disappointment and depression

Learning to Build Social-Esteem

If the sociometer theory is correct, it's possible that the concept of self-esteem championed by our modern culture may be counter-productive. In fact according to Prof. David Funder, building self-esteem "requires something more complex than simply trying to make everybody feel better about themselves."

Based on findings from evolutionary psychology, one of the most effective ways to build an individual's self-esteem may be teaching them how to build stronger social bonds. So instead of trying to build self-esteem, perhaps we should try to build social-esteem? Would love to hear your thoughts on this topic.