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Global Self-Esteem and Specific Self-Esteem: Different Concepts, Different Outcomes

Author(s): Morris Rosenberg, Carmi Schooler, Carrie Schoenbach, Florence Rosenberg


Source: American Sociological Review, Vol. 60, No. 1 (Feb., 1995), pp. 141-156
Published by: American Sociological Association
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/2096350 .
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GLOBAL SELF-ESTEEM AND SPECIFIC SELF-ESTEEM:


DIFFERENT CONCEPTS, DIFFERENT OUTCOMES
Morris Rosenberg

Carmi Schooler

University of Maryland and


National Institute of Mental Health

National Institute of Mental Health

Carrie Schoenbach

Florence Rosenberg

National Institute of Mental Health

Walter Reed Army Institute of


Research and UniformedServices
University of the Health Sciences

In this paper, we attempt to shed light on the nature of relevance of, and
relationship between global self-esteem and specific self-esteem. We marshal evidence that the two types of self-esteem may have strikingly different
consequences, global self-esteem being more relevantto psychological wellbeing, and specific self-esteem being more relevant to behavior. We use linear structural equation causal modeling to test this hypothesisfor the case
of global self-esteem (Rosenberg 1979) and specific (academic) self-esteem.
Ourfindings show that, while global self-esteem is more strongly related to
measures of psychological well-being, specific (academic) self-esteem is a
much better predictor of school performance. Otherfindings indicate that
the degree to which specific academic self-esteem affects global self-esteem,
particularly the positive component of global self-esteem, is a-function of
how highly academic performance is personally valued.
Looking at the general body of research on
self-esteem today, it is evident that most of
this literature deals with global self-esteem,
that is, the individual's positive or negative
attitude toward the self as a totality. In the
last decade, however, a number of writers
have stressed the importanceof studying specific self-esteem, as well (e.g., Harter 1985;
Marsh 1986; Marsh and Shavelson 1985;
Swann 1987). As Marsh (1990) expresses it:
"More recently, self-concept theory has
stressed the multi-dimensionality of self*Direct all correspondence to Carmi Schooler, concept, and empirical studies have identiLaboratory of Socio-environmental Studies,
fied distinct, a priori facets of self-concept"
NIMH, NIH, Rm BIA-14, Federal Building, 7550
(p. 107).
The
MD
20892.
Wisconsin Avenue, Bethesda,
The aim of this paper is to shed light on
authors presented an earlier version of this paper
the
nature and relevance of global and speto Research Committee 42, Social Psychology, at
the 12th World Congress of Sociology, Madrid, cific self-esteem and their relationship to
Spain, July 1990. This paper, which represents a each other. We begin by focusing on two
very substantial revision of the earlier one and general features of attitudes to clarify the
includes new analyses, was completed after distinctions we make regarding self-esteem.
Morris Rosenberg's untimely death in 1992. First, the study of any attitude, and self-esAmong the analyses completed after Rosenberg's
teem is an attitude, must take account of the
death are those that separatethe positive and negahave attitudes both totive aspects of self-esteem and those that examine fact that people may
how valuing academic performancerelates to spe- ward an object as a whole (global or general)
cific academic self-esteem and global self-esteem. and toward specific "facets" of that object

)ver the past 40 years, the concept of


self-esteem has assumed an important
place in the field of social psychology. A
computer search of the literature (Kitano
1989) found over 6,500 article titles that explicitly used the term "self-esteem" and over
30,000 titles that used the term "self' in
some hyphenated form, many of which also
dealt with self-esteem (e.g., self-concept,
self-evaluation, self-respect, self-confidence).
O

American Sociological Review, 1995, Vol. 60 (February:141-156)

141

142

(Marsh 1990). For example, a student may


have attitudes toward her university as a
whole, but she may also have different attitudes toward a specific department,the quality of the faculty, or the attractivenessof the
campus. Although the differences between
global and specific attitudes are sometimes
overlooked, they are not equivalent or interchangeable. This point applies equally to
self-esteem, which can be viewed as an attitude toward an object, even though the
holder of the attitude and the object toward
which the attitude is held-the self-are the
same (Rosenberg 1979).
A second feature of attitudes is that they
include both cognitive and affective elements. That attitudes are cognitive is evident
from the fact that they refer to objects-an
attitude represents some thought about a particular thing (e.g., person, material object,
group, idea, etc.). That they are affective is
shown by the fact that attitudes have both direction (i.e., a positive or negative orientation toward some object) and intensity. Selfesteem research has tended to overlook the
degree to which these cognitive and affective
components differentially permeate specific
and global self-esteem.
Like other attitudes, individuals' views of
themselves can contain both positive and
negative components. Thus, decades ago orthogonal principal component factor analyses carried out by Kohn and Schooler (1969)
indicated that the Rosenberg Self-Esteem
Scale (Rosenberg 1979) contained two components-self-confidence and self-deprecation. Using structural equation based measurement models they later confirmed that a
two-component model that separates the
positive and negative aspects of self-esteem
provides a better fit to the data than does the
single general component model that characterized Rosenberg's (1979) original conception (Kohn and Schooler 1983).
More recently, Owens (1993) theorized
that, in addition to self-esteem and self-consistency, the two central motives credited by
self-concept theory for protecting and maintaining one's self-image, other theoretical
perspectives suggest plausible functions for
the less global concepts of self-deprecation
and self-confidence. According to Owens,
for example, self-verification theory (Swann,
Stein-Seroussi, and Giesler 1992) suggests

AMERICAN SOCIOLOGICAL REVIEW

that "negative self-conceptions may help


people maintaina viable self-system and predictable orderly social relations"(p. 289). On
the other hand, "'effectance motivation' that
compels judgment of one's own competence
and efficacy (Gecas and Schwalbe 1983) ...
should impel one to focus more sharply on
one's own varying degrees of ability, competence, and efficacy-all attributes of selfconfidence" (Owens 1993:290).
On a more empirical level, Owens (1993)
has reconfirmed the existence of the selfconfidence and self-deprecation components
of self-esteem. He also has shown that both
components fit well into a second-order
construct of global self-esteem, with selfconfidence having an appreciably higher association than self-deprecation with global
self-esteem (e.g., at age 23 the effect of global self-esteem on self-confidence is .88 and
on self-deprecation is -.64). We will consider this issue further in our analyses section.
We have defined the following objectives:
(1) To illustrate how investigators have
sometimes reached incorrect conclusions by treatingglobal and specific selfesteem as surrogatesfor one another.
(2) To demonstrate that global and specific
self-esteem differ in their consequences
and how these different consequences
have led to some of the mispredictions
and weak associations reportedin the literature.
(3) To show that the effects of global and
specific self-esteem may be mediated by
each other.
(4) To examine how global and specific selfesteem affect one another, with particular emphasis on whether the effect of a
specific facet of self-esteem on global
self-esteem is a function of the degree to
which that facet is valued.
(5) To explore how global and specific selfesteem differentially affect, and are differentially affected by, behavioral outcomes.
(6) To determine the relative importance of
the positive and negative components of
global self-esteem with respect to a behavioral outcome, school performance.

GLOBAL SELF-ESTEEM AND SPECIFIC SELF-ESTEEM

THE FALLACYOF EQUATING GLOBAL


AND SPECIFIC SELF-ESTEEM
In more than a few self-esteem studies, the
failure to distinguish the parts from the
whole has led to a numberof misunderstandings. A well-known example is the large
body of research on the relationship between
race and self-esteem. Some studies focus on
pride in one's race (racial self-esteem),
whereas others focus on pride in oneself
(personal self-esteem) (Porter and Washington 1989). This distinction is often overlooked. In his exhaustive review of the literature,Cross (1985) pointed out that 87 percent of the 161 studies he examined explored
either racial self-esteem or personal self-esteem, but not both. In most studies, low regard for one's race was considered equivalent to low regard for oneself. Cross (1985)
reportedthat, although researchersclearly set
out to assess racial self-esteem, as a result of
their failure to make a sharp distinction between racial and personal self-esteem, they
often presented the racial self-esteem results
"as if' their study had actually assessed level
of self-worth. Similarly, children with poor
academic self-concepts are often described
as having low self-esteem, based on the implicit assumption that a child who feels that
he or she is a poor student is thereby expressing low general self-esteem (Wylie 1979).
Clearly, the aspects of oneself on which
one's global self-esteem is based and the
choice of reference group to which one compares oneself are complex matters. There is
considerable experimental evidence (Major,
Sciacchitano, and Crocker 1993) and surveybased evidence (Rosenberg 1979) supporting
the hypothesis that members of stigmatized
groups avoid threats to their self-esteem by
comparing themselves primarily with others
who are members of their own stigmatized
group rather than with members of an advantaged out-group (Crocker and Major
1989). Other evidence indicates that members of stigmatized or disadvantaged groups
also protect their self-esteem by selectively
devaluing those domains in which the outgroup is advantaged and selectively valuing
those domains in which their in-group has
advantages (Major et al. 1993). Research on
coping suggests that other general coping
strategies exist, based not only on the choice

143

of comparison groups but also on ignoring or


devaluing problematic areas of functioning
(Pearlin and Schooler 1978). All these possibilities are consistent with the hypothesis
that decreasing the value one gives to domains in which oneself or one's reference
group does poorly protects global self-esteem (Harter 1985; Rosenberg 1979). If this
hypothesis is correct, global and specific
self-esteem are different phenomena-they
may be dynamically interrelatedphenomena,
but they are not directly interchangeable.
Marsh's (1986) research provides clear
empirical evidence that global and specific
self-esteem cannot serve as surrogates for
one another.He examined the relationship of
subjects' self-evaluations on 12 facets of the
self to their global self-esteem. He found that
the associations ranged from .06 to .60, with
most falling within the .30 to .50 range. Even
if we accept the possibility that measurement
errormight lower the correlations somewhat,
such relatively low correlations are exactly
what one would expect if specific and global
self-esteem are related but not interchangeable phenomena.
It might seem apparent that the relationship between one's judgment of a particular
facet of oneself and one's global self-esteem
would depend in large part on the rank of
that facet in one's personal hierarchy of selfvalues. Although this point underlies the
point made in the preceding paragraph and
was clearly noted many years ago by William James ([1890] 1950), not all empirical
findings unequivocally supportthe relevance
of psychological centrality. (For examples of
mixed evidence, see Faunce 1982; Gecas and
Seff 1990; Harter 1985; Hoelter 1986; Hoge
and McCarthy 1984; Marsh 1986; Rosenberg
1989; Thomas 1989.) Using data measuring
how much our respondents value academic
achievement, we empirically test whether the
relationship between global self-esteem and
specific academic self-esteem varies when
the value placed on academic achievement
varies.
RELATIONSHIPS OF GLOBAL AND
SPECIFIC SELF-ESTEEM TO
BEHAVIOR AND WELL-BEING
It is particularlyimportantto distinguish between global and specific self-esteem be-

144

cause the relationships reportedin the literature between self-esteem and other variables
are often weaker than might be expected.
This is true whether self-esteem is treated as
cause or outcome. For example, Wylie
(1979) and others reported that sociodemographic variables show no better than modest success in predicting self-esteem. (Some
reasons for these results have been discussed
by McCarthy and Yancey 1971; Rosenberg
and Pearlin 1978; Rosenberg and Simmons
1972). Although there have been some successes (e.g., Menaghan and Parcel 1990), in
general, self-esteem has not proved to be an
impressive predictorof behavioraloutcomes.
One reason for these comparatively weak
relationships between self-esteem and behavior has been the failure to recognize that global and specific self-esteem are both important, but that they are importantfor different
reasons and are relevant in different ways. A
central hypothesis of this paper is that specific self-esteem is most relevant to behavior, whereas global self-esteem is most relevant to psychological well-being. Much
self-esteem research, we believe, relates precisely the wrong type of self-esteem to the
outcome variable (Scheff, Retzinger, and
Ryan 1989), examining the relationship between global self-esteem and specific behaviors or behavioral outcomes. We believe, on
the contrary, that a specific behavior is best
predicted by a specific self-esteem that is in
some way connected to that behavior,
whereas psychological well-being is best
predicted by global self-esteem. Let us consider some of the evidence on which our hypothesis is based.

AMERICAN SOCIOLOGICAL REVIEW

ger relationships between specific self-esteem and a behavioral outcome. As noted,


when we speak of specific self-esteem, we
refer to a particularfacet of the self (Marsh
1986). Insofar as this facet relates to some
area of competence, specific self-esteem has
much in common with the concept of selfefficacy. When Bandura (1982) speaks of
self-efficacy, he refers to the individual's confidence that he or she can attainspecified performance levels. Bandura (1982) identified
several reasons why perceived self-efficacy
tends to enhance performanceoutcomes. One
reason, he noted, is that "people who judge
themselves ineffective in coping with environmental demands tend to generate high
emotional arousal, become excessively preoccupied with personal deficiencies, and
cognize potential difficulties as more formidable than they really are. Such self-referent
concerns undermineeffective use of the competencies people possess" (pp. 25-26).
Another reason Bandura(1982) offered for
perceived self-efficacy to result in successful
performanceis that "self-judged efficacy ...
determines how much effort people will expend and how long they will persist in the
face of obstacles and aversive experiences.... In the face of difficulties, people
who entertain serious doubts about their capacities slacken their efforts or give up altogether, whereas those who have a strong
sense of efficacy exert greater effort to master the challenges" (p. 25). At comparable
ability levels, then, self-efficacious persons
are more apt to experience successful outcomes.
Global self-esteem, on the other hand,
seems much less likely to exercise a powerful direct effect on performance. For one
Self-Esteem and Behavior
thing, the central feature of global self-esThe expectation that specific. self-esteem teem appears to be self-acceptance or selfwould have stronger effects on behavior than respect. Competence is only one factor, and
global self-esteem derives from the Fishbein not necessarily the most importantone, conand Azjen (1975) model, which postulates tributing to such feelings. Second, as we
that the power of an attitude to predict a be- have noted, some facets of the self may be
havior is a function of how closely that atti- peripheralto feelings of self-worth, whereas
tude relates to the act in question-the more others may be central. Unless a particular
specific the attitude, the greaterits predictive facet is important to the individual, there is
little reason to think that global self-esteem
power. If so, then a specific self-esteem
should be a better predictor of a specific be- will tell us much about a person's behavior
or performancewith respect to that facet, nor
havior than is global self-esteem.
Self-efficacy theory and self-attribution will such behavior necessarily indicate much
theoryoffer other reasons for expecting stron- about global self-esteem. For example,

GLOBAL SELF-ESTEEM AND SPECIFIC SELF-ESTEEM

knowing that someone has high global selfesteem will tell us little about that person's
assessment of his or her competence as a
pole-vaulter or as a writer of sonnets. Conversely, the fact that I consider myself totally
inept as a pole-vaulter in itself offers little
indication of my overall feeling of selfworth. We do not suggest that global self-esteem is totally unrelatedto behavior, but that
this relationship is likely to be weaker than
the relationship of specific self-esteem to a
relevant behavior or performance.
Although evidence is limited, the results of
both experimental and correlational studies
support this view. In an experimental study,
Shrauger (1972) asked female undergraduates to specify what percentage of undergraduates would perform better than themselves on a "concept attainment task." The
percentage score served as the measure of
specific self-esteem. General (global) selfesteem was based on a modification of a selfesteem measure used extensively by Diggory
(1966). The concept attainment task was a
modification of a measure developed by
Weick (1964). Shrauger found that specific
self-esteem was a significant predictorof actual performance on the concept attainment
test, but that global self-esteem was not.
Correlational findings are consistent with
the experimental results. In Bachman's
(1970) study of tenth-gradeboys, the correlation between global self-esteem and school
marks was .23, whereas the correlation between school marks and self-concept of academic ability was .48. Reviewing a number
of studies dealing with the relationship between self-esteem and academic performance, Wylie (1979) concluded that the correlation between global self-esteem and grade
point average is usually about .30, whereas
the association between specific self-esteem
(academic self-concept) and grade point average is more likely to be in the range of .45
to .70. Wylie (1979:698-700) also reporteda
number of other instances in which specific
self-esteem is correlatedwith specific behavior but global self-esteem is not.
Self-Esteem and Psychological Well-Being
Although global self-esteem is less likely
than specific self-esteem to be a good predictor of behavior or performance, there is

145

reason to believe that it is a decidedly better


predictor of psychological well-being.
The theoretical foundation for this expectation lies in "self-enhancement theory"
(Baumeister 1982; Greenwald 1980; Jones
1973; Kaplan 1975; Swann 1987), which
states that self-esteem is a fundamental human motive. Thus, the self-esteem motive
(also called the "self-maintenance motive"
by Tesser and Campbell [1983] and the "motive for self-worth"by Covington [1984]) has
been identified by Maslow (1970) as one of
the "prepotent"human needs. All of these
theories share the view that there exists in
human beings a universal desire to protect
and enhance their feelings of self-worth and
that the frustration of this desire generates
some measure of psychological distress.
Maintenanceof self-esteem leads to self-protective motives, self-enhancement processes,
and a variety of coping processes. As noted
earlier in the discussion of the fallacy of
equating global with specific self-esteem,
such self-maintenance motives and processes
have been shown to affect the comparison
group one chooses as well as how one reacts
to unfavorable comparisons (Major et al.
1993).
That global self-esteem is associated with
psychological well-being has been demonstrated repeatedly in past research. One
firmly established finding in this literatureis
the inverse association between self-esteem
and depression (Rosenberg 1985; Wylie
1979). Studies of children, adolescents,
adults, and the elderly all show the same pattern. Pearlin and Lieberman's (1979) study
of 2,300 adults in the Chicago Metropolitan
Area showed a correlation of -.49 between
self-esteem and depression. Similar findings
appear in Kaplan and Pokorny (1969) and
Rosenberg and Simmons (1972). Using structural equation models to examine the causal
relationships underlying these frequently reported correlations, we have found that selfesteem and depression significantly affect
each other, although the negative relationship
between the two variables seems to be due
somewhat more to the effect of depression on
self-esteem than to the effect of self-esteem
on depression (Rosenberg, Schooler, and
Schoenbach 1989). Clinical evidence (e.g.,
Beck, Rush, Shaw, and Emery 1979) supports
these quantitativeresults. Global self-esteem

AMERICAN SOCIOLOGICAL REVIEW

146

has also been shown to be strongly related to


levels of anxiety, whether expressed in somatic symptoms (Luck and Heiss 1972;
Rosenberg 1989) or in psychological manifestations (Luck and Heiss 1972; Rosenberg
1985). Specific self-esteem, on the other
hand, may have little direct effect on psychological well-being, and, as noted above, what
effects it does have may be influenced by the
psychological centrality of the particular
facet of the self that is involved.
To summarize our hypotheses, with respect
to behavior or behavioral outcomes, we expect specific self-esteem to be a better predictor than global self-esteem. On the other
hand, with regard to psychological well-being, global self-esteem will be a better predictor than specific self-esteem. No previous
studies, as far as we know, have made these
comparisons.
DATA AND MEASURES
We use data drawn from the Youth in Transition study (Bachman 1970). This longitudinal study, based on a probability sample of
2,213 tenth-grade boys in 87 high schools
throughoutthe contiguous 48 states, includes
four waves extending over an eight-year
span. Our analysis is limited to the 1,886
boys who participated in the first two waves
of the study-1966 and 1968.
In our analysis, global self-esteem is measured by 6 of the 10 items of the Rosenberg
Self-Esteem Scale (Rosenberg 1989). Academic self-esteem (our specific self-esteem
measure) is based on a 3-item index.'
School marks, which serve as the behavioral
outcome, are based on self reported grade
point average. The following psychological
well-being measures are included in this inI We

use Bachman's School Ability Self-Concept Index, which is based on subjects' responses
to three questions. Two questions are coded on a
scale from 1 through 6-far below average to far
above average: (1) "How do you rate yourself in
school ability compared with those in your grade
in school?"; (2) "How intelligent do you think
you are compared to others your age?" The third
question, (3) "Comparedto others your age, how
important is it to you to be able to use your intelligence?" is coded from 1 through 5-much less
important than average to much more important
than average.

vestigation: depression (6 items), anomie (8


items), general anxiety (7 items), resentment (7 items), anxiety and tension (5
items), irritability (7 items), life satisfaction
(1 item), guilt (5 items), happiness (6
items), and negative affective states (4
items). In Tables 1 and 2, the data for these
measures are from summary scores on the
items.2

RESULTS
Table 1 presents the zero-order correlation
coefficients for each of these 10 well-being
indices with global self-esteem on the one
hand, and with specific (academic) self-esteem on the other.3
Table 1 clearly shows that global self-esteem is more strongly related to most measures of psychological well-being (depression, anomie, general anxiety, resentment,
anxiety-tension, irritability, life satisfaction,
happiness, and negative affective states)
than is specific self-esteem. The mean
strength of the relationship of global self-esteem to all 10 measures is .337, whereas the
mean strength relationship of academic selfesteem to these measures is .079. The single
exception is the guilt variable, which is unrelated to global self-esteem but is significantly related to academic self-esteem. On
the -other hand, when we consider our specific behavioral outcome (school performance), then specific (academic) self-esteem turns out to be much more highly correlated than is global self-esteem (.488 versus .253). This pattern of correlations indicates that self-esteem is significantly related
to a number of other variables, but only if
2

These indices and the items used to create


them are described in the Documentation Manual
for Bachman's Youth in Transition study (Bachman 1975).
3 We measure global self-esteem using an index created by summing the responses to six
Rosenberg Self-Esteem Scale items from the
Bachman (1970) data (coded from 1 through 5never true to almost always true): (1) "I feel I'm
a person of worth"; (2) "I feel I have a number of
good qualities"; (3) "I am able to do things as
well as most other people"; (4) "I feel I do not
have much to be proud of"; (5) "I take a positive
attitude toward myself"; (6) "Sometimes I think I
am no good at all."

GLOBAL SELF-ESTEEM AND SPECIFIC SELF-ESTEEM


Table 1. Zero-Order Correlation Coefficients of
Psychological Well-Being and Behavioral Outcome with Global Self-Esteem
and Specific (Academic) Self-Esteem:
Tenth-Grade Boys, 1966 and 1968
Outcome Variable

Global
Self-Esteem

Psychological Well-Being
Depression
-.432***

Academic
Self-Esteem

-.103***

Anomie
Generalanxiety
Resentment
Anxiety/tension

-.409***
-.232***
-.346***
-.319***

-. 154***
-.010
-.120***
-.023

Irritability

-.353***

-.044

Life satisfaction
Guilt

-.033

Happiness
Negative affective
states
Behavioral Outcome
School marks(GPA)

.318***

.052*
.087***

.499***
-.424***

.105***
-.093***

.253***

.488***

p <.05 **p< .01 ***p< .001 (two-tailedtests)


Note: N = 1,886.

the appropriate type of self-esteem (global


or specific) is paired with the appropriate
correlate (psychological well-being or performance).
These data also tell us something about the
nature of both types of self-esteem. Attitudes, as we pointed out earlier, have both
cognitive and affective elements. This is as
true of attitudes toward the self as toward
anything else, but the affective and cognitive
components of self-attitudes may not be
equally representedin global self-esteem and
specific self-esteem. Given the stronger association of global self-esteem with psychological well-being, it is probable that global
self-esteem is chiefly an expression of personal affect. And given the stronger association of specific self-esteem with behavioral
outcome, it is likely that specific self-esteem,
which is probably largely a matter of judgment or evaluation of a particularcharacteristic, may be more cognitive in nature. It is
thus understandablethat these two types of
self-esteem should have different effectseach effect, of course, being very important
in its own right.

147

Global and Specific Mediators


Although the data in Table 1 are generally
consistent with our hypothesis that global
self-esteem is a better predictor of psychological well-being, whereas specific self-esteem is a better predictor of behavioral outcomes, it is nevertheless true that some discrepant effects appear.For example, there is
a significant association between global selfesteem and school marks, and there are some
small but significant associations between
specific self-esteem and certain measures of
psychological well-being. To a modest extent, then, global self-esteem does predict
behavior and specific self-esteem does predict psychological well-being. Do these findings represent exceptions to our generalization? Not necessarily. Global and specific
self-esteem may each mediate the effect of
the other. For example, if global self-esteem
is associated with school marks because global self-esteem affects academic (specific)
self-esteem and academic self-esteem in turn
affects school marks, then it would still be
true that specific self-esteem is directly responsible for the behavioral outcome. Global self-esteem would "depend on" specific
self-esteem to exercise its behavioral effect.
Conversely, if the association between specific self-esteem and psychological well-being were attributableto the fact that specific
self-esteem affected global self-esteem and
that global self-esteem, in turn, affected psychological well-being, then one could still
say that global self-esteem is directly responsible for psychological well-being.
Table 2 presents the coefficients from the
multiple regression of both types of self-esteem (global and specific) on both types of
outcomes (psychological well-being and
school marks). It is difficult to test the hypothesis that the relationship between specific self-esteem and psychological well-being is largely mediated by global self-esteem,
because the original relationship is so weak,
althougheven this weak relationshipbecomes
weaker still when global self-esteem is controlled (average correlation declines from
.079 to .067). Controlling academic self-esteem also does not diminish the relationship
of global self-esteem to psychological wellbeing (average correlation actually increases
from .337 to .359). When we turn to the be-

148

AMERICAN SOCIOLOGICAL REVIEW

Table 2. Coefficients from Multiple Regressions


of Psychological Well-Being and Behavioral Outcome on Global Self-Esteem
and Specific (Academic) Self-Esteem:
Tenth-Grade Boys, 1966 and 1968

equally plausible theoretical arguments that


the specific causes the global or that the global causes the specific: Thus, since global
self-esteem is in some sense based on the
judgments of various parts of the self, the
parts (specifics) might be seen as responsible
IndependentVariable
for the whole (global). On the other hand,
Global
Academic
assessments of particular facets of the self
DependentVariable Self-Esteem Self-Esteem
may well be based on one's overall feelings
of self-worth. It is therefore requisite to emPsychological Well-Being
pirically
examine whether the parts are
Depression
-.451***
.056*
chiefly
responsible
for the whole or the
Anomie
-.405***
-.011
whole
for
the
parts.
Generalanxiety
-.261 ***
.082***
This question has rarely been investigated
Resentment
-.346***
.002
systematically in the literature. Perhaps this
.101***
Anxiety-tension
-.355***
history of neglect is attributableto the lack
Irritability
-.385***
.092***
of a satisfactory methodology for dealing
Life satisfaction
.342***
-.069**
with possible reciprocal effects and to the
stringent data requirementsfor the appropriGuilt
-.072**
.113***
ate analyses. Today, however, the availabilHappiness
.527***
-.081 ***
of structural equation modeling proceity
Negative affective
-.447***
.065**
dures (Joreskog and Sorbom 1976) and panel
states
data sets make it possible to specify the efBehavioral Outcome
fect each variable has on the other.
School marks(GPA) .093***
.455***
We begin by examining the reciprocal efp < .001 (two-tailedtests) fects of academic self-esteem and global
*p<.05 ** <.01
Note: N = 1,886. This table reportsthe results of self-esteem.4 Several features of the causal
11 multipleregressionanalyses, each of which used aspects of these models should be noted.
global self-esteem and academic self-esteem as the
First, we use panel data (waves 1 and 2,
two independentvariables.
based on 1,886 respondents), which helps to
solve the structural equation models and to
estimate the causal influences. To solve the
havioral outcome, however, the data suggest simultaneous equations necessary for estithat global self-esteem affects specific (aca- mating reciprocal effects, instrumentationis
demic) self-esteem, which, in turn, affects necessary: An instrument is a variable that
school marks.We see that, when specific self- identifies an equation by not being allowed
esteem is held constant through multiple re- to have a direct effect on the dependent varigression, the relationship between global able of that equation. For an instrument to
self-esteem and school marksis substantially identify an equation meaningfully, there
reduced (from .25 to .09). On the other hand, must be good theoreticaljustification that its
the relationship between specific self-esteem
and school marks is almost unaffected when
4 The measure of global self-esteem used in
global self-esteem is controlled (change from Tables 1 and 2 is based on summary scores. In
.49 to .46). These findings, then, are consis- the present analysis, global self-esteem (based on
tent with the view that specific self-esteem the same items) is estimated for 1966 and 1968
has a direct effect on behavior (or behavioral as part of a full-information linear structural
outcomes), whereas global self-esteem has a equation model (Joreskog and Sorbom 1976). All
of the correlations of residuals of the same varidirect effect on psychological well-being.
Global and Specific Self-Esteem: Which
Causes Which?
What is the causal connection between global and specific self-esteem? One can make

ables at both points in time are estimated. In addition, significant correlations of residuals between different variables are included where suggested by an examination of the first-order partial derivatives. In all structural equations discussed, we allow errors in the causal equations to
be correlated.

GLOBAL SELF-ESTEEM AND SPECIFIC SELF-ESTEEM

effect should only be indirect, and the instrument must be reasonably correlated with the
variable it is not allowed to affect directly. In
our model, cross-lagged effects are omitted
to provide a source of instrumentationfor the
reciprocal effects that are modeled for wave
2. These wave 2 effects are viewed as outcomes of long-term processes and thus represent the sum of the lagged and contemporaneous effects.
Additional instrumentalvariables are also
employed. Instrumentsfor the global to academic self-esteem relationship are positive
family relationships, numberof best friends,
physical appearance,and complexion. All of
these instrumental variables could be expected to directly affect global self-esteem.
None of them would be expected to have a
direct effect on academic self-esteem; any
effect would be indirect through global selfesteem's effect on academic self-esteem. Instrumentsfor the academic to global self-esteem relationship are hours spent on homework, positive school attitudes, negative
school attitudes, and valuation of academic
achievement. All of these instrumental variables would be expected to affect academic
self-esteem without directly affecting global
/
self-esteem.
We introduce the following variables as
controls affecting both global self-esteem
and academic self-esteem: race, age, intact
family, mother's education, father's education, family socioeconomic status, father's
occupational status, mother's occupational
status, and numberof siblings.
The model of the reciprocal effects of global self-esteem and academic self-esteem fits
the data reasonably well, with a chi-square/
d.f. ratio of 4.05. This shows that global selfesteem and academic self-esteem affect one
another significantly, but that academic selfesteem has a more powerful effect on global
self-esteem than the other way around (.21
versus .1 1). Both effects are significant at the
p < .05 level.
A second question is: Does the same pattern of findings appear when we consider a
specific facet of the self-concept that rests on
a higher level of abstraction,namely, self-estimate of intelligence? Facets of the self-concept, as Marsh and Shavelson (1985) have
noted, exist at different levels of specificity.
Some facets may be highly specific, others

149

more general. This is why Marsh and Shavelson conceptualized the self-concept as a hierarchical structure. Consider, for example,
facets of the self-concept that exist in the intellectual realm. At a highly specific level
might be a child's assessment of his or her
reading ability or math ability (Marsh 1986).
At a somewhat broader level would be the
child's academic self-esteem, which would
be based in part on math and reading ability
and in part on other facets. Still broader
would be the child's assessment of his or her
general level of intelligence, which would be
affected by academic self-esteem but also by
other facets. When we consider the reciprocal effects of global and specific self-esteem,
then, it is importantto consider the level of
specificity or generality of the specific selfconcept facet.
We addressed this question by examining
the reciprocal effects of global self-esteem
and the students' estimates of their own intelligence. Self-estimate of intelligence was
measuredby responses to the following item:
"How intelligent do you think you are compared with other boys your age?" Six categories of response were provided ranging from
"Far below average (bottom 10 percent)" to
"Far above average (top 10 percent)." Note
that this item was also included in the academic self-esteem scale; however, compared
to the other items in that scale, it is general
and makes no specific reference to the school
experience.
To identify the path from global self-esteem to self-estimate of intelligence, the following instrumental variables were used:
respondent's height, weight, number of
friends, level of social support, closeness to
father, closeness to mother, parents' tendency to reason with the child in disciplinary situations, parentalpunitiveness, and stability of global self-esteem. All of these
would be expected to affect global self-esteem directly and self-estimate of intelligence only indirectly. Instruments for the
path from perceived intelligence to global
self-esteem include certain performance
measures (scores on a job information test
and on a test of political knowledge), positive school attitudes, negative school attitudes, and stability of self-assessment of intelligence. All of these variables would be
expected to have a direct effect on self-as-

150

sessment of intelligence and only indirect effects on global self-esteem. Again, crosslagged effects were constrained to 0 in order
to provide a source of instrumentation.
This model was found to fit the data reasonably well, as shown by a chi-square/d.f.
ratio of 3.45. Again, we find that the specific
facet of intelligence has a more powerful effect on global self-esteem than the other way
around. Both variables produce significant
effects upon one another,but the effect of intelligence on global self-esteem is .24,
whereas the effect of global self-esteem on
intelligence is .11.
Intellectual ability, then, whether narrowly
conceived as academic ability or broadly
conceived as general intelligence, produces
a more powerful effect on global self-esteem
than the other way around. Note that this effect appears despite the fact that only single
items are used to measure the two more narrowly defined concepts (academic self-esteem and self-estimate of intelligence), while
global self-esteem is modeled with multiple
indicators based on a widely used measure.
High school boys' general feelings of selfworth appear to be significantly affected by
their judgments of their intellectual ability,
but their general feeling of self-worth has a
weak effect on their opinions of their intellectual ability.
We do not suggest, of course, that specific
self-esteem is necessarily more likely to affect global self-esteem than the other way
around. Intellectual ability may not be typical of other facets of the self. Our prediction
would be that the relative effects of various
facets of the self-concept on global self-esteem would depend on the degree of
"schematization" of the specific facets
(Markus 1977)-if a particularfacet is firmly
established or solidly crystallized and is bolstered by clear evidence, then it is likely to
be fairly independentof the individual's general feeling of self-worth. For example, if
many experiences of failure have taught a
pupil through clear evidence that he or she is
incompetent in school, then his or her general feeling of self-worth will do little to
change this conviction. But if a particular
facet is nonschematic (uncrystallized), then
global self-esteem may exercise a more powerful effect on that specific facet. For example, if people are asked to judge their

AMERICAN SOCIOLOGICAL REVIEW

"meaningful insight ability" (Berger and


Conner 1969), it is possible that those who
think well of themselves generally may assume they are probably good at insight and
that those who have negative general attitudes toward themselves will assume that
they probably are not. In this instance, global self-esteem would have a more powerful
impact on specific self-esteem than the other
way around.
Is the Degree to Which Specific Academic
Self-Esteem Affects Global Self-Esteem a
Function of How Much Academic
Performance Is Personally Valued?
The assertion that the relationship between
one's evaluation of a particular facet of the
self and one's global self-esteem is a function of the importance of that facet in one's
hierarchy of self-values seems highly plausible. Nevertheless, empirical evidence is
mixed. Our data set allows us to test this assertion as it applies to academic self-esteem,
global self-esteem, and valuing academic
performance.
To do this we divided our respondents into
two groups at the mid-point of the range of
the variablemeasuringhow much the respondent valued academic performance.We then
reran our analyses of the reciprocal effects
of global and academic self-esteem separately for the respondentsin the low-value (N
= 333) and high-value (N = 1,487) segments
of the distribution.
Our models in both cases were satisfactory, with a chi-square/d.f. ratio for the lowvalue group of 1.72 and 2.13 for the highvalue group. The reciprocal effects between
global self-esteem and academic self-esteem
were significant only for the high-value
group; neither effect was significant in the
smaller, but still substantial, sample that did
not particularlyvalue academic performance.
The magnitudeof the effect of academic selfesteem on global self-esteem was more than
three times greaterfor those who valued academic performancerelatively highly-the effect for the high-value group was .23 (t =
5.55); the effect for the low-value group was
.07 (t =.77). On the other hand, the effect of
global self-esteem on academic self-esteem
was similar for the two groups-the effect
for the high-value group was .12 (t = 2.70);

GLOBAL SELF-ESTEEM AND SPECIFIC SELF-ESTEEM

for the low-value group the effect was .15 (t


= 1.38). In fact, it is only among the highvalue group that specific academic self-esteem has a greater effect on global self-esteem than the other way around (.23 versus
.12). Thus, at least in this instance, our findings strongly support the conjecture that the
effect of specific self-esteem on global selfesteem is a function of the degree to which
the relevant area of functioning is valued.
We also examined whether the level of
specific self-esteem or global self-esteem affects the degree to which the relevant area of
functioning is valued. Using academic selfesteem as our measure of specific self-esteem, we tested its effect relative to that of
global self-esteem on valuing academic performance. In addition, we tested whether
valuing academic performance reciprocally
affected academic self-esteem. We did this
by adding "valuing academic performance"
as a third endogenous variable to our fullsample model examining the reciprocal effects of academic and global self-esteem.
The new model, which also includes reciprocal paths between academic self-esteem and
valuing academic performance,seems appropriately identified and fits the data reasonably well (chi-square/d.f. = 3.88). Nevertheless, none of the effects involving academic
performance was significant, nor were the
reciprocal effects between academic and global self-esteem notably changed from what
they were when valuing academic performance was not included in the model. These
findings seem to rule out the theoretical possibilities that global and/or academic self-esteem affect the degree to which academic
performance is valued or that valuing academic performanceaffects academic self-esteem. What valuing academic performance
does is to increase the effect of academic
self-esteem on global self-esteem.

151

tain underprivilegedgroups is that they have


low self-esteem and that their performance
could be improved by enhancing their selfesteem. But this argumentassumes that poor
self-esteem causes poor school performance.
If school marks are chiefly responsible for
self-esteem ratherthan the other way around,
then efforts to enhance self-esteem for the
purpose of raising children's achievement
levels would be misguided.
Second, assuming that self-esteem is causally related to school marks, the question remains: Which self-esteem-specific or global? If, for example, specific self-esteem affects school performance but global self-esteem does not, then the efforts of educators
to help children to like and respect themselves as a whole may contributeto their psychological well-being but do little to improve
their school performance.What may actually
be needed is to help them improve their specific (academic) self-esteem. It is our impression that most interventions designed to improve self-esteem and thus to enhance academic performance are actually attempts to
modify global rather than specific self-esteem. It is thus essential to know which kind
of self-esteem to change in orderto positively
affect children's success in school.
In an earlier study (Rosenberg, Schooler,
and Schoenbach 1989), we examined the reciprocal effects of global self-esteem and
school marks. That analysis showed that
school marks had a more powerful effect on
global self-esteem than global self-esteem
had on school marks (. 15 versus .08).
Whereas the effect of marks on global selfesteem was highly significant, the effect of
global self-esteem on marks was only marginally significant. Does this relationship
also exist between specific (academic) selfesteem and school marks?
We constructed a model to test the reciprocal effects of academic self-concept and
school performance. The data fit the model
Academic Self-Esteem and Academic
reasonably well, yielding a chi-square/d.f.
Performance: Which Causes Which?
ratio of 3.5. Each variable, we find, exercises
Low self-esteem has often been invoked as a a strong and statistically significant effect on
possible cause of poor school performance the other; furthermore, the effects are ap(e.g., CaliforniaLegislature 1986; Covington proximately equal. The effect of grades on
1984; Purkey 1970; Scheirer and Kraut academic self-esteem is .27; the effect of
1979). For example, it is sometimes sug- academic self-esteem on school marks is .30.
Similar results occur when we consider the
gested that one reason for the relatively poor
academic performance of people from cer- reciprocal effects of school marks and self-

AMERICAN SOCIOLOGICAL REVIEW

152

assessment of intelligence. These data also


fit the model reasonably well, with a chisquare/d.f. ratio of 3.25. Each variable has a
highly significant effect on the other and
again these effects are equal (both effects are
.36); self-estimates of intelligence thus appear to affect, and to be affected by, school
performance. This evidence suggests that
changes in self-esteem can in fact bring
about an improvement in school performance; but it must be the right self-esteem,
namely, specific academic self-esteem. Strategies designed to enhance global self-esteem
(for example, by convincing a child that he
or she is lovable or worthy of respect) will,
our data suggest, have little or no effect on
his or her school performance.
It could also be argued that, to improve
school performance, positive or negative
self-esteem should be changed rather than
global self-esteem. On the one hand, efficacy
theory implies that it is primarily the selfconfidence generated by positive self-esteem
that enhances school performance (Bandura
1982). On the other hand, the literature on
learned helplessness suggests that the selfdeprecation of negative self-esteem, feelings
of personal helplessness, and poor performance are causally linked (Abramson,
Seligman, and Teasdale 1978).
To test whether either self-confidence or
self-deprecation is more closely tied to academic performance than is global self-esteem, we replicated our analyses substituting
each of these variables for global self-esteem.5 The only significant finding that
emerged regarding the relationship between
these two aspects of self-esteem and academic performance is that school marks sigI

Self-confidence and self-deprecation are


based on structural equation measurement models derived from the original Kohn and Schooler
(1983) analyses of self-esteem. Four indicators of
self-confidence are based on responses to the following four statements (coded from 1 through 5,
never true to almost always true): "I am a person
of worth"; "I feel that I have a number of good
qualities"; "I am able to do things as well as most
other people"; "I take a positive attitude toward
myself." The two indicators of self-deprecation
are based on responses to two statements (same
coding as above): "Sometimes I think I am no
good at all"; "I feel that my life is not very useful."

nificantly affect self-confidence (beta = .17).


The effect of self-confidence on school
marksis lower (.07) and not significant. Neither the effect of grades on self-deprecation
(-.11) nor the effect of self-deprecation on
grades (-.04) was significant, although the
former was at the borderline of significance
(p < .08). Not surprisingly, given Owens's
(1993) finding that self-confidence is more
strongly related to global self-esteem than is
self-deprecation, the magnitudes of the paths
between self-confidence and grades are also
more similar to the magnitudes of the parallel paths between global self-esteem and
school marks we reportedin our earlier study
(Rosenberg, Schooler, and Schoenbach
1989). In any case, all of these effects are
smaller than the parallel effects involving
academic self-esteem or self-assessment of
intelligence. Furthermore, although our
analyses suggest that raising the academic
self-esteem or self-estimates of intelligence
among students may increase academic performance, nothing in our findings suggests
that raising their levels of global self-esteem
or general self-confidence, or decreasing
their levels of general self-deprecation would
have any such effect.
SUMMARY AND DISCUSSION
Our aim has been to better understand the
nature, interconnections, and relevance of
specific self-esteem and global self-esteem.
In evaluating our conclusions we must address several limitations in our data. First,
our only measure of global self-esteem is the
Rosenberg Self-Esteem Scale (1989). Although it is the most widely used of all selfesteem measures, it is only one among many.
Some of the other available measures may
include somewhat different aspects of selfesteem than does the Rosenberg scale.6
6

For example, the Coopersmith Self-Esteem


Inventory (Coopersmith 1967) contains four internally consistent subscales (social self, peers,
home/parents, academic), although factor analysis revealed a dominant global self-esteem factor
(Burns 1979; Edgar, Powell, Watkins, Moore, and
Zakharov 1974). The Tennessee Self-Concept
Scale (Fitts 1965) includes, among others, subscales on how respondents view their own moral
worth and perceive themselves in reference to
their families. Analyses of the Piers-Harris Scale

GLOBAL SELF-ESTEEM AND SPECIFIC SELF-ESTEEM

Another limitation of our data is that our


only specific self-esteem measure is academic self-esteem. We do not know if the
same patternof results would hold if we used
measures of other types of specific self-esteem, like social or sexual self-esteem. Different kinds of specific self-esteem vary
across a wide range of potentially relevant
dimensions. One importantdimension is the
degree of specificity. Thus, although academic self-esteem is more specific than overall self-esteem, it is less specific than mathematical self-esteem. As we have seen, a
general tenet of many research findings on
attitudes is that the more specific the attitude,
the more powerful a predictor it is of the related specific behavior (e.g., Fishbein and
Azjen 1975). Given that self-esteem is an attitude, the more specific the self-esteem is,
the more accurately it should predict relevant
behavior. As our own findings indicate, specific academic self-esteem has a greater effect on school marks than does global selfesteem.
Despite these limitations, we believe that
our findings are important:
(1) We have documented the obvious but
frequently overlooked fact that global and
specific self-esteem are neither equivalent
nor interchangeable, and that one cannot automatically serve as a surrogatefor the other.
(2) Focusing on academic self-esteem as
an example of specific self-esteem, we have
demonstrated that global and specific selfesteem have decidedly different correlates.
Global self-esteem appears to be heavily affective in nature and tends to be associated
with overall psychological well-being. Specific self-esteem, in contrast, being more
judgmental and evaluative, appears to have a
(Piers and Harris 1964) have consistently revealed six interpretable factors, including popularity and social behavior, although no general
factor has emerged (Burns 1979). Regardless of
whether each of these scales contains specific
components not covered by the Rosenberg scale,
the Rosenberg scale would seem to be a more direct measure of global self-esteem; the self-evaluation of various aspects of functioning covered by
the Coopersmith, Fitts, and Piers-Harris scales
being conceptually akin to more specific forms of
self-esteem, such as educational self-esteem,
whose relationship to global self-esteem is a focus of the present paper.

153

more cognitive component and tends to be


more strongly associated with behavior or
behavioral outcomes.
(3) We have suggested that global and specific self-esteem may each mediate the effect
of the other. It was not possible to test
whether the relationship between specific
self-esteem and psychological well-being
was mediated by global self-esteem because
the original relationshipwas so weak, but our
data are consistent with the view that the effect of global self-esteem on behavioral outcome is mediated by its effect on academic
self-esteem.
(4) We have considered the reciprocal effects of global and specific self-esteem on
one another.We pointed out that specific facets of the self may vary in level of abstraction. Our empirical findings suggest that
more specific forms of self-esteem, such as
academic self-esteem or self-assessment of
intelligence, tend to have greater effects on
more global forms of self-esteem than more
global forms of self-esteem have on more
specific ones.
(5) We have found that, at least among the
variables we investigated, the effect of specific self-esteem on global self-esteem is affected by the degree to which the relevant
role or behavior is personally valued. Our
analyses demonstratedthat the effect of specific academic self-esteem on global self-esteem is a function of how highly academic
performance is valued. Furthermore, the
value placed on academic performanceis not
a function of either academic or global selfesteem.
(6) We also considered the reciprocal effects of self-esteem and school marks, an important behavioral outcome among school
populations. The data show that the nature
and direction of these effects depends on
whether global or specific self-esteem is considered. School marks, we find, do produce
an effect on self-esteem, whether we consider academic self-esteem, global self-esteem, or self-confidence. However, global
self-esteem has very little effect on marks,
whereas specific self-esteem (academic selfesteem) has a strong effect on school performance. Self-esteem, it appears, does affect
school performance, but it must be the right
kind of self-esteem, namely, specific self-esteem. This last finding is particularly ironic,

154

AMERICAN SOCIOLOGICAL REVIEW

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