Encyclopedia of Evolutionary Psychological Science

Living Edition
| Editors: Todd K. Shackelford, Viviana A. Weekes-Shackelford

Self-Esteem Increase Motivates Similar Behavior

  • Shane WestfallEmail author
  • Shaunna Rhea Westfall
Living reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-16999-6_1451-1



Self-esteem is a theory that addresses an individual’s overall affective feeling of self-worth. Individuals differ both in their stable sense of self-esteem and in their self-esteem responsive to stimuli. Humans are highly motivated to increase self-esteem and thus experience motivation to engage in similar behavior as that which previously boosted these feelings of self-worth.


Self-esteem describes an individual’s overall sense of self-worth or value based on an affective evaluation regarding the self. This evaluation encompasses both feelings about the self (e.g., “I am worthy”) and emotional states, such as pride or shame. This differs from the self-concept in that one’s self-concept encompasses thoughts and beliefs about the self. Self-esteem may be global (i.e., “I’m a good person”), or it may be domain specific (i.e., “I’m great at basketball”). Some individuals tend to have higher self-esteem than others on a consistent basis. This is trait self-esteem, as it reflects an individual’s general tendency. While trait self-esteem is fairly stable across time, it is subject to short-term fluctuations based on individual experiences. For example, should something positive occur, such as receiving a promotion at work, an increase in self-esteem is likely to occur. Known as state self-esteem, these fluctuations influence both perception and behavior (Cihangir et al. 2010).

Rationale for Self-Esteem

Historically, approaches to self-esteem have been contradictory, arguing that it is a self-evaluation largely based on the perceived evaluations of others. Edward Higgins attempted to address this paradox through the theory of self-discrepancy. He theorized that individuals have multiple representations of the self, such as the ideal self and the actual self (1987). Self-discrepancy refers to the gap between these representations; as this gap grows, self-esteem becomes increasingly lower (Moretti and Higgins 1990). A large gap between the actual self and the ideal self is associated with low self-esteem and vice versa.

More recent work has produced two predominant explanations for the development of self-esteem in humans. Sociometer theory suggests that humans are inherently social creatures that seek out the support and approval of others (Leary et al. 1995). As such, humans have developed a “sociometer” that allows one to detect social acceptance or rejection and translate these as increased or decreased self-esteem. The second primary theory is terror management, which argues that humans are uniquely aware among animals, of one’s impending death (Greenberg et al. 1986). To protect oneself from this paralyzing fear, humans construct beliefs, such as religion or patriotism, which provide them a sense of meaning and purpose. This sense of purpose is what one experiences as self-esteem, thereby reducing anxiety regarding one’s own mortality. Although there are conceptual variations among the current models of self-esteem, all posit that humans have an inherent drive to increase self-esteem.

We see that humans high in self-esteem tend to experience more success in life as they often approach challenges more confidently, viewing them as a way to demonstrate their abilities (Baumeister et al. 2003). Conversely, those lower in self-esteem are often simply hoping to avoid failure. Individuals high in self-esteem tend to be happier compared to people lower in self-esteem. Self-esteem is positively correlated with both life satisfaction and personal relationship satisfaction. Thus, people high in self-esteem tend to report both more stable dating relationships and more happiness within those relationships. Self-esteem is negatively correlated with a variety of mental health issues, such as depression and anxiety.

Learning, Motivation, and Behavior

Broadly, learning can be defined as the alteration of behavior resulting from individual experience. Although learning theory has advanced a great deal since the seminal works of Pavlov and Skinner, most human learning is considered associative in nature, entailing a process in which a new response becomes associated with a particular stimulus. While operant conditioning accounts for voluntary behavior, it is important to note that one need not be consciously aware of the rewards and punishments that shape one’s action (Esteves et al. 1994).

Motivation is simply our drive to do things. Thus, motivation involves goal-directed behavior, such as choosing between completing a homework assignment or napping on the couch instead. Although there are competing models of motivation, most distinguish between extrinsic motivation (doing something for an external reward) and intrinsic (doing something for an internal reward). Despite the traditional view that these two motives are at odds, more recent work has suggested that at times they may operate in tandem (Covington and Müeller 2001). This is consistent with the perspective that self-esteem fluctuations motivate behavior, as self-esteem relies on a view of the self processed through the eyes of others. Therefore, motivational drive is intrinsically linked with self-esteem. A high level of self-esteem often provides one with the motivation to take on multiple tasks. Equally important, due to the negative consequences of low self-esteem (e.g., depression), humans have strong motivation to engage in self-esteem-bolstering tasks. Fortunately, this proves effective, as humans have the capacity to learn (both consciously and nonconsciously) what behaviors result in higher levels of state self-esteem (Leary et al. 1995).

Indeed, we see that when humans experience an increase in state self-esteem driven by behavior, there is a learned response to engage in the same, or similar, behavior in the future. This has been documented for a wide range of human behavior, encompassing activities societally endorsed (e.g., athletic motivation and academic performance) as well as those in which society tends to take a harsher view (e.g., substance abuse and promiscuity). Beyond personal activities, self-esteem motivates human behavior in interpersonal settings. For example, state self-esteem predicts whether one is motivated to engage in a playful or an aggressive style of teasing others (Honeycutt and Wright 2017). Similar results have been found in such diverse domains as human interaction in online video gaming and motivation to self-disclose with others on social media. Much like a rat pressing a lever, humans will intuitively seek out the same behavior that bolstered self-esteem previously. In instances when the same opportunity is not available, such as the lack of a previous sexual partner or psychotropic chemical, humans are also very adept at finding similar substitutes. Drug substitution is a common phenomenon encountered in therapeutic settings. Substitutive behavior is seen in a variety of domains, however, squashing the notion that it is simply the result of drug addiction. Rather, it can be likened to a self-esteem addiction, with individuals seeking other methods to achieve their self-esteem needs. Despite sounding extreme, humans have demonstrated that they are willing to forgo such pleasant activities as sex, eating, consuming alcohol, and even receiving a paycheck if they can receive a self-esteem boost instead (Bushman et al. 2011).


There are many sources of motivation for human behavior. Perhaps none is as powerful, though, as the need to feel a sense of personal worth. Through both conscious and nonconscious processes, humans learn what behaviors bolster self-esteem, as well as those that hamper it. In a variety of settings, humans demonstrate motivation to repeat behavior that has improved self-esteem previously. As self-esteem is crucial to an adaptive existence, humans are highly motivated to identify those actions that increase feelings of self-worth and to engage in similar behavior, even when that involves maladaptive behavior.



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© Springer Nature Switzerland AG 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Western Wyoming Community CollegeRock SpringsUSA
  2. 2.West Texas A & M UniversityCanyonUSA

Section editors and affiliations

  • Kevin Bennett
    • 1
  1. 1.Department of PsychologyPennsylvania State University, BeaverMonacaUSA