Self-Esteem as a Status-Tracking Mechanism
Sociometer theory suggests that self-esteem functions as a mechanism by which individuals track their relational value (i.e., status) to others. Therefore, individuals who are high in self-esteem tend to be held in high regard.
As a species, it is vital for an individual to have a good understanding of where he or she stands in relation to one’s peers and to be able to accurately assess his or her status in a social hierarchy. This understanding allows the individual to reap the benefits of increased cooperation and opportunities for reciprocal altruism, along with increased mating opportunities. Alternatively, a misunderstanding of one’s status would be detrimental. Therefore, it seems likely that not only would individuals be motivated to accurately assess their social status but that there would also be evolved mechanisms to facilitate this process. Indeed, it has been proposed that self-esteem acts as a status-tracking mechanism such that high self-esteem is indicative of higher status and inclusion among peers, whereas low self-esteem would reflect lower status in the group (Leary et al. 1995). A historical perspective on sociometer theory will be provided, followed by a discussion of the connections between sociometer theory and various outcomes (e.g., romantic relationships), and will close with a discussion of new developments in sociometer theory.
Perspectives on Self-Esteem
In the current research literature, self-esteem is often defined as the evaluative aspect of the self that is concerned with the degree to which people like themselves (Brown and Marshall 2006). In other words, self-esteem reflects the amount of worth and value an individual places on himself or herself. Thus, individuals with higher levels of self-esteem are more likely to view themselves in a relatively favorable light, whereas individuals with lower levels of self-esteem will tend to view themselves more negatively or at least be uncertain about their self-views. High self-esteem has been found to be associated with a variety of important life outcomes (e.g., psychological well-being). In contrast, low levels of self-esteem have been shown to be associated with an array of negative outcomes (e.g., criminal behaviors; see Zeigler-Hill 2013, for a review). Despite the associations linking self-esteem with various important life outcomes, there has been a great deal of debate in recent years concerning the value of self-esteem with some researchers continuing to argue that self-esteem is an important construct (e.g., Zeigler-Hill 2013), whereas other researchers have adopted a much more negative view of self-esteem and consider it to be an epiphenomenon that has – at best – limited value (e.g., Baumeister et al. 2003).
This conflict over the importance of self-esteem can be resolved when a more nuanced approach to self-esteem is taken. More specifically, researchers have recognized that it may be important to account for aspects of self-esteem beyond its level because individuals with high levels of self-esteem appear to be a heterogeneous group consisting of those with secure high self-esteem and those with fragile high self-esteem (see Jordan and Zeigler-Hill 2013, for a review). Secure high self-esteem reflects positive attitudes about the self that are realistic and resistant to threat, whereas fragile high self-esteem refers to feelings of self-worth that are vulnerable to challenge and require constant validation. This distinction between secure and fragile forms of self-esteem adds depth to our understanding of self-esteem in that it helps us to understand how self-esteem level might fluctuate in the short term following different types of feedback. In turn, this has helped to elucidate previously conflicting findings. However, understanding secure and fragile self-esteem does not address the function and purpose of self-esteem. The question of the purpose of self-esteem is at the core of sociometer theory (Leary et al. 1995). The central premise of sociometer theory is that self-esteem functions as a status-tracking mechanism which provides important insights into the purpose and development of self-esteem.
Introduction to Sociometer Theory
The sociometer theory was developed in an attempt to provide an explanation about the purpose of self-esteem (Leary et al. 1995). More specifically, the concept of affiliation has an evolutionary foundation because relationships with other people have been important for human survival, reproduction, and the survival of offspring over the course of evolutionary history. For example, maintaining close proximity to other people has offered individuals with protection and opportunities to effectively solve social issues (Leary 2010). The driving force behind the self-esteem system is the fundamental need to associate with other people and build relationships that are strong and lasting (Stinson et al. 2015). This perspective states that the self-esteem system is developed in order to protect people from the negative consequences of social exclusion by monitoring the social environment for signals concerning social acceptance and social rejection (Leary 1999, 2010).
According to sociometer theory, self-esteem has a status-tracking property such that an individual’s level of self-esteem depends on his or her relational value. Sociometer theory argues that self-esteem is an evolved regulatory system and adaptation that helps people establish and sustain meaningful relationships (Leary et al. 1995; Stinson et al. 2015) by allowing individuals to monitor the degree to which they are valued by others. In essence, self-esteem serves as a gauge that alerts individuals to either gains in their relational value (accompanied by increases in self-esteem) or losses in their relational value (accompanied by decreases in self-esteem). An important element of the sociometer theory is that changes in self-esteem may trigger compensatory mechanisms. For example, individuals who perceive a decrease in their state self-esteem should be motivated to engage in compensatory behaviors – such as being nicer to other people – in an effort to increase their relational value. A central tenet of sociometer theory is that people do not actually care about self-esteem for its own sake. Rather, self-esteem is only important because it indicates the degree to which individuals are valued by others in their social environments (Leary et al. 1995). Sociometer theory provides a reason for self-esteem and moved away from previous approaches that simply suggested that individuals have an inherent need to feel good about themselves. Sociometer theory suggests that self-esteem functions as a means to motivate individuals to act in ways that increase their acceptance and decrease the likelihood of rejection within their social groups. That is, boosting self-esteem is not the ultimate objective but is simply a consequence of increasing relational value and avoiding rejection (Leary 1999, 2010).
Consistent with sociometer theory, a large number of studies have shown that self-esteem is responsive to social acceptance and rejection (e.g., Leary et al. 2001). The majority of sociometer research has focused on the consequences that acceptance and rejection have on mood and state self-esteem (e.g., Leary et al. 2001), but there have been attempts to expand sociometer theory in various ways such as by examining the implications of this perspective for social decision-making (Anthony et al. 2007). When making a social decision, people calculate the probability of social rewards (e.g., developing a new friendship) versus social costs (e.g., experiencing a rejection). People either engage in self-enhancing behaviors (e.g., seek social experiences) in order to achieve social awards or self-protecting behaviors (e.g., avoiding social experiences) in order to limit social costs (Baumeister et al. 1989). The sociometer monitors relational value in one’s environment, but the resting point of the sociometer (i.e., self-esteem level) may impact one’s relational value. For example, people with high self-esteem are more secure with their relational value and have a higher threshold for acceptance. As a result, people with higher levels of self-esteem are more likely to exhibit self-enhancing behaviors by forming new relationships regardless if there is a direct sign of group acceptance (Anthony et al. 2007). In contrast, people with low self-esteem are more likely to display self-protection behaviors because they anticipate rejection. As a consequence, people with lower levels of self-esteem avoid forming new relationships unless there is a direct sign that the group will accept them (Anthony et al. 2007). It appears that people with low self-esteem are more reluctant to form relationships because of their fear of rejection. However, this need to protect one’s empty relational value can be disregarded with unambiguous proof of acceptance. In sum, these findings support that the calibration of the sociometer is derived from acceptance and rejection in one’s environment and directs one’s social behavior (Anthony et al. 2007).
Individuals are able to function in a wide variety of environments that have different adaptive problems and these problems entail different solutions. A single sociometer or gauge may be ineffective at detecting an individual’s relational value in different social environments. For example, a sociometer that monitors relational value in romantic relationships may be helpful for assisting a person’s mate-selection strategies, but not for indicating a person’s relational value in his or her workplace (Kirkpatrick and Ellis 2001). As a result, Kirkpatrick and Ellis (2001) proposed that self-esteem is not a unitary construct and that natural selection may have designed multiple psychological mechanisms for monitoring relational value in different social environments (i.e., domain-specific sociometers). However, the question regarding how many different sociometers in fact exist remains unanswered, but any interpersonal relationship that is important for survival may have a distinct sociometer (e.g., instrumental coalitions, mating relationships, familial relationships; Kirkpatrick and Ellis 2001).
Hill and Buss (2006) argue that self-esteem is not a unitary construct because it may be too limited to capture the numerous adaptive problems that individuals are likely to encounter. Rather, they suggest that self-esteem consists of a number of psychological components (e.g., internal representations, monitoring mechanisms, updating mechanisms, evaluative mechanisms, motivational mechanisms, mechanisms to generate output). More specifically, the first psychological element to self-esteem is the ability to maintain internal representations of one’s own capabilities. Maintaining an awareness of one’s abilities allows the individual to compare oneself to other people during ambiguous situations and to make careful behavioral decisions. The ability to have monitoring mechanisms that are domain-specific provides an individual with cues about potential changes in one’s relational value in different environments. This is important because an individual’s ability to solve adaptive problems may change over time due to past experiences (e.g., the birth of a child). When the monitoring mechanisms detect a success or failure, it informs the updating mechanisms component of this new information which results in changes of internal representations. The fourth aspect of self-esteem is affective evaluation and this component is designed to evaluate internal representations. For example, trait self-esteem occurs when the affective evaluation consists of stable repetitions, as opposed to state self-esteem, which is an evaluation of updates or fluctuations. According to Hill and Buss (2006), none of these psychological mechanisms would exist without some motivational aspect. The affective evaluation component of self-esteem motivates people to engage in behaviors regarding their newly updated internal representations. The last component of self-esteem is the specific behavioral output and this underpinning takes into account that behavioral solutions are expected to change.
In addition, Hill and Buss (2006) further extended the theory regarding domain-specific sociometers by suggesting that attributes in one domain may contribute to successes in different domains. For example, good health increases an individual’s value as a mate but may also have implications for perceptions of that individual as a friend and family member. If an attribute is specific to a domain, then it will be positively correlated with that domain and weakly correlated with other domains (Kavanagh and Scrutton 2015). An example is the attribute of physical attractiveness which plays an important role in the mating domain, but is not viewed as essential in other domains (e.g., coalitional domain; Cottrell et al. 2007). Attributes that contribute to multiple domains may explain why self-esteem level has been found to be positively associated with different facets, and this approach may serve as a way to distinguish between domain-specific and domain-general attributes (Hill and Buss 2006).
The Mating Sociometer
From an evolutionary standpoint, selecting and retaining a mate is a primary concern (Buss 1988). Socially speaking, entire holidays and rituals have developed around mating. Furthermore, a large number of studies have been conducted to examine the factors that influence the selection and retention of mates (e.g., Buss 1988). These studies have revealed that individual differences – such as self-esteem – play a role in these processes. Furthermore, in accordance to sociometer theory, self-esteem level can be seen as an indicator of mate value (Holden et al. 2014).
After a mate has been selected, the next challenge for successfully rearing offspring is in retaining that mate. A variety of mate retention behaviors have been documented. That is, an entire taxonomy of behaviors that are intended to prevent the defection of a mate has been developed (Buss 1988). There are a large number of mate retention behaviors but they can be classified along the broader domains of benefit-provisioning and cost-inflicting behaviors. Benefit-provisioning behaviors are designed to make the relationship more positive and decrease the likelihood of defection by bestowing gifts and affection on the partner. Conversely, cost-inflicting behaviors are designed to make defection costly to the partner through manipulation and abuse. Furthermore, these two domains differ in terms of the costs and risks faced by the individual using these mate retention behaviors. More specifically, benefit-provisioning behaviors can be seen as low risk in that they have a low likelihood of having negative consequences for the relationship, but these behaviors are also high cost in that they involve the investment of time and resources in the partner. The opposite is true of cost-inflicting behaviors. These mate retention behaviors can be considered to be high risk, but low cost. Therefore, individuals may essentially be choosing between these two sets of tactics. A number of individual differences and situational factors may play a role in the decision between benefit-provisioning and cost-inflicting behaviors. However, self-esteem level has been demonstrated to have a profound impact on the use of mate retention behavior.
As mentioned above, self-esteem level, through the lens of sociometer theory, can be seen as an indicator of mate value (Holden et al. 2014). In turn, individuals partnered to someone of high mate value should be more motivated to retain that partner. Indeed, it has been demonstrated that individuals who are partnered with someone who is high mate value tend to engage in more mate retention behaviors (Starratt and Shackelford 2012). In other words, these individuals are motivated to hold on to this valuable reproductive resource. However, not all individuals can invest in these mate retention behaviors equally. That is, some individuals may be more prone to engage in benefit-provisioning behaviors, whereas others may be more prone to engage in cost-inflicting behaviors.
Indeed, it has been demonstrated that self-esteem level influences mate retention behavior, such that individuals who report high levels of self-esteem tend to engage in benefit-provisioning behaviors, whereas individuals who are low in self-esteem tend to engage in cost-inflicting behaviors (Holden et al. 2014). Furthermore, individuals who are held in a higher regard by their partner report less use of cost-inflicting behaviors and are perceived to engage in more benefit-provisioning behaviors (Holden et al. 2014). Put in terms of sociometer theory, this suggests that information about an individual’s perceived relational value influences their decisions concerning how they manage their relationships.
Previous work has demonstrated that assortative mating occurs in humans as it does in other species. For example, individuals tend to select partners who are similar in physical attractiveness and personality characteristics as mates (e.g., Buss 1985). The mating sociometer suggests the mechanism behind this process. Namely, the information that individuals receive through rejection influences their decisions with regard to mate selection. That is, the sociometer may function in this domain to tell individuals about their probability of obtaining particular mates. Indeed, it has been demonstrated through research using dating paradigms that rejections from potential mates are followed by a decrease in self-esteem and, in turn, a decrease in mating aspirations (i.e., selection of less-attractive mates, avoiding potential mates; Kavanagh et al. 2010). Furthermore, this mating sociometer may be differently tuned between the sexes (Bale and Archer 2013). Therefore, it appears as though the sociometer is particularly well-suited for the domain of mating and may be quite helpful in guiding the mating efforts of individuals.
Sociometer theory can also help us to better understand attachment perspectives. It has been found that attachment perspectives vary between individuals and as a result different strategies are used to regulate and detect relational value (Bowlby 1969). Also, sociometer theory and attachment theory have similar aspects (e.g., a need to belong) which support the idea that there is an interpersonal purpose for the affective and behavioral regulation system (Srivastava and Beer 2005).
Attachment theory has two dimensions which include an avoidance and an anxiety dimension. These attachment dimensions explain differences in regulatory systems of adults (Srivastava and Beer 2005). Individual differences in anxious attachment are explained by hyperactivating strategies which occur when a person uses extreme measures in order to receive support from others (Mikulincer and Shaver 2003). In contrast, individual differences in avoidant attachment are explained by deactivating strategies which are used when an individual needs to protect himself or herself from rejection and does so by avoiding others (Mikulincer and Shaver 2003). These hyperactivating and deactivating strategies may have implications for the sensitivity or regulation of the sociometer (Mikulincer and Shaver 2003). For example, high-anxious individuals have been found to have a sensitive sociometer, whereas avoidant individuals have been found to have a sociometer that is less responsive to certain situations (e.g., Srivastava and Beer 2005).
Numerous studies have found a relationship between attachment perspectives and the sociometer (e.g., Foster et al. 2006; Srivastava and Beer 2005). For example, it has been found that perceived likability in one’s social environment resulted in more positive self-evaluations, which provides support for the sociometer theory (Srivastava and Beer 2005). In addition, Foster and his colleagues (2007) found that unstable self-esteem was associated with less secure attachment, which validates the reason for the sociometer (i.e., state self-esteem fluctuates in response to acceptance and rejection). In sum, the impact that anxiety has on self-esteem shows support for a relationship between attachment perspectives and sociometer theory (Srivastava and Beer 2005).
The Extended Informational Model of Self-Esteem
Sociometer theory indicates that self-esteem has a status-tracking property which measures an individual’s relational value in his or her social environment. This status-tracking property of self-esteem is an important addition to the self-esteem literature because it explains the function of self-esteem. However, the status-tracking model does not take into consideration other ways in which information is exchanged between an individual and other people in his or her social environment (Zeigler-Hill 2012). For example, the status-tracking property of self-esteem does not address how an individual’s level of self-esteem may impact how he or she is perceived by another person. This is the focus of the status-signaling model of self-esteem (Zeigler-Hill et al. 2013) which focuses on the possibility that an individual’s self-esteem level may affect how that individual is perceived by other people in his or her social environment. For example, self-esteem may influence how one is perceived on various dimensions (e.g., romantic desirability, social dominance) such that individuals who convey high levels of self-esteem may generally be viewed more positively than those who express low self-esteem. This suggests that people may be motivated to maintain or improve their self-worth because their self-esteem may influence how they are viewed by other people (Zeigler-Hill 2012). The status-signaling model of self-esteem is believed to complement the status-tracking properties of self-esteem captured by sociometer theory and provide a more comprehensive understanding of self-esteem.
Sociometer theory is an important addition to self-esteem research because it provides a possible function for self-esteem. This is important because questions concerning what self-esteem actually does had largely been ignored prior to the introduction of sociometer theory (Leary 1999). There is a tremendous amount of research concerning the correlates and consequences of self-esteem, and sociometer theory is helpful for integrating much of that work by providing a clear function for self-esteem (i.e., monitoring relational value in the current social environment). Sociometer theory has been supported by numerous studies and provides an explanation for the intimate connections that have been observed between self-esteem and social acceptance. Also, sociometer theory provides a rationale as to how individuals monitor their relational value in a specific domain. However, future research should focus on important issues such as whether there is a single domain-general sociometer or several domain-specific sociometers (e.g., position in a social hierarchy; Mahadevan et al. 2016). Continued research concerning sociometer theory will help to clarify the purpose and functioning of self-esteem from an evolutionary perspective.
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