Self-Concept and Self-Esteem

Citation: Huitt, W. (2009). Self-concept and self-esteem. Educational Psychology Interactive. Valdosta, GA: Valdosta State University. Retrieved [date], from

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By self is generally meant the conscious reflection of one's own being or identity, as an object separate from other or from the environment. There are a variety of ways to think about the self. Two of the most widely used terms are self-concept and self-esteem. Self-concept is the cognitive or thinking aspect of self (related to one's self-image) and generally refers to

"the totality of a complex, organized, and dynamic system of learned beliefs, attitudes and opinions that each person holds to be true about his or her personal existence" (Purkey, 1988).

Self-esteem is the affective or emotional aspect of self and generally refers to how we feel about or how we value ourselves (one's self-worth). Self-concept can also refer to the general idea we have of ourselves and self-esteem can refer to particular measures about components of self-concept. Some authors even use the two terms interchangeably.

Franken (1994) states that

"there is a great deal of research which shows that the self-concept is, perhaps, the basis for all motivated behavior. It is the self-concept that gives rise to possible selves, and it is possible selves that create the motivation for behavior" (p. 443).

This supports the idea that one's paradigm or world view and one's relationship to that view provide the boundaries and circumstances within which one develops a vision about possibilities. This is one of the major issues facing children and youth today (Huitt, 2004).

Franken (1994) suggests that self-concept is related to self-esteem in that

"people who have good self-esteem have a clearly differentiated self-concept.... When people know themselves they can maximize outcomes because they know what they can and cannot do" (p. 439).

It would seem, then, that one way to impact self-esteem is to obey the somewhat outworn cliche of "Know thyself."

People develop and maintain their self-concepts through the process of taking action and then reflecting on what they have done and what others tell them about what they have done. This reflection is based on actual and possible actions in comparison to one's own expectations and the expectations of others and to the characteristics and accomplishments of others (Brigham, 1986; James, 1890). That is, self-concept is not innate, but is constructed and developed by the individual through interaction with the environment and reflecting on that interaction. This dynamic aspect of self-concept (and, by corollary, self-esteem) is important because it indicates that it can be modified or changed. Franken (1994) states

"there is a growing body of research which indicates that it is possible to change the self-concept. Self-change is not something that people can will but rather it depends on the process of self-reflection. Through self-reflection, people often come to view themselves in a new, more powerful way, and it is through this new, more powerful way of viewing the self that people can develop possible selves" (p. 443).

There are a several different components of self-concept: physical, academic, social, and transpersonal. The physical aspect of self-concept relates to that which is concrete: what one looks like, his or her sex, height, weight, etc.; what kind of clothes one wears; what kind of car one drives; what kind of home one lives in; and so forth. One's academic self-concept relates to how well the individual does in school or how well one demonstrates an ability to learn academic content. There are two levels: a general academic self-concept of how good one is overall and a set of specific content-related self-concepts that describe how good one is in math, science, language arts, social science, etc. The social self-concept describes how we relate to other people and the transpersonal self-concept describes how we relate to the supernatural or unknowns.

Marsh (1992) showed that the relationship of self-concept to school achievement is very specific. General self-concept and non-academic aspects of self-concept are not related to academic work; general academic achievement measures are related moderately to academic success. Specific measures of subject-related self-concepts are highly related to success in that content area. Bandura (1997) provides evidence that self-efficacy or one's belief that he or she can perform a specific task is the best predictor for success on that task.

Hansford and Hattie (1982) found that the relationship of measures such as self-concept and self-esteem were only weakly correlated (r = 0.20). However, using linear discriminate analysis, Byrne (1990) showed that academic self-concept was more effective than was academic achievement in differentiating between low-track and high-track students. Hamachek (1995) also asserts that self-concept and school achievement and school achievement are related.

The major issue is, therefore, the strength and the direction of the relationship: does general  or academic or subject-specific self-concept produce achievement or does achievement produce these various measures of self-concept. Gage and Berliner (1992) state

"the evidence is accumulating, however, to indicate that level of school success, particularly over many years, predicts level of regard of self and one's own ability (Bridgeman & Shipman, 1978; Kifer, 1975); whereas level of self-esteem does not predict level of school achievement. The implication is that teachers need to concentrate on the academic successes and failures of their students. It is the student's history of success and failure that gives them the information with which to assess themselves" (p. 159).

If academic achievement leads to self-concept/self-esteem, but self-concept is a better predictor of being a low-track or high-track student, it would appear that there is some intervening variable. James (1890) states that the intervening variable is personal expectations. His formula is:

Self-esteem = Success / Pretensions.

That is, increasing self-esteem results when success is improved relative to expectations. Bandura's (1997) research on the importance of self-efficacy could be thought of as a measure of pretensions or expectations. He also stated that one's mastery experiences related to success is the major influence on one's self-efficacy. Bandura showed that modeling and social persuasion (giving encouragement) can also be helpful, but not as much as being successful previously on the same or a similar task.

As self-efficacy and self-esteem are both constructed by one's conscious reflections, it would appear that educators and parents should provide experiences that allow students to master relatively specific content and skills rather than attempting to boost self-esteem directly through other means. In fact, Hattie (as cited in Huitt, Huitt, Monetti, & Hummel, 2009) found that students' self-report of their previous grades, which can be thought of as a correlate of student self-efficacy, was the most powerful predictor of academic achievement (with an effect size of  d = 1.44) when compared to the other 137 variables . [Note: A normal cutoff effect size to determine the practical importance of a relationship between two variables is d = 0.40 (Hattie, 2009) and only 66 of the 138 variables that Hattie in his investigation of 800 meta-analyses met this relatively stringent criteria.]

By rearranging the components of the equation, an interesting corollary can be produced stating that success is limited by pretentions or expectations and self-esteem:

Success = Pretensions * Self-esteem.

This equation states that success, especially the limits of one's success, can be improved by increasing expectations and/or self-esteem. However, as noted by Gage and Berliner (1992), the research on the relationship between self-esteem/self-concept and school achievement suggests that measures of general or even academic self-concept are not significantly related to school achievement. It is at the level of very specific subjects (e.g., reading, mathematics, science) that there begins to be a relatively strong relationship between self-concept/self-esteem measures and academic success. Given the above formula, this suggests that success in a particular subject area is not really changing one's self-concept (knowledge of one's self) or even self-esteem (one's subjective evaluation of one's value or worth), but rather is impacting one's expectations about future success based on one's past experience.

Seligman's (1996) work on explanatory style suggests that the intervening variable connecting self-esteem and achievement is the student's level of "optimism" or the tendency to see the world as a benevolent (good things will probably happen) or malevolent (bad things will probably happen).

Some additional "self" terms are self-direction (Smith, 2004) and self-determination (Ryan & Deci, 2000; the extent to which one's aspirations, dreams, and goals are self-selected), self-regulation (Bandura, 1997; Behncke, 2003; one's guidance of one's goal-directed thinking, attitudes, and behavior), and self-transcendence (Polanyi, 1970; Frankl, 1963;  going beyond or above the limitations of one's ego; meaningful connections to others, nature, universe, Creator, etc.). My view is that we need to address all of these constructions in a holistic manner if parents and educators are to prepare children and youth for successful adulthood (Huitt, 2004).


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