Published 06 Jan 2017

Personality trait has long been the subject of many research studies. But perhaps, the most discussed personality trait that has generated a considerable amount of theoretical and empirical research is the topic of self-esteem. This paper seeks to further examine the nature of self-esteem through new conceptualizations of its properties and dimensions, and to explore how these new ideas in self-esteem research impact on a specific area of psychological well-being – an inpidual’s vulnerability to depression.

First, self-esteem’s definition is examined. According to Rosenberg (1965), self-esteem is the “evaluation which the inpidual makes and customarily maintains with regard to himself; it expresses an attitude of approval or disapproval” (p. 5). Most researchers who investigate self-esteem utilize this definition as a starting point for their own definition of self-esteem. Coopersmith (1967) states that self-esteem is the component of the self-concept that refers to .one’s feelings of self-worth. Holland and Andre (1994) explains that self-esteem is how an inpidual perceive the value or sense of worth about their selves. As it is, self-esteem can be best defined as an inpidual’s feelings of self-worth or self-regard.

While it is necessary to define self-esteem, it is equally important to acknowledge the motivational aspect of self-esteem (especially this investigation deals with depression). Gecas (1991) maintains that because an inpidual has a self-concept, he will be motivated to “maintain and enhance it, to conceive of it as efficacious and consequential, and to experience it as meaningful and real” (p. 174). Gecas further explains that one way a person can do this is through the self-esteem motive.

The self-esteem motive refers to a person’s desire to view one’s self favourably and behave in such a way that will maintain or enhance a favorable view of one’s self. In short, self-esteem can be motivational. Motivation is that which gives direction to action and intensity and persistence to the directed action. Taking these two definitions into account, it can be said that a person’s level of self-esteem dictates what types of behaviour that particular person may engage in.

With this motivational aspect of self-esteem develops a debate that has long been the interest of many researches. There has been a long standing debate on the impact of self-esteem to an inpidual’s psychological well-being, especially his vulnerability to depression. According to Whitley (1983), self-esteem is related to psychological well-being both empirically and theoretically; that is, high self-esteem is seen by clinicians to be a healthy and desirably characteristic and that many literatures has examined the connection of self-esteem to depression, anxiety, poor general adjustment, and self-referral to mental health professionals.

One position in this debate sees self-esteem as a powerful influence on inpidual health and stability. Research in depression provides an example of evidence for a hypothesized protective factor of high self-esteem against the development of symptomatology. Although Beck’s (1967) theory of depression does not seem to be as emphatic on the idea that high self-esteem is a protective factor; it does suggest that low self-esteem results in a type of vulnerability to depressive symptoms. Beck also records the common finding people suffering from depression commonly express negative feelings about themselves, specifically feelings of worthlessness.

A negative evaluation of the self forms one leg of Beck’s primary cognitive triad of depressive symptoms where the depressed inpidual “not only sees himself as inferior, but he dislikes himself for it” (p. 259). A connection between level of self-esteem and coexisting depressive symptoms has been recorded across many studies. Many researchers in psychology have adopted this position.

Feather’s (1985) study of the relations among gender roles, self-esteem, and depressions suggested that self-esteem may be as much as construction of Western, inpidualized culture as are masculinity and femininity. Feather found the widely reported negative correlation between masculinity and depression disappeared when the effects of self-esteem were controlled. This suggested that masculinity and self-esteem might reflect the same construct. Thus, according to Feather, “…self-esteem may reflect in part the dominant masculine values of Western-type cultures” (p. 491).

Thus, traits researchers attributed to self-esteem were in fact the same traits that researchers attributed to masculinity. Thus one who is masculine, goal- or action-oriented is reinforced for reflecting dominant cultural goals and by virtue of those traits is said to have high self-esteem. It is, however, still unclear as to what is assigned the protective factor against depression – high self-esteem or adoption of male-oriented socially supported roles.

In 1993, Andrews and Brown compared Rosenberg’s (1965) SES to their interview measure. They called their measure the Self Evaluaton and Social Support scale (SESS). The SESS was designed to measure positive and negative self-evaluation using scales measuring personal attributes, role performance, and self-acceptance across occupational, domestic and interpersonal contexts. Andrews and Brown reported that the interview measure was more successful at predicting subsequent depression due to its focus on specific dimensions of self-dissatisfaction for each inpidual.

Each interview was conducted by a researcher who gathered facts and coded emotional tone, salience, and frequency of positive and negative comments. This meant the interviewer was responsible for judging the relevance of information and emotional context for inclusion into the data set, comparing them with anchors, and then making ratings of self-esteem for the inpidual. This is clearly a more fluid, state-based approach to self-esteem. Andrews and Brown contrast this approach to the trait-based self-report questionnaires, which they hypothesize are handicapped by their demands on reliability and comparability of item responses across inpiduals. They argue that this focus of the trait-based measures is not sensitive to specific abilities or domain that have salience to the inpidual subject.

However, since previous research demonstrates that the prediction of depressive symptoms from level of self-esteem is inconsistent, many researchers have begun looking at a different aspect of self-esteem for a better definition of its relationship with vulnerability to depressive symptoms. This they called the lability of self-esteem. Self-esteem lability is the tendency of an inpidual’s self-esteem to fluctuate over time in response to environmental or social influences (Butler, Hokanson & Flynn, 1994).

Butler et al. (1994) found that self-esteem lability is a better index of vulnerability to depression than trait or level-bases self-esteem (whether self-esteem is high or low). This research suggested that self-esteem lability interacts with daily events to produce depressive symptoms wherein an inpidual with labile self-esteem had a higher reactivity to life stressors than an inpidual with a more stable sense of self-esteem.

Whisman and Kwon (1993) examined the role of self-esteem and hopelessness to life stress and dysphoria. They assessed eighty undergraduates on self-esteem, hopelessness, and dysphoria and reassessed them after three months on life events, daily hassles, hopelessness, and dysphoria (Whisman and Kwon, 1993). They found a significant association between residual change in dysphoria and self-esteem, life stress and an extreme interaction of both. Furthermore, they found that “residual change in hopelessness mediated the relations between residual change in dysphoria and both self-esteem and life stress” (Whisman and Kwon, 1993, abstract).

These studies provide a reasonably solid basis upon which to advance the idea that self-esteem lability has a strong connection with vulnerability to depression. The models generally proposed using self-esteem lability follow a diathesis-stress structure in which an inpidual carries some kind of vulnerability to depressive symptoms that, while predisposing him to a depressive illness, will not develop into depression unless triggered by the correct environmental stressors. The vulnerability to illness is not enough to trigger expression of symptoms. Vulnerability and stressor must both be present at sufficient levels and interact to produce depressive symptoms.

The existing research literature is generally supportive of the role of social self-esteem in prediction of depressive symptoms. Many models of depressive vulnerability use the concept of reliance upon external sources for self-esteem or social comparison as a diathesis for future illness. However, there are substantive differences for the relation of personal relevance of this concept. For inpiduals endorsing low levels of social esteem relevance, depressive symptoms were predicted by adverse events and an interaction of social self-esteem and self-esteem lability.

Further analysis of the relation between the variables in this interaction term revealed a negative relationship between these variables. This would suggest that for inpiduals endorsing low relevance of social self-esteem, high levels of lability may have a predictive relationship with depressive symptoms when those inpiduals experience low levels of self-esteem derived from social sources. For inpiduals endorsing high relevance of social esteem, depressive symptoms were predicted through an interaction of social self-esteem level and adverse events. While exploratory at this time, these findings would seem to leave little doubt that social self-esteem and its centrality to the inpidual have important effects in a model of vulnerability to depressive symptoms.


  • Andrews, B., & Brown, G. W. (1993). Self-esteem and vulnerability to depression: The concurrent validity of interview and questionnaire measures. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 102, 565-572.
  • B.E. Whitley, J. (1983). Sex role orientation and self-esteem: A critical meta-analytic review. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 44(765-778).
  • Beck, A. (1967). Depression: Clinical, experimental, and theoretical aspects. London: Staples.
  • Butler, A. C., Hokanson, J. E., & Flynn, H. A. (1994). A comparison of self-esteem lability and low trait self-esteem as vulnerability factors for depression. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 66, 166-177.
  • Coopersmith, S. (1967). The antecedents of self-esteem. San Francisco: W.H. Freeman and Company.
  • Feather, N. T. (1985). Masculinity, femininity, self-esteem, and subclinical depression. Sex Roles, 12, 491-500.
  • Gecas, V. (1991). The self-concept as a basis for a theory of motivation. In J. A. Howard & P. L. Callero (Eds.), The self-society dynamic: Cognition, emotion, and action (pp. 171-187). New York: Cambridge University Press.
  • Holland, A., & Andre, T. (1994). The relationship of self-esteem to selected personal and environmental resources of adolescents. 29(114), 345-360.
  • Rosenberg, M. (1965). Society and the adolescent self-image. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
  • Whisman, M. A., & Kwon, P. (1993). Life stress and dysphoria: The role of self-esteem and hopelessness. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 65(5), 1054-1060.
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