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Self-esteem can be defined as how favorably individuals evaluate themselves. (Baumeister, 2008).[1] Accoding to Leary (1999), self-esteem is the relationship between one’s real self and one’s ideal self, feeding off of favorable behaviors.[2]

There have been several different proposals as to the functions of self-esteem:

  • To satisfy the inherent need to feel good about one self.
  • To minimize social rejection (Anthony at al. 2007, Leary 1999).[3]
  • A way for a person to remain dominant in relationships (Barkow, 1980).[4]
  • To protect people from the fear that can arise from the prospect of death – terror management theory (Leary, 1999).
  • To motivate people to achieve their goals - high self-esteem leading to coping in situations and low self-esteem leading to avoidance (Leary 1999).

Evolutionary Perspectives

Sociometer Theory

The sociometer theory was developed by Mark Leary (1999)[5] to explain the functions of self-esteem. A sociometer is a measure of how desirable one would be to other people - this is influenced by one’s self-esteem. They suggested that self-esteem has evolved to monitor one’s social acceptance and is used as a gauge for avoiding social devaluation and rejection. The sociometer theory is strongly grounded in evolutionary theories which suggest that survival depends on social acceptance for reasons such as protection, reciprocal behaviours and most importantly reproduction. The monitoring of one's acceptance via self-esteem is therefore crucial in order to achieve these kinds of social interactions and be better able to compete for the social benefits of them.

Kirkpatrick and Ellis (2003) expanded on Leary’s work and suggested that the sociometer’s function was not only to ensure that an individual was not excluded from their social group but also to rate the strength of the social group compared to other groups.[6]

The Ethological Perspective

The ethological perspective (Barkow, 1980) suggests that self-esteem is an adaptation that has evolved for the purpose of maintaining dominance in relationships. It is said that human beings have evolved certain mechanisms for monitoring dominance in order to facilitate reproductive behaviours such attaining a mate. Because attention and favorable reactions from others were associated with being dominant, feelings of self-esteem have also become associated with social approval and deference. From this perspective, the motive to evaluate oneself positively in evolutionary terms is to enhance one’s relative dominance (Leary, 1999).

Leary et al. (2001) tested the idea of dominance and social acceptance on self-esteem. Trait self-esteem appeared to be related to the degree to which participants felt accepted by specific people in their lives, but not to the degree to which participants thought those individuals perceived them as dominant. Acceptance and dominance appeared to have independent effects on self-esteem.[7]

Terror Management Theory

The Terror management theory, developed by Sheldon Solomon at al. (1991),[8] which in relation to self-esteem states that having self-esteem helps protect individuals from the fear they experience at the prospect of their own death. It is suggested that people are constantly searching for ways to enhance their self-esteem in order to avoid thoughts of dying.


Some researchers believe that having a high self-esteem facilitates goal achievement. Bednar, Wells, and Peterson (1989)[9] proposed that self-esteem is a form of subjective feedback about the adequacy of the self. This feedback (self-esteem) is positive when the individual copes well with circumstances and is negative when he or she avoids threats. In turn, self-esteem affects subsequent goal achievement; high self-esteem increases coping, and low self-esteem leads to further avoidance (Leary, 1999).

Illusion of Control

Illusion of control is the tendency for human beings to believe they can control, or at least influence, outcomes that they demonstrably have no influence over, a mindset often seen in those who gamble (Langer, 1975).[10] However, for individuals who are not gamblers Taylor and Brown (1988) suggest it may serve to be a function of self-esteem. Belief that there is a level of control over the situation a person is in, may lead to an increased level of motivation and performance in a self-regulating manner.[11] In other words, one will work harder to become successful if they believe they have control over their success. A high self-esteem would be needed for this belief of control and so the need for a sense of control may be a function of self-esteem. When applying sociometer theory, it suggests that the illusion of control is an adaptive response in order to self-regulate behaviour to cultural norms and thereby provide an individual with an increased level of self-esteem.


  1. Baumeister, R.F. & Bushman, B. (2008). Social Psychology and Human Nature (1st Edition). Belmont, CA: Wadsworth. .
  2. Leary, M.R. (1999) Making Sense of Self-Esteem. Current Directions in Psychological Science 8 (1) , 32–35.
  3. Anthony, D. B., Wood, J. V., & Holmes, J. G. (2007). Testing sociometer theory: Self-esteem and the importance of acceptance for social decision-making. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 43(3), 425-432.
  4. Barkow, J. (1980). Prestige and self-esteem: A biosocial interpretation. In D. R. Omark, F. F. Strayer, & D. G. Freedman (Eds.), Dominance relations: An ethological view of human conflict and social interaction (pp. 319–332). New York: Garland STPM Press.
  5. Leary, M.R. (1999) Making Sense of Self-Esteem. Current Directions in Psychological Science 8 (1) , 32–35.
  6. Kirkpatrick, L. A., & Ellis, B. J. (2001). An evolutionary-psychological approach to self-esteem: multiple domains and multiple functions. In G. J. O. Fletcher & M. S. Clark (Eds.), Blackwell handbook of social psychology: Interpersonal processes (pp. 411-436). Oxford, UK: Blackwell Publishers.
  7. Leary, M.R., Cottrell, C.A. & Phillips, M. (2001) Deconfounding the effects of dominance and social acceptance on self-esteem Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 81(5), 898-909.
  8. Solomon, S., Greenberg, J., & Pyszczynski, T. (1991). A terror management theory of social behavior: The psychological functions of self-esteem and cultural worldviews. Advances in Experimental Social Psychology, 24, 93–159.
  9. Bednar, R., Wells, G., & Peterson, S. (1989). Self-esteem: Paradoxes and innovations in clinical theory and practice. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.
  10. Langer, E. J. & Roth, J. (1975). Heads I win, tails it's chance: The illusion of control as a function of the sequence of outcomes in a purely chance task. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 34, 191-198.
  11. Taylor, S. E., & Brown, J. D. (1988). Illusion and Well-Being - a Social Psychological Perspective On Mental-Health. Psychological Bulletin, 103(2), 193-210.

Further reading

  • Greenberg, J., Solomon, S., Pyszczynski, T., Rosenblatt, A., et al. (1992). Why do people need self-esteem? Converging evidence that self-esteem serves an anxiety-buffering function. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 63, 913-922.
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