Importance of high self-esteem: Implicit vs. explicit self-esteem

BOSTON — Many regard heightened self-esteem as a worthy aim, but others worry that its significance and value are overrated, reports the June 2007 issue of the Harvard Mental Health Letter.

There is convincing evidence that people with high self-esteem are happier, as well as more likely to undertake difficult tasks and persevere in the face of failure. Other studies have failed to confirm the virtues of high self-esteem. One way to understand the divergent views is to distinguish various kinds of self-esteem. Researchers are beginning to examine differences between explicit and implicit self-esteem. The explicit form is judged by what we say about ourselves, while implicit self-esteem is measured by automatic responses, such as how we associate words that have favorable or unfavorable connotations with ourselves.

When is it sensible to treat high self-esteem as a goal in itself? Critics suggest that even when self-esteem is associated with something desirable — for instance, happiness — there is no proof of a causal link. A genetic predisposition to feeling good might be the source of both happiness and high self-esteem. Making self-esteem the primary goal could remove an incentive for genuine self-improvement and encourage self-centeredness. However, other clinicians say that long-term studies provide sufficient evidence that self-esteem is a source of good things and not just a by-product.

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