It is a widely held belief that low self-esteem triggers violent behaviour, the origin of which is unknown. Baumeister, Bushman and Campbell (2000) conducted a study investigating this view; the following article attempts to summarise the ideas stated in their paper, entitled ‘Self-esteem, narcissism, and aggression: Does violence result from low self-esteem or from threatened egotism?’.
People with low self-esteem are generally portrayed as risk averse, easily influenced and deficient in self-confidence. These characteristics are incongruous with aggression – even likely to dampen or inhibit it – given that hostile behaviours are intrinsically risky.
Low self-esteem is correspondent to a lack of confidence in achievement, whereas aggression is typically executed with an expectation of overpowering another person.
Most pertinently, those harbouring low self-esteem are doubtful in their self-identity, whereas aggression is likely carried out to uphold high self-regard. Baumeister et al. point out,
“Violent men seem to have a strong sense of personal superiority, and their violence often seems to stem from a sense of wounded pride. When someone else questions or disputes their favorable view of self, they lash out in response.”
When large groups diverge in levels of self-esteem, those with greater self-esteem are typically more violent. Violent individuals such as murderers, rapists and wife beaters are all discernible by their firmly held convictions of self-dominance.
Moreover, manic depressive individuals tend to show more aggression throughout a manic phase, indicated by a highly positive self-view, than during a period of depression, which is characterised by low self-esteem. Being drunk is also shown to temporarily enhance self-esteem, in tandem with a propensity for violence.
Based on these data, should we jump to the reverse assumption, that high self-esteem triggers aggression? Baumeister et al. think not.
They suggest we should first determine whether especially nonviolent people also have high self-esteem.
To that end, an important distinction is made by the authors between stable and unstable self-esteem. In their study, they found that people whose self-esteem is high and stable are least inclined to be hostile, while those with high and unstable self-esteem are the most hostile.
Research shows a strong association between narcissism and elevated but volatile self-esteem. Narcissism is therefore conceivably linked to aggression and violence, particularly during an encounter in which a narcissist is faced with mistrust or challenge to their excessively flattering self-view.
Narcissists are deeply devoted and attached to such views, and they wish for others to agree with them. Therefore, when their self-view is threatened, they feel they must defend it.
That said, Baumeister et al. emphasise that narcissism should be understood as a risk factor rather than a direct cause of aggression, and that the more threatening sides of narcissism lie in feelings of superiority and entitlement rather than mere vanity or arrogance.
At this point, a frequent question introduced is whether outward egotism is simply a method of concealing deep-seated insecurities. For example, perhaps wife beaters actually feel inferior to their wives, using aggression as a cover-up.
In response to this question, Baumeister et al. ask,
“How can hidden low self-esteem cause aggression if non-hidden low self-esteem has no such effect?”
Studies too have discarded this view. For the most part, playground bullies and gang members do not have covert low self-esteem. Likewise, practically all studies show that narcissists have high self-esteem.
Overall, Baumeister et al. suggest it is time to put an end to the search for straightforward links between self-esteem and aggression. Research has refuted the age-old view that low self-esteem leads to violence, while the opposing view incriminating high self-esteem is overly simplistic. High self-esteem is a trait of both aggressive and non-aggressive people, and so endeavours to make direct predictions are unconvincing. By and large, it seems redundant to suppose any direct link between self-views and aggression.
Baumeister, R. F., Bushman, B. J., & Campbell, W. K. (2000). Self-esteem, narcissism, and aggression: Does violence result from low self-esteem or from threatened egotism?. Current directions in psychological science, 9(1), 26-29.
Baumeister, R. (1993). Self-esteem. New York: Plenum Press.