Summarised below are the six major contributors to the development of the concept of self-esteem as outlined by Mruk (1995).


1890 William James 

  • American psychologist
  • Studies of self-esteem based on introspection
  • Self-esteem was not a major issue for James and his writings were limited to a few pages
  • Self-esteem is a affective phenomenon ie: it is lived as a feeling or an emotion
  • Self-esteem is a dynamic process affected by successes and failures and thus open to enhancement
  • James saw a connection between self-esteem, values, success and competence

1963 Robert White 

  • A psychoanalytic/psychodynamic approach
  • Like James, White sees self-esteem as a developmental phenomenon but more so in that self-esteem develops gradually being affected by and in turn effecting experience and behaviour
  • Self-esteem has two sources: an internal source (own accomplishments) and external source (affirmations from others)
  • This theory cannot be tested experimentally
  • The notion of competence is central to this approach

1965 Morris Rosenberg 

  • A sociocultural approach
  • Self-esteem is defined as an attitude (either positive or negative) that we have about ourselves
  • Self-esteem is a product of the influences of culture, society, family and interpersonal relationships
  • The amount of self-esteem an individual has in proportional to the degree to which they positively measure up to a core set of self values
  • Rosenberg links self-esteem to anxiety and depression
  • This theory is based on the analysis of data taken from large sample group of 5000 subjects
  • Feelings/beliefs about worthiness are central to this approach

1967 Stanley Coopersmith

  • A behavioural perspective
  • Similar to Rosenburg in that self-esteem is an attitude and and expression of worthiness. It is also linked to anxiety and depression
  • Coopersmith includes success as well as self-worth as an indicator of self-esteem
  • Self-esteem as a construct or an acquired trait, that is, an individual learns how worthy they are initially from parents. This is reinforced by others. The children model the respect and worthiness of self that they see in their parents.
  • Findings drawn from observational techniques in controlled situations as well as case studies and interviews
  • The downfalls of Coopersmith's theory is that is was based on research taken from middle-class white males in childhood and adolescence

1969 Nathaniel Branden 

  • A humanistic view
  • The first person to define self-esteem in terms of worthiness and competence
  • Self-esteem as a basic human need. Lack of it has serious negative consequences ie substance abuse, suicide, anxiety and depression
  • Self-esteem is dynamic in nature
  • Self-esteem is related to our ability to live in such a way as to honour our view of ourselves
  • Competence, sense of personal worth, self confidence and self respect are important to this theory
  • The limitations of this theory are that the findings were based on a philosophy rather than empirical data

1985 Seymour Epstein 

  • Cognitive-experiential view
  • Epstein also considers self-esteem a basic human need -worthiness which motivates us consciously and unconsciously
  • Self-esteem is seen as a consequence of an individual's understanding of the world and others and who we are in relation to them. We strive to maintain an equilibrium of self
  • There are different levels of self-esteem: global (general overall self-esteem); intermediate which is specific to certain domains for example competence, likability or personal power; situational which are the everyday manifestations of self-esteem. Global and intermediate self-esteem affect situational self-esteem
  • The limitations of this theory are that Epstein is more concerned with personality development than self-esteem