Limitations of Self-Esteem Questionnaires and New Possibilities

Author: Sophia Su
Mentor: Dr. Tara Well
Stuyvesant High School


The concept of self-esteem is well known in psychological literature, but its measurement has been riddled with problems of reliability and validity. In this review, problems of self-report self-esteem scales such as participants’ vulnerability to situational, social, and cultural biases are examined. Solutions are proposed, including the use of implicit self-esteem measures and behavioral observations. Through a multi-measurement approach, the already valuable concept of self-esteem can be more accurately measured and understood.

Limitations of Self-Esteem Questionnaires and New Possibilities

The concept of self-esteem is one of the oldest concepts of the self in psychology. William James first coined the term in his famous book The Principles of Psychology, published in 1890. According to James, self-esteem is equivalent to “the ratio of our actualities to our supposed potentialities.” This means that levels of self-esteem depend on the balance between success and the possible success of a person. If a person achieves every goal they believe they can achieve, they will have higher levels of self-esteem. Similarly, if a person does not achieve any of the goals they can achieve, they will have lower levels of self-esteem. Over the years, the definition of self-esteem has been modified as numerous researchers used it in their work. Today, most people define it more generally as one’s perception of their worth. If someone thinks they are a valuable person, they are considered to have high self-esteem. However, if someone thinks they are useless or worthless, they are considered to have low levels of self-esteem. Nowadays, self-esteem is a household word but has been challenging to measure in psychological research. This paper will examine some of those challenges.

During the mid-1940s, self-esteem began to appear in clinical and experimental studies (Ward, 1996). Some self-esteem articles have even been published in some of America’s most prestigious human behavior publications. The articles claimed that having a strong sense of self-worth was linked to several favorable outcomes, including success in school, general happiness, and long life. However, low self-esteem was linked to many unhealthy behaviors and conditions like substance abuse, anxiety, and depression. Soon after, a number of psychologists started using it as a diagnostic tool for unhealthy behaviors. Despite its growing popularity, self-esteem was only primarily known within the scientific community. So how did the concept become commonly recognized? We owe that to the efforts of two psychologists.

In the 1960s, Morris Rosenberg’s Society and the Adolescent Self-Image (1965) and Stanley Coopersmith’s The Antecedents of Self-Esteem (1967) were published. Rosenberg was able to link self-esteem with social class, ethnicity, and religion through his work with comprehensive surveys. He concluded that parental care and education were crucial elements in shaping self-esteem development in children (Ward, 1996). Through these conclusions, the concept spread among educators and politicians who wanted to improve academic performance and tackle social challenges.

Coopersmith, adding to Rosenberg, made the concept of self-esteem more well-known among parents by portraying it as a crucial aspect of a child’s growth (Ward, 1996). He counseled parents to concentrate on fostering their child’s self-esteem from an early age to ensure success and happiness in the future.

By the early 1970s, the concept had become associated with various social movements and topics such as commercial success, women’s rights, and self-help. Many self-help authors promoted high self-esteem as a significant contributor to a person’s success. This publicity, with the publication of scientific studies on self-esteem and the inclusion of the concept in TV shows and everyday speech, helped popularize the notion of self-esteem.

The concept of self-esteem is still very prevalent due to extensive research (Robinson et al., 2013). Self-esteem has been correlated with various variables, from academic performance to personal relationships (Huang, 2011; Harris & Orth, 2019). Because self-esteem is associated with numerous variables, many people might assume that self-esteem is essential in all aspects of life and must be maintained at a high level to ensure overall well-being. Lastly, the integration of the idea of self-esteem into popular media makes it hard to avoid. Regardless of whether one wants to be more comfortable with themselves, make more friends, or do better in school, raising self-esteem shows up as the solution. After all, if praising oneself can ensure happiness and success, why wouldn’t people do it?

Problems with Self-esteem Measures

Closer examinations of some of the earlier self-esteem studies revealed that most did not use scientifically sound methods. According to a study in Scientific American, fewer than 200 of the more than 15,000 publications on self-esteem published between 1970 and 2000 adhered to any criterion for academic or scientific rigor (Baumeister et al., 2005). That means that only a little more than 1% of the publications met sound research requirements. However, many researchers overestimate the validity of these results, especially those of self-report questionnaires, and continue to cite these older studies.

Over the past century, many scales have been developed to measure self-esteem. However, within the last few decades, self-report questionnaires have become the most widely used method. One of the more popular ones, the Rosenberg Self-Esteem Scale, has been cited over 40,000 times according to Google Scholar and used in around 50% of self-esteem studies published in major scientific journals (Monteiro et al., 2021). Why are self-report questionnaires so popular? Because they are easy to administer. To administer most self-report questionnaires, researchers only need to give the participants the questionnaire itself. There is no requirement for expensive machinery, a sizable team of researchers, a lengthy time frame, excessive financing, or even a physical location. This method saves researchers time and energy, but this ease also comes at a price.

Situational Variability Bias

Generally, the environment in which one takes a self-questionnaire can affect the response. For instance, in the context of self-esteem assessments, a person who recently lost their job might do worse on the test than if they took it on a typical day. On the other hand, someone who recently received a promotion might perform better on their self-esteem test than they would on a typical day. As a result, the statistics may be unintentionally distorted depending on the participants’ moods. Self-esteem is usually conceptualized as a stable trait, but it can also fluctuate depending on situational factors (P. Rose & Vogel, 2020). Therefore, fluctuations in scores based on external factors can cause researchers to measure a participant’s state self-esteem, their self-evaluation in a particular moment due to a specific situation. However, most researchers use the scale as a measure of global self-esteem, that is, an individual’s self-evaluation over an extended period. Therefore, researchers may interpret results as global self-esteem, but the scores may also be influenced by situational factors.

Social Desirability Bias

Many self-esteem scales have face validity, meaning that the test takers can discern what the scale is meant to measure. Therefore, people, motivated by the desire to appear likable and successful, may answer the questions accordingly. For instance, they may exaggerate their answers to items that match their desired outcome and downplay their answers to items that do not match their desired outcome. Social desirability bias can also happen unintentionally. When participants want to maintain a positive self-concept, they can deceive themselves into thinking that they have higher levels of self-esteem than they actually do (Latkin et al., 2017). Either way, social desirability bias may lead to inaccurate self-report data and study conclusions.

Lack of Cross-cultural application

Self-esteem scales ask people to think about and report their beliefs about themselves objectively. Most researchers assume that everyone shares the same concept of self-esteem and can respond to the scales similarly. However, prior research shows that culture plays an important role in how people think about themselves. In a landmark study by Markus and Kitayama (1991), the authors elaborate on the effect of independent and interdependent cultures on self-identity. They revealed that people of different cultures have entirely divergent construals of themselves, of others around them, and the relationship between the two. For instance, people from individualistic countries like the United States had more independent self-concepts. However, people from collectivist countries like Japan had more interdependent self-concepts. These construals, according to them, can even influence cognition and motivation. These findings can apply to self-esteem since the culture of the participants taking the self-report questionnaires can significantly affect their understanding of the concept and opinions of themselves.

A meta-analysis of 113 independent research studies and over 140,600 participants examined the factor structure of the Rosenberg Self-Esteem Scale (RSES) (Gnambs et al., 2018). The scale intended to measure a single dominant factor representing global self-esteem. When this assumption was tested, the one-factor solution worked best across samples from the United States and other highly individualistic countries. However, the single-factor solution was lower for less individualistic countries. Thus, the researchers concluded that although the RSES essentially represents a unidimensional scale, cross-cultural comparisons might not be justified because the cultural background of the respondents affects the interpretation of the items.

In another study with close to 17,000 participants, subjects of all cultures scored above the theoretical midpoint of the RSES, indicating a potentially culturally independent positive self-evaluation (Schmitt & Allik, 2005). However, individual differences in self-esteem variables across cultures were discovered, with a neutral response bias prevalent in more collectivist cultures.

One reason for this more neutral response bias might be the concept of a balance of opposing forces that are highly prevalent in some collectivist cultures (Cheung et al., 2003). For example, in China, a collectivist country, recognizing one’s weaknesses and strengths is seen as motivation for self-improvement. Therefore, they acknowledge both negatively and positively worded items and may seek to maintain more neutral responses for both types. On the other hand, participants from more individualistic societies might believe that having a positive self implies not having a negative one. Therefore, they might attempt to score higher on positively worded items and lower on negatively worded ones. This devotion to one positive or negative self can cause the answers of the items of the participants from independent cultures to be less neutral than those of the participants from interdependent cultures.

Additionally, many collectivist cultures exhibit the modesty bias. The modesty bias occurs when individuals attribute failure to themselves but deflect their success. For example, a person that exhibits modesty bias might claim when winning an award that it was all due to the help of their friends and family. However, when losing, they would blame it on their own lack of hard work. The reason people are often modest in this way is that they aim to draw attention away from themselves to prevent others from feeling inferior (Min et al., 2016). This behavior is the norm in certain cultures and is especially common in collectivist societies (Hockenbury & Hockenbury, 2011). Therefore, when responding to scales pertaining to their self-esteem, people from cultures that normalize modesty might attempt to score lower to appear to reduce their role or confidence in their success.

The principle of harmonization and the modesty bias can complicate direct cross-cultural comparisons of self-esteem. For example, on average, a group of participants from a collectivist society might score lower than a group of participants from an individualistic society on a typical self-esteem scale. The differences in scores, however, do not automatically indicate that one culture has lower self-esteem. The participants from the collectivist society might have been prone to the modesty bias and purposefully altered their answers to score lower. At the same time, participants from the individualistic society might have attempted to score higher, as, in some cultures, high self-esteem is socially valuable. Even if all participants have the same self-worth level, cultural biases can influence their scores on self-report questionnaires, and Chinese participants are just one example of this. This trend can also extend to participants of other cultures, showing the unreliability of using Western-focused self-esteem scales on non-Western participants.

Given all these problems with current self-esteem scales, one might question the value of the concept of self-esteem itself. Is the concept valuable if the scores from the scales are unreliable? The following section will discuss three arguments for the utility of self-esteem.

First, there is an evolutionary basis for self-esteem. Humans are inherently a social species. We tend to work in groups and like to be accepted by others. From an evolutionary standpoint, being social was beneficial because being in groups provided social support, physical protection, and access to resources and mates. Being appreciated, in particular, increased the likelihood of these benefits and improved the individual’s reproductive success. According to the Sociometer Theory, self-esteem is an evolutionary adaptation that emerged to monitor an individual’s relational value to other people (Leary, 2012). Subjective feelings linked with changes in self-esteem would provide feedback on one’s relational value and inspire behaviors that would assist the individual in maintaining or improving their relational value (Menon, 2017). Therefore, self-esteem was a necessary adaptation since isolated human beings in the past were unlikely to reproduce and survive.

Second, self-esteem has been shown to have anxiety-buffering effects. According to the Terror Management Theory, people have an existential fear of dying (Helm et al., 2020). However, by instilling in people a sense of purpose in a meaningful world, self-esteem can be used to prevent the anxiety that comes with contemplating death. Furthermore, the theory contends that self-esteem contributes to human adaptability and flexibility. When people are more confident in their abilities and worth, they are less likely to get stressed when facing challenges. Instead, they have a sense of efficacy that allows engagement in challenging activities and helps them cope with difficulties, setbacks, and failures (Menon, 2017). Therefore, a lack of anxiety may have helped humans develop greater self-regulation skills and enabled them to be more adaptable in their behavior.

Lastly, the concept of self-esteem can be used as a motivational construct. High self-esteem is well-known due to its association with a variety of positive traits and attributes. Because of these connotations, many people find having a strong sense of self-worth to be a desirable aim, which is one of the reasons the idea is important. People strive to accomplish and advance themselves when they make efforts to become a more deserving version of themselves. They strive for goal-oriented behavior in which the person they want to become serves as the basis for their decisions and behaviors. People who strive for high self-esteem also develop greater responsiveness to criticism and a willingness to alter their attitudes and behaviors (Crocker & Park, 2004). Whether someone has low or high self-esteem at first, pursuing high self-esteem serves as a superordinate objective for which many more specific goals are made.

In sum, the concept of self-esteem has great utility in helping us understand human behavior. It is a fundamental concept representing the innate condition of being human. It can explain behavior from an evolutionary standpoint as well as everyday behavior. Self-esteem scales are an attempt to quantify this fundamental concept. So, even when there are problems with its measurement, it does not diminish the concept’s importance and utility. But self-report self-esteem scales may not always be accurate. So, are there better approaches to measuring self-esteem? Three alternative approaches are considered here.

One way to improve self-esteem measurement might be the use of implicit self-esteem scales. Most current self-esteem scales measure the concept explicitly, or through the measurement of deliberate responses from participants. Current self-esteem scales also have face validity. Therefore, responses to the scales are prone to situational variability and social desirability bias.

Implicit self-esteem scales, on the other hand, measure the concept implicitly, or through methods that test participants outside of their awareness. For instance, the Implicit Association Test (IAT) is a computer software that administers a series of differentiation tasks to determine how strongly people link themselves with positive and negative attributes. Participants are presented with an item and they are asked to select “me” or “not me” by quickly pressing a key on the left or right side of the keyboard. Faster response times correlate to a stronger implicit association. For instance, a person that is quicker to choose positive attributes as “me” compared to negative attributes is interpreted to have higher implicit self-esteem.

In theory, when done alongside the Rosenberg scale, the IAT should produce different scoring under the condition that there is an underlying bias. For instance, a participant with a social desirability bias to score higher may score high on the Rosenberg scale but have a much slower reaction time to positive traits than one would predict on the IAT, revealing lower implicit self-esteem. On the other hand, a participant with cultural pressures to be more modest might score lower on the Rosenberg scale but have a much faster reaction time to positive traits than one would predict on the IAT, revealing higher implicit self-esteem. Despite some controversy surrounding the IAT (Schimmack, 2021), the IAT might be helpful to administer in conjunction with a self-report questionnaire like the Rosenberg.

Another way to measure self-esteem might be the use of behavioral observations. According to Mischel (1977), self-evaluation is not just a personal, subjective experience. Instead, it can also be measured by external behavior. How one behaves in naturalistic contexts expresses one’s self-esteem to others. Behavioral observations may thus be a beneficial tool in better understanding participants’ self-esteem through body language. For instance, a potential study involving observers could have participants engage with another person in a naturalistic setting or in a setting where the participant is unaware of the motive of the experiment. Observers would watch the interaction live in another room or on film. They would then evaluate the participants based on a list of behaviors linked to low and high self-esteem. For instance, a person that holds eye contact when speaking, defends their arguments, adapts to changes, or takes initiative would be considered by observers to have high self-esteem. However, a person that avoids eye contact, succumbs to peer pressure, gives up easily when frustrated, or only sits back and watches others would be considered by observers to have low self-esteem. A rating system could be used, and ratings from multiple observers could be compared for each participant to ensure inter-rater reliability.

Both implicit self-esteem scales and behavioral observations may be used to better measure self-esteem. However, each method alone may not be able to account for result differences due to the different types of biases. A solution to this might be the triangulation approach. In the triangulation approach, researchers would use all three self-esteem measures: self-report questionnaires, implicit self-esteem scales, and behavioral observations. Knowing how an individual scores on a self-esteem questionnaire like the Rosenberg gives us a measure of their cognitive understanding of their self-worth, while the IAT tells us how they quickly associate negative and positive attributes with themselves without much cognitive deliberation. Additionally, behavioral observations allow us to see how they express their self-esteem through their behavior. By combining these three measurements, researchers are able to account for more biases, creating a more reliable and comprehensive view of an individual’s self-worth.

The concept of self-esteem is fundamental to human nature. It helps us to explain social behavior from an evolutionary perspective, understand how feelings about oneself have anxiety-buffering properties, and is an important motivational construct. However, current self-report measures of self-esteem may not be accurate. As a result, our interpretation of the results from these scales may be compromised. To ensure a more accurate measurement of the concept, we need to take the time to measure it more thoroughly and precisely. Behavioral observations and implicit self-esteem assessments are just two possible alternative approaches to measure self-esteem. Therefore, any future research programs that want to use self-esteem should be aware of the pitfalls of using only a self-report questionnaire and consider using some possible alternative measures. Thus, for a more comprehensive representation of the concept of self-esteem, researchers are encouraged to apply a multi-measure approach.


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About the author

Sophia Su

Sophia Su is a senior at Stuyvesant High School in New York, New York. She is interested in psychology, biology, and physiology and plans to pursue a pre-medical track in college to one day become a gynecologist.