The biology of self-esteem: feeling as good as you deserve

Only that which is earned

In one of the many versions of my curriculum vitae – that written detailed account of your work, but not your person – I introduced the concept that, among other intangibles made tangible, my experiences had enriched me with ‘merited esteem’.

I am not as original as I am leading my audience to think. The idea that esteem is simply the value that you deserve to earn, legitimately, from the people that matter, is fundamental to ‘Esteem Dynamics’, an approach to well-being pioneered by evolutionary psychologist Doug Lisle. In his view, the only way to achieve happiness is by making the effort so that when you are judged, compared, and evaluated, you get feedback of the right kind – the type that pleases you.  

As famous as it can get

If the idea that you can be happy by winning esteem can be sold profitably, it follows that there are many potential customers out there, suffering in silence. A search for ‘self-esteem’ on Google Scholar will give you 2.3 million results. In their chapter ‘An Evolutionary-Psychological Approach to Self-esteem: Multiple Domains and Multiple Functions’ (2001) authors Lee Kirkpatrick and Bruce Ellis start by saying that “Perhaps more ink has been devoted to the issue of self-esteem…than any other single topic in psychology”. Self-esteem has been related to a number of psychological and social problems, including loneliness, prejudice, aggression, rejection, criminality, mood disorders, eating disorders, etc.

Only that which is real

As much as we desire it, sadly, self-esteem is not a product that can be bought, maintained or fed to our children in healthy bites of confidence for our peace of mind. In one of the episodes of Shark Tank, the Skinny Mirror, literally, a mirror that tries to improve your self-esteem by making you look skinnier, fails to attract any investment funding. In business, as in life, solutions cannot be effective unless they are grounded in reality, and in our quest for the truth, biology is always a good place to start. 

 A meter for measuring success

One of the most influential theories of self-esteem from an evolutionary-psychological perspective is the sociometer theory, developed by psychologist Mark Leary and his colleagues in 1995, in an attempt to answer questions about the nature, origin and function of self-esteem. Leary and his team propose that self-esteem is an internal measuring device that monitors our success in interpersonal relationships. It is nature’s design for a special meter that gives us information about social acceptance (the level of social inclusion or exclusion), in the same way that a fuel gauge alerts the driver when the fuel falls low.

Not a general-purpose device

Building on the central premise in evolutionary psychology that the mind consists of a number of evolved mechanisms (modules of the brain, just like distinct organs of the body) to deal with different adaptive problems of our ancestral past, in other words, we are equipped with specialised tools because there is no such thing as a general problem, Kirkpatrick and Ellis suggest that natural selection might have crafted a number of social meters, each monitoring success in different areas of our lives: instrumental coalitions, mating relationships, family relationships, between-group competition, and within-group competition. Which roughly translates to collaborations, romantic partnerships, political, religious and ethnic groups, and so on.

Definitely not just a meter

The evolutionary logic behind the sociometer theory is evident. For humans who evolved in groups, social acceptance is critical to survival. If sociometers evolved because they are useful to help us solve problems, they need to do more than simply display the level of self-esteem. Rather than a meter, we should be talking about an advanced controller, a system that senses feedback and triggers a regulatory mechanism. Think of the temperature sensor in your air-conditioner. Now we have a device with real benefits, one that not only indicates the problems, but activates the behavioural strategies to solve them. In evolutionary terms, it makes a lot of sense to have a mechanism that allows people to track their degree of acceptance by others, and to motivate them to ‘fix’ things when something is wrong, by, for example, eliciting sympathy, mending relationships, and making new ones.

Functions for life

In this expanded version, self-esteem serves many evolutionary functions. We now have a device that tracks prestige, status and reputation. It serves as motivation for a person to repeat or intensify acts that bring more respect from others. It guides decisions about whom to challenge and whom to submit to, saving you the injury of battles that were doomed to be lost in the first place, and it helps you guess with some accuracy how desirable you are in the mating market (your mate value), a feature that, for strange but explicable reasons, seems to operate better in the hands of men rather than women. 

The lesson we learn from evolutionary psychology is that when it comes to self-esteem, it pays to know the whole truth about our human biological realities, so we can use as many functions as we can of this high-tech gadget and upgrade it to our advantage.

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