Part 4: Measuring Self-Esteem, Self-Esteem and SES, and limitations

Measuring Self-Esteem

The Rosenberg Self-Esteem Scale (1965) and the Coopersmith Self-Esteem Inventory (I 967/1981) are among the most popular and frequently employed measures of self-esteem.

Initially developed to measure adolescent’s global feelings of self-worth or self-acceptance, Rosenberg’s scale generally was and is to this day, considered the standard against which other measures of self-esteem should be compared (Yazdani and Daryei, 2016).

10 questions are used to make a score, using a four point response ranging from strongly agree to strongly disagree. The questions are transparent and the scale is short and easy to use.

Blascovich and Tomaka (1991) attest that extensive and acceptable reliability (internal consistency and test-retest) and validity (convergent and discriminant) information exists for the Rosenberg self-esteem scale.

The Coopersmith Self-Esteem Inventory was developed using research to assess attitude toward oneself overall, and in specific contexts such as peers, parents, school and personal interests. It was originally designed for use with children, and drew upon items from scales that had been previously used by Carl Rogers (Adler and Stewart, 2004).

Participants state whether a set of 50 generally favourable or unfavourable characteristics of a person they identify with relate to them – “like me” or “not like me.” There are two forms, a school form (ages 8-15) and an adult form (ages 16 and older) (Anastasi, 1988; Blascovich and Tomaka, 1991; Pervin, 1993).

Blascovich and Tomaka, 1991, also confirmed that extensive and acceptable reliability (internal consistency and test-retest) and validity (convergent and discriminant) information exists for the Self-Esteem Inventory.

Correlation Between Self-Esteem and SES

Perhaps the most well known investigation into the correlation between self-esteem and SES is Rosenberg and Pearlin’s (1978) assessment of social class and self-esteem among children and adults. It was long believed that there existed an obvious connection between an individual’s social status/prestige and one’s personal sense of worth (Adler and Stewart, 2004).

However, Rosenberg and Pearlin suggested that age was critical in tearing apart this relationship. In fact, they observed no association between social class of parents (measured by the Hollingshead Index of Social Position) and self-esteem among younger children, little association among adolescents and a moderate association among adults based on their own social class (Rosenberg and Pearlin, 1978).

Theories on social comparison processes, reflected self-appraisals, self-perception theory and psychological centrality all help to explain the age graded relationship (Adler and Stewart, 2004). Because the importance of class in the interpersonal context differs from children to adults, and because the social class of children is facilitated rather than achieved as with adults, Rosenberg and Pearlin argue that the extent to which the sense of inequality inherent in the meaning of social class is mirrored within individuals is not the same for children as it is for adults (Rosenberg and Pearlin, 1978).

Coopersmith’s (1967) original work was designed to examine the roots of self-esteem in children. The work entailed children filling out the Self-Esteem Inventory and rating their parents. Their mothers filled out questionnaires and were interviewed – the results indicated that:

“external indicators of prestige (of the parents/family) such as wealth, degree of education, and job status did not have as overwhelming and as significant an effect on self-esteem as is often assumed” (Pervin, 1993, P. 189).

Parental attitudes and behaviours, acceptance of their children, clear and well enforced demands and respect for actions within well defined limits were the primary predeterminants of children’s sense of self-worth (Pervin, 1993).

The work by Rosenberg and Pearlin (1978) and Coopersmith (1967) has been carried on by others exploring the relationship of self-esteem to SES, especially among adolescents:

  • Filsinger and Anderson (1982) found no relationship between own SES (Duncan SES Index) and self-esteem (Rosenberg Self-Esteem Scale) among adolescents, but a significant relationship between the SES of the person’s best friend and self-esteem.
  • They attribute this to an increased sense of self-efficacy among those who interact with friends who are of a higher social status than they are, as it may be the social status of significant others from which adolescents derive their own sense of social status (Filsinger and Anderson, 1982).
  • Demo and Savin-Williams (1983) replicated and further extended Rosenberg and Pearlin’s results, and demonstrated that the relationship between SES (father’s occupation) and self-esteem (Coopersmith Self-Esteem Inventory, plus two others to assess reflected appraisals and academic self-esteem) was greater among eighth-graders than among fifth-graders.
  • Richman, Clark and Brown (1985) found a main effect for the relationship between self-esteem and SES among adolescents, but showed that this had complicated interactions at play of gender, race, and social class: white females (including high SES individuals) were significantly lower in general self-esteem than white males and black males and females.
  • There has been considerable research on the relationship between race and self-esteem, and with social class – in which we expect to see social order being reflected in individual self-assessments, people of colour are hypothesized to have lower self-esteem than are white people. However, research comparing whites and blacks shows blacks often have equal or higher self-esteem than whites, and a number of theories, including those related to self-protection and disidentification, have been put forward to explain these results (Crocker, Voelkl, Testa, and Major, 1991; Steele, 1992).
  • Wiltfang and Scarbecz (1990), using traditional as well as non-traditional measures of social class (such as father’s unemployment status, neighbourhood unemployment, family welfare status, and neighbourhood evaluation), found that father’s education had a small positive relationship to adolescents’ self-esteem, and non-traditional measures had moderate to strong (neighbourhood unemployment) associations with self-esteem (items from Rosenberg and Coopersmith) as expected. However, they also found that adolescent achievement variables (school grades, group leadership, report of many close friends) contributed significantly more to their self-esteem than parental social class variables did.

There are a few problems and considerations you should take into account if you want to measure self-esteem, including:

Lack of consensus on the definition (Demo, 1985).

Overall gender differences in self-esteem (Bingham, 1983).

Too many instruments for assessing self-esteem, and low correlations between them (Demo, 1985).

The unexplained variance between self-reports and inferred measures such as ratings by others (Demo, 1985).

Although these issues are certainly not unique to the measurement of self-esteem, one should approach the assessment of self-esteem with multiple measurement methods in hand, with the appropriate level of caution or both.

Even though there are various issues with the measurement of self-esteem, avoiding measuring in the first place cannot be an option. If you are looking to measure self-esteem and concerned about finding a validated scale, there is no need to look any further than to one of the foundations of self-esteem research: Rosenberg’s scale (Ackerman and Brown, 2018).

The Rosenberg’s Self-Esteem Scale (see Rosenberg, 1965 or project-oracle, n.d.) is the most common self-esteem scale (also called the RSE and sometimes the SES). This scale was developed by Rosenberg and presented in his 1965 book ‘Society and the Adolescent Self-Image’.

It contains 10 items, rated on a scale from 1 (strongly agree) to 4 (strongly disagree). Some of the items are reverse scored and the total score can be calculated by summing up the total points to give an overall measure of self-esteem.

The 10 items are:

1. On the whole, I am satisfied with myself.
2. At times I think I am no good at all.
3. I feel that I have a number of good qualities.
4. I am able to do things as well as most other people.
5. I feel I do not have much to be proud of.
6. I certainly feel useless at times.
7. I feel that I’m a person of worth.
8. I wish I could have more respect for myself.
9. All in all, I am inclined to think that I am a failure.
10. I take a positive attitude toward myself.

As you likely figured out already, items 2, 5, 6, 8, and 9 are reverse-scored, while the other items are scored normally. This creates a single score of between 10 and 40 points, with lower scores indicating higher self-esteem and higher scores indicating lower self-esteem.

The scale is considered highly consistent and reliable by many sources, and scores correlate highly with other measures of self-esteem and negatively with measures of depression and anxiety. Having been used by thousands of researchers throughout the years and still being in use today, it is no doubt one of the most cited scales ever developed (Ackerman and Brown, 2018).

The second most commonly used reliable and valid measure for self-esteem is the Coopersmith Self-Esteem Inventory (1967/1981). Within this test, 50 items are included to measure the participants attitudes towards themselves by responding to statements with the selection of “like me” or “not like me” (Robinson, Shaver and Wrightsman, 2010).

Initially created to test the self-esteem of children, it was later altered by Ryden (1978). Two separate versions now exist; one for children and one for adults.


The Coopersmith Self-Esteem Inventory has been criticised for lack of a stable factor structure (Blascovich and Tomaka, 1991). Arguably the biggest limitation of all measures of self-esteem is their susceptibility to socially desirable responding, as most measures are self-reported and it is difficult to obtain non-self report measures of a construct that is so subjective and personal (Adler and Stewart, 2004).

Scores tend to exhibit a skew towards high self-esteem, with even the lowest scorers on most tests scoring above the mean and exhibiting relatively high levels of self-esteem (Adler and Stewart, 2004). As Blascovich and Tomaka (1991, p. 123) note, however, “an individual who fails to endorse Self-Esteem Scale items at least moderately is probably clinically depressed”, indicating that even the relatively restricted range of self-esteem scores is useful among, and representative of, non-depressed individuals (Adler and Stewart, 2004). Finally, the Coopersmith Self-Esteem Inventory has been criticised for lack of a stable factor structure (Blascovich and Tomaka, 1991).

According to (Zeigler-Hill, Jordan and Cameron, 2017), additional attention from scholars is needed to improve knowledge in the areas of: the structure of self-esteem, group differences in self-esteem, the connection of self-esteem to important life outcomes, as mentioned prior, and the heterogeneous nature of self-esteem.

Although psychologists have highly rated the benefits of self-esteem for many years, research has exposed some costs associated with the pursuit of high self-esteem (Crocker and Park, 2004), including narcissism (Bushman and Baumeister, 1998), distorted self-perceptions (Sedikides, 1993), contingent and/or unstable self-worth (Crocker and Wolfe, 2001) and anger and violence toward those who threaten the ego (Baumeister, Smart and Boden, 1996).

It seems that self-compassion can bring the same mental health benefits as self-esteem, but with fewer drawbacks such as narcissism, ego-defensive anger, inaccurate self-perceptions, self-worth contingency or social comparison (Leary, Tate, Adams, Allen and Hancock, 2007; Neff and Vonk, n.d.).