Introduction What contributes to
aggressive behavior? Have the students who are bullying classmates in school a
high or a low self-esteem? Perform hooligans vandalism as a result of a high
self-esteem or is the opposite the case? Former research found contrasting relations between self-esteem and aggression. Some
findings related high self-esteem to aggressive behavior while other findings
attributed aggressive behavior to individuals with low self-esteem. To further
investigate this, it is necessary to understand the concepts of aggression and
Aggression can have many
expressions- child abuse, intimate partner violence, bullying, hooliganism, gang
violence, terrorism, physical attacks. It is considered as any form of behavior
intended to harm or injure another living being who is motivated to avoid such
e1 et al., YEAR).
Aggression is characterized by its underlying motivation (to harm or injure
another person/group), not by its consequences. This implicates that the actor must
understand that his behavior has the potential to cause harm and consciously
decides to do so (Hewstone et al. YEAR.
Aggression is defined as the overall
evaluation that we have of ourselves along a positive-negative dimension (Hewstone et al., YEAR).
Self-esteem is a part of our self-concept, the cognitive representation of our
self-knowledge consisting of a sum of all beliefs we have about ourselves,
giving coherence and meaning to our experience, including our relations (SOURCE). Self-esteem has a trait- and a
state-dimension. Trait self-esteem captures how people feel about themselves
generally overall and typically most of the time, which basically stable in the
course of a life (SOURCE) State self-esteem is a
variable self-evaluation that changes in response to temporary experiences (SOURCE). Generally, over the course of a life a person
has an almost stable self-esteem, which is slightly fluctuating in response to
different situations. It is contingent upon different domains, which determine
its rise and fall. The more the self-worth of a person relies on internal
reinforcers (such as autonomy) than on external reinforcers (such as the opinion
of others or grades), the more an individual is likely to be equipped for “mental
crisis” and the self-esteem is more stable and higher.
In the following, the relation
between aggression and high or low self-esteem will be investigated.
High self-esteem predicts aggressive
Many study findings relate high
self- esteem to aggression. People with a high self-esteem see themselves more
strongly in positive terms and have fewer negative self-views, as they are
generally more confident in succeeding their goals. It is likely that people
with a high self-esteem see themselves as likeable, competent or good-looking (Hewstone et al.). All these attributes give an
individual power, for example in terms of independence. This power and feeling
of superiority to others can be manifested in aggressive behavior (Baumeister
et al., 1996).
History delivers support to the high
self-esteem – aggression thesis. The
propensity towards violence of black Americans increased after the 1960s, the
time where a lot of effort was put in enhancing the destroyed self-esteem of a
whole group (Degen, 1996).
Furthermore, people with a low
self-esteem are associated with traits and characteristics such as having an instable
self- image, avoiding risk, being shy and modest, emotional instability,
avoiding risk and lacking confidence (Baumeister et al., 2000). This seems to contradict the forms of aggressive
behavior- when someone is attacked (either physically or verbally), the person
performing the aggressive act is exposed to risk and uncertainty as it is
unclear what the consequences of the aggressive behavior will be. This contradicts a low self-esteem person’s fear of
risk, therefore it is not likely that a person with a low self-esteem performs
aggressive behavior. Additionally, aggression is frequently performed as an
attempt to defend an opinion about oneself. As a person with low self-esteem is
attributed to being confused of who he/she is, there is thus little support for
engaging in an act of aggression that is considered as a response of a
threatened/attacked self-image (Baumeister et al., 2000).
Considering situations in which a
person’s self-esteem is fluctuating, proof can be found for the hypothesis that
high self-esteem is positively related to aggressive behavior. For instance, people
with manic depressions are less likely to perform aggressive acts when they are
in the depressive phase, which is associated with low self-esteem, than when
they are in the manic phase, in which a manic-depressive experiences a boost of
self-esteem (Baumeister et al., 2000). Furthermore, research found out that the
likelihood of performing aggressive behavior increases when a person consumes
alcohol. Alcohol intoxication has been positively correlated to a momentarily
boosting self-esteem (Baumeister et al., 2000).
Research conducted by Kernis,
Granneman and Barclay investigated the connection between hostility and
self-esteem. Their results show that people with a high self-esteem cluster
around the extremes of being “hostile” and “non-hostile”. It was found out that
participants having a high and stable self-esteem are least prone to hostility,
while participants with a high but unstable self-esteem are scoring high on
levels of hostility (Kernis et al., 1989). Accordingly, it can be stated that
aggressive individuals are a subset of people with a high self-esteem.
Baumeister and colleagues inferred
from these results a connection to narcissism (Baumeister et al., 2000). Narcissism
is defined as having grandiose views of personal superiority, an inflated sense
of entitlement, low empathy towards others, fantasies of personal greatness, a
belief that other people cannot understand one + BUCH (Miller
et al., 2010, BUCH). Narcissism is linked to high
but unstable self-esteem (Baumeister et al., 2000). Further research investing
the aggressiveness of people scoring high on narcissism showed that “narcissism
is associated with a wide variety of aggressive responses to criticism and
other threats to self-esteem, ranging from disdain and contempt to
argumentativeness, anger, and more or less controlled aggressive and violent
behavior” (Miller et al, 2010, p. 642; Ronningstam, 2005). Thus, narcissism cannot be defined as a direct
cause of aggression, but as a risk factor that can contribute to an aggressive
or violent response to a provocation or threat of the narcist’s self-image
(Baumeister et al., 2005). It is therefore a defending mechanism, which
implicates that narcistic people do not engage in aggressive behavior when
there is not threat to their self-image.
Low self-esteem predicts aggressive
Even though there is strong evidence
for the hypothesis that high self-esteem predicts aggressive behavior, there is
also a lot of research proving that low self-esteem is related to aggressive
behavior. People with low self-esteem are described to be shy, insecure, negative
towards themselves and their circumstances, depressed, unmotivated, having a
negative self-image and lacking self- confidence (Guidon, 2002).
Former research enabled the
conclusion that low self-esteem predicts aggressive behavior. Rosenberg stated
in 1965 that “low self-esteem weakens the ties to society, which implicates a
decrease in conformity to social norms and an increase in delinquency”
(Rosenberg, 1965). Furthermore, the lack of unconditional positive self-regard
is linked to psychological problems, which includes aggression (Rogers, 1961).
There are even proven theories that low self-regard motivates aggression,
because aggression is considered as an antisocial behavior, which is driven by
feelings of inferiority (Adler, 1956; Horney, 1950). Additionally, individuals
with low self-esteem are inclined to real-world externalizing problems such as
delinquency and antisocial behavior, which can be considered as aggression
(Fergusson et al., 2002).
Related to Baumeister’s findings in
2000, Donnellan, Trzesniewski, Robins, Moffitt, and Caspi conducted a series of
three studies proofing the opposite of Baumeister’s findings in 2005. In the
first study, they investigated the correlation between self-reports and teacher
ratings of self-esteem and self-reports of delinquency of 11 to 14 year old
students from two schools in northern Carolina with diverse ethnic backgrounds.
Findings showed that high self-esteem and delinquency are negatively correlated
(Donnellan et al., 2005). As study 1 did not include the correlation between
delinquency and aggression, they analyzed in study 2 the relation between
self-esteem and externalizing problems (this was assessed by teachers and
parents). This study was conducted in New Zealand with students aged 11 at the first
measures and aged 13 at the second measures. It confirmed the results of the
first study – high self-esteem is negatively correlated with externalizing
problems, participants with a low self-esteem were more likely to engage in
antisocial behavior. In a third study, Donnellan and colleagues investigated
Baumeister’s narcissism theory, by analyzing the relation between
unrealistically high self-esteem, narcissism and aggressive behavior. Their
results supported Baumeister’s assumption that narcistic individuals are prone
to aggression, but low self-esteem does so as well. They concluded that low
self-esteem and narcissism contribute independently to aggressive thoughts,
feelings and behaviors (Donnellan et al., 2005). Their findings let them doubt
about the correlation between high self-esteem and narcissism and they suggest
to investigate that in further experiments (Donnellan et al.,2005).
The presented research findings show
plausible importance for both hypothesis. High self-esteem can contribute to
aggressive behavior, as the power and feelings of superiority which are
associated with high self-esteem is likely to be manifested in aggressive
behavior(Baumeister et al., 1965) Aggressive behavior is often performed to
defend the self-image, which people with high self-esteem are more likely to
engage in (Baumeister et al., 1965). The historic example of violence of black
Americans (Degen, 1996) as well as the self-esteem enhancing influence of
alcohol (Baumeister et al, 1996) strongly support this thesis. On the other
side, low self-esteem weakens the ties to society resulting in a decreasing
conformity to social norms and an increase in delinquency (Rosenberg, 1965).
Additionally, Donnellan et al.’s studies strongly support the hypothesis that
low self-esteem predicts aggression. Nevertheless, researcher from both
hypotheses found that narcissism can be seen as a predictor of prejudice
(Baumeister et al., 2000; Donnellan et al, 2005).
As both hypotheses are backed up
with strong support, it may be the case that not either high self-esteem or low
self-esteem contributes to aggressive behavior. Aggression can be considered as
a composition of many different sources and self-esteem is one of them, as well
as narcissism. But to fully explain why a person acts in an aggressive manner,
it is necessary to also take factors such as childhood experiences or other
personality traits into consideration.
Personally, the low self-esteem
hypothesis seems to be more adequate. Aggression is a behavior that evokes
attention and from the experiences I made, people who seek attention are often
hiding dissatisfaction with themselves. I consider aggressive behavior as a
means to show superiority, which can be in many cases seen as a cover-up of
insecurity. Nevertheless, I find the findings for both hypothesis plausible.
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