The Role of Self-Esteem in Decision Making

Table of Contents


Individuals are motivated to maintain a sense of consistency among their beliefs and perceptions about themselves. When there is a discrepancy between the actual self and the ideal self, individual experience distress. As human beings we need positive self-esteem; to feel good about ourselves. This need can be so strong that it overpowers our logic and lead us to act in ways that are not to our benefits. This will be done by looking at five defense theories.


Self esteem may be defined as how one feels about themselves. Many factors influence or determine self esteem. They include: mannerisms, belief systems, personality, capabilities, habits, personality morality and so on. Sometimes we may feel good about some of the above factors and at other times negative. This need for consistency comes from the need to maintain positive self esteem. Human beings have psychological adaptations to protect their self esteem when threatened. The individuals are threatened by anything that does not conform to their belief systems. This paper shall look at the need for positive self esteem, Individuals’ distress when their sense of consistency is threatened and how the need for positive self esteem can over power logic and lead us to act in ways that are not to our benefits.

Self esteem is very important. It influences our thoughts as well as our behaviour. This in turn affects how we feel and value ourselves. It also determines our success or failure. Self esteem determines our thinking which can either be negative or positive. Confidence is also determined by our self esteem. Furthermore it affects our self image and happiness. It affects every aspect of our lives and its significance cannot be underestimated. Thus most people need to build their self esteem to be successful in life (Kruger& Dunning, 1999).

The need to feel good can overshadow our competency in making judgments. This is evident in individuals who lack competency to evaluate themselves correctly. This kind of individuals lack metacognition as proposed by several cognitive psychologists. Metacognition means the ability to gauge ones performance when one makes an accurate judgement and when one errors. Thus one needs to know what is right to be able to know what is wrong. For instance one has to know the rules of a language to be able to know when they break the rules. This means that if one lacks this knowledge they cannot make correct judgements or even recognize a correct judgement (Kruger& Dunning, 1999). The deficit leads people to biasness when it comes to rating themselves. By looking at the metacognitive skills we can explain why it happens. The incompetent people tend to have the tendency called ‘above average effect’. This causes an average person to rate him or her self as above average. This goes against the logic of descriptive statistics.

The tendency leads individuals to have biased opinions about themselves. Kruger and Dunning (1999) say that those with high self esteem often underestimate their performance while those with low often overestimate their performance. This has resulted in some people thinking that they are more qualified than they are. People do this to make them feel good about themselves or maintain their self esteem.

This phenomenon has been explained by many cognitive social psychologists using the Self-Evaluation Maintenance Theory. They found out that people make self serving comparisons and rate themselves better in several traits for instance, health, abilities and others. To illustrate in a class some students think they are better than their colleagues in aspects like ability appearance. What is notable about some of these people is that they are not threatened by the success of those they are not close to like they are by their friends. Therefore are more biased with their close friends (Jost, 2001:207). On the other hand from the article ‘Unskilled’ they may do so because they may not even be aware that their peers’ performance is better than theirs. This is negative because it means that they are less likely to learn about their weakness. Therefore they may miss an opportunity to change themselves for the better. This is not beneficial to them because as a famous personality once said only those who know how little they know; know best. The wrong assessment of self due to metacognitive deficits leads to failure of recognition of poor performance. An individual who has performed poorly assumes their performance is good because they do not recognize a poor performance from a good one. Therefore they overestimate their abilities as well as their skills.

The theory of Cognitive Dominance states that human beings need a stable self perception. It deals with the notions of cognition or knowledge. An individual knows various thoughts, emotions values or facts (Barker, 2003). For example knowledge of ones gender, preference of certain foods and so on. Most of the cognitions are unrelated but some are related and are constants. One results into the other for instance eating sugary things and a sweet tooth.

Some cognitions are related but they do not follow and are called dissonants. Some times they are opposite and may conflict. People do not like this kind of cognitions and attempt to eliminate them. Elimination therefore, is the essence of this theory. It becomes necessary to eliminate the dissonants to feel good about the choices that we make even if they are bad. This happens because people do not like inconsistencies in their lives and some people choose to forgo certain cognitions by ignoring the dissonant. This is done by assuming that the dissonant cognition is not bad and thus a person still does it or chooses it. Others do it by altering the importance of certain cognitions. This helps them to make a wrong choice and feel less guilt about it. Others avoid being in such a situation by ignoring the conflicting cognition all together by shunning knowledge that makes it bad or unwise. For instance one may refuse to seek more information about the dangers of overindulgence in alcohol because they do not want to stop drinking (Barker, 2003). Using this theory people rationalize instead of being rational when making decisions for instance one may say that they will only indulge over the weekend in they used to do throughout the week. Making such decisions to maintain consistency may be unbeneficial because they may not be the best. They have only been made to maintain the norm.

Higgins in his Self Discrepancy Theory urges that people need to maintain a consistency in perceptions and beliefs. When this situation is altered they tend to be distressed and a discrepancy occurs between the ‘actual self,’ the ‘ideal self’ and the ‘ought self’. For instance very thin women may suffer from bulimia because the image they see on their mirror is often very different from their real body size. They see a fat image and thus are afraid of gaining weight. They feel good if they have small bodies that conform to the society’s standard. Gaining weight would erode their self esteem. This means that people will look for additional recognition if their self concept is threatened. This theory goes beyond the dissonance theory as it focuses on social recognition of self instead of maintaining self esteem (1989). People use this theory to cover up for the psychological problems that may affect their self image. This is done by reducing the negative effect caused by the discrepancies. The choices that people make to maintain their self esteem may have far reaching effects.

An individual’s self concept is more likely threatened by the behaviour of a close person and the significance of that behaviour. If a friend outperforms an individual a dissonance occurs and they may shun that friend, alter the importance the domain or work harder to outshine their friend. This is done to fight the thought of changing the status quo because they have always believed they are the best.

Some people deal with being out performed by others by focussing on an others things to affirm their self concept. This forms the essence of Self affirmation theory. They shift their focus to protect their self esteem from being changed. This is their way of dealing with dissonance (Sherman & Cohen, 2006).

When people reduce dissonance they look for means of justifying their behaviour. They deceive themselves that everything is all right and fall into a rationalization trap. This is similar to sweeping dirt under the carpet. This is because vices are turned into virtues through justification. For example for a student preparing to sit for a major examination may postpone studying till the last days of the examination. They may say there is no difference between studying way ahead of the examination and a few days before but they end up failing the exam. When they fail they console themselves that they did not have enough time to study. Hence this kind of behaviour denies people a chance to learn from their mistakes instead errors are perpetuated (Sherman & Cohen, 2006). This may also lead to a tragedy. For example when a certain group kills people who are different from them they justify their behaviour by dehumanizing those people thus when they kill more they do not feel any remorse and this could lead to genocides. This kind of behaviour can be avoided by building ourself esteem.

Positive self esteem is stressed and often is synonymous with success and well being. It has a lot advantages for an individual and this has led to a vigorous campaign to promote it. The campaign is run in the media, social institutions and educational systems. We however want look at how its emphasis can be negative. People with high self esteem are more likely to feel the threat of their ego. This denies them a chance to evaluate themselves accurately because they are unable to let go of the positive allusion that they hold. Therefore, their egoistical illusions impair their judgement. They overestimate their abilities not because they have deficient metacognition as implied by the article but because they are afraid of failing (Chan, 2002).


Every human being desires to feel good and to have consistency in their life. This explains why it is very hard for people to adapt to new things. They prefer the old order of things that is familiar and hence does not threaten their egos. People want to maintain the consistency in their lives whatever it takes. Hence is explains why people make bad choices and look for justification. This is done to maintain their positive self esteem, which everyone strives to have. However from this discussion we have concluded that positive self esteem can be a menace.

References list

Chan, F.M. (2002). A Menace to High Self-Esteem. Web.

Barker, P. (2003). What is Cognitive Dissonance?

Harman, Gilbert. (1986). Change In View: Principles of Reasoning. Cambridge: MIT Press.

Higgins, E. T. (1989). Self-discrepancy; A theory relating self and affect, Psychological Review,, 94, 319-340

Jost. J. T. & Zuckerman, E (2001). What makes you think you’re so popular? Self evaluation maintenance and subjective side of the “friendship paradox’ Social Psychology Quarterly 64, (3), 207-233.

Kruger, J. & Dumming, D. Unskilled and Unaware of It: How Difficulties in Recognizing One’s Own Incompetence Lead to Inflated Self-Assessments. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 77, (6), 121-1134

Sherman, D. K., & Cohen, G. L. (2006). The psychology of self-defense: Self-affirmation theory. In M. P. Zanna (Ed.) Advances in Experimental Social Psychology (Vol. 38, pp.183-242). San Diego, CA: Academic Press.

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