Do teens who lack self-esteem have negative attitudes toward immigration or gender equality? And how is self-esteem development in the subsequent years related to such attitudes? In a new study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States, we demonstrate that low self-esteem during adolescence is linked to opposing social equality in adulthood 28 years later.

Social inequality is a highly contentious topic these days. Gender equality and immigration are constantly debated and often attract vocal opposition. Immigrants, women, and gender minorities face negative consequences of harmful prejudices that have become more extreme in recent years.

Researchers have identified differences in education, personality, and the social groups people identify with as underlying causes of these conflictual socio-political attitudes. We have found new evidence that opposition to social equality is already instilled at an early age.

How Self-esteem Typically Develops

For most people, self-esteem is stable during childhood. The first major challenge to self-esteem typically occurs when children develop into adolescents. Self-esteem may drop due to complicated social relationships and uncertainty about the future and one's identity. In adulthood, most people start to build healthy levels of self-esteem. Their relationships become more stable, and they gain more control over their work and family lives.

Still, some people are left behind during this developmental stage. They may have had lower self-esteem than others to start with and failed to build more confidence in themselves over time. They may experience life events that cause issues with their self-image, such as a sudden job loss or a traumatic breakup.

In our research, we find that people who do not develop healthy self-esteem in adulthood often oppose social equality.

Compensation Strategies for Low Self-esteem

How does that work? People can engage in different strategies to compensate for their low self-esteem to feel better about themselves. But not all strategies are equally good—some are successful and some are even destructive. People may derogate others whom they blame for their difficulties. For example, some people look down upon immigrants or women, whose social standing is seemingly lower than theirs. This comparison can temporarily make them feel better about themselves, relative to those people in a lower-status position. This process is what social scientists call 'downward social comparison' and can happen both unconsciously and automatically.

Consequences of Low Self-esteem for Political Attitudes

Our new research suggests that this compensatory mechanism explains why low self-esteem people think negatively about immigrants and gender equality. We followed a group of 2,215 research participants from 1992 in their adolescence to 2020 in mid-adulthood. At five times during this period, we measured how confident the participants felt about themselves, their ability to get friends, and their perceived popularity among peers. When participants reached mid-adulthood, we also measured the extent to which they supported gender equality, immigration, and social equality broadly. Data spanning over such a long period of life are relatively unique in social sciences. Our analysis showed that people with low self-esteem during adolescence and those who failed to build self-esteem over the three following decades ended up being the most negative toward social equality, including attitudes toward immigrants and gender equality.

Implications

Low self-esteem is harmful for psychological well-being in life. Now we know that unhealthy low levels of self-esteem also impede an inclusive and tolerant society.

Before blaming those low in self-esteem, it is important to ask what prevents people from developing healthy self-esteem in adulthood. Who do we allow to be successful? Who can find a job or a partner? Who obtains a college degree? Inequality of opportunity leads to inequality in self-esteem. Providing all adolescents and adults opportunities in education, work, and social life might strengthen self-esteem over time, given the connection between people's socio-economic background and how they feel about themselves. And with that, we may have found another avenue to build cooperative societies in which all people can thrive and feel welcome.


For Further Reading

Fluit, A.-M., Kunst, J. R., Bierwiaczonek, K., & von Soest, T. (2023). Self-esteem trajectories over three decades predict opposition to social equality in midlife. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 120(1), e2212906120. https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.2212906120


Anne-Marie Fluit is a PhD candidate in political psychology at the University of Oslo, Norway. Their main academic interest is in political participation development over the life course and explaining differences therein from individuals' life experiences and the social groups they identify with.

Jonas R. Kunst is a professor in Cultural and Community Psychology at the University of Oslo, Norway. He specializes in acculturation, misinformation and conspiracy theories, violent extremism, and intergroup relations.

Kinga Bierwiaczonek is mainly interested in intergroup and intercultural relations. She conducts research on two primary themes: the psychological aspects of migration, acculturation, and cultural diversity, and the impact of conspiracy beliefs on individual behavior. She also has a keen interest in research methods, especially meta-analysis and longitudinal analysis.

Tilmann von Soest is a professor in Personality Psychology at the University of Oslo, Norway, and co-director of the PROMENTA Research Center. His research interests include adolescence and young adulthood, social marginalization, mental health, loneliness, and self-esteem.