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The Need for Social Approval

What impact does social approval and disapproval have on one’s self-esteem?

Generally, there are three types of individuals who function in a society or group. There are:

  1. “People pleasers"
  2. Those who care little for what people think of them
  3. People who vacillate between pleasing others and pleasing themselves

Most fall into the third category; however, which of the two ways they choose often depends on who they want to please and what they have to do to accomplish that.

The importance of social approval

The need for social approval sustains cohesive societies. Individuals who “dance to their own drummer” and care little about what others think of them can remain within the community if they are needed and are willing to fulfill that need. Otherwise, they extract themselves or can be removed by the group if they are unwilling to contribute or are a hindrance. Often, there is no certainty in knowing which “nonconformists” will or will not be tolerated in a society. Therefore, those who want to enhance their chances of inclusion are frequently motivated to maintain social approval.

Years ago, researchers hypothesized that people who had a high need for approval and high self-esteem were more likely to cheat in a temporary situation than to risk social disapproval or a self-presentation contrary to that of a successful person (Jacobson, Berger, and Millham, 1970; Millham, 1974). Further analyses of the research revealed that women were more likely to cheat than men. Why would women with a sense of high self-satisfaction be more inclined to cheat than men who also had high self-satisfaction? Given the era when these studies were conducted, stereotypic gender expectations may have played a role. For example, women may have felt more pressure to succeed despite having high self-esteem than men with high self-esteem.

A shift in the need for social approval

Indeed, scales measuring the need for social approval assess whether one engages in “conventional, polite, acceptable behavior” (Cramer, 2003). In recent years, researchers have found a shift in the need for social approval. Beginning in the 1970s, people attribute less importance to attaining the approval of others and more importance to “being true to themselves.” Rather than conforming to other people’s judgments of them to gain their self-esteem and make a good impression, they are more likely to be individualistic and narcissistic. They may even be unconventional and uninhibited (Twenge and Im, 2007).

The connection between social approval and self-worth

[Rejection, scorn, embarrassment, and even apathy can affect the child’s sense of self-worth and competence. The emotional distress from social disapproval can cause worry, self-neglect, self-doubt, and anxiety. On the other hand, approval by others can foster strength and confidence; such children are less likely to worry, have self-doubt, or have feelings of hopelessness. Although both boys and girls are vulnerable to social disapproval, girls tend to demonstrate more sensitivity and distress than boys.

As most children grow older, the need for social approval is not as critical for achieving self-esteem because they usually become more self-assured with age and experience. But that does not mean rejection or indifference from others is innocuous. No matter the age, the important factor to consider is how a person develops a sense of self-worth. If it derives primarily from the opinions and acceptance of others, then a need for approval will continue regardless of age. For those who are particularly susceptible to social disapproval, in an attempt to “protect oneself,” social interactions may be avoided--sometimes to the point of isolation.

The need for social approval is not only affected by developmental stages, but by cultural factors, the nature of the society, generational influences, and inherent characteristics and traits of the individual. Moreover, which group of individuals a person chooses to belong to may also influence how the individual behaves. A group that tolerates, let alone encourages, individualism impacts its members much differently than a group that is regimented and expects conformity.

Developing a sense of self-worth that comes from within

The influence of others on how we view and feel about ourselves cannot be underestimated. Most people care about what people think of them and hope for a positive judgment; especially if the person wants to maintain social connectivity with others. However, developing a positive sense of self-worth that derives from within oneself is a developmental process that can inoculate one from circumstances beyond their control. It may be difficult to attain, but it should be something we aspire to achieve for our psychological well-being.


Cramer, D. (2003). Acceptance and need for approval as moderators of self-esteem and satisfaction with a romantic relationship or closest friendship. The Journal of Psychology: Interdisciplinary and Applied. 137(5), 495-505.

Jacobson, L. I., Berger, S. E., & Millham, J. (1970). Individual differences in cheating during a temptation period when confronting failure. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 15(1), 48-56.

Millham, J. (1974). Two components of need for approval score and their relationship to cheating following success and failure. Journal of Research in Personality, 8, 378-92.

Rudolph, K. D., Caldwell, M. S., Conley, C. S. (2005). Need for approval and children’s well-being. Child Development, 76(2), 309-23. doi:10.1111/j.1467-8624.2005.00847_a.x

Twenge, J. M., & Im, C. (2007). Changes in the need for social approval, 1958–2001. Journal of Research in Personality, 41(1), 171–189.

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