Is Self-Esteem a Basic Human Need?

Self-esteem is valuable for people, but does not qualify as a basic human need.

Posted Aug 13, 2018

The question of what goals reflect basic human needs is important for both psychology and philosophy. For psychology we want to be able to understand what contributes to a good human life. For philosophy, the concept of need serves to establish a basis for human rights and provides objective ethical grounds for figuring out how to evaluate the consequences of actions (Thagard 2010, forthcoming). Basic needs are distinguished from secondary needs that are instrumental in accomplishing them, and from whimsical wants that do not reflect anything about what it takes to be human. Everyone needs food, water, air, shelter, and health care, but people only want to be rich. Various authors use different terms for basic needs: vital, true, fundamental, real, essential, intrinsic, genuine, natural, or grave. 

In my blog post on inequality, I endorse the evidence-based claims of Robert Ryan and Edward Deci (2017) that the basic psychological needs are autonomy, competence, and relatedness. But my friend Daniel Hausman suggested to me that this list should also include self-esteem, because people deeply need to have an emotionally positive view of their own value. Positive self-regard and self-respect are undoubtedly valuable parts of life, but do they qualify as basic needs for all human beings?

Ryan and Deci provide six criteria for distinguishing basic needs from less important ones that I summarize in my inequality post as follows:

First, a candidate factor should be strongly positively associated with psychological integrity, health and well-being while its frustration is negatively associated with health and well-being. Second, a need must come with specific experiences and behaviors that lead to human well-being, in contrast with vague ideas like Maslow's self-actualization. Third, hypothesizing a need should serve to explain or interpret experimental phenomena concerning work and personal attachments. Fourth, psychological needs differ from biological needs in that they are connected with the growth of an individual, not just with drives to prevent deficits. Fifth, needs are causal variables that when satisfied lead to positive outcomes and when thwarted lead to negative outcomes such as illness. Six, basic psychological needs are ones that operate universally, across thousands of human cultures.  How does self-esteem stack up against these criteria?

Baumeister et al. (2003) comprehensively challenge the common view that high self-esteem causes many positive outcomes and benefits.  They systematically review evidence connecting self-esteem with school performance, relationships, leadership, and risky behaviors. Although there are modest correlations between self-esteem and school performance, Baumeister and his colleagues contend that high self-esteem is partly the result of good school performance rather than the cause. Attempts to boost the self-esteem of students may sometimes even be counterproductive. From the Ryan and Deci perspective, self-esteem is a consequence of satisfaction of basic needs such as competence, rather than a basic need on its own.

Similarly, self-esteem does not predict the quality or duration of relationships, and may in fact interfere with them when it blends into narcissism. Baumeister et al. do acknowledge that high self-esteem does lead to greater happiness. Overall, however, their review suggests that high self-esteem does not qualify as a basic human need according to the first five of the criteria proposed by Ryan and Deci. 

What about the sixth criterion concerning universality? Heine et al. (1999) argue that there is not a universal need for positive self-regard, which I take as equivalent to self-esteem. North Americans do strongly want to view themselves positively, but Heine and his colleagues review many studies that suggest that tendencies to possess and enhance positive self-views are much less common in East Asian cultures.  In particular, Japanese culture places much more emphasis on self-criticism, self-discipline, effort, perseverance, endurance, shame, emotional restraint, and balance. Self-esteem is not an important goal or value of Japanese culture, yet Japan leads the world in life expectancy and has had substantial successes in economic and scientific activities.

Thus there is substantial evidence that self-esteem is not a basic human need, even though it has substantial individual and cultural importance in North America.  Baumeister and his colleagues argue that self-esteem should not be fostered as an end in itself, but rather should be clearly and explicitly linked to desirable behavior. Then self-esteem is the result of the satisfaction of the more basic needs of relatedness and competence, rather than an end in itself.

References

Baumeister, R. F., Campbell, J. D., Krueger, J. I., & Vohs, K. D. (2003). Does high self-esteem cause better performance, interpersonal success, happiness, or healthier lifestyles? Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 4(1), 1-44. 

Heine, S. J., Lehman, D. R., Markus, H. R., & Kitayama, S. (1999). Is there a universal need for positive self-regard? Psychological Review, 106(4), 766. 

Ryan, R. M., & Deci, E. L. (2017). Self-determination theory: Basic psychological needs in motivation, development, and wellness. New York: Guilford.

Thagard, P. (2010). The brain and the meaning of life. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Thagard, P. (forthcoming). Natural philosophy: From social brains to knowledge, reality, morality, and beauty. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

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