Atherton Compares Self-Control and Self-Esteem

By Tanzeen R. Doha – Are self-control and self-esteem dependent on genetics, or on relative subjective experiences? Which of these two facets has a greater influence on individual success? PhD student Olivia Atherton tackled such questions at a Social-Personality Psychology brown bag talk on November 7, 2016.

Atherton began by making conceptual distinctions between self-control and self-esteem. She discussed the current state of the literature on these concepts, and mentioned the significance of heritability studies. She also mentioned studies that have demonstrated the notable consequences of self-control and self-esteem for health, wealth, and criminal activity. Both facets also affect academic and professional performance, and have an impact on social interactions and relationships.

However, while self-esteem can make someone feel good, Atherton noted, self-control has a much more direct impact on social interactions. For instance, self-discipline prepares a person more comprehensively to handle various academic, professional, and social situations than self-esteem does. Thus, boosting person’s self-esteem and confidence (through constant praise, for example) may contribute less to their potential success than attempts to nurture their powers of self-control.

The self-system

Citing famous American psychologist William James, Atherton went on to describe the “self-system,” and differentiated between the “I” and “me” of the self. The “I” of the self, she explained, refers to the subjective awareness that one is a conscious being—for example, I know that I am the one talking right now. The “me” of the self, on the other hand, consists of stable mental representations that one has about herself in her mind—for example, I am a talkative person.

Atherton then described how self-control and self-esteem are both functions of the self. The “I” of self-esteem has a self-evaluation process—for example, I am not speaking in a lucid fashion. Similarly, the “I” of self-control has an evaluation process that analyzes discrepancies between selves. The “me” of self-control is a mental representation of possible or ideal or dreaded selves. This evaluation process helps motivate goal-directed behavior.

Atherton concluded by weighing the significance of linguistic, behavioral, cognitive, and emotional dimensions in the development of self-control and self-esteem. She also discussed the origins of these facets. Self-control emerges, to some extent, in infancy—though, as Atherton said, it involves conditioned responses and “is not very self-y at first.” Self-esteem, on the other hand, emerges between the ages of five and eight.

Learn more about Olivia Atherton’s work at her ResearchGate page.