Do Violent People Have Low Self-Esteem?

It is a commonly held belief that low self-esteem triggers violent behaviour, the origin of which is unknown. Baumeister, Bushman and Campbell (2000) conducted a study investigating this view; the following article attempts to summarise the ideas stated in their paper, entitled ‘Self-esteem, narcissism, and aggression: Does violence result from low self-esteem or from threatened egotism?’.

People with low self-esteem are generally portrayed as risk averse, easily influenced and deficient in self-confidence. These characteristics are incongruous with aggression – even likely to dampen or inhibit it –  given that hostile behaviours are intrinsically risky.

Low self-esteem is correspondent to a lack of confidence in achievement, whereas aggression is typically executed with an expectation of overpowering another person.

Most pertinently, those harbouring low self-esteem are doubtful in their self-identity, whereas aggression is likely carried out to uphold high self-regard. Baumeister et al. point out,

“Violent men seem to have a strong sense of personal superiority, and their violence often seems to stem from a sense of wounded pride. When someone else questions or disputes their favorable view of self, they lash out in response.”

When large groups diverge in levels of self-esteem, those with greater self-esteem are typically more violent. Violent individuals such as murderers, rapists and wife beaters are all discernible by their firmly held convictions of self-dominance.

Moreover, manic depressive individuals tend to show more aggression throughout a manic phase, indicated by a highly positive self-view, than during a period of depression, which is characterised by low self-esteem. Being drunk is also shown to temporarily enhance self-esteem, in tandem with a propensity for violence.

Based on these data, should we jump to the reverse assumption, that high self-esteem triggers aggression? Baumeister et al. think not.

They suggest we should first determine whether especially nonviolent people also have high self-esteem.

To that end, an important distinction is made by the authors between stable and unstable self-esteem. In their study, they found that people whose self-esteem is high and stable are least inclined to be hostile, while those with high and unstable self-esteem are the most hostile.

Narcissism

Research shows a strong association between narcissism and elevated but volatile self-esteem. Narcissism is therefore conceivably linked to aggression and violence, particularly during an encounter in which a narcissist is faced with mistrust or challenge to their excessively flattering self-view.

Narcissists are deeply devoted and attached to such views, and they wish for others to agree with them. Therefore, when their self-view is threatened, they feel they must defend it.

That said, Baumeister et al. emphasise that narcissism should be understood as a risk factor rather than a direct cause of aggression, and that the more threatening sides of narcissism lie in feelings of superiority and entitlement rather than mere vanity or arrogance.

At this point, a frequent question introduced is whether outward egotism is simply a method of concealing deep-seated insecurities. For example, perhaps wife beaters actually feel inferior to their wives, using aggression as a cover-up.

In response to this question, Baumeister et al. ask,

“How can hidden low self-esteem cause aggression if non-hidden low self-esteem has no such effect?”

Studies too have discarded this view. For the most part, playground bullies and gang members do not have covert low self-esteem. Likewise, practically all studies show that narcissists have high self-esteem.

Overall, Baumeister et al. suggest it is time to put an end to the search for straightforward links between self-esteem and aggression. Research has refuted the age-old view that low self-esteem leads to violence, while the opposing view incriminating high self-esteem is overly simplistic. High self-esteem is a trait of both aggressive and non-aggressive people, and so endeavours to make direct predictions are unconvincing. By and large, it seems redundant to suppose any direct link between self-views and aggression.


What’s your opinion; do violent people have low self-esteem?

If you would like to share your views, experiences or thoughts surrounding this topic, I would love to hear from you. Please leave a comment or send me a message.


Works Cited

Baumeister, R. F., Bushman, B. J., & Campbell, W. K. (2000). Self-esteem, narcissism, and aggression: Does violence result from low self-esteem or from threatened egotism?. Current directions in psychological science9(1), 26-29.

Baumeister, R. (1993). Self-esteem. New York: Plenum Press.

14 thoughts on “Do Violent People Have Low Self-Esteem?

  1. I think there are no recipe. For instance, I know a person with low self esteem but no one would think so. She is always very calm and forgiving. Not influençable at all. If she is hurt, she just withdraw into herself. She dislike violence. But I can understand that a person with low self esteem can be frustrated and violent. There are no recipe. Don’t you think so? Have a nice weekend, magical and happy.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I personally agree with you (and with Baumeister) that there is no recipe, and we shouldn’t make assumptions as such. I think if someone is frequently violent, they are more likely doing so for a number of complex reasons. Thank you for your comment as always 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I’ve seen people with a mix of low self esteem and a belief that their opinion is the only right one. These seem opposite to me, but clearly there’s a reason this happens. In some of these cases the My Opinion Is the Right Opinion person became verbally bullying, even with what seemed to be low self esteem. Again, no recipe, but the addition of alcohol made them much more likely to act out in aggressive ways.

    Interesting stuff.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Surely narcissism represents the ultimate in low self-esteem? Narcissism means mistaking your self-image for yourself. It means giving no value or love to your actual self (although it sounds like it means the opposite.) because you’re too busy trying to live up to some ideal that isn’t you. It may be a parent’s ideal which you have inherited or you may have put it together all by yourself but the result is a complete lack of real self-worth. I don’t know if lack of self-worth is linked to violent behaviour but I do know that being kind to others in even the most basic way builds self-esteem. Help someone cross the road. Smile. Share. The stuff we learned in kindergarten reallyiq vital to our mental health.

    Like

    1. Thank you for commenting! That’s a really interesting perspective. Seems like self-esteem, self-worth and self-image might all somehow be interlinked and interdependent. Perhaps when one is low, one might try to compensate, for example with an overly flattering self-regard. In other cases, all might crash together at once, causing development of violence and mental health problems.

      I agree with you, that being kind and doing good in the world can help build on many facets making up our self-view. What a shame it all becomes so complicated as we become older and start to judge ourselves based on what others think.

      Liked by 1 person

    1. I meant ‘older’ in response to you mentioning kindergarten years. I agree there’s a period of growth allowing us to be free and less attached to those worries. But many don’t develop that awareness for a much longer time, if at all.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. As a victim of domestic abuse, (physical, emotional and sexual), thinking of the person who abused me and reflecting upon their insecurities, personality, life experiences and general attitude towards myself, I would have to completely agree with the theory that they have a core of intensely low self-esteem.
    It is very easy to agree and believe that they felt very threatened by who I am and who I was as a person even then, from the age of 17 years old upwards.
    Thank you for sharing, I’m finding your blog to be a fascinating read.

    Like

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