2 Thinking Styles that Influence Self-Esteem

The question of why some people develop healthy self-esteem (while others don’t) can be approached from many angles. Self-esteem can be understood and explained socially, emotionally, and behaviorally since it is a holistic phenomenon that encompasses many aspects of a person. But it can also be studied cognitively by describing the thinking styles associated with different levels of esteem. The purpose of this blog post is to explore two such styles that influence how a person views their own failures. I will do this by introducing the concept of “attribution.”[1]

Attribution is the act of identifying causes and their various features. Causes can be identified as internal or external to the person making the attribution. They can also be viewed as permanent or fleeting depending on how stable the person takes the cause to be. Finally, causes can be seen as global or specific if they are taken to reflect the whole condition of a person, or just one part of the person.

People with low self-esteem tend to attribute failures to internal, permanent, and global causes. For example, when a dating relationship fails, they are more likely to attribute the failure to a personality flaw: “she dumped me because I’m an immature person. I’ll never find someone.” Notice the reason for the breakup is seen as an internal reality (immaturity); as global (about the whole person); and as permanent (the immaturity will impede future relationships). Moreover, such people have a habit of attributing success to external, temporary, and specific causes. For instance, when they successfully asks someone out on a first date, they are more likely to attribute it to chance: “I lucked out because she saw me on a good day.” The positive response is thereby attributed to something external (the day), temporary (luck), and specific (being seen at a certain time).

By contrast, people with healthy levels of self-esteem tend to view their failures in an external, temporary, and specific way. Lets look at the same relationship breakup. Such people are more likely to think, “we are two good people who happen not to be good together. There will be others.” The explanation of the event is external (a mismatch), temporary (since future partners are envisioned), and specific (since it is only about one relationship). Furthermore, these people tend to explain their successes by attributing them to internal, global, and permanent causes. When a dating relationship is working out, they might say to themselves, “I’m an intelligent, caring person, and she enjoys that about me.”

So let me ask you a question: which style do you tend toward?


[1] I am relying here on the work of Alister and Joanna McGrath in their insightful book, Self-Esteem (Inter-Varsity, 2001).

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