The Rosenberg Self-Esteem Scale

“If you can’t measure it, you can’t improve it.”Whether Peter Drucker actually said that or not, it's true.  Is there a meter for self-esteem?

For many years, the most common measuring device for self-esteem has been the Rosenberg Self-Esteem Scale.  How does it work?  Is it valid?  And why do some think there's a hidden dimension measured by this simple test?

How are self-esteem levels measured?

"There are more than 200 different scales that purportedly measure self-esteem," states Thomas Scheff, Professor Emeritus of Sociology at UCSB.  

Another psychologist writes, "The construct of self-esteem is one of the oldest in psychology and the Rosenberg Self-Esteem Scale (RSES; Rosenberg, 1989) is still the most prevalent measure of self-esteem in the field."Ruddell, R. J. (2020). Validity and reliability evidence for the Rosenberg self-esteem scale with adults in Canada and the United States. University of British Columbia.

The Rosenberg Self-Esteem Scale is a simple instrument using ten items, including five positive items and five negatively worded items.  Items are ranked using a four-point scale.

You can take the entire test yourself here.  It only takes about a minute.  "The scale ranges from 0-30. Scores between 15 and 25 are within normal range; scores below 15 suggest low self-esteem."

What does Rosenberg's Self Esteem Scale measure?

The RSES is intended to be an accurate measurement of global, or overall, self-esteem.  Its author intended it as a measure of self-worth, which he considered to be the equivalent of self-esteem.

Is the Rosenberg Self Esteem Scale valid?

Many studies have undertaken to validate the RSES.  According to its author, its "minimum Coefficient of Reproducibility was at least 0.90."  According to Vaz et al., "As a general rule, a value of over 0.90 should be considered high."Vaz, S., Falkmer, T., Passmore, A. E., Parsons, R., & Andreou, P. (2013). The Case for Using the Repeatability Coefficient When Calculating Test–Retest Reliability. PLoS ONE, 8(9), e73990.

For example, a 2019 study concluded, "This scale can be regarded as a useful tool for evaluating the level of self-esteem of individuals with intellectual disabilities."Park, J.-Y., & Park, E.-Y. (2019). The Rasch Analysis of Rosenberg Self-Esteem Scale in Individuals With Intellectual Disabilities. Frontiers in Psychology, 10.

A 2012 study observed, "The Rosenberg Self-Esteem Scale (RSES) is a widely used instrument that has been tested for reliability and validity in many settings.... Versions of the scale have been tested for reliability and validity in many languages and have, on average, been found to be effective."  However, the study pointed out, "Some negative-worded items appear to have caused it to reveal low reliability in a number of studies."Tinakon, W., & Nahathai, W. (2012). A Comparison of Reliability and Construct Validity between the Original and Revised Versions of the Rosenberg Self-Esteem Scale. Psychiatry Investigation, 9(1), 54.

Another study analyzed the RSES for method effects, that is, the tendency for individuals with certain personality traits to answer in certain ways that skew the results. The five-factor personality models are used to help determine these effects.

The authors observed that the use of negative questions may disrupt potential biases, as they were intended to do, but they may also introduce "multidimensional factor structures of self-esteem."  In other words, sometimes the way the answers can be interpreted may lead to a determination that the test measures something other than simply global self-worth.Quilty, L. C., Oakman, J. M., & Risko, E. (2006). Correlates of the Rosenberg Self-Esteem Scale Method Effects. Structural Equation Modeling: A Multidisciplinary Journal, 13(1), 99–117. doi:10.1207/s15328007sem1301_5

A 2017 study of the RSES in Burundi likewise observed a method effect, "mainly associated with negatively worded items."  The authors concluded, "Our data suggested that an overall cultural effect, rather than a merely specific language effect, may undermine the cross-cultural transportability of the Western scale."Fromont, A., Haddad, S., Heinmüller, R., Dujardin, B. T., & Casini, A. (2017). Exploring the validity of scores from the Rosenberg Self-Esteem Scale (RSES) in Burundi: A multi-strategy approach. Journal of Psychology in Africa, 27(4), 316–324.

The overall consensus seems to be that the test is valid, with the possible exception of method effects introduced by the negative questions.  Regardless, the "multidimensional factor structure" leaves a mystery to solve.  Does the scale measure positive and negative self-esteem?

Or maybe we should ask, Is self-worth the best measure of global self-esteem?

Two studies suggest that there is another, closely related, factor that is also measured by the RSES: self-competence.

What is self-competence?

Self-competence is essentially the opposite of helplessness.  It involves a degree of emotional intelligence and self-respect.  It also involves the interrelationship between self-perception of personal worth and efficacy. It has been described as the ability to choose and present a desired self-image to others, the capability to handle daily tasks and challenges.

In 1995, Tafarodi and Swann published an alternative test to the RSES which measured two related dimensions of self-esteem they called self-liking and self-competence.  They point out, "Evidence for two underlying factors raises the possibility that there may be two distinct global dimensions of self-valuative feeling. That is, global self-esteem may be experienced in two distinct senses. Although such a dichotomy may appear somewhat puzzling at first glance, it does in fact align with a recurrent theme in the self-esteem literature."Tafarodi, R. W., & Swann Jr., W. B. (1995). Self-Liking and Self-Competence as Dimensions of Global Self-Esteem: Initial Validation of a Measure. Journal of Personality Assessment, 65(2), 322–342. doi:10.1207/s15327752jpa6502_8

Tafarodi and Swann discussed the fact that demonstrations of competence often lead to positive appraisals from others that foster self-worth, and likewise a person with high self-worth often seeks goals that leads to higher competence, thus creating a snowball effect.  This contributes to the likelihood that one dimension will closely correlate with the other, making the two difficult to differentiate.

Robert Ruddell's 2020 study makes similar observations.  In discussing this two-factor description of self-esteem, he notes, "If the construct of self-esteem is comprised of both components of self-worth and self-competence, then we would still expect to see some evidence of self-competence in the RSES, as reported in the pattern of relationships observed, even if self-competence was not intentionally built into the measure at the time of construction."Ruddell, R. J. (2020).

Ruddell concludes, "Based on our findings, ... it is clear that the RSES, a measure which was intended to only capture self-worth, is inadvertently capturing self-competence as well.... Our results further suggest that there may be considerable overlap with the construct of optimism. Thus, we also advise including a measure of optimism in future validation work with the RSES.... Moreover, these findings suggest that perhaps mental health functioning has an even larger shared variance with self-esteem than previously believed."

How can you improve your self-esteem?

Ruddell also commented, "The third definition of self-esteem incorporates both competence and worthiness into its conceptualization. Nathaniel Branden was likely one of the first researchers to investigate this two-factor approach. He described self-esteem as 'the conviction that one is competent to live and worthy of living.'"

For a discussion of Branden's six pillars of self-esteem and how they can help you improve your self-esteem, see the article What is Self-Esteem, Really? And How To Increase It the Right Way.