Ecology Thrives at UGA

page one | page two

Related links

Eugene Odum: A Force of Nature
A Completely Different Experience




story navigator space 



One way that high self-esteem can turn negative is through verbal defensiveness.








When high self-esteem turns sour

By Philip Lee Williams


Oscar Levant, a mid-twentieth-century pianist, film star, and wit as well as a man with a large and ostensibly healthy ego, once watched noted composer George Gershwin spend an evening playing his own music at a party and clearly having a great time.

woman with mirror“Tell me, George,” a jealous Levant said finally. “If you had it to do all over again, would you still fall in love with yourself?”

Increasingly, psychologists are looking at such behavior and concluding that high self-esteem is not the same as healthy self-esteem. New research by UGA psychology professor Michael Kernis shows that people with “fragile” high self-esteem are more likely to be verbally defensive, or offensive, than those with “secure” high self-esteem.

“Actually, we found that for those in which it is fragile or shallow, high self-esteem is no better than low self-esteem,” said Kernis. “Such people compensate for their self-doubts through exaggerated tendencies to defend, protect, and enhance their feelings of self-worth.”

Kernis and his coauthors Chad Lakey and Whitney Heppner, who are doctoral students in the UGA social psychology program, published their research in the June 2008 issue of the Journal of Personality.

One way that high self-esteem can turn negative is through verbal defensiveness—lashing out at others, as Levant did, when feeling threatened. So Kernis and his colleagues designed a three-part study, reported in their article, to find out whether subjects, 100 undergraduates whose self-esteem was fragile, were more verbally defensive than those whose self-esteem was secure.

First, students completed a basic demographic questionnaire and other measures so that their levels of self-esteem could be evaluated. In phase 2, the team assessed the students’ stability of self-esteem—the more variable it is, the more fragile. In the last phase, the researchers conducted a structured “life experiences interview” to measure what they call “defensive verbalization.”

They found that “individuals with low self-esteem or fragile high self-esteem were more verbally defensive than individuals with secure high self-esteem,” Kernis said. “One reason is that potential threats are in fact more threatening to people with low or fragile high self-esteem than those with secure high self-esteem, and so they work harder to counteract them.”

On the other hand, individuals with secure high self-esteem appear to accept themselves, “warts and all.” Feeling less threatened, they are less likely to blame others or provide excuses when they speak about past transgressions or problematic experiences.

One reason why the study is important, according to the researchers, is its demonstration that greater verbal defensiveness relates to lower psychological well-being. “Its findings support the view that heightened defensiveness reflects insecurity, fragility, and less-than-optimal functioning rather than a healthy outlook,” said Kernis. “We aren’t suggesting there’s something wrong with people who want to feel good about themselves. But when feeling good about themselves becomes a prime directive, excessive defensiveness and self-promotion are likely to follow.”

For more information, contact Michael Kernis at:


 top go to top of page

post this story to:    Add this link to   Add this link to reddit.  Add this link to stumbleupon. 

uga | ovpr | news | sitemap | about us | archive

home | search | browse | subscribe | contact

OVPR logo

Research Communications, Office of the VP for Research, UGA

For comments or for information
please e-mail the editor: