Dr. Mark Leary, of Duke University

About ten years ago, Mark Leary and his colleagues turned the idea of self-esteem on its head. His ideas explain a ton of human behavior that could not formerly be explained any other way.

When I was in school, they were just starting to figure out that there was a link between self-esteem (defined then as how one felt about one’s own personal worth), and positive achievement. They saw that those with higher self-esteem achieved more and seemed more positively motivated, while those with low self-esteem seemed more rebellious and achieved less.

What did they do with this knowledge? For about thirty or forty years, they gave everyone a trophy. They groomed the A-for-effort generation, and stopped keeping score at little league games. As long as children learned to value themselves from an early age – so conventional wisdom told our parents – they would be programmed to think highly of themselves as young adults and go on to achieve great things.

Essentially, the greatest minds of the most well-educated generation up to that time sought to make their offspring into ultra high achievers by – wait for it – removing all challenge and competition from their lives.


On top of this foolishness, old ideas of the self-esteem motive could not explain unmotivated, criminal or sociopathic behavior from people who had abnormally high self-esteem. Nor could it explain the inefficacy of psychological self-esteem therapy, where the patient would try to counter depression and low motivation via positive self-talk.

Dr. Mark Leary is a psychologist at Duke University, but he was formerly at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem when, in 1999, he published “Making Sense of Self Esteem.” His theory is elegant in that it changes the definition of self-esteem and systematically explains a lot of previously unexplainable behavior.

Leary suggests that self-esteem is not your own regard for your own personal value; it does not exists in a single-person vacuum. It is rather a measure of how desirable one would be to other people. He calls his theory the “Sociometer Theory” from the idea that our self esteem actually works like a real-time meter, measuring social feedback and deducing our own value-to-the-pack.

This is revolutionary thought. We had always imagined that self-esteem existed in a bubble, and that the act of raising or lowering our self-esteem had to do only with our achievements, our victories, and our worth to ourselves. This new definition incorporates the pack. It means that all psychology is really sociology. It means everything we thought we knew is wrong. Now there really is no such thing as self-esteem, instead there is only our own impression of our relationship to others.

Now we know why some people who have psychological issues seem to have high self-esteem: there is a separation from reality – a separation between their idea of their own worth, and the social feedback they receive regarding their worth to the pack. And now we also know why people cannot effectively enhance their self-esteem by simply thinking positive thoughts about themselves: their positive self-talk is not in-line with their social feedback from the pack. According to Leary’s article, people who are commonly thought to have low self-esteem actually have “a history of low relational evaluation, if not outright rejection.”

This theory reinforces the idea of the Status Transaction, and also the status-based conception of how attraction works. Sociometer Theory is based on evolutionary biology. It states that humans, being pack/tribe animals, are compelled to act in ways that are beneficial to the pack because integration with the pack ensured survival and mating opportunities. We therefore evolved a psychological mechanism to measure our general level of acceptance at any given time, and this mechanism delivers a psychologically painful sensation if it perceives a low level of acceptance and social value. This sensation would serve to warn us of a need for behavior correction, bringing ones projected characteristics and activities in line with the pack. Here’s a quotation from “Making Sense…”:

Given the disastrous implications of being ostracized in the ancestral environment in which human evolution occurred, early human beings may have developed a mechanism for monitoring the degree to which other people valued and accepted them. This psychological mechanism – the sociometer – continuously monitors the social environment for cues regarding the degree to which the individual is being accepted versus rejected by other people (Leary, 1999).

The Status Transaction, as we have said before, centers on value-to-the-pack. Every interaction you have with anyone you know is either asserting higher status or trying to get something by conceding status. Sociometer Theory explains why our communication is so loaded: we feel physically and emotionally better as we are held in higher esteem by the pack – when we receive more positive social feedback. Negative social feedback, by contrast, makes us feel ill-at-ease, and motivates us to correction. Leary tells us that this corrective impulse would be more dramatic if the feedback was coming from those people we considered “valuable, important, or close” (Leary 1999). Here’s another quotation from the same article:

…many psychologists have assumed that people possess a motive or need to maintain self-esteem. According to sociometer theory, the so-called self-esteem motive does not function to maintain self-esteem but rather to minimize the likelihood of rejection (or, more precisely, relational devaluation). When people behave in ways that protect or enhance their own self-esteem, they are typically acting in ways that they believe will increase their relational value in others’ eyes and, thus, improve their chances of social acceptance.

So, if this is true, do we have any control over how we feel, or are we at the mercy of the collective opinion of the group? Leary hypothesizes that we do have control over how we bring social feedback to bear on our psyche. Some subjects that he studied took negative social feedback in healthy perspective, and brought it to bear upon themselves with relative self-compassion. These subjects were generally the most well-adapted and pragmatic. There have even been suggestions that the idea of self-compassion may be more important than that of self-esteem.

Other subjects would take even the smallest hint of social rejection and bring it crashing down upon their own psyche, or manifest it as anger towards the pack. These subjects were generally the least well-adapted.

As I was researching this article, I found a couple of great blog entries that discuss Sociometer Theory: first, Gustavo Mesch is a professor of sociology at the University of Haifa, and he writes a blog article on his recent paper on social networking and its relationship with Sociometer Theory. Second, WE-novate.com talks about the link between self-esteem and innovation.

These ideas were a real shock to my personal reality. How about you? Under this idea of relational valuation, do certain behaviors or observations start to make sense, where once they didn’t?

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