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A study of self esteem of college students

Self-esteem is one of the strongest research topic in psychology. It has been studied by researchers in relation to many different variables such as violence, drug abuse, bullying, relationships and academic achievement (Jonsson, 2006). In addition, research had documented the important role of high self-esteem plays in academic achievement, social and personal responsibility (Naderi, Abdullah, Aizan, Sharir & Kumar, 2009). Subsequently, educators, parents, business and government leaders agree that we need to help foster the development of people who have healthy or authentic self-esteem (Yahaya, Hashim & Rahman, n.d.). This is because self-esteem is crucial and is a cornerstone of a positive attitude towards living. It plays an important role in every human life because it affects how an individual think, act, and even how does the individual relate to other people (Perera, 2007).

There are several definitons for self-esteem. The term ‘self-esteem’ was first used by an American psychologist, William James (1842-1910). His study of self-esteem was based on introspection. He claimed that self-esteem is an affective phenomenon and a dynamic process affected by successes and failures and thus open to enhancement (Sue & Jo, n.d.). Besides that, according to Rosenberg (1965), individual with high self-esteem indicates that one respects and considers oneself worthy, but not egotism. In contrast, having a low self-esteem signify self-rejection, self-dissatisfaction, and self-contempt (Mansor, 1999). Besides that, Branden (1990) along the same line with Palladino (1989), defined self-esteem in terms of worthiness and competence. Further, Ainon (1998) and Malhi (1996) described self-esteem as the general value that an individual place for himself (Mansor, 1999).

In general, self-esteem refers to how an individual feel about or how an individual evaluate about himself. This evaluation serves as an important role because it will affect an individual’s attitudes and behaviors. Additionally, there is a lot of differences in the characteristic of low and high self-esteem people. Low self-esteem people tend to underestimate themselves, and feeling themselves undeserved to be successful, but these are absent in people who has a high self-esteem. In fact, having high self-esteem make the individual evaluates himself in a positive way and feels good with his strong points. Therefore, high self-esteem motivates the individual internally to work hard in order to achieve successful experience throughout life.

Problem statement

Lately, social ills in Malaysian society are becoming widespread, with cases of adolescent problems such as drug addiction and suicide which are often heard or read about in the mass media. These worrying scenario had invited researchers to study on the topic of self-esteem, because it is believed that low self-esteem affects all facets of an individual life. It may affect in ones confidence, performance in workplace or school, and the ability to build up and maintain interpersonal relationships,. Moreover, it could also lead to social issues such as depression and suicide, drug abuse, eating disorder, crime and violence, as well as pregnancy among teenage girl. (MyOUM, 2007).

As reported by Che Noraini (1998), 350, 000 of adolescent were involved in drug addiction compared to only 700 in year 1972 (Mansor, 1999). Studies had found that personal factors like low self-esteem and psychological stess were likely to play a role in initiation of hard drugs. Besides drug addiction, other findings indicated that most of those who had low level self-esteem scored highly in Alcohol and Cigarettes Use index and vice versa (Oteyo & Kariuki, 2009).

Apart from the above, it is noted that depression and suicide ae closely related to low self-esteem. James Battle (1980) was one of the first who documented the close relationship between depression and self-esteem. He discovered that as depression rises, self-esteem tends to decline (Reasoner, n.d.). Based on the study, a person who is suffering from low self-esteem will only see the negative aspects of life and consider themselves with feeling of pessimism and worthlessness. He may feel that he is inferior to other people and expects that everything he does is wrong that others will criticize (Davmac40, 2009). All these pessimistic feelings and low self-esteem, together with other factors are vulnerable to depression and may indeed invoke a response towards depression, for instance, attempts at suicide (Corpcom, 2010).

Besides that, all studies which is done on eating disorders have found that it has a strong relationship with self-esteem. Dr. Yellowlees (1996) states that low self-esteem seems to operate as a predisposing and contributory factor in the development of eating disoder. A profile of low self-esteem includes insecurity, negative mood and
depression, poor body image, feelings of inadequacy, social and personal
withdrawal, poor adaptation skills, and unrealistically high aspirations are seen fairly consistently in patients with eating
disorders. Interestingly, patients with eating disorders also exhibit other
traits associated with low self-esteem. Unfortunately, this affects more to girls. They try to lose their weight in order to boost their self-esteem. However, “it clearly cannot fundamentally
 alter a deep-seated sense of poor self worth. As a result, self-esteem soon
falls, resulting in the individual repeating the dieting process in an
attempt to boost self-esteem again. This ultimately leads to greater levels
of global dissatisfaction and lower self-esteem” (Reasoner, n.d.).

Moreover, crime has been on the increase in Malaysia. By taking into account population growth in Malaysia, the crime per 100, 000 has increased by 19.8% from the year 1980 to 2004 (Sidhu, 2005). Kelley (1978) found evidence of a link between increased self-esteem and reduction of delinquent behavior (Reasoner, n.d.). It is found that low self-esteem has become a tremendous source of anger and hostility which frequently result in crime and violence. Those with low self-esteem tend to seek gang membership to compensate for feeling of low self-esteem and insecurity. This is because they want to fulfill the need to belong and the need to feel important (Malhi, n.d.).

Apart from that, “effective interpersonal relationships are greatly determined by the degree of 
one’s tolerance, open-mindedness and respect for those who are different. To
relate most effectively it requires that one not be threatened by the
positions of others” (Reasoner, n.d.). However, a person with low self-esteem lacks of the ability to interact with people with other people normally. Low self-esteem would not let the individual open up with other people due to the feel of failure and criticism. Additionally, individual with low self-esteem choose not to mix with others may due to his distorted view of self and his distorted view of others. “Since he has several experiences where he has a feeling of un-belongingness, the great tendency would be to question either him or herself or to develop negative views on others” (Davmac40, 2009).

On the other hand, “according to Women’s Health Channel, in the United States alone, approximately 1 million teenage girls experience pregnancy every year” (Bizolink, 2006). There are many studies which is supporting the close relationship between self-esteem and
teenage pregnancy. Statistics have shown that 85-90% of the teenage mothers
elect to keep their babies rather than give them up due to the belief that being pregnant is the source of a new status, new power and a way to prove to everyone else that they are
capable of being loved and that they have someone who will love them unconditionally (Reasoner, n.d.).

Lastly, according to the Malaysian Employers Federation (2009), the problems which faced by the employers in hiring fresh graduates is lacking of self-confidence especially in mixing with the business community and soft skills particularly in communication ability. All these may due to the lacking of self-esteem among the fresh graduates. Individual with low self-esteem prefer to stay in their comfort zone as they are afraid of meeting new people and trying new things. They find it hard to take any form of critism, as a result, they are lacking the abilities to handle problems. Moreover, self-esteem enhances the establishment of good interpersonal relations. Good interpersonal relationship on a professional level are necessary to get ahead in the workplace (Williger, 2010).

Conceptual framework


(Independent variable)


(Independent variable)


(Dependent variable)

Academic achievement

(Independent variable)

In this research, researchers attempt to find out the level of self-esteem of the selected college students, to survey the level of students self-esteem in relation with their ethnic and gender and finally, to determine if there is a relationship between self-esteem and academic achievement. As well as to investigate whether the ethnic, gender, and academic achievement are the influencing factors for college student’s self-esteem.

Theoretical framework

William James is identified as the earliest psychologist to investigate the concept of ‘self’. He had made three major contributions to self theory, which he divided the self into three different but interrelated aspects of self parts: the “Material Self”, the “Social Self”, and the “Spiritual Self”. Most importantly, James had argued that self-esteem is largely dependent on the goals that an individual has for himself, and the degree to which he reach those goals. He suggested that self-esteem will only be weakened or damaged if only if an individual negated or failed at the matters that are important to him/her (Sherfield, 2010).

In fact, James pointed out that an individual may increase self-esteem by finding ways to have more successes in areas that matter to the individual or he/she may change the areas that matter to him/her in ways that lighten the burden of self-esteem. However, there are pros and cons for this model. As such, self-esteem is able to motivate an individual to try to master the challenges of life, and change is inherently possible since self-esteem dependent on an individual successes or failures. Though changes are possible due to self-esteem dependent on success, yet it also becomes contingent (Mruk, 2006).

Besides that, one the most influential researchers in the field of self-esteen, Morris Rosenberg, had developed a self-esteem theory which is based on the analysis of data taken from a large sample group of 5000 subjects in the mid-1960s. According to Rosenberg, self-esteem is either a positive or negative attitude that an individual have toward self. After defining self-esteem, he focused his attention on “the bearing of certain social factors on self-esteem and to indicate the influence of self-esteem on socially significant attitudes and behavior” (Mruk, 2006). As a result, he concluded that “self-esteem is the product of the infuences of culture, society, family, and interpersonal relationship” (Sue & Jo, n.d.).

Additionally, Rosenberg’s self-esteem theory relies on two factors: (1) reflected appraisals and (2) social comparisons. First, reflected appraisal signify that a person’s self-esteem is a product of how that person believes others see her/him (Flynn, 2003). In another word, it is a process which the individual imagine how other people view him/her. In many intances, the way a person believe others perceive him is the way he perceive himself (Cherry, 2010). Second, social comparison is based on the Festinger’s (1954) social comparison theory, which argues we evaluate ourselves, in part, by comparing ourselves with others. This shows that a persons who belongs to low status groups will internalize the negative evaluation of themselves by society. As a consequnce, they experience low self-esteem (Flynn, 2003).

Similar to Rosenberg, Stanley Coopersmith works on self-esteem that was based on worthiness and social learning. Coopersmith includes success as well as self-worth as an indicator of self-esteem (Sue & Jo, n.d.). In addition, Coopersmith developed a conceptual analysis that posed four major bases of esteem: competence, significance, virtue, and power to study how self-esteem is learned and nurtured, and what might be done to alter it. He pointed out that “persons evaluate themselves based on how proficient they are in performing tasks, how well they meet ethical or religious standars, how loved and accepted they are by others, and how much power they exert . It is believed that by determining the basis or bases a given individual employs in judging his worth may well be a crucial step in determining the source of his difficulties and in guiding therapeutic efforts” (Mruk, 2006).

Next, Coopersmith found that children with high self-esteem tend to have families that set clear limits and expectations. Thus he suggested that structured therapeutic might be more effective in enhancing self-esteem than unstructured techniques. Moreover, he strongly recommend modelling as a central therapeutic device. The low self-esteem individual may benefit quite markedly by modelling his behavior after an effective , assured, and competent individual. The low self-esteem individual may observe how an effective individual deal with anxiety, resolves ambiguities, and make decisions. However there is still a downfall of Coopersmith’s theory, which his theory was based on research that taken from middle-class white males in childhood and adolescence (Mruk, 2006).

Moreover, viewing self-esteem from the humanistic perspective, both Carl Rogers and Abraham Maslow considered self-esteem as a basic human need that plays an important role in both development and behavior. For instances, Abraham Maslow placed self-esteem as one of the basic human needs in his famous hierrarchy (Mruk, 2006). According to Maslow, all humans have a need for a stable, firmly based, high level of self-respect, and respect from others. When these needs are satisfied, the person feels self-confident and valuable as a person in the world. However, when these needs are frustrated, the person feels inferior, weak, helpless and worthless (Simons, Irwin & Drinnien, 1987). In addition, if an individual does not develop adequate self-esteem, he/she is stuck in that stage, and his/her behavior may aimed at either reaching this goal or compensating for it in some negative manner (Mruk, 2006).

As for Carl Rogers, he explained self-esteem in regard to self-acceptance and congruence. He believed that it is important for humans to receive unconditional positive regard, which is affection and acceptance with no strings attached (Humanistic Perspectives on Personality, 2003). Rogers pointed out that when people have more conditional positive regards than unconditional positive regards, their self-esteem becomes contingent on reaching goals that others set for them, and this may lead to personality breakdown (Mruk. 2006).

Furthermore, Seymour Epstein defined self-esteem in a cognitive-experiential view. His Cognitive Eperiential Self-Theory (CEST) is one of the first cognitive theories of self-esteem. It is based on the belief that human beings organize information and experience of the world, self, and others into what Epstein called “Personal theories of reality” (Mruk, 2006). This theory explains self-esteem as a consequence of an individual’s understanding of the world and others and who we are in relation to them. Additionally, this theory is like any other theories which noted that human being are striving to maintain an equilibrium of self that help us to survive and grow (Sue & Jo, n.d.).

Next, Epstein went further on to define self-esteem as a basic human need -worthiness, which motivates us consciously and unconsciously (Sue & Jo, n.d.). For example, altering one’s level of self-esteem would affect the entire self system, and lead to disrupting one’s ability to function normally.Therefore, feeling, especially the painful ones such as loss of self-esteem, become important in this system. It helps to minimize potential disruption by warning one affectively. For instance, experience of anxious feeling when self esteem is threatened motivates one to avoid or fight the danger to maintain a sense of worthiness and identity.

On top of that, Epstein visualize self-esteem as being structured like a hierarchy with three different levels of self-esteem: Global self-esteem, intermediate self-esteem and situational self-esteem. First of all, global self-esteem will be on the base of the pyramid. It indicates the general overall self-esteem and it is the most stable and influential level once it has solidified developmentally. Next will be the intermediate self-esteem, which is specific to a particular domains of experience or activity, including skills levels or competence, likability or personal power. However, the degree of interest that given to these areas vary within individual, which means there is plenty of diversity in self-esteem. Lastly, the upper portion of pyramid is the most visible and variable due to it is situational-specific. This flunctuations of self-esteem come and go rapidly as a person moves through days and weeks and is relatively weak in its ability to modify the other two level of self-esteem, unless it happens under unusual circumstances (Mruk, 2006).

As mentioned, many psychologists have assumed that human possess a motive or need to maintain self-esteem. According to an evolutionary based psychological theory – Sociometer Theory, human do not possess a motive or need to maintain self-esteem, yet to minimize the likelihood of rejection (relational devaluation). For example, when evidence of low relational evaluation is detected, the Sociometer will attract the person’s conscious attention to the potential threat to social acceptance and motivates him to deal with it (Leary, 1999). Study had shown that self esteem of participants were likely to drop after they imagined themselves performing behaviors in which they felt they could be excluded or rejected by someone else-such as cheating on an exam, yelling at someone, or causing a traffic accident. Other studies have also shown that merely imaging rejections are sufficient to impair self esteem (Moss, 2008). Therefore, when people behave in ways to protect or enhance their slef-esteem, they are typically behave in ways that they believe will increase their relational value in others’ eyes and thus, improve their chances of social acceptance, and thus increase in their level of self-esteem (Leary, 1999).

According to Sociometer Theory, “self-esteem is essentially a psychological meter, or gauge, that monitors the quality of people’s relationsips with others” (Leary, 1999). In another word, “self-esteem evolved to alert individuals as to whether or not they might be rejected or excluded from some social group. A low self esteem, therefore, elicits behaviors that are intended to preserve relationships and preclude or accommodate rejection” (Moss, 2008). In addition, Leary describe self-esteem as being like a gas gauge in the motor vehicle. Though it does not affect the mechanical functioning of the car, but it serves as a crucial function by showing the driver how much fuel is in the tank. Leary suggests that, drivers are motivated to keep the fuel tank from reading ’empty’, just like self-esteem allows people to know when they need ‘refueling’ in the form of human interactions and to ensure that an individual was not excluded from their social group (Weiner, Freedheim, Millon & Lerner, 2003).

Research Questions

Is there a significant difference between gender and self-esteem?

Is there a significant difference between ethnic and self-esteem?

Is there a relationship between academic achievement and self-esteem?

Research Objectives

To determine the difference level of self-esteem among female and male college students in Malaysia.

To determine the relationship between the academic achievement and self-esteem among college students in Malaysia.

To determine the difference level of self-esteem among Chinese, Indian, Malay, and other ethnic group of college students in Malaysia.

Research Hypotheses

Three null hypotheses are formulated:

N01 = There is no significance difference between gender and self-esteem among college students.

N02 = There is no relationship between academic achievement and self-esteem among college students.

N03 = There is no significant difference between ethnic and self-esteem among college students.

Operational Definition


According to Rosenberg, it is either a positive or a negative value that we have about ourselves. In this research, students’ levels of self-esteem are evaluated by using Rosenberg Self-Esteem Scale (RSES).



This study will be conducted at all private colleges which is located at Kuala Lumpur. The target participants for this study are both females and males with different races student age ranged between 17 – 25 years old. Hence, stratified sampling method will be applied in this study. This is because there is more than one stratum in the population and it reduces sampling error as compared to random sampling. In this case, approximately 1% of the college students would be enlisted for this research. That being said, out of 144,703, total of 1500 participants will be selected for this survey, whereby 30% of the students are chinese females, 25% chinese males, 11% malay females, 9% malay males, 6% indian females, 4% indian males, 8% of females with other races, and 7% males with other races.


Demographic questionnaire

A demographic questionnaire was used to obtain background information from the participants. It was comprised of questions pertaining to students’ age, gender, and ethnicity.

Cumulative Grade Point Average (CGPA)

Academic achievement was measured through the Cumulative Grade point Average (CGPA), which was calculated based on participants’ grade of principal subjects. It is calculated by dividing the total amount of grade points earned by the total amount of credit hours attempted. The student’s academic achievement was based on the total grade points in the mid year examination. In this examination, each subject is graded along one hundred (or four) point scale, the best grade point would be one hundred (or four,) and the lowest grade point would be zero. Based on figure 1, there is a four-mark grading system ranging from 1(very weak) to 4 (very good) (Naderi, Abdullah, Aizan, Sharir & Kumar, 2009).

Student’s self-esteem was measured by the english version of the Rosenberg Self-Esteem Scale (RSES). “This instrument is a widely used 10-items questionnaires that examines perceptions and presentations of the individual self” (Jeanne, Yu & Peter, 2001). Participants were asked to indicate their response to each item on a four point likert scale ranging from “strongly agree” to “strongly disagree”. The possible scores range from 0 to 30, with 30 indicating the highest level of self-esteem and 0 indicates the lowest level of self-esteem. “In the present study, the alpha reliability of this instrument was .86, and its 1-month test-reliability was .90 (n=52)” (Jeanne, Yu & Peter, 2001). Besides that, “Marcotte et al. (2002) reported a Cronbach’s alpha of .88. Cronbach’s alpha was .83 in the present study” (Grahame, 2004), indicating that the Rosenberg Self-Esteem Scale was an internally reliable measure in this sample.


Completed consent form from both students and parents/legal guardians were obtained. Selected students were administered the surveys in their schools and were asked to answer honestly. Students received no reward but were given the results in the form of a self -referenced level of abilities (Naderi, Abdullah, Aizan, Sharir & Kumar, 2009).

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