Stop whatever you are doing right now.
On a scale of 1 to 10, how would you rate your self-esteem? If one means, “I’m a complete and utter failure,” and ten means, “I’m at the top of my game in life, love, and work,” where do you fall?
What you are about to discover, if you do not already suspect it, is that the above question, and that scale, probably are not reliable or valid.
What you also will discover, though, is that the Rosenberg Self-Esteem Scale is. In fact, it is considered by many to be the “end-all-be-all, drop the mic,” self-esteem scale.
Before we get to the nitty-gritty about that, we need to understand a few crucial things about self-esteem.
This article contains:
- How Can We Best Measure Self-Esteem?
- A Look at the Validity and Reliability
- The Rosenberg Self-Esteem Scale (RSES)
- How Does Scoring Work? (Incl. Interpretation)
- A Look at the Psychometric Properties of the Rosenberg Scale
- Where Can I Attain Permission to Use the RSES?
- A Look at Measuring Low Self-Esteem
- What Questionnaire is Considered Best for Students?
- More Self-Esteem Tests and Assessments
- A Take-Home Message
How Can We Best Measure Self-Esteem?
Many psychological and sociological professionals would argue that the Rosenberg Self-Esteem Scale is the best tool for measuring self-esteem. You will read more about it later in this article. Still, there are other options, and some are especially useful when working with young children.
What follows is a brief list of the most-used instruments for evaluating self-esteem in younger populations (California Digital Library, n.d.)
- Piers-Harris Children’s Self-Concept Scale – High reliability and validity is the trademark of this instrument. It is for ages 9 to 12.
- McDaniel-Piers Scale – Reliable and popular, this tool is best for ages 6 to 9.
- Behavioral Academic Self-Esteem Scale – This is useful as a teacher’s reporting instrument.
- Martinek-Zaichkowsky Self-Concept Scale for Children – This is a self-assessment tool using pictures. It measures global self-concept in grades 1 through 8.
Another possibility while working with adult populations is to assess the stability of self-esteem. To do this, you might use the Self-Esteem Stability Scale (SESS). You also could use the Instability of Self-Esteem Scale (ISES). You will learn more about these in the section titled, “More Self-Esteem Tests and Assessments.”
The overall point is that self-esteem, self-concept, self-efficacy, and many other self-related constructs are measurable in some form. The bigger question revolves around the validity and reliability of the various instruments. How do we know that they actually measure what the researchers say that they measure?
A Look at the Validity and Reliability
In the psychological and social sciences, a variety of tools allow for the collection of data. Some of these include questionnaires, tests, predefined questions, rating scales, or checklists. Whatever the researcher uses must be valid and reliable for its intended purpose. This is true, regardless of whether the study is qualitative or quantitative. The researcher’s credibility is at stake.
People who read the thousands of different studies published every day want to know one thing — “What’s in it for me?” They are looking for credible “proof” to support their cause, belief, situation, or idea. If the researcher’s tools miss the mark, the layperson might not realize it.
For example, have you ever baked anything? Bakers use specific measuring tools. Some are for liquids, others for solids, and still others for weight. If a baker uses a liquid measuring tool for something that should be weighed, then the end product could change. If the product is bread, it could end up dry and dense. If it is a cookie, it could end up stiff.
If a researcher wants to measure self-esteem in pre-pubescent youth, what instrument is the right tool? Should the researcher create something new? If so, what should they consider? Does the structure of questions matter? Validity and reliability are critical in the process.
There are, for example, four types of validity: face, content, criterion, and construct. There also are four forms of reliability: interrater, test-retest, equivalent forms, internal consistency. A researcher must consider each of these when either creating an assessment or using an existing one.
A simple way for researchers to identify one is through the Buros Center for Testing. The mission of the center is “to improve the science and practice of testing and assessment.” The organization houses the most extensive collection of tests in the world. Their series titled Mental Measurements Yearbook is a treasure trove of instruments.
Tests in Print (TIP) is another useful resource available through the center. It is a comprehensive bibliography of every known commercially available test in the English language.
Here are some pieces of information included in TIP:
- the purpose of the test,
- the publisher,
- intended population; and,
- administration times.
Reviewing the above resources provides the researcher with information about the validity and reliability of the instrument.
The Center is a non-profit housed at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln in Lincoln, NE, USA. As such, the organization also offers assessment literacy through:
- professional development opportunities (conferences, webinars, video library),
- guides and digital publications,
- a clearinghouse,
- standards and codes guidelines; and,
Another resource for researchers is The Standards for Educational and Psychological Testing. Developed by the American Educational Research Association (AERA), American Psychological Association (APA), and the National Council on Measurement in Education (NCME), it is “the gold standard in guidance on testing in the United States and in many other countries.”
It discusses validity, reliability, and fairness in testing in the first section of the text. It has been available in print since 1966.
The Rosenberg Self-Esteem Scale (RSES)
Developed in the mid-1960s by Morris Rosenberg, the scale assesses global self-esteem. Rosenberg and his fellow researchers (1995) define global self-esteem as “the individual’s positive and negative attitude toward the self as a totality.”
Rosenberg and colleagues (1995) distinguish between global and specific self-esteem. They agree that the interrelated nature of the two is possible. They also argue that treating these constructs as though they are interchangeable devalues them both as separate phenomena.
What then, is an example of global versus specific self-esteem? As an example, let us take a look at what these are — attitudes. As such, everyone has positive, negative, or neutral attitudes toward objects. These attitudes can be toward the entire object (globally) or to a small piece of it (specifically).
Assuming that you generally like ice cream, one could describe your liking as a “global” liking of the tasty treat. Do you like all ice cream? Further, do you like all brands of ice cream equally? Chances are you have specific ice creams and brands that you prefer. You have a general attitude about ice cream (‘It’s yummy!”), but you also have different attitudes about types and brands (“Ben & Jerry’s rocks my world!” “Store brands are horrible!”).
A person can have an attitude toward the self generally, and also specifically. You could hold a negative attitude about your aptitude for a specific subject, and generally have a positive attitude about your overall intelligence.
Rosenberg’s model caught the attention of several other scientists (Rosenberg, Schooler, Schoenbach & Rosenberg,1995). A few decided to test his model and found that it included two components. They are self-confidence and self-deprecation. Together, these counterbalance each other within the person.
The self-report scale is most often seen as a Likert-type scale. This means that the person responds to statements with the degree to which they agree with them.
- I feel that I am a person of worth, at least on an equal plane with others
Strongly agree – Agree – Disagree – Strongly disagree
- I feel that I have several good qualities
Strongly agree – Agree – Disagree – Strongly disagree
- All and all, I am inclined to feel that I am a failure
Strongly agree – Agree – Disagree – Strongly disagree
Note: The above questions are from the RSES questionnaire available on the University of Maryland’s website.
Initially, Rosenberg used his scale with adolescents, but now it also is available for use with adults. Today, social psychologists, psychiatrists, medical doctors, therapists, and others use the scale worldwide. You can find it in several other languages.
How Does Scoring Work? (Incl. Interpretation)
Determining a person’s score is fast and easy when using a paper-and-pencil approach.
To better understand this how-to, you should refer to the RSES questionnaire available at the University of Maryland. The survey has ten items. Assign a score to each of the items as follows:
For statements 1, 2, 4, 6, and 7:
Strongly agree = 3
Agree = 2
Disagree = 1
Strongly disagree = 0
For statements 3, 5, 8, 9, and 10:
Strongly agree = 0
Agree = 1
Disagree = 2
Strongly disagree = 3
You will notice that these are reverse scored. The Rosenberg Scale includes both positive and negatively worded items. Reversing the assigned response values gives the researcher a picture of the direction of a person’s attitude.
For instance, if a person strongly agreed to question number one above, and strongly disagreed to question number three, then it is a safe bet that the person has a healthy self-esteem. Of course, we would not reach this conclusion based on only two responses.
Two reasons for reverse-scoring are to reduce boredom and to keep the respondent’s attention. Sometimes people get into a rhythm of ticking “strongly agree” every time so that they can finish the survey. Negatively wording some questions keep respondents “on their toes.”
Tally the scores. Once you have the total, you need to figure out what it means. Scale ranges vary depending on how a researcher decides to assign values. The above example yields a scale with ranges from 0 – 30. The higher the score, presumably, the higher a person’s self-esteem.
To better understand or interpret scoring, the University of Maryland Department of Sociology recommends reviewing the literature. As previously mentioned, it is vital that a researcher knows for whom the instrument is intended before using it in a study. It also is important to use the tool “as is” so that its reliability remains sound.
Dr. Rosenberg worked at the University of Maryland when he developed the scale. Any questions about the legal use of the scale also are accessible via the above link.
A Look at the Psychometric Properties of the Rosenberg Scale
Investigating the psychometric properties of an instrument means reviewing its reliability and validity. The former refers to consistency and the latter to accuracy.
Since the development of the scale, researchers have examined its validity and reliability. A 2010 study by Sinclair and colleagues tested the scaling assumptions of RSES. This included a thorough investigation of its structure. They determined that “all psychometric tests supported the underlying structure of the RSES.”
RSES has test-retest correlations ranging from .82 to .88. Cronbach’s alpha from various samples has a range of .77 to .88. There is a unidimensional and two-factor structure to the scale (University of Maryland, 2019). Cronbach’s Alpha gives us an indication of internal consistency (Tavakol & Dennick, 2011). Generally, a number greater than .70 is acceptable (UCLA, n.d.).
According to CYFAR (n.d.), a US-based initiative providing funding for Sustainable Community Projects, RSES validity is as follows:
Content/face validity: No information available
Criterion validity: .55
Construct validity: Correlated -.64 with anxiety, -.54 with depression, and -.43 with anomie.
You can find detailed information about CYFAR by visiting the University of Minnesota’s website.
Where Can I Attain Permission to Use the RSES?
The best source for obtaining permission to use the scale is via the University of Maryland’s website. In short, it reads:
“There is no charge associated with the use of this scale in your professional research. However, please be sure to give credit to Dr. Rosenberg when you use the scale by citing his work in publications, papers, and reports. The Rosenberg Self-Esteem Scale may be used without explicit permission. However, the Rosenberg family would like to be kept informed of its use.”
Note that there also is a link to a form that you can complete.
A Look at Measuring Low Self-Esteem
Researchers do not measure low self-esteem, per se. They measure self-esteem generally. They also attempt to tease out nuances of self-esteem.
For example, they learn how or if self-esteem relates to other areas of a person’s life. Bruce Hare, PhD., who you will read about later, studied area-specific self-esteem.
What Questionnaire is Considered Best for Students?
Whether you are working with pre-teens or adults, the RSES is the “go-to” scale used by many mental health professionals. It is reliable for student populations from age 12 and up.
The scale’s reliability is outstanding (r = .81 – .87) and its internal consistency is high (.55 – .95) (YouthRex, n.d.) These numbers are in line with those quoted above, further supporting this scale.
More Self-Esteem Tests and Assessments
The world of tests and assessments is abundant with options. Some are suitable for adults, others for children. Many researchers even adapt scales to make them suitable for different cultures. Below are several examples of scales falling into these categories.
The Hare Self-Esteem Scale is a general and area-specific scale developed by Bruce Hare for use with children. The scale measures self-esteem as it relates to home, peer, and school. Shoemaker (1980) found support for “area-specific self-esteem as a valid construct.”
Self-esteem significantly associated with:
- social class (home)
- recent family moves (peer); and,
- test anxiety, reading, and mathematics achievement (school).
Reliability of the sub-scales is adequate at r = .56 to .65 whereas it is slightly stronger for the general scale (r= .74) (YouthRex, n.d.).
Adolescents respond to a 30-item questionnaire using a Likert-type scale. Averaging the subscales yields a general self-esteem score. Unlike the RSES, there is no need to reverse score negatively worded items.
The Lawrence Self-Esteem Questionnaire (LAWSEQ) is a three-point Likert-type scale appropriate for use with primary school children. The central construct measured is interpersonal competencies. The original scale, developed in 1981, resulted from work with first-year students in Belfast, Northern Ireland (N=120).
The most recent version, published in 2011, includes 16 items. It is self-scored, and there are no sub-scores. The result is an overall self-esteem score. The LAWSEQ has an alpha of .73. The scale is unidimensional (Rand Corporation, n.d.).
The Single-Item Self-Esteem Scale (SISE) developed by Robins, Hendin, & Trzesniewski (2001) measures global self-esteem using one question. Respondents rate their level of agreement with the statement, “I have high self-esteem.” The 5-point scale ranges from 1 (not very true of me) to 5 (very true of me.)
Some might argue that a single-item scale cannot offer much, but the authors found compelling evidence for it. Over the course of four studies examining construct validity of RSES and SISE, they found:
- strong convergent validity for men and women, for different ethnic groups, college students, and community members
- almost identical correlations for domain-specific self-evaluations, self-evaluative biases, academic outcomes, and demographic variables.
The fourth study involved children and showed moderate convergent validity (Robins, Hendin, & Trzesniewski, 2001).
Determining the reliability of a single-item scale is not possible. Instead, the authors utilized the Heise procedure to estimate it. This allows one to assess reliability based on autocorrelations at three different points in time (Robins et al. 2001).
Why would it be important to measure the stability of self-esteem? The next two scales exist to do precisely that because stability is “an important variable affecting psychological functioning” (Altmann, & Roth, 2018).
The Self-Esteem Stability Scale (SESS) provides insights into fluctuations in levels of self-esteem. It looks at short periods. Altmann and Roth (2018) developed this unidimensional 3-item scale to more directly assess stability. It has an Alpha of .71.
Chabrol, Rousseau, and Callahan (2006) created the Instability of Self-Esteem Scale (ISES) to complement the RSES. It is a 4-item questionnaire that gauges changes in self-esteem. In their studies, they showed an internal consistency of .89. Test-retest reliability was .89. Concurrent validity was r= .81 (Chabrol, et al. 2006).
The four items included in the scale are:
Item 1: Sometimes I feel worthless; at other times I feel that I am worthwhile.
Item 2: Sometimes I feel happy with myself; at other times I feel very unhappy with myself.
Item 3: Sometimes I feel useless; at other times I feel very useful.
Item 4: Sometimes I feel very bad about myself; at other times I feel very good about myself.
In addition, we have a selection of the 27 best self-esteem books for supplementary reading.
A Take-Home Message
Many mental health professionals are familiar with the scales mentioned in this article. For the layperson or the newly minted life coach, they might be new. If that describes you then remember this:
Reliability and validity are critical. Knowing with whom a scale should be used is equally important. Interpretation of an instrument is only one piece of the puzzle.
There is an entire field devoted to the theories and techniques involved in psychological measurement. For more information about psychometrics, visit the Buros Center.
At the end of the day, when everyone returns to their respective corners of the world, remember this from Jack Canfield:
Self-esteem is made up primarily of two things: feeling lovable and feeling capable.
Self-esteem scales are simply a tool to help us realize those two things.
How are you using self-esteem scales to either improve your life or the lives of others? Comment below. We enjoy hearing from you!
- Altmann, T. & Roth, M. (2018). The Self-esteem Stability Scale (SESS) for Cross-Sectional Direct Assessment of Self-esteem Stability. Frontiers in psychology, 9, 91.
- APA (n.d.). The Standards for Educational and Psychological Testing. Retrieved October 31, 2019, from https://www.apa.org/science/programs/testing/standards
- Buros Center for Testing (n.d.). Mental Measurements Yearbook. University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Retrieved October 31, 2019, from https://buros.org/assessment
- Brainy Quote (n.d.). Jack Canfield. Retrieved November 4, 2019, from https://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/jack_canfield_528370?src=t_self-esteem
- California Digital Library (n.d.). Instruments for measuring self-esteem. University of California Press. UC Press E-Books Collection, 1982-2004. Retrieved October 31, 2019, from https://publishing.cdlib.org/ucpressebooks/view/docId=ft6c6006v5&chunk.id=d0e1196&toc.depth=100&toc.id=d0e1072&brand=ucpress
- Chabrol, H., Rousseau, A., & Callahan, S. (2006). Preliminary results of a scale assessing instability of self-esteem. Canadian Journal of Behavioural Science / Revue canadienne des sciences du comportement, 38(2), 136-141.
- CYFAR (n.d.). Rosenberg Self-Esteem Scale. University of Minnesota. Retrieved November 1, 2019, from https://cyfar.org/sites/default/files/PsychometricsFiles/Self-esteem%20scale%2C%20Rosenberg%20%28high%20school%29_0_0.pdf
- Fetzer Institute (n.d.). Rosenberg Self-Esteem Scale. Retrieved October 30, 2019, from https://fetzer.org/sites/default/files/images/stories/pdf/selfmeasures/Self_Measures_for_Self-Esteem_ROSENBERG_SELF-ESTEEM.pdf
- Rand Corporation (n.d.). Lawrence’s Self-Esteem Questionnaire (LAWSEQ). Retrieved November 1, 2019, from https://www.rand.org/education-and-labor/projects/assessments/tool/1981/lawrences-self-esteem-questionnaire-lawseq.html
- Robins, R.W., Hendin, H.M., & Trzesniewski, K.H. (2001). Measuring global self-esteem: Construct validation of a single-item measure and the Rosenberg Self-Esteem Scale. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 27(2), 151-161.
- Rosenberg, M., Schooler, C., Schoenbach, C., & Rosenberg, F. (1995). Global Self-Esteem and Specific Self-Esteem: Different Concepts, Different Outcomes. American Sociological Review, 60(1), 141-156. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/2096350
- Sinclair, S.J., Blais, M.A., Gansler, D.A., Sandberg, E., Bistis, K. & LoCicero, A. (2010 March). Psychometric properties of the Rosenberg Self-Esteem Scale: Overall and across demographic groups living in the United States. Eval Health Prof, 33(10), 56-80.
- Shoemaker, A. L. (1980). Construct validity of area-specific self-esteem: The Hare Self-Esteem Scale. Educational and Psychological Measurement, 40(2), 495-501.
- Tavakol, M. & Dennick, R. (2011). Making sense of Cronbach’s Alpha. International Journal of Medical Education, 2, 53-55.
- UCLA (n.d.). What does Cronbach’s Alpha mean? SPSS FAQ. Retrieved November 1, 2019, from https://stats.idre.ucla.edu/spss/faq/what-does-cronbachs-alpha-mean/
- University of Maryland (2019 February 8). Using the Rosenberg Self-Esteem Scale [Web log entry]. Department of Sociology, University of Maryland. Retrieved October 30, 2019, from https://socy.umd.edu/about-us/using-rosenberg-self-esteem-scale
- YouthRex (n.d.) Hare Self-Esteem Scale. Retrieved November 1, 2019, from http://youthrex.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/06/HARE-SelfEsteemScale.pdf
- YouthRex (n.d.). Rosenberg Self-Esteem Scale. Retrieved November 4, 2019, from http://youthrex.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/06/Rosenberg-Self-EsteemScale-1.pdf