In Brief

Positive self-esteem may be culturally universal, according to a study in the December Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (Vol. 89, No. 6) that found that, on average, people in 53 nations scored above the theoretical midpoint of a popular self-esteem scale.

However, the results may be colored by the study's findings of a pervasive negative response bias-in which people were less likely to agree with negatively phrased statements than positively worded statements about themselves.

In the study, lead researcher and Bradley University psychology professor David Schmitt, PhD, and his colleagues gauged 16,998 people's self-esteem across 53 nations and 28 languages with the Rosenberg Self-Esteem Scale (RSES), a measure of positive or negative self-esteem. In non-English-speaking countries, researchers ensured the translations' accuracy by converting the scale's questions into the participants' native language and then back into English.

The study was part of the International Sexuality Description Project, a survey study that includes measures of sociosexuality, sex-role ideology, HIV/AIDS risk factors and sexual aggression.

The researchers found that most participants scored significantly higher on self-esteem when the researchers phrased items positively, such as "I feel that I have a lot of good qualities," than when they framed them negatively, such as "I certainly feel useless at times." This suggests that researchers may have to assign different weights to negatively worded items, Schmitt says.

"The bias prevents us from knowing whether a response reflects a bias or an actual answer," Schmitt says. "The study shows you can't just translate a study and assume that the responses will reflect the same things."

In addition to the response-bias findings, the researchers found that high self-esteem scores negatively correlated with neuroticism and positively correlated with extraversion in nearly all nations, providing support for the RSES's ability to forecast some of the Big Five personality characteristics across cultures.

In future studies, Schmitt and his colleagues aim to investigate how positive self-esteem correlates with sexual promiscuity among men and women across cultures.

-Z. Stambor