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  • Writer's pictureH. Paul Putman III, MD

Character Sketches: Which Values are Valuable?

Updated: Jul 5, 2022

Self-esteem can be built by behavior consistent with personal values. Previous posts[1] have shown that this process works essentially “value-free,” in that the particular values acted upon are not as important as routine behavior in line with them. If you behave according to your personally chosen and consciously confirmed values, more often than not, awareness of this builds and sustains a better self-image.


Are some personal values more supportive of self-esteem than others, though? Researchers around the world have investigated this topic for the past several decades, along with seeking to understand if any differences are universal or culture-bound. Most studies show that people with higher self-esteem hold values consistent with courage, openness to change, and the maintenance of security. People with lower self-esteem are more likely to value conformity, universalism and politeness. Individuals valuing self-respect, accomplishment, and social recognition, though, were eventually distributed among holders of high and low self-image[2].


The issue of whether values are linked to self-esteem globally, or vary by culture and society, has not yet been answered. Some have demonstrated that men with better self-esteem value hedonism (pleasure seeking), performing tasks and achieving goals, while women feel better with relational values, establishing ties to others[3]. Similar gender differences across class and cultures have been observed to be stable over decades[4].


Investigators have also looked into value congruence and self-esteem - whether an individual feels better about herself when sharing values the values of her community. Here again, the data is mixed, but seems to discourage linking self-esteem with societal values in most cases[5], beyond the endorsement of achievement. The picture is complicated, as people with high self-esteem are more willing to hold less socially desirable goals, such as self-direction and hedonism[3].


So, while we might observe some trends in matching values to self-esteem, overall it appears that it is the awareness of one’s values and observation of one’s behavior as consistent with them that most strongly promotes self-esteem. Identifying and supporting your values is more important for self-esteem than what they are, essentially. Maintaining good self-esteem also makes it easier to hold less popular values.


We are not saying that the individual is more important than his community, however. Society functions best when people with differing values find ways to co-exist, as we explored in “The Survival Pledge[6].” As we have shown in that series and in this one, it is taking responsibility for our own thoughts, values and behaviors that benefits both the individual and society. Self-awareness and personal responsibility are foundational to both functioning communities and to self-esteem.

[1] Putman HP: Character Sketches: Living Our Values, Building Self-Esteem. [Blog] drpaulputman.com, 2022. Available at: https://www.drpaulputman.com/post/character-sketches-living-our-values-building-self-esteem. [2] Dziwota K, Dudek A, Szpak A, et al: Value preferences in individuals with low and high self-esteem. Current Problems of Psychiatry 17(2):97-106, 2016. Available at https://doi.org/10.1515/cpp-2016-0011. [3] Lönnqvist J-E, Verkasalo M, Helkama K, et al: Self-esteem and values. Eur J Soc Psychol 39:40-51, 2009. Available at https://doi.org/10.1002/ejsp.465. [4] Beutel AM, Marini MM: Gender and Values. American Sociological Review 60(3):436–448, 1995. Available at https://doi.org/10.2307/2096423. [5] Du H, Götz FM, Chen A, Rentfrow PJ: Revisiting Values and Self-Esteem: A Large-Scale Study in the United States. European Journal of Personality, August 2021. Available at doi:10.1177/08902070211038805. [6] Putman HP: The Survival Pledge: Peace through Responsibility. [Blog] drpaulputman.com, 2021-2022. Available at https://www.drpaulputman.com/post/the-survival-pledge-peace-through-responsibility.

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