The Developmental Costs of High Self-Esteem for Antisocial Children


  • This research was supported by Grant 1R01HD38280 from the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development. This article was written while D.G.P. was Visiting Professor of Psychology at the University of Hong Kong.

concerning this article should be addressed to David G. Perry, Department of Psychology, Florida Atlantic University, Boca Raton, FL 33431. Electronic mail may be sent to


Two hypotheses—high self-esteem leads children to act on antisocial cognitions (disposition-activating hypothesis) and high self-esteem leads children to rationalize antisocial conduct (disposition-rationalizing hypothesis)—were investigated in two longitudinal studies. In Study 1 (N= 189; mean age = 11.1 years), antisocial behavior was aggression; in Study 2 (N= 407; mean age = 10.8 years) it was avoidance of the mother. In both studies, there was little evidence for the disposition-activating hypothesis but considerable support for the disposition-rationalizing hypothesis. Over time, aggressive children with high self-esteem increasingly valued the rewards that aggression offers and belittled their victims, and avoidant children with high self-esteem increasingly viewed their mother as harassing and uninvolved. For antisocial children, high self-esteem carries costs.