URJHS Volume 8


The Correlation of Self-Esteem and Perceived Social Support

Allison Budd
Callie Buschman
Lucas Esch
Huntington University


The present study examined this relationship with a sample from a small liberal arts university population. It was hypothesized that as perceived social support increased, individual self-esteem would also increase. Participants were full-time undergraduate students between the ages of 18 and 25 and were chosen by convenience sampling. The Index of Self-Esteem (Hudson, 1982) and the Social Support Appraisals Scale (Vaux, Phillips, Holley, Thompson, Williams, & Stewart, 1986) were completed for examination. The data were analyzed using the Pearson-r coefficient. Using a .05 level of significance and 38 degrees of freedom, the r was 0.32. A correlation of 0.82 was found signifying a strong relationship between self-esteem and perceived social support. This supports the findings of Gecas (1972), Aberson (1999), and Sanaktekin and Sunar (2008). A larger, more representative sample size may be beneficial for future studies.


Self-esteem is a familiar term to many, but what exactly does it mean? Although a variety of definitions may exist, self-esteem for the purpose of this study can be defined as a personal judgment of worthiness that is expressed in the attitudes the individual holds toward her/himself (Sanaktekin & Sunar, 2008). Two distinct levels exist: high self-esteem (HSE) and low self-esteem (LSE). People with HSE generally feel more well-liked by people and tend to worry less about rejection than those with LSE. People with LSE tend to view themselves less favorably and lack self-concept, clarity, and certainty. They also tend to generalize failure in one area of their lives to overall failure causing them to have increased feelings of shame and humiliation (Maner & Park, 2009). Sanaktekin and Sunar (2008) noted that people with HSE see little discrepancy between their ideal and real selves, whereas an individual who perceives a great discrepancy is expected to have low self-esteem.

Cox and Pyszczynski (2004) suggested that maintaining a positive self-concept, or view of self, is a basic human motive. People who believe in themselves and their abilities to perform tasks successfully are better suited for leadership roles than are those who do not believe in themselves (Mayseless & Scharf, 2009). Although having high self-esteem is positive because one takes great pride in successes, it can also have negative aspects. Having high self-esteem may cause one to tenaciously deny any responsibility for failures as well as to criticize out-group members who threaten one’s sense of value and worth (Kernis, 2005).

It is important for individuals to maintain self-esteem as well as social relationships, thereby fostering a sense of social support. House, Umberson, and Landis (1988) suggested that social support is the quality of social relationships as perceived by an individual. It is distinct from similar concepts such as social integration, social network structure, and social regulation. Functional social support references behaviors that are exchanged between individuals. These behaviors can be divided into two categories: emotional and instrumental support. Emotional support consists of communicating concepts such as caring and empathy, while instrumental support involves help in problem solving or exchanging information. The emotional aspect is the most important and can be the most helpful to individuals, although instrumental behaviors can also be seen as emotionally supportive, depending upon how they are conveyed (Semmer, Elfering, Jaconshagen, Perrot, Beehr, & Boos, 2008).

Much research has been conducted to discover how social support affects health issues. Cruza-Guet, Spokane, Caskie, Brown, and Szapocznik (2008) found that satisfaction with received social support was associated with lower levels of psychological distress. The amount of social support a person receives was found to be associated with higher levels of psychological distress, signaling that the perceived effects rather than the quantity or quality of social support is more important in deterring psychological distress. Rini, Manne, DuHamel, Austin, Ostroff, Boulad, et al. (2008) found that social support garnered from family and friends helps to offset the adverse effects of low spousal support in mothers of critically ill children. Social support was also found to affect student adjustment during adolescence. Parental support helps predict less aggression and conduct problems for girls and increases leadership and social skills for boys (Rueger, Malecki, & Demaray, 2008).

Social support also has an association with security in relationships. Davila and Kashy (2009) found that individuals who are secure in their relationships are more likely to seek support as well as provide support for others, suggesting that secure individuals are more capable of seeing and responding to people’s needs. Kim, Sherman, and Taylor (2008) found that social support is one of the most effective methods to help cope with stressful life situations. The positive effect of relationships is derived from the sating of a need for belongingness, acceptance, and caring (Semmer et al., 2008).

Social support is one of many factors that may influence the level of self-esteem an individual has. Some people base self-esteem on being loved, attractive, and competent. For others, self-esteem may depend on being powerful, virtuous, or self-reliant. An individual’s self-esteem will depend on either internal or external factors. Basing self-esteem on internal characteristics provides a better buffer against anxiety than if it were based on external characteristics, including achievements and conditional approval from others (Crocker, Luhtanen, Cooper, & Bouvrette, 2003).

Although internal characteristics provide a better shield against anxiety, studies show that the external approval from others influences self-esteem more than internal emotional support (Crocker, et al., 2003; Wong, Wiest, & Cusick, 2002). Approval from parents, friends, and teachers relates more to self-worth than emotional support. Also, classmate approval influences self-worth more than classmate emotional support does. Overall, Robinson (1995) found that approval from others is more highly related to self-esteem than emotional support.

Gecas (1972) discovered that adolescents’ self-esteem was higher in a social context than in the classroom. Wong et al. (2002) added that students need to be provided with an environment that will maintain and increase their sense of competence. Like the self-fulfilling prophecy, when students are led to believe they can achieve, they will try harder to perform at higher levels (Wong et al., 2002). Social acceptance, social approval, and social support give individuals a sense of social identity. Social identity is strongly related to collective self-esteem (Foels & Tomcho, 2005). Relationship research suggests that low self-esteem individuals augment themselves through elevating attachment and association with their partners (Aberson, 1999).

Because self-esteem seems strongly related to social identity and the social context, it would seem logical to expect that self-esteem and social support would be correlated. Therefore, the present study examined the relationship between social support and self-esteem. It was hypothesized that as self-esteem increases, perceived social support will also increase.



The population for this study was comprised of undergraduate students attending a small midwestern liberal arts college. Participants were full-time students between the ages of 18 and 25 who were selected from the overall population through convenience sampling. Forty-six students completed the study (34 females and 12 males). Six of the students’ scores were omitted (5 students did not meet the full-time student qualification criteria and 1 student incorrectly completed the indexes). The mean age of the participants was 20.35 years. Caucasians represented 96 percent of the participants. The remaining 4 percent were Asians and African Americans.


This study utilized the Index of Self-Esteem (ISE) (Hudson, 1982). This 24-item index is intended to measure the amount, intensity, and/or significance of a problem an individual has with self-esteem. The items are rated on a Likert scale from 1-7. A score of one signifies “none of the time,” and seven indicates “all of the time.” An overall score below 30 represents high self-esteem while scores 30 and above represent low self-esteem. The ISE has good construct validity and known-groups validity. It also has internal reliability with a two-hour test-retest correlation of .92 (Hudson, 1982). Sample questions include: “I feel that I am a very competent person,” “I feel very self-conscious when I am with strangers,” and “I feel I get pushed around more than others.”

This study also used the Social Support Appraisals Scale (SSA) (Vaux, Phillips, Holley, Thompson, Williams, & Stewart, 1986). This is a 23-item instrument based on “the idea that social support is in fact support only if the individual believes it is available” (Corcoran & Fischer, 1987, p. 779). The items are rated on a Likert scale from 1-4. A score of one denotes “strongly agree” and four indicates “strongly disagree.” Higher overall scores imply a low evaluation of perceived social support. On the other hand, lower overall scores imply a high evaluation of perceived social support. The SSA has good concurrent, predictive, known-groups, and construct validity. It also has good internal reliability (alpha coefficients ranging from .81 to .90 (Corcoran & Fischer, 1987). Sample questions include: “I am important to others,” “My friends don’t care about my welfare,” and “If I died tomorrow, very few people would miss me.”


A campus-wide e-mail was sent one week before the start of the study. A reminder e-mail was sent one day prior to the study. The potential participants were prompted to report to the assigned room from 4:30-5:30 on March 24 or 25, 2009. After the participants were gathered, they were briefly instructed regarding the completion of the indexes. They were strongly encouraged to stay until the completion of both but informed they could decline participation at their own discretion. Participants were notified that results would be anonymous. The indexes were distributed with one printed on each side of a single sheet of paper, and the directions were explained (see Appendices A & B). Then the participants were instructed to begin. When all the participants had finished, the indexes were collected, organized, and scored.


A Pearson r correlation coefficient was used to analyze the collected data. With an alpha level of .05 and 38 degrees of freedom, the obtained r value was 0.8217, and the table value was 0.32. Because the r obtained was greater than the table value, the null hypothesis was rejected. There is a statistically significant positive correlation of 0.82 between perceived social support and self-esteem (p = 0.00000000008). As the level of perceived social support increases, the level of self-esteem also increases. A scatter plot of the data is provided (refer to Figure 1).

Figure 1 . The relationship between self-esteem and perceived social support


The present study expected to find a positive correlation between perceived social support and level of self-esteem. This is in fact what was found. Using the Index of Self-Esteem (Hudson, 1982) and the Social Support Appraisals Scale (Vaux et al., 1986), the hypothesis was confirmed: self-esteem increases as perceived social support increases.

The practical implication of these findings is that these two variables should be considered in relation to one another, given the strong correlation that has been found. It is reasonable to infer that when people are struggling with issues of self-esteem, their perceptions of social support should also be considered.

The findings of this study coincide with past research. Maner and Park (2009) found that people with high self-esteem feel more accepted by others and worry less about rejection than those with low self-esteem. Sanaktekin and Sunar (2008) explained that the relational perspective of self-esteem reflects how individuals perceive that others evaluate them. Believing an individual possesses certain positive qualities only predicts self-esteem when the individual perceives that other people find value in those qualities. As was suggested by Gecas (1972) and Wong et al. (2002), students have higher self-esteem and competence in a socially supportive environment. Improving the level of social support for students would encourage an increase in self-esteem and foster increased competence, likely leading to higher achievement. Social support could also be used to aid those who suffer from low self-esteem by encouraging elevation and attachment with others as suggested by Aberson (1999).

Significant results were obtained despite the limitations of the study, which largely stemmed from the low response rate. There were 40 participants out of a population of 853, which equals a response rate of about 4.7 percent. This low response rate could have been partly caused by the use of a single form of communication (i.e., email) to contact the participants. The lack of random selection and assignment limits overall generalization. Due to the low response rate and selection type (convenience sampling), careful consideration should be taken before generalizing to the population. Counterbalancing could have been utilized in order to enhance reliability.

Future studies might include sending surveys via campus mail in addition to procedures similar to this study. It may also be helpful to use other forms of communication to inform potential participants of the upcoming study. Alternate incentives could be considered to encourage participation. Although there were limitations, the current study strongly affirms the positive correlation between self-esteem and perceived social support.


Aberson, C. (1999). Low self-esteem and ingroup bias. Social Behavior and Personality, 27(1), 17-27.

Corcoran, K., & Fischer, J. (1987). Measures for clinical practice: A sourcebook. New York: Oxford University Press.

Cox, C., & Pyszczynski, T. (2004). Can we really do without self-esteem? Comment on Crocker and Park. Psychological Bulletin, 130(3), 425-429.

Crocker, J., Luhtanen, R., Cooper, M., & Bouvrette, A. (2003). Contingencies of self-worth in college students: Theory and measurement. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 85(5), 894-908.

Cruza-Guet, M. C., Spokane, A. R., Caskie, G. I., Brown, S. C., & Szapocznik, J. (2008). The relationship between social support and psychological distress among Hispanic elders in Miami, Florida. Journal of Counseling Psychology, 55(4), 427-441.

Davila, J., & Kashy, D. A. (2009). Secure base processes in couples: Daily associations between support experiences and attachment security. Journal of Family Psychology, 23(1), 76-88.

Foels, R., & Tomcho, T. (2005). Gender, interdependent self-construals, and collective self-esteem: Women and men are mostly the same. Self and Identity, 4(3), 213-225.

Gecas, V. (1972). Parental behavior and contextual variations in adolescent self-esteem. Sociometry, 35(2), 332-345.

House, J. S., Umberson, D., & Landis, K. R. (1988). Structures and processes of social support. Annual Review of Sociology, 14, 293-318.

Hudson, W. W. (1982). Index of Self-Esteem. In J. Fischer & K. Corcoran (Eds.), Measures for clinical practice and research: A sourcebook (vol. 2, 4 th ed). pp. 188-189. New York: Oxford University.

Kernis, M. H. (2005). Measuring self-esteem in context: The importance of stability of self-esteem in psychological functioning. Journal of Personality, 73(6), 2-37.

Kim, H. S., Sherman, D. K., & Taylor, S. E. (2008). Culture and social support. American Psychologist, 63(6), 518-526.

Maner, J. K., & Park, L. E. (2009). Does self-threat promote social connection? The role of self-esteem and contingencies of self-worth. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 96(1), 203-217.

Mayseless, O., & Scharf, M. (2009). Socioemotional characteristics of elementary school children identified as exhibiting social leadership qualities. The Journal of Genetic Psychology, 170(1), 73-94.

Rini, C., Manne, S., DuHamel, K., Austin, J., Ostroff, J., Boulad, F., et al. (2008). Social support from family and friends as a buffer of low spousal support among mothers of critically ill children: A multilevel modeling approach. Health Psychology, 27(5), 593-603.

Robinson, N. (1995). Evaluating the nature of perceived support and its relation to perceived self-worth in adolescents. Journal of Research on Adolescence, 5(2), 253-280.

Rueger, S. Y., Malecki, C. K., & Demaray, M. K. (2008). Gender differences in the relationship between perceived social support and student adjustment during early adolescence. chool Psychology Quarterly, 23(4), 496-514.

Sanaktekin, O. H., & Sunar, D. (2008). Persuasion and relational versus personal bases of self-esteem: Does the message need to be one- or two-sided? Social Behavior and Personality, 36(10), 1315-1332.

Semmer, N. K., Elfering, A., Jacobshagen, N., Perrot, T., Beehr, T. A., & Boos, N. (2008). The emotional meaning of instrumental social support. International Journal of Stress Management, 15(3), 235-251.

Vaux, A., Phillips, J., Holley, L., Thompson, B., Williams, D., & Stewart, D. (1986). The Social Support Appraisals (SSA) scale: Studies of reliability and validity, American Journal of Community Psychology, 14, 195-219.

Wong, E., Wiest, D., & Cusick, L. (2002). Perceptions of autonomy support, parent attachment, competence and self-worth as predictors of motivational orientation and academic achievement: An examination of sixth-and-ninth grade regular education students. Adolescence, 37(146), 255-266.

Appendix A
Instructions for the Social Support Appraisal Scale

Age _______

Gender _________


Full-time student or part-time student (circle one)

Below is a list of statements about your relationships with family and friends. Please indicate how much you agree or disagree with each statement as being true.

(Scale items omitted)

Appendix B

Instructions for the Index of Self-Esteem

This questionnaire is designed to measure how you see yourself. It is not a test so there are no right or wrong answers. Answer each item as carefully and as accurately as you can be placing a number beside each one as follows.

1 = None of the time 2 = Very rarely 3 = A little of the time 4 = Some of the time

5 = A good part of the time 6 = Most of the time 7= All of the time

(Scale items omitted)


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