Low Self-Esteem Does Not Cause Delinquency, Study Finds

November 03, 1998

COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Contrary to popular belief, new research suggests that low self-esteem in adolescents does not lead to later delinquent behavior. Moreover, involvement in delinquent behavior actually lowers later self-esteem in teens, according to the study.

"It's been accepted in American society that low self-esteem is at least partially to blame for juvenile delinquency, but we don't find support for that theory," said Sung Joon Jang, co-author of the study and assistant professor of sociology at Ohio State University.

However, the study did find that teens enhanced their self-esteem by associating with delinquent peers.

"This shows that some teens may build self-esteem through the social support they get from being part of a delinquent group," Jang said. "But actually performing delinquent acts does not help enhance self-esteem."

Jang conducted the study with Terence Thornberry, professor of criminal justice at the University of Albany. Their results were published in a recent issue of the journal American Sociological Review.

The researchers used data from the Rochester (NY) Youth Development Study, a panel study examining the development of delinquent behavior among high-risk, urban youth. This study improved on earlier research because it examined youth over time to see how self-esteem, associating with delinquents, and delinquent behavior affected each other. A total of 830 Rochester public school students were interviewed three times: the spring semester of their eighth- or ninth-grade year; the fall of their ninth- or tenth-grade year; and then again the spring of their ninth- or tenth-grade year.

As part of the interviews, the teens answered questions that measure self-esteem. In order to examine peer groups, the participants were asked the proportion of their friends who were involved in property crimes, violent crimes and status offenses (such as truancy or running away from home). The subjects were also asked how often they participated in property crimes, violent crimes and status offenses.

Jang said the study was designed in part to test the hypothesis that teens who had low self-esteem would try to win approval and acceptance by participating in delinquent acts.

"The theory was that these teens would engage in delinquent acts to find new sources of social support and build their self-esteem."

A second, related hypothesis was that, by participating in delinquent acts, teens would find encouragement and acceptance from their new peers and -- according to the theory -- further enhance their self-esteem.

However, the study found that teens with low self-esteem weren't more likely to engage in delinquency later, and those teens who did delinquent acts actually felt worse about themselves.

"Even though they may rationalize their behavior, most adolescents know they are doing something wrong when they commit crimes or participate in other delinquent acts and they feel guilty," Jang said. "That's why we think their self-esteem fell as a result of delinquent involvement."

But associating with delinquent friends did enhance the later self-esteem of teens in the study.

"Teens who feel rejected by conventional groups like their family may find some level of acceptance from delinquent peers," Jang said. "The key is that it was the delinquent friends -- not the delinquent acts -- that was responsible for boosting self-esteem."

The results held generally true for both girls and boys and for African Americans and non-African Americans (white and Hispanic Americans combined), he said.

"Self-esteem is an important concept for understanding human behavior, but it doesn't provide answers to all the problems teenagers face," Jang said.
Contact: Sung Joon Jang, (614) 292-6686;
Written by Jeff Grabmeier, (614) 292-8457;

Ohio State University

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