Criminology researchers have found evidence that self-esteem is related to illegal acts. Their study, published in the journal Deviant Behavior, indicates that high self-esteem has an overall negative effect on crime and delinquency.

“We are interested in the topic of self-esteem primarily because it is a definitive prosocial factor for human behavior,” said study author Carrie Mier, an assistant professor of criminal justice at Indiana University East.

“Self-esteem is interesting because it gains a lot of attention but at the same time is overshadowed when it comes to its protective effects for certain negative behaviors like crime and delinquency. My co-author and I like to look at what prevents crime as much as what leads to it, so that is what drove our interest in this topic.”

For their study, the researchers conducted a meta-analysis using 42 studies that were published between 1990 and 2015. The past studies included 71,130 individuals in total.

The researchers found a small, negative relationship between self-esteem and crime and delinquency. In other words, adults and juveniles with lower self-esteem were slightly more likely to have engaged in illegal behaviors, while those with a greater self-esteem were slightly less likely.

“The average person should take away from our study the fact that self-esteem does have a negative or reducing impact on crime and delinquency overall,” Mier told PsyPost. “This effect is small by meta-analysis standards, but it is still good to see a significant effect for a prosocial factor when it comes to crime and delinquency. The finding is bolstered by the fact that we assessed 25 years of research covering national, international, and student-driven articles.”

The study — like all research — includes some limitations.

“There are some caveats to address – namely the nature of self-esteem itself. We were investigating self-esteem as a prosocial component, meaning it should reduce negative behaviors like crime and delinquency,” Mier explained.

“However, there has been some findings about egoism and narcissism – the dark side of self-esteem that can actually increase negative behaviors. Considering qualitative sources inform us that some criminals feel exceedingly good about themselves and what they do, and it is not hard to see the dark side of self-esteem argument. This disconnect could also be why our effect size was smaller, though it was still in the hypothesized direction and significant.”

“There are still a few questions we would like to address on this topic. One thing we noticed was a difference between juveniles and adults – hence why we studied both crime and delinquency – and how the literature focused on ‘at-risk’ youths.”

The link between self-esteem and juvenile delinquency was stronger than the link between self-esteem and adult crime.

“Research on prosocial protective factors like self-esteem indicate that their effects should be stronger for groups that are more at-risk or those who need it more,” Mier said. “Our reasoning follows that self-esteem should have a greater negative impact for at-risk youths compared to other youths, but we might also encounter the dark side of self-esteem I mentioned earlier.”

“Another aspect we noticed was self-esteem’s effects varied by crime type, and we started exploring the relationship of self-esteem specifically for drug use.”

“We are looking forward to answering these questions that we have about self-esteem in future projects as well as exploring other protective factors in relation to mental health and substance abuse,” Mier added.

“As social scientists, we need to be looking at the positive as well as the negative – there’s a lot to be gained by preventing a bad outcome from occurring in the first place rather than responding after the fact. And if we can foster something like self-esteem and invest in the self-worth of the person themselves, our society will be better for it.”

The study, “Does Self-esteem Negatively Impact Crime and Delinquency? A Meta-analytic Review of 25 Years of Evidence“, was authored by Carrie Mier and Roshni T. Ladny.