Ego versus self-esteem

Earlier in 2018 I wrote an Ideospectus article on the tension that exists between two concepts, success and progress. This post is somewhat a continuation, and was inspired by something I heard one of my favourite artists say.

This post is about the difference between an artist’s ego and their self-esteem. The genesis of inspiration here is something I heard Dave Mustaine say, which I’m paraphrasing as, “Lots of musicians have huge egos, but no self-esteem.” I want to differentiate ego and self-esteem, which I think is a useful thing for all creative people to do – musicians, writers, and academics among them.

Opinion and prediction

I actually asked two of my old school, old-school friends – Ben McCulloch and Leon Tussie – what they thought the difference is. Ben made it to the big league in the world of professional boxing, and is also one of the smartest persons I know. In boxing, he held the PABA super-middleweight title from 2012 to 2014. More recently, he commented thus:

There’s a difference between the stereotypes of self-esteem and ego. Immense ego has a relationship with narcissism, whereas immense self-esteem can still have a person functioning as humble, altruistic and realistic.

— Ben McCulloch, personal communication, 2018.

Ben also commented on these concepts’ place in contemporary Australian society and cultures:

In the convict nation of Australia, ego = bad. Standing out and overconfidence, just like a big ego, is poison.

High self-esteem, if its channeled and steady, and not overly overt (because overt self-esteem can be threatening or too divergent) is personally sought after and publicly tolerated.

— Ben McCulloch, personal communication, 2018.

The other commentator, Leon, is a professional drummer who I’ve heard perform just about every style – no matter how technically demanding – without qualm. Leon brings his own character to everything he works on, including an acid jazz / metal band we were in together called The Loopholes And Your Brain. At our performances, we would supply the sonic loopholes and paradoxes, and you would supply your brain; the resulting blend was the chaotic sound permeating the venue.

Self-esteem is necessary for survival in a world without a structure, built to help those unable or unwilling to help themselves. Ego is a mental construct useful for protecting a soft and vulnerable core by creating an illusion of dominance.

— Leon Tussie, personal communication, 2018.

Both responses betray a few hypotheses that I am willing to pilot test:

H1: Ego has fewer connotations than self-esteem.

H2: Ego has fewer positive connotations than self-esteem.


To simplify things, I will ignore the psychoanalytic definition of ego, being the component of the psyche responsible for mediating conscious and unconscious drives.

The concept I want you to think about is at least superficially related to self-esteem. Think about people you know who you would describe as having a big ego. What are some of the words that come to mind?

Searching for the phrase celebrities with big egos in Google search engine yields over 700 thousand results in about 800 milliseconds, on average. Pro rata, the engine could find at least 875 thousand results in one second with this search term.

There are many lists out there, but due to the subjectivity of terms ‘celebrities’ and of course ‘ego’, not one of those lists are objectively valid, nor does there seem to be a great degree of agreement between lists. That said, there are some common names that pop up, such as Kanye West.


Which words come to mind when you think about the term self-esteem? Are any of them the same as the words you thought about when reflecting on ego?

Searching for celebrities with high self-esteem in the same search engine results in roughly 10 million hits in 730 milliseconds, or over 13 million results per second. So, not only is this search many times more bountiful than the first; it is also performed more smoothly by Google’s powerful algorithms. We actually end up with a quicker search for celebrities with ‘high self esteem’ than for celebrities with ‘big egos’. The difference is statistically significant also. For those interested, I have reported the analyses in a post script, below.

Again, Internet lists lack validity and consistency with one another, but interestingly, there seem to be some names on the celebrity self-esteem lists that do not occur frequently on the celebrity big ego lists. Apparently, including ‘self-esteem’ in the search yields a greater variety of lists: celebrities who struggle with low self-esteem, celebrities who raised their self-esteem, celebrities who began with poor self-esteem, and many more. In contrast, ‘big ego’ is unmistakably about just that, so we do not see lists written about celebrities who struggle with small ego, for instance.


Perhaps conclusion is too strong a term here, but we have at least some evidence supporting each hypothesis:

H1: Ego has fewer connotations than self-esteem. Our search revealed about 14 times fewer results when the word ‘ego’ was used in place of ‘self-esteem’. We can infer from this that ‘ego’ is a more narrowly defined construct than self-esteem.

H2: Ego has fewer positive connotations than self-esteem. Our search was less efficient when the word ‘ego’ was used instead of ‘self-esteem’. A cursory inspection of the first page of hits suggests that ‘ego’ has negative connotations like ‘arrogance’ and ‘self-importance’; meanwhile, ‘self-esteem’ has more positive connotations, including ‘respect’ and ‘confidence’.

So, Dave Mustaine was right to suggest that you can have a huge ego and low self-esteem.

Post script: The stats of searching ‘big ego’ vs. ‘self-esteem’

The ‘big egos’ search time, averaged from 50 searches, was 799.8 ms (+/- 2.95% margin of error). The ‘high self-esteem’ search time, also averaged from 50 searches, came to 731.6 ms (+/- 2.68% margin of error). Welch’s t-test reveals a significant, moderate difference at the α = 0.05 level, t(94.73) = 2.23, p = .028, Cohen’s d = 0.45.

To conclude, the search for ‘celebrities with big egos’ is 6.82 ms slower on average than the search for ‘celebrities with high self-esteem’, and this difference is not likely due to chance. In fact, we can be reasonably confident that the ‘big egos’ search is between 0.74 and 12.90 ms slower. Formally, if the true difference in search times lies anywhere outside those bounds, then the observed difference (6.82 ms) is equal to or less than 5 percent likely to just pop up by surprise!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s