Time was, the term “self-esteem” was used primarily by poets, philosophers and preachers.
Since the dawn of Christianity, any notion of heaping praise on oneself for any reason at all generally has been viewed as sinful and a mighty affront to God.
In one of his more famous sermons, the 15th century German monk Thomas a' Kempis admonished believers to stamp out all vestiges of self-esteem or face eternal damnation:
“If I humble myself and acknowledge my nothingness; if I cast away all my self-esteem and reduce myself to the dust that I really am, then Your grace will come to me, and Your light will enter my heart; thus will the last trace of self-esteem be engulfed in the depth of my own nothingness, and perish forever.” The Imitation of Christ (1390?), Chapter VIII a' Kempis described himself and his fellow humans as “abject worms,” actually a biblical theme picked up 400 years later by the English hymnist and preacher Isaac Watts:
“Alas! and did my Savior bleed,
and did my Sovereign die?
Would he devote that sacred head
for such a worm as I?”-1707, 1855*
Man's status as a “worm” turned sharply in the 1980s. After 180-odd years, worshippers finally got to belt out Watts' old standard without having to compare themselves to such lowly life forms. Watts' hymn got washed in the blood of a spanking new social movement hotter that today's low-carb craze. New hymnals appeared with Watts' phrase “for such a worm as I” changed to “for sinners such as I.” Reportedly, no complaints from the author, dead two centuries.
In the waning days of the 1960's counter culture movement, America's youth-tired of trying to change the worldpassed into a phase of trying to change themselves. A sort of collectivistic contemplation of one's navel emerged, sparking a revival in interest in religion among young people (e.g. the Jesus Freaks; Krishna Consciousness) and in self-evaluation and self-healing (e.g. transcendental meditation; Rolfing).
This sudden, mass rediscovery of the self (pre-TV American culture had its own versions) hardly escaped the attention of academic types, particularly sociologists and psychologists.
Among the early arrivals was the late psychologist Carl Rogers (d. 1987), regarded by some researchers as the grandfather of today's well-established self-esteem movement. Rogers came up with the idea of “unconditional positive regard,” a technique he intended as a means for helping kids cope with feelings of inadequacy in the eyes of their parents when they failed to meet certain goals.
Another early force wasand still isNathaniel Branden, a Los Angeles psychotherapist whose name in some circles is nearly synonymous with what by 1980 was recognized as a self-esteem movement gaining steam from coast to coast. Branden's book, The Psychology of Self-Esteem (1969 and still in print), laid a blueprint of sorts for the rise of self-esteem in the public consciousness. Since then, more than 4 million copies of Branden's 20 books have been translated into 18 languages, according to his Web site.
Like a creature not quite ready for prime time, selfesteemas given airs by serious researchers-soon escaped campus psych labs and entered the mainstream. By 1985, a tidal wave of self-esteem awareness was breaking over nearly every cultural beachhead in the land. Suddenly, the 'me' generation was in full swing, swaying to the mantra of self-worth at any cost.
Apparently, people had grown damned tired of feeling bad about themselves-and weren't going to take it anymore. Feeling good about oneself, the self-esteem gurus preached, was what it's all about.
Kindergartners and elementary school kids soon began hearing from their teachers that they were “special in every way,” that they were “excellent,” regardless of what their report cards may have suggested otherwise; that they were “superstars.”
For a flagging civil rights movement, self-esteem provided a much-welcomed shot of energy. Self-esteem pressure groups supplied minorities with plenty of new ammunition to push for better treatment in classrooms and on the job. African-Americans were told that they didn't perform as well as whites on standardized tests, for example, because as a group they were victims of a racist society that eroded their self-esteem. All they had to do to fix thingssucceed in school and later in lifewas to find them some more self-esteem.
Women's rights groups soon chimed in with their own self-esteem issues. For far too long, women said they had suffered under the thumb of gender bias, and in particular, of men's irrational assumptions about sex, physical beauty and relationships. Consequently, females' selves were in danger of being completely eclipsed by bias and male fantasies. A strong dose of self-esteem, liberally applied to schoolgirls, clearly was called for.
A 1995 bestseller, Reviving Ophelia: Saving the Selves of Adolescent Girls (Ballentine), by psychologist Mary Pipher, shook up complacent moms and teachers with the revelation that girls' self-esteem “plummets” during their teen years. A crisis was afoot, and the only hope for saving an entire generation of young American women from “a girl-poisoning culture” was the immediate and determined application of self-esteem therapy as prescribed in her book.
But what about boys? Could it be that they, too, were being sold a bill of goods by a macho society whose values ill-fit boys' natural proclivities for expressing who they really are and rejoicing in that?
Citing “more than 20 years of research” on the subject, Harvard psychiatric professor William Pollack, in his 1998 book Real Boys: Rescuing Our Sons from the Myth of Boyhood (Random House) sounded an alarming “yes!” to the question.
Pollack revealed that society's stereotypes of boysthat they tend to be “tough, cool, rambunctious and obsessed with sports, cars and sex” as one reviewer put itare threatening to destroy boys' “fragile self-esteem.” This menace was sapping boys' creativity and keeping them from exploring their sensitive sides. Pollack's book helpfully gives details on “proven techniques” that parents can use to protect their sons from stumbling into unfulfilled, dead-end lives.
Roy Baumeister is the author of six books dealing with various aspects of mankind's age-old struggle with the self. His book, Evil: Inside Human Violence and Cruelty (W.H. Freeman, 1997), describes how people with hyper-inflated senses of self-esteem have contributed to some of the most horrifying chapters in history.
By any standard one can use to gauge the scope of anything short of war that triggers massive social change, the self-esteem movement entered the 21st century as a spectacular success.
American societyindeed most Western societies (self-esteem is decidedly a preoccupation of the Western mind)quite literally experienced a fundamental revolution in thinking about the importance of self-worth and its value to individuals and to society at large.
The blitzkrieg-like advances of the movement's early years had made “self-esteem” a household word by 1982, and by the close of the 1990s, the central tenet of the movementessentially that building self-esteem among youth was of paramount importance not just to individuals but to civilizationwas deeply engrained in pedagogy, parenting, child and criminal psychology, psychiatry, family therapy, addiction treatment programs and, in some notable cases, even religion.
California's enormously popular televangelist Robert Schuller, borrowing 30-year-old themes from Norman Vincent Peale's famous conviction in “the power of positive thinking,” put a whole new spin on sin.
Schuller literally redefined sin to mean the lack of self-esteem. To be “born again,” he wrote, people must first free themselves “from the sin of self-degradation” (e.g. quit a 2,000-year-old habit of regarding themselves as worms) and realize that “self-will is sin (while) self-love is salvation.” Indeed, in his 1982 bestseller, Self-Esteem: The New Reformation (Word Publishing) Schuller proclaimed that “the lack of self-worth lies at the root of almost every one of our personal problems.”
Amen, echoed a host of professionals in a new field called self-esteem therapy. Here was the whole point, they said. Lying at the bottom of America's cesspool of crime, poverty, sloth, drug abuse, violence, depression and greed was a vicious void of self-worth.
In 1984, Nathaniel Branden wrote that he couldn't think “of a single psychological problemfrom anxiety and depression, to fear of intimacy or of success, to spouse battery or child molestationthat is not traceable to the problem of low self-esteem.”
Echoing Branden's sentiments was another Californian, Andrew Mecca, a prominent public health official in the state. Mecca was quoted as saying that “virtually every social problem can be traced to people's lack of self-love.”
All that was necessary to make the world a happier and safer place, the thinking went, was to make people start feeling good about themselves for a change. But how best to do that? And what would it cost?
Leave it to Californiathe bell cow of bellwether statesto find out. In 1986, the state drew national attention when it became the first state to officially endorse the premise of the self-esteem initiative. In the name of the public good, The California Task Force on Self-Esteem and Personal and Social Responsibility became the vanguard of a crusade to vaccinate impressionable young people with the serum of self-esteem.
The move was made substantially on economic grounds. California lawmakers reasoned that raising self-esteem among school kids would pay big dividends down the road in savings from reduced crime, juvenile delinquency, drug abuse, teen pregnancy, school drop-outseven pollution.
While the task force busied itself with setting up self-esteem committees around the state, it also assembled a group of university professors to study what scientific literature there was on self-esteem and find out what research had to say on the topic. Such a scientific foundation could come in handy as lawmakers took on the task of revamping California's public education system in the name of self-esteem.
What the task force's team of scholars found surprised the crusaders. Not a single one of the studies they looked at showed much, if any, connection between self-esteem and all the good things that were supposed to come from it.
This somewhat embarrassing finding essentially was interpreted as evidence of the need for more research to corroborate common senseeverybody knew that a lack of self-esteem was crippling young Californians and thus wreaking costly civil havoc.
California's failure to find any substantial proof that self-esteem is linked to good (or bad) consequences hardly derailed the state's politically fueled self-esteem train. But it did raise eyebrows in a growing circle of Ph.D. skeptics.
Roy F. Baumeister was a young associate professor of psychology at Case Western Reserve University when he learned about the California findings. Years before, as an undergrad at Princeton he had launched what would become an academic career with a study of self-esteem.
At the time (1973), the term “self-esteem” had barely entered public consciousness. Baumeister was casting around for a topic for his undergraduate thesis, and when a favorite prof suggested he give self-esteem a whirl, he jumped at it.
Taking a strong liking to the subject, Baumeister pursued self-esteem research straight into Princeton's doctorate program. All the while, the stature of self-esteem as a serious topic of academic inquiry was rising on campuses everywhere. Baumeister genuinely liked what he was doing. He feltas so many of his colleagues didthat his work could really count for something.
“By the late 1970s, people were pretty much convinced that self-esteem had great potential, that many personal and social problems had self-esteem at their core,” he told an interviewer recently in his new office within FSU's psychology department.
Last year Baumeister came to Florida State (as a Francis Eppes Eminent Scholar in psychology) from a post at Case Western Reserve University. He reflected at length on his grad school days at Princeton and on his subsequent research that has made Baumeister one of the nation's foremost authorities on self-esteem. Since 1978, he has produced dozens of papers on the topic, plus at least six books dealing with various aspects of mankind's age-old struggle with the self.
“We figured that if we could boost self-esteem we not only could learn about ourselves but maybe do some good in society,” he recalled.
“We thought it would advance the cutting edge of social psychology. And it was easy to get good datait was fairly easy to get a handle on in the lab. So, all this made me think I was onto something good.”
But this rosy outlook took a turn in the early '80s, when Baumeister learned that not all scholars held his line of research in such high esteem.
At a scientific meeting he attended at Stanford in 1984, a sociologist turned to him and asked: “What's wrong with self-esteem? How come it never does any good, never predicts anything?”
Baumeister was incredulous. What do you mean self-esteem doesn't do any good?
“We figured that, for some reason, maybe sociologists weren't getting much in their own studies, maybe measuring things wrong or what not.”
But as the '80s wore on, Baumeister paid closer attention to the largerand rapidly growingbody of research on self-esteem. From a number of perspectives, he began to re-examine what the phenomenon really doesand doesn't.
“I started to realize that it doesn't do much at all,” he said. “At least not much of what had been promised for it.”
Then he heard about the California task force search for scientific evidence of self-esteem's efficacy in people's lives, and how the search came up empty.
“To me, this was quite a black eye for the self-esteem movement.”
From that point on, Baumeister designed his lab experiments (primarily involving student subjects) with a more critical eye. For Plenum Press, in 1993 he edited Self-Esteem: The Puzzle of Low Self-Regard, an in-depth analysis of self-esteem research. The book summarized 20 years of psychological and sociological investigations of self-esteem and its correlations to such things as academic accomplishment, job success, aggression and violence.
By this time, Baumeister had begun to understand one of the key flaws inherent in much self-esteem research. Too many studies were based either largely or entirely on subjective data. Subjects would be asked to fill out questionnaires on how they felt about themselveswere they smarter, more attractive or more well-liked by others than average?
Although such self-reported data can't be avoided in any psychological testing of humans, Baumeister and others worried about the impact of bias in such studies. Devising some objective techniques to reveal bias in self-evaluations, researchers soon proved what many had suspected all along: People with high self-esteem tend to rate themselves as more intelligent, more attractive and more socially appealing than they really are. Conversely, people with low self-esteem often give themselves poorer ratings in such categories than they rightly deserve.
Such findings soon led to clever new ways to crank more objective measures into self-esteem research, Baumeister said. By the mid-1990s, researchers were conducting some of the most rigorous investigations of self-esteem's link to behavior ever done. It soon became obvious that there was little in the new findings that the potentates of the self-esteem movement could use to bolster their claims.
It hardly mattered. By 1992 the movement had morphed into a mega-industry with embedded, highly lucrative ties to nearly every facet of society.
Dark Side of a Notion
I think I can! I think I can! I think I can!
Once upon a time, American children heard bedtime stories about a little engine that could. The message: You can overcome obstacles in life if you work hard and try your best.
By the mid-90s, children were hearing another message: They were great! Miracles even!
In classrooms from California to Maine, pre-K through high school, American schoolchildren were learning that feeling good about themselves was VERY important. Building self-esteem had finally become the dominant educational theme in the nation.
Kids found colorful signs hanging from school bathroom mirrors proclaiming: “LOOK! HERE IS A VERY SPECIAL STUDENT!”
Teachers showed up in class every day wearing large buttons with such cheerful messages as: “I teach the best students in the world!” and “Have I told you how wonderful you are?”
The “Magic Circle,” a self-esteem building program, became a weekly standard in many nursery and elementary schools. Teachers had students sit in a circle and talk about their feelings. A cardinal Magic Circle rule: teachers were prohibited from criticizing their young charges or anything they might say during “circletime.”
To acknowledge its skyrocketing membership, what had begun in California in 1986 as the National Council for Self-Esteem felt obliged to change its name in 1995 to the National Association for Self-Esteem. State chapters of the association began springing up in every region of the county. By 1996, the association's momentum had leapt the Atlantic and materialized into the International Council for Self-Esteem, headquartered in London. (Today, this body reportedly has chapters in 70 countries.)
But underneath the movement's enormously popular public face lay a growing discontent among sober researchers. In 1993, Baumeister and two colleagues, T.F. Heatherton and D.M. Tice, became some of the first researchers to report on the negative consequences of high self-esteem in an article they wrote for The Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.
Baumeister's analysis of the literature had revealed a side of the self-esteem crusade that undermined one of its main themes-that low self-esteem plays a powerful role in aggression.
Intrigued by research conducted in the early 1990s by a Norwegian psychologist and others that disputed the notion that kids become bullies because of feelings of insecurity and self-doubts, Baumeister launched a series of his own experiments.
In 1996, Baumeister's findings were summarized in an article subtitled “The Dark Side of Self-Esteem” that ran in the journal Psychological Review. The article not only emphatically denied the existence of a link between low self-esteem and aggression, it went a step furthergiven the right circumstances, high self-esteem can lead to hostilityeven violenceagainst others.
Self-esteem dangerous? How on Earth could feeling great about oneself ever pose a threat to a soul? Answer: through inflated senses of self-esteem. Baumeister and his colleagues found that people whose high self-esteem is based on little evidence of genuine accomplishment are far more likely to be hostile or aggressive than people with low opinions of themselves.
In fact, in follow-up research with Brad Bushman, a psychologist at Iowa State University, Baumeister discovered that a particularly nasty form of high self-esteemnarcissismis an excellent predictor of aggression. Narcissists have extraordinarily conceited views of themselves, commonly to the point of being obnoxious, Baumeister said.
“We found that narcissists are the most aggressive (of all subjects) when provoked,” he said. “If someone thinks they're God's gift to the world, as long as you support that view, everything will be fine. If you criticize them, they will respond with much greater hostility than anyone else.”
By 1998, such findingsamounting to blasphemy among the self-esteem crowdhad jelled into a substantial backlash against the self-esteem movement by academics and others. Much of the alarm was being sounded over what selfesteem promoters were constantly preaching, namely that children could be given self-esteem without necessarily having to earn it.
Simply through daily exposure to self-affirming messages (e.g. “I'm a marvel!”) and pleasant experiences, children could absorb enough “feel-good” self-confidence to tackle (and presumably succeed at) anything. The theory was that this heightened sense of self-worth would better prepare kids for their lessons in reading, math and so forth. Good feelings bring good results, in other words.
By the close of the century, a spate of popular books had appeared harshly attacking this fundamental principle behind what some critics were calling “the cult of self-esteem.” Conservative commentator Charles J. Sykes was among the first to fire a shot.
In Dumbing Down Our Kids: Why American Children Feel Good About Themselves But Can't Read, Write or Add, (St. Martin's, 1995), Sykes cited research showing an inverse relationship between kids' academic accomplishments and their self-esteem. He wrote: “American students who rank last in international comparisons of math abilities, for instance, rank first when they're asked how they feel about their math abilities.”
In 1998, John P. Hewitt, a University of Massachussetts sociologist, weighed in with The Myth of Self-Esteem: Finding Happiness and Solving Problems in America (Contemporary Issues). The book exemplified an increasingly critical view by scholars of many of the self-esteem movement's most cherished claims. Chiefly among these, the notion that genuine self-esteem can somehow be “built” without a foundation in genuine competence.
Meanwhile, additional research was mounting. In 2001, psychologists at the University of Georgia and San Diego State University released the results of a new analysis of 25 years' worth of data on self-esteem among college students dating back to 1968. The aim was to determine what impact self-esteem has in fostering happier lives across time.
The findings showed that between 1968 and 1994, students' self-esteem jumped dramatically, while their SAT scores fell and their anxiety rose. University of Georgia's W. Keith Campbell, coauthor of the study, summed up the findings this way:
“There are many potential benefits of self-esteem, but we wanted to see, among other things, whether those benefits are clear when viewed across time.
“Unfortunately (we found that) few positive changes have occurred in children's and young adult's behavior. Indeed, most of the relevant behavioral indicators have worsened.”
Campbell's coauthor, Jean Twenge of San Diego State, was more succinct:
“College students' high self-esteem seems to be built on a foundation of sand,” she said.
Fact & Fantasy
By 2001, the mixed messages being sent by seemingly everybody with a stake in self-esteem theory had generated considerably more heat than light.
Popular family psychologist and nationally syndicated columnist John K. Rosemond took frequent delight in skewering the evangelists of self-esteem and what he called their “muddy thinking” that he vehemently argued was actually hurting young people.
Nonetheless, sales of such self-esteem books as Today I am Loveable: 365 Positive Activities for Kids (Starseed Press) by Diane Loomans continued apace. Among the book's recommended “activities” is the daily recitation of self-congratulatory phrases, such as “I am more amazing than I thought!” and “Today I will remind myself that I am a marvel.”
As a way to get a solid grip on what's real and what's fantasy in self-esteem theory, the American Psychological Society decided that the time had come to review the entire catalog of scientific studies on the topic. What the organization was proposing was the largest analysis of self-esteem research ever attempted.
Impressed by his fair-handed appraisal of self-esteem science, the society asked Baumeister to lead the effort, then hand-picked a team of other researchers to help him take on the huge task. Since the launch of self-esteem research in the mid-60s when sociologist Manny Rosenberg invented a self-testing scale to assess the phenomenon, more than 15,000 papers involving self-esteem have been published.
Early on, Baumeister and his team decided to skip over most research that was based largely-if not entirely-on self-reported data. “We've learned that you simply can't always trust what people say about themselves,” Baumeister said. The winnowing process left only 229 studies to analyze, the earliest dating to 1968.
In May 2003, the society's journal, Psychological Science in the Public Interest, published a 44-page synthesis of the findings entitled “Does High Self-Esteem Cause Better Performance, Interpersonal Success, Happiness, or Healthier Lifestyles?”
The report, assembled by Baumeister, Jennifer D. Campbell, at the University of British Columbia; Joachim I. Krueger of Brown University and Kathleen D. Vohs of the University of Utah, is the largest, most definitive critique of self-esteem ever done.
In their summation, Baumeister and his colleagues wrote:
“Overall, the benefits of high self-esteem fall into two categories: enhanced initiative and pleasant feelings. We have not found evidence that boosting self-esteem (by therapeutic interventions or school programs) causes benefits.”
As for the enormous effort under way in schools across the nation to raise self-esteem among young people, the researchers were of a mind:
“Our findings do not support continued widespread efforts to boost self-esteem in the hope that it will by itself foster improved outcomes.”
Such efforts “might just as easily promote narcissism with its less desirable consequences,” the report added. We'd be helping young people a lot more, the researchers concluded, if we stopped promoting self-esteem per se, and instead opened the door for it the old-fashioned way, as a reward for a job well done.
“Instead (of current strategies), we recommend using praise to boost self-esteem as a reward for socially desirable behavior and self-improvement.
Making the Grade?
Which comes first-self-esteem or good deeds?
In finding that the formulahigh self-esteem equals happiness and enough inner strength to avoid most of life's sorrowsis scientifically unsupportable, Baumeister's report pulls the optimistic rug from beneath the entire self-esteem movement.
“The relationship between self-esteem and real accomplishment has been glossed over,” he said. “In the 1970s, the California initiative was launched by those who saw an association between high self-esteem and good things, and concluded high self-esteem was the cause. That's not a legitimate conclusion.
“In school, the association of high self-esteem with good grades is certainly not nothing, but when you track kids over time, self-esteem does not lead to them to doing better in school. In fact, it's really more the other way around. Doing better in school leads to higher self-esteem.”
In other words, it's impossible to predict how a student with high self esteem who is doing fine academically in sixth grade, for example, will be doing in the ninth. But the research shows a strong correlation between early classroom success and future performance, Baumeister said. Success tends to breed success, which over time can produce a true, uninflatedand far more emotionally healthysense of self-worth, he said.
Of all the outcomes studied by Baumeister and his team, school performance was given the most attention. Much of the energy that has driven the self-esteem movement from the beginning has come from a widely held belief that kids with high self-esteem make better grades.
Some of the best evidence reveals just the oppositethat kids with better grades go on to have higher senses of self-esteem. In a 1990 study of 600 Norwegian third- and sixth-graders, researchers tested kids who made good grades in a given school year. They found that in the following year, those children's self-esteem had risen substantially.
Most of the studies, in fact, showed little, if any, evidence that high self-esteem played any role in children's future success in the classroom. One of the more compelling studies, a 1986 investigation by two University of Michigan psychologists, Jerald Bachman and Patrick O'Malley, showed that such things as socioeconomic background, I.Q., and early school grades are far better predictors of childrens' academic success than their levels of self-esteem.
Aggression & Violence
For decades, psychologists generally have believed that low self-esteem is the chief malady troubling society's least favorite individualsbullies, thugs, cheats and criminals.
As touched on previously, the sinister side of self-esteem was never considered until fairly recently. Traditionally, bullies and other “toughs” have been profiled by psychologists as people with hidden feelings of inadequacy, a low self-esteem masked by a nasty, even vicious, exterior.
Norway's Dan Olweus was among the first psychologists to show that bullies typically have less anxiety and more confidence in themselves than average individuals. Another study, a 1993 study of 1,000 Australian schoolchildren, found no correlation at all between high self-esteem and schoolyard bullies.
In his highly acclaimed 1997 book, Evil: Inside Human Violence and Cruelty (W.H. Freeman), Baumeister cites his and others' research showing that aggressive people typically have favorableeven dramatically inflatedviews of themselves. In all likelihood, no better large-scale example of this in modern history is the Nazis, whose hyper-inflated regard for themselves as the “master race” mirrored the pathologically high self-esteem of their leader, Adolf Hitler.
The late leader of the Third Reich, like so many of history's human malignancies, was a profound narcissist. The most extreme version of high self-esteem (Baumeister has shown there are several varieties, not all of them prone to aggression), narcissism is a comparatively rare personality type that can be a strong predictor of violence.
To test narcissism's correlation with aggression, Baumeister and his colleague Bushman of Iowa State designed an experiment whereby opposing sets of subjects could use loud blasts of an air horn to annoy each other. In test after test, narcissists were found to be much more willing to lean on the horn longer than their opponents.
The upshot of all the best research done on the subject of aggression and self-esteem is that the relationship is nothing remotely like what so many have assumed for so long. Aggressive people can have both low and ultra-high esteem, and all grades in between. But typically, people with low self-esteem aren't aggressive at all, while people with high self-esteem often are.
“Generally speaking, people with low self-esteem tend to be shy, modest, self-effacing, reluctant to take risks, unsure about themselves and likely to blame themselves for failure,” Baumeister wrote. “Aggressive, violent people are not like that.”
Sex, Drugs & Other Diversions
What does self-esteem mean in the way we play with each otheras both kids and adults? If we like ourselves a lot does it pay off in popularity? In success on the job?
Can a better sense of self-worth keep us healthier? Keep us from smoking, abusing alcohol and other drugs, from finding ourselves pregnant at 16?
If we accept the standard code of today's self-help industry, the answer to all of the above is an unqualified 'yes.' Poor self-regard is the genesis of these and so many more social ills, we're told.
Baumeister's analysis of the data offers little support for such beliefs.
When it comes to interpersonal, even romantic, relationships, the old saw that you have to love yourself before you can expect others to love you simply doesn't wash, says Baumeister. In fact, the research testifies that people with high self-esteem often don't see the world around them as it really is. They often think they're widely accepted socially, even loved, when in fact they're self-deluded. Science confirms that conceit is as big a turn-off as conventional wisdom always said it was.
“People who have elevated or inflated views of themselves tend to alienate others,” the report states.
But a better-than-average self-esteem can be a plus in a bad romance, one study found. People with high self-esteem tend to be more willing to take the initiative to break out of a love affair gone bad.
As it turns out, this trait could come in handy for some sexually active young people. Contrary to what self-esteem promoters say, high self-esteem is hardly a recipe for abstinence among youth, the study found.
Several large-scale investigations of self-esteem's association with sexual behavior among people at vulnerable ages all found the same thing: High self-esteem tends to lead to more sexual experimentation, not less. The problem may be worse among girls, in fact.
A study done in 2000 in New Zealand schools showed that girls with higher self-esteem at age 11 were more likely to begin having sex by the age of 15. Another study found that sexually active older girls with higher than average senses of self-worth tend to discount risks of accidental pregnancy, somehow believing they're exempt from such a calamity.
“All in all, the results do not support the simple view that low self-esteem predisposes people to more or earlier sexual activity,” Baumeister's team wrote. “If anything, people with high self-esteem are less inhibited, more willing to disregard risks, and more prone to engage in sex.”
Beyond promoting responsible sexual behavior, self-esteem has long been touted as a tonic for overall good health. For decades, psychologists studying smoking and drug addiction among youth have tried to pinpoint the psychological source of such damaging habits.
Research on the topic of teen smoking and its ties to self-esteem is formidable. At least three large studies done in Canada and in the U.S. found that smoking is indeed associated with low self-esteem. A 2001 North Carolina survey of 1,200 10- to 15-year-olds living in the heart of the state's tobacco-producing region found a gender distinction in smoking habits. Girl smokers were found to be far more likely to have lower opinions of themselves than boys who smoked.
But a number of other large studies found no link at all between self-esteem and smoking. A problem with all of the studies, however, is that almost all are based on selfreports from smokers, Baumeister found. How bias colors the findings on smoking and selfesteem may never be known, he said, but what seems clear so far is that, in general, low self-esteemat least by itselfdoes not cause kids to light up.
“Most studies show that low self-esteem accounts for less than one percent (in a person's decision) to smoke or not,” Baumeister said.
For problem drinking and drug abuse, the analysis showed similar findings. As in the work done on smoking, self-reporting bias also may influence the research done in this arena, Baumeister said. Nonetheless, the evidence led his team to conclude that “whatever the causes of alcohol abuse and drug addiction, low self-esteem per se does not appear to be one of them.”
But low self-esteem does play a substantial role in a growing aspect of health that predominantly concerns young women, namely, eating disorders.
Today's teen- and college-aged women face a national epidemic of anorexia and bulimia, two closely associated emotional disorders that can be fatal if not treated. Irrational worries over weight and body image cause unknown thousands of young females in the U.S. and Europe to starve themselves to stay within some physical ideal.
A great deal of evidence indicates that feelings of inadequacy and self-loathinglow self-esteemis in fact “a risk factor in disordered eating,” Baumeister's report noted. Work by Kathleen Vohs, one of the report's authors, for example, found that bulimia is inextricably associated with low self-esteem. About 80 percent of bulimics are female. The researchers thus conclude that “high self-esteem reduces the chances of bulimia in females.”
What Cost Happiness?
So, if there's no good evidence that self-esteem can reliably help students do better in school, stay out of trouble, get along better together or act more responsibly when it comes to sex and use of alcohol and drugsaside from keeping young girls from purging themselves to death's door to stay thin, what good is it?
One of the things the research shows is that high self-esteem can make people more resilient, make them keep on plugging after initially failing at something. That attribute can plausibly contribute to what the research says is the number-one benefit for developing a good self-image.
“The main thing self-esteem does for us, apparently, is to make us happier people,” Baumeister said. “It makes us feel good, at least for awhile.”
Feeling good about oneself can be a fine thing, he said, particularly when troubles arise, as they inevitably do in all our lives. A genuine sense of self-esteem can give people a stock of positive attitudes that can help them cope with life's trials. People who don't have this handy psychological care-package are likely to be more vulnerable to stress and depression, he said.
Is the pursuit of happiness alone ample justification for keeping the fires burning under the self-esteem enterprise pervading today's educational system?
“If a primary job of our schools is to make kids happy, then maybe it is,” says Baumeister.
Programs that constantly stress the importance of pleasant feelings, that rarely criticize, that avoid competition for fear of hurting someone's feelings, surely are much more fun on a day-to-day basis than learning how to do square roots or write essays.
But here's where the “feel good first” philosophy ultimately loses its grip on legitimacy as a rational tool for training young people, he and his coauthors believe. Ultimately, kids who are brought up in an environment where there's no clear link between personal accomplishment and self-worth too often pay a hefty emotional and even physical price down the road, they argue.
In his college classrooms, Baumeister sees the consequences all the time, he said. Students show up with attitudes that they are somehow entitled to an “A” in his courses because that's what they were used to getting in high school.
“These people honestly believe they are good when they're not,” he said.
Sudden doses of reality come as a real shock to some students who lack the emotional fortitude for dealing effectively with failure or challenges to their lofty opinions of themselves. This can be a sure-fire formula for frustration, anxiety, depression and even violence, Baumeister believes.
A noted psychologist and outspoken critic of the self-esteem movement, Martin E.P. Seligman, not only endorses Baumeister's view on the dangers of unwarranted self-esteem, he regards it as something of a clear-and-present menace to society. In a 1998 address to the National Press Club, Seligman, former president of the American Psychological Association, laid the blame for the nation's epidemics of depression and violence squarely at the doorstep of the self-esteem campaign.
In a reference to the rash of schoolyard killings that have traumatized the nation over the past decade, Seligman said that kids with “a mean streak” who have developed high self-esteem “regardless of how well (they are) doing in the world” are prime candidates for resorting to lethal violence when confronted with rejection (as from a girlfriend) or proof of their own inadequacies in schoolwork or in social circles.
Seligman has written a series of books extolling the virtues of using what he calls “positive psychology” to battle pessimism and depression among young people. The happiness that kids get through “feel good” programs at school is “transient,” he says, and often leads to exactly the kinds of problems that self-esteem is supposed to solve.
“What I think has gone wrong,” Seligman said in a subsequent call to dismantle school-based self-esteem programs, “is that we now think we should inject self-esteem directly into our young people, as opposed to producing warranted self-esteem, which I believe comes from doing well with the people you love, doing well in sports (and) doing well in school.”
The Poison of Empty Praise
Consider the change that the self-esteem movement has wrought in the American public classroom, Seligman told his audience.
Under the banner of building students' self-worth, many school districts have “dumbed down” coursework, eliminated I.Q. testing and tracking programs, deemphasized individual achievement and have made “competition a dirty word,” he said. All in a conscientious effort to keep from hurting the feelings of kids who aren't as talented or industrious as others.
Last February, the director of schools in Nashville, Tennessee announced that the city's schools would no longer release the names of students making honor rolls without a written permission slip from parents. The ruling came after some parents complained that honor rolls made kids who didn't make the lists feel bad about themselves.
The venerable tradition of naming valedictorians and ranking graduates by grades was dropped by many high schools years ago. Some no longer hold what once were called “academic pep rallies” and last spring the Associated Press reported that some schools are considering cutting out spelling bees.
There's good evidence that this institutionalized fear of competition in schools has filtered into everyday social life. Parents are now expected to throw birthday parties for their children that celebrate their self-esteem. Such parties can be elaborate and expensivea well-established self-esteem dictum now requires that all attendees must also get gifts lest they feel unloved.
In 1993, a large, family-oriented saltwater fishing tournament in Florida's Panhandle changed some rules and began giving all contestants in the junior division (kids 12 and under) nifty rod-and-reel outfitswhether they actually caught a winning fish or not. The kids were “all winners” just by signing up, the tournament's organizers said.
On close reading of the report on self-esteem published by Baumeister and his colleagues, from the assorted research findings a common theme emerges. Indiscriminate praise is poisoning today's youth.
“We're sending the wrong message,” said Baumeister. “The message is that rewards are meaningless; that somehow, young people are entitled to be treated well regardless of what they do. That's not a good message to learn and it's not adaptive to life.”
What has happened, Baumeister says, is that the self-esteem industry has taken Carl Rogers' seminal ideas about giving kids “unconditional positive regard” and gone to the extreme. Consequently, for two decades now parents and teachers (and school districts) have been conditioned to think that it's somehow emotionally crippling to discipline children or expect them to meet certain standards (of course, with the notable exception of winning sports championships, an arena whereoddly enoughprofoundly different self-esteem principles apparently apply).
“I see nothing wrong with praising a child (or adult) for an outstanding or brilliant performance,” Baumeister has written. “I see plenty wrong with praising everyone even when the actual achievements are mediocre.”
In 1841, the American philosopher poet Ralph Waldo Emerson drew from his roots as the son of a Protestant minister to write an essay on self-reliance.
In that, Emerson laid out his recipe for building strong character. Steep yourself in the art and ideas of those whose talents may greatly exceed your own, he said, and you'll find out who you really are. Get to know yourself, and you'll have the key to bettering yourself as a person and a contributing member of society.
Emerson believed that the whole purpose of education was to give people the opportunity to find something inside themselves that they could solidly rely on to accomplish something in life. He implied that such dedicated self-searching isn't always fun. It requires hard work and willpower, he argued.
Emerson was talking about the practice of self-regulationthe exercise of self-control. Today, the term sounds almost quaint.
With their hidebound approach to life's many diversions, the Puritans may have given the concept a bad name, but the old-fashioned ethic of self-control is nonetheless sound, Baumeister believes. A self-control revival in America's education system could do wonders, he's convinced.
“My profound disappointment with the benefits of self-esteem has been partly offset by discovering something else that does seem to work,” he has written. “Self-control, as in being able to regulate one's emotions, impulses, performance patterns and thoughts, has plenty of positive payoff, for the individual and society.”
Instead of dismantling the entrenched self-esteem programs in American public education, as his colleague Seligman calls for, Baumeister would prefer to see these programs transformed into platforms for teaching self-control. This could mean that in the long run, the ends of the self-esteem movementthat people acquire a durable sense of self-worthcould be better met, he believes.
If returned in force to American classrooms, the principles of developing and using self-discipline most likely would be bitter medicine indeed to many in the education world who've grown accustomed to a diet of warm fuzzies. Such would mean that self-esteem would return to being a byproduct of good performance, as it once was. Some kids would succeed and feel good about themselves; others would fail and take a beating to their egos.
"Hogwash" is a term psychologist Roy Baumeister has used to describe some of the claims of self-esteem boosters.
Ultimately, that's how life is, and how teaching should be, too, Baumeister's team said in its summation. In the end, all students would wind up with a more accurate, unvarnished understanding of who they are, what they're capable ofand what they're not. In short, such a system would equip kids with the knowledge they need to make better life choices, the team said.
“Conceivably…a new emphasis on cultivating accurate self-understanding would pay off in terms of better choices. Then again, if high self-esteem produces happiness, the relative value of happiness versus better choices based on accurate information (about oneself) could also be debated.”
Baumeister's team didn't sugarcoat where it would stand in such a debate:
“As scientists, we are inclined to favor the pursuit of truth above all else, but we can recognize that some people might prefer self-flattering illusions over accurate knowledge.”
Pilgrims on the road to self-esteem these days don't need to do it the hard way. The market has surely seen to that, as even a cursory search of the Web will show.
All told, there are more than 3,000 titles of self-help books and “how-to” self-esteem manuals available, not to mention hundreds of helpful videos, compact disks and family-oriented games (self-esteem building is supposed to be fun).
If one isn't inclined to read or watch videos, there are other ways to soak up self-esteem. For example, one can wear self-esteem jewelry, made from rhodonite, a mineral advertised as having the power to “uplift the emotional foundations,” thereby making the wearer “more solid and secure.”
Another choice, perhaps used in conjunction with the aforementioned jewelry, is aromatherapy. A variety of “essential oils” squeezed from plants ranging from jasmine to larch are sold as promoters or restorers of self-esteem.
That Americans are hooked on self-esteem as a product, as something sitting on a shelf like a can of peas, is hardly news. The mass marketing of self-esteem, which began in earnest in the early 1990s, has produced a multi-billion-dollar industry, complete with a boardroomful of infinitely famous captains. Top salespeople include late-night TV pitchman Anthony Robbins; self-proclaimed New Age guru Deepak Chopra; feminist icon Gloria Steinem; best-selling author Bernie Siegel and of late, pop psychologist Phillip (“Dr. Phil”) McGraw.
Against such phenomenal commercial appeal, do the latest findings that reveal the true nature of self-esteem have any hope of reforming American education?
“There are too many people making lots of money off self-esteem,” Baumeister said. “They're very reluctant to hear that it doesn't really work, and I doubt they're going to change their opinions any time soon. But, you never know what may turn up.”
Just recently, prominent leaders within the self-esteem movement have modified some of the louder claims made by early boosters. Acknowledging scientists' growing concern over the issue of promoting self-esteem per se, with no clear association with one's subsequent personal behavior, J.D. Hawkins, former president of the National Association for Self-Esteem, said “any conception of self-esteem” must include accepting responsibility for one's actions.
“If you are not personally and socially responsible, then your self-worth is built on a false reality and, therefore, it's not healthy,” Hawkins was quoted as saying.
On the self-help orthodoxy of daily reminding ourselves how great we are as individuals, Hawkins' association now carries the following caveat on its Web site:
“Reciting positive affirmations about yourselfand hoping for resultsis like wagging the tail of a dog in hopes (that the) tail-wagging will make the dog happy. It won't.
“The dog must be happy first, and then its tail will wag.”
*Watts wrote this as the hymn “Alas! and Did My Savior Bleed,” in 1707; it was set to a different tune and copyrighted by Ralph E. Hudson and published with the title “At the Cross”in 1855.-Editor