The myth of self-esteem

Published Oct. 22, 2002|Updated Sept. 4, 2005

Low self-esteem is to blame for a host of social ills, including poor academic performance, marital discord, violent crime and drug abuse.

Or so goes the gospel, as written over the last several decades by social scientists, writers of self-help books and the California Task Force to Promote Self-Esteem and Personal and Social Responsibility, a panel created in 1986 by the California Legislature to conduct a three-year study of the topic.

Recently, however, some psychologists have begun debunking the notion that a poor self-image is the malady behind most of society's complaints _ and that bolstering self-esteem its cure.

D students, it turns out, think as highly of themselves as valedictorians think of themselves, and serial rapists are no more likely to ooze with insecurities than doctors or bank managers.

At the same time, high self-esteem offers no immunity against bad behavior. Research by Brad J. Bushman of Iowa State University and Roy F. Baumeister of Case Western Reserve University finds that some people with high self-regard are actually more likely to lash out aggressively when criticized than those with low-self esteem. The list of groups, neo-Nazis, street toughs, school bullies, who combine preening self-satisfaction with violence belies the power of one to ameliorate the other.

"I think we had a great deal of optimism that high self-esteem would cause all sorts of positive consequences, and that if we raised self-esteem people would do better in life," Baumeister said. "Mostly, the data have not borne that out."

In an extensive review of studies, for example, Nicholas Emler, a social psychologist at the London School of Economics, found no clear link between low self-esteem and delinquency, violence against others, teenage smoking, drug use or racism, though a poor self-image was one of several factors contributing to self-destructive behaviors like suicide, eating disorders and teenage pregnancy.

High self-esteem, on the other hand, was positively correlated with racist attitudes, drunken driving and other risky behaviors, Emler found in his 2001 review. Though academic success or failure had some effect on self-esteem, students with high self-esteem were likely to explain away their failures with excuses, while those with low self-esteem discounted their successes as flukes.

Not that feeling good about oneself is entirely without benefit. People with high self-esteem are happier and show more initiative than those with low self-regard, Baumeister said.

But when it comes to whether people use that initiative for good or for ill, or whether they succeed or fail in many different areas of life, research indicates that psychological factors other than self-esteem are far more important.

For example, in the studies Bushman and Baumeister carried out on aggression, they found that it was narcissism, self-love that includes a conviction of one's superiority, rather than a positive self-image per se that led people to retaliate aggressively when their self-esteem was threatened.

In one study, each subject was asked to write an essay that was then criticized by a partner, really a confederate of the researchers. Then the subjects were given a chance to get back at their partners by pushing a button and blasting them with a high-decibel noise. People who scored high on scales of self-esteem were in general no more likely to take advantage of the opportunity than those with low self-esteem. But those who also scored high on narcissism turned up the volume and leaned on the button.

In another study, the researchers gave tests of self-esteem and narcissism to 63 men serving prison sentences for rape, murder, assault or armed robbery in Massachusetts and California.

They compared the prisoners' scores with those found in other studies for groups of men the same age, including Vietnam veterans, college students, dentists, recreational dart throwers and problem drinkers. The violent offenders, Bushman said, did not differ from the other men in self-esteem. But they scored much higher than the other men on narcissism. (A third group of prisoners, in Minnesota, showed no significant differences in either self-esteem or in narcissism, an anomalous result the researchers hope to explain through further research.)

Many experts believe that such findings offer a persuasive rebuttal to the claims of the so-called self-esteem movement. But the accretion of evidence has done little to dampen the enthusiasm of therapists, child-rearing experts and school administrators. Many secondary schools include self-esteem building in their curriculums. Self-help books offer strategies, like hypnosis and dieting, for increasing self-confidence and self-worth.

J.D. Hawkins, president of the National Association for Self-Esteem in Normal, Ill., said that despite the new research his group held that a positive self-image was important and that self-esteem building exercises were effective.

"For 37 years I've worked with kids and I've proved that those kinds of things work," Hawkins said. But he added that any conception of self-esteem had to include taking responsibility for one's actions and contributing to society.

"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 said.

A preoccupation with self-esteem may be inevitable in a society where self-worth is often defined by a diploma from Harvard, a size 4 dress or a mansion in the Hamptons.

Jennifer Crocker, a psychologist at the University of Michigan's Institute for Social Research, argues that the frantic pursuit of self-worth through external trappings exacts a social and personal toll. "The pursuit of self-esteem has short-term benefits but long-term costs," she has written, "ultimately diverting people from fulfilling their fundamental human needs for competence, relatedness and autonomy and leading to poor self-regulation and mental and physical health."

In a series of studies, the most recent appearing in the current Journal of Social Issues, Crocker finds that people who pin their self-esteem on academic performance, good looks, the approval of bosses, friends or family members or other societally sanctioned yardsticks are at higher risk for a variety of problems, including academic difficulties, relationship conflicts, aggression and increased use of drugs or alcohol.

In one study, Crocker surveyed college freshmen.

"In analysis after analysis, external contingencies of self-worth, such as appearance, were associated with more problems of all types during their freshman year," Crocker wrote.

In contrast, students who judged themselves by more internal measures such as virtue or religious faith seemed to fare better. They were less likely to show anger and aggression and were more restrained in their use of alcohol and drugs.

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