Exploding the Self-Esteem Myth

Roy F. Baumeister et al report:

Self_esteem_2Boosting people’s sense of self-worth has become a national preoccupation. Yet surprisingly, research shows that such efforts are of little value in fostering academic progress or preventing undesirable behavior.

People intuitively recognize the importance of self-esteem to their psychological health, so it isn’t particularly remarkable that most of us try to protect and enhance it in ourselves whenever possible. What is remarkable is that attention to self-esteem has become a communal concern, at least for Americans, who see a favorable opinion of oneself as the central psychological source from which all manner of positive outcomes spring. The corollary, that low self-esteem lies at the root of individual and thus societal problems and dysfunctions, has sustained an ambitious social agenda for decades. Indeed, campaigns to raise people’s sense of self-worth abound.

Consider what transpired in California in the late 1980s. Prodded by State Assemblyman John Vasconcellos, Governor George Deukmejian set up a task force on self-esteem and personal and social responsibility. Vasconcellos argued that raising self-esteem in young people would reduce crime, teen pregnancy, drug abuse, school underachievement and pollution. At one point, he even expressed the hope that these efforts would one day help balance the state budget, a prospect predicated on the observation that people with high self-regard earn more than others and thus pay more in taxes. Along with its other activities, the task force assembled a team of scholars to survey the relevant literature. The results appeared in a 1989 volume entitled The Social Importance of Self-Esteem, which stated that “many, if not most, of the major problems plaguing society have roots in the low self-esteem of many of the people who make up society.” In reality, the report contained little to support that assertion.

The California task force disbanded in 1995, but a nonprofit organization called the National Association for Self-Esteem (NASE) has picked up its mantle, aiming (according to its mission statement) to “promote awareness of and provide vision, leadership and advocacy for improving the human condition through the enhancement of self-esteem.” Vasconcellos, now a California state senator, is on the advisory board. Was it reasonable for leaders in California to start fashioning therapies and social policies without supportive data? Perhaps so. After all, practicing psychologists and lawmakers must deal with the problems facing them, even before all the relevant research is done. But one can draw on many more studies now than was the case 15 years ago, enough to assess the value of self-esteem in several spheres. Regrettably, those who have been pursuing self-esteem-boosting programs, including the leaders of NASE, have not shown a desire to examine the new work, which is why the four of us recently came together under the aegis of the American Psychological Society to review the scientific literature.

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