debunking the “self-esteem” industry

New York Times: Deflating Self-Esteem's Role in Society's Ills by Erica Goode {10/2/02)

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

Or so goes the gospel, as written over the last several decades by social scientists, self-help book authors 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 bolstering self-esteem its cure.

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

At the same time, high self-esteem, studies show, offers no immunity against bad behavior. Research by Dr. Brad J. Bushman of Iowa State University and Dr. 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 %u2014 neo-Nazis, street toughs, school bullies %u2014 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," Dr. Baumeister said. "Mostly, the data have not borne that out."

In an extensive review of studies, for example, Dr. 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, Dr. 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."

Finally, people are starting to go public with the truth - all this self-esteem-building stuff is wrong. I've always believed that genuine good self esteem arises out of a person's ability to accomplish goals that are intrinsically important to that person. Out of overcoming obstacles, education, being good at something. It has driven me wild to watch what this whole childrearing movement focused on building, or not damaging, a child's self esteem produce a generation of self-absorbed, selfish, unfit for society people who are now breeding another generation of the same.

An obsession with external markers of self-worth, Dr. Crocker believes, leads to self-absorption.

As an example, she cited a study, carried out with a graduate student, Lora Park, in which college freshmen who based their self-esteem on academic achievement were given a test and then either told that they had failed or given no feedback. They were then asked to talk to a partner about a personal problem the partner was having.

Afterward, the freshmen who failed the test rated themselves as "preoccupied" during their discussion with their partner. Their partners, in turn, reported that they did not like the freshmen very much and would not want to share personal problems with them again.

The correction for such an exclusive focus on the self cannot be found in self-esteem classes that encourage children to believe that they are special and that their personal success and happiness are paramount, Dr. Crocker and other experts argue.

"Not everything is about `me,' " she said. "There are sometimes bigger things that we should be concerned about."

Yet more old-fashioned strategies for making one's way in the world, like learning self-control, resisting temptation or persisting in the face of failure have received little study, in part because the attention to self-esteem has been so pervasive.

"My bottom line is that self-esteem isn't really worth the effort," Dr. Baumeister said. "Self-control is much more powerful."
[/snip] (emphasis added)

I wonder how many decades it will take to start undoing some of the damage the "self-esteem" movement has caused? I wonder when parents will realize that teaching their children old-fashioned morality, a knowledge of what's right and wrong, the ability to distinguish between good and evil, a sense of one's place in society, the importance of learning how to learn, and the steps to solving problems are the essentials of childrearing, not shielding and indulging children in the name of preserving their "self esteem."
Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) on 10/02/02 at 09:39 AM
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