Quite a remarkable op-ed in the January 25 Los Angeles Times.
Roy Baumeister is one of a multitude of researchers who for decades have pushed the idea that low self-esteem is the root of just about all of society's ills - criminal behavior, domestic violence, teen pregnancy, poor grades, drug abuse, conservatism, etc. (Just kidding on that last one, but only a little) Witness the boundless faith of John Vasconcellos, who was a California Assemblyman when self-esteem fever was beginning to spread (early 1970s):
Vasconcellos even expressed the hope that higher self-esteem 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 therefore pay more in taxes.It's no wonder that with this kind of potential, the educational and psychological establishment would wholeheartedly endorse and implement programs to promote high self esteem in Americans, "undeterred", Baumeister writes, "by the weakness and ambiguity of the evidence suggesting a benefit in boosting self-esteem; we all believed the data would come along in good time."
Five years ago, Baumeister and a few others were commissioned by the American Psychological Society to "wade with an open mind" through a generation of published research "to assess the benefits of high self-esteem".
What they found was the opposite of what they expected.
Low self esteem does not lead to criminal behavior; in fact, criminals tend to have high self esteem (which is part of the problem).
What about academic achievement?
High self- esteem in schoolchildren does not produce better grades. (Actually, kids with high self-esteem do have slightly better grades in most studies, but that's because getting good grades leads to higher self-esteem, not the other way around.) In fact, according to a study by Donald Forsyth at Virginia Commonwealth University, college students with mediocre grades who got regular self-esteem strokes from their professors ended up doing worse on final exams than students who were told to suck it up and try harder.Well, what about adults and job performance?
Self-esteem doesn't make adults perform better at their jobs either. Sure, people with high self-esteem rate their own performance better — even declaring themselves smarter and more attractive than their low self-esteem peers — but neither objective tests nor impartial raters can detect any difference in the quality of work.In general, as it relates to achievement, high self-esteem tends to lead only to self-delusion about one's abilities, while actual ability remains unchanged. It can make someone more outgoing, but, depending on one's personality, that may not be a good thing (e.g. instead of becoming more sociable, one may become a bully).
Baumeister finally cuts to the chase (emphasis added):
In short, despite the enthusiastic embrace of self-esteem, we found that it conferred only two benefits. It feels good and it supports initiative. Those are nice, but they are far less than we had once hoped for, and it is very questionable whether they justify the effort and expense that schools, parents and therapists have put into raising self-esteem.It's remarkable enough that somebody did this research. It's even more remarkable that the researchers were honest about what they found, given the howls of outrage that are surely coming from the entrenched interests in the education and psychology industries who just removed these guys from their
What's most remarkable of all, though, is that Baumeister follows the data to the logical conclusion (emphasis added):
After all these years, I'm sorry to say, my recommendation is this: Forget about self-esteem and concentrate more on self-control and self-discipline.Wow...
Recent work suggests this would be good for the individual and good for society — and might even be able to fill some of those promises that self-esteem once made but could not keep.
Look for the educational establishment to embrace Baumeister's recommendation eagerly, possibly as early as next century.
By the way, in 2002 Psychology Today reported on a "controversial" British study which echoes many of the findings of Baumeister & co.:
People with high self-esteem may be more of a threat to society than those with a lower sense of self-worth, according to a controversial 100-page report. Nicholas Emler, Ph.D., a social psychologist at the London School of Economics, found that people with high self-esteem are more likely to be racist, violent and criminal. Low self-esteem increases the risk of eating disorders, suicide and depression, but it is not a factor in delinquency or substance abuse, according to Emler.Wow...