The Self-Esteem Scam

The Self-Esteem Scam

“Exploding the Self-Esteem Myth” by Roy F. Baumeister, Jennifer D. Campbell, Joachim I. Krueger, and Kathleen D. Vohs, in Scientific American (Jan. 2005), 415 Madison Ave., New York, N.Y. 10017–1111.

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Self-esteem has become the great American elixir, the cure for everything from bad grades to social ineptitude. A California state task force declared in 1989 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.” But having reviewed some 200 studies, Baumeister and his colleagues, all university-based psychologists, suggest that self-esteem belongs on the same shelf as miracle diet pills.

Take the seemingly plausible idea that higher self-esteem helps students do better in school. Researchers at the University of Iowa tested more than 23,000 10th graders in 1986, then again two years later. “They found that self-esteem in 10th grade is only weakly predictive of academic achievement in 12th grade.” Other studies have produced similar results, and “some findings even suggest that artificially boosting self-esteem may lower subsequent performance.”

Does low self-regard predispose teenagers to engage in more or earlier sexual activity? “If anything, those with high self-esteem are less inhibited, more willing to disregard risks and more prone to engage in sex.”

Does low self-esteem encourage drinking or drug use? Studies “do not consistently show” that there’s even any connection. A large-scale 2000 study by New Zealand researchers found no correlation between children’s self-esteem measured between ages nine and 13 and their drinking or drug use at age 15.

Psychologists long believed that low self-esteem was an important cause of violence. But a number of studies point to a different conclusion: “Perpetrators of aggression generally hold favorable and perhaps even inflated views of themselves.”

It’s important to note that Baumeister and his colleagues eliminated from consideration thousands of studies that relied on the subjects’ own assessments of their self-esteem, a notoriously unreliable gauge.

Lest champions of self-esteem lose all of it themselves, the authors report that some studies show “that people with high self-esteem are significantly happier than others.” But it’s not clear whether high self-esteem causes happiness. Both may be the product of success at work, in school, or in one’s personal life. The champions can take heart from one last finding: High self-esteem does seem to promote persistence in the face of failure.

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