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Low Esteem for Self-Esteem

May 11, 2003

As the lost-and-found bins overflow and another school year creeps to conclusion, there's more challenging news for parents, coaches, teachers and anyone else trying to lose weight to enhance their self-esteem. Thanks to the current issue of Psychological Science in the Public Interest, we now know that all this talk about self-esteem being a crucial ingredient for life success is so much, well, steam.

No one seeks to hurt the numerous authors' self-esteem one teeny bit, especially on Mother's Day. Their mothers worked very hard to raise strong, intelligent, self-confident psychologists. As authors, they really, really worked hard on this class project. Big words. Careful reasoning. Great footnotes. And so many too. A very nice job all around. But before we cluster-bomb a 30-year-old core social assumption like self-esteem, let's wait one self-esteeming minute, please!

Millions were raised by self-esteeming parents who taught self-esteem, that we really were not as dumb or awkward as we suspected. That, for instance, yes, we did strike out in the bottom of the ninth with the winning run on second, but it was a really, really good swing. And then once we were adults, our own children told us that we were making a really, really good effort at understanding how to set VCR clocks, program laptops and play incomprehensible video games involving baffling mazes designed by psychologists from another planet.

For nearly two generations, self-esteem in America has been a gospel for personal growth. So much of what ails Americans -- ranging from smoking, drinking, drugging, stealing, lying and cheating to overeating and underachieving -- has been linked to self-esteem. We are who we think we are. Improve individual self-esteem, the highly esteemed belief went, and you improve individual outcomes, along with the society, all children yet to be born and maybe even the stock market. Not to hurt anyone's self-esteem, but the authors in Psychological Science say: Bunk!

They note society's belief that self-esteem rises when one achieves success and declines with corresponding failures. "This pervasive correlation," they write, "may well strengthen the impression that one's level of self-esteem is not just the outcome, but indeed the cause, of life's major successes and failures." Their survey of studies -- which was really, really thorough, by the way -- found that pervasive efforts to boost student self-esteem did not improve academic performance and sometimes hurt it. And, they warn, "indiscriminate praise might just as easily promote narcissism, with its less desirable consequences."

We would never ever want to promote anything approaching excessive interest in one's own appearance, comfort, importance, abilities, etc. among fancy-pants psychologists who think their highfalutin debunkings will enhance their own self-esteem and reduce others'. But we do want them to know it was a really, really good swing.

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