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The Snake Oil of Self-Esteem in American Pop Psychology

January 23, 2011

Why the obsession with self-esteem in American pop psychology is not only misplaced and generally ineffective, but even potentially dangerous.

I’ll be adding to this post in the coming days, but I feel guilty about how long this headline has been up with the “Coming Soon” promise.  So in the spirit of something is better than nothing, I will set down the broad points, to be filled out later with more info and scholarly citations.

1) Self-esteem is a global, self-evaluative metric of the self with both an affective component (feeling) as well as a theory of mind component (judgment and attribution).  In other words, to say I have high self-esteem would implicate both a good/ positive feeling about my self, and the judgment that this is warranted,  and finally the implicit or explicit belief that I am the one responsible for my success (i.e., someone who falls into good fortune, but believes it was undeserved may not have a high self-esteem).

2) There is much research associating positive self-esteem with positive life outcomes (academics, relationships, jobs).  Although this is technically accurate, the results of these studies were grossly misread in the 70s, 80s and early 90s.

3) The results of the mass misreading mentioned above was the attempt by public and private groups to create programs and workshops that attempted to raise self-esteem as a way of promoting positive outcomes in young children, adolescents and adults.  In young children and adults this often took the form of trying to improve academic outcomes or avoid notable forms of delinquency and antisocial behaviors (e.g. gang affiliation).

4) I use the terms “misread” and “misreading”?  because decades of research have failed to show that raising someone’s self-esteem LEADS to signficant improvements in any major adjustment outcomes, such as academic performance. Raising someone’s self-esteem can affect other emotional states, but that is a different story.

5) The reason for pt. 4 is fairly obvious, but seems to have alluded many people who should have known better.  Self-esteem is best understood as an OUTCOME of behaviors and competencies.  Put more eloquently, self-esteem is the result of esteemable acts, and not the other way around.  If you want to help a child do better in math, you don’t raise their self-esteem in math (which, it turns out is actually easy to do).   You can make a child feel great about their math ability without actually improving their abilities in math.  On the other hand, if you do teach them the skills they need to do better in math, then self-esteem in that domain will follow after the child experiences a history of success.

Now let’s look at a  real world and relevant demonstration of how inflating the self-esteem of generations of American children can lead to problems.  The Brookings Institute (BI) (www.brookings.edu) a very well-established, reputable and largely non-political** research institution has been involved in an ongoing research study looking at the academic performance of American kids and comparing them to students in other countries on standardized assessments, but also conducting “experiments” as well to gain some insight into what things are associated with these outcomes. There is a ton of good research on these reports.  Here’s a link for those interested in a more in-depth analysis (http://www.brookings.edu/reports/2009/0225_education_loveless.aspx).  A lot of what has been found is well-know and well-understood, however, what caught my eye several years ago was the consistent finding from a 2006 study that American students tend to be a lot more confident before tests than many of their peers in East Asian and Eastern European countries, but actually perform worse on the actual tests. (http://www.brookings.edu/reports/2006/10education_loveless.aspx) Now you might say, so what?  That kind of unwarranted confidence may be annoying, but how is it responsible?  Other research studies have shown that there is a strong relationship between the amount of effort students put into studying for a test and how prepared they think they are for it.  In other words, a confident student  feels they know enough and studies less than a less confident student who feels unprepared and therefore studies more.  To conclude, we do no favor to our students when we imbue them with unwarranted confidence through this constant drumbeat of the importance of self-esteem, if that in terms creates a distorted sense of their own capabilities and competence.

**a note about that claim–> BI has had a general rep as a liberal-leaning research institute, however, that reputation largely came from some post WWII projects.  Since then I think it is safe to classify BI as moderate and non-partisan, as evidenced by many collaborations with the American Enterprise Institute and the Heritage Foundation–both considered conservative think tanks, not to mention the mix of people currently serving as fellows)

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