A mixture of often contradictory ideas frames the popular imagination and, to a great extent, the contours of the American mind. One of the most cherished of these ideas is of fairly recent vintage, though its philosophical roots go far back into the American experience. This idea can be called simply the "self-esteem myth"-- the idea that an individual's self-esteem is central to success, happiness, performance, and behavior.

The idea that self-esteem is an essential part of a healthy personality is now virtually institutionalized in American culture. A quick visit to the local bookstore will reveal a myriad of titles loosely arranged under the category "self help." The entire educational structure, especially at the elementary level, takes self-esteem as a basic imperative for the educational process.

The state of California even set up a task force in the late 1980s, charged to raise self-esteem in young people. State Assemblyman John Vasconcellos took the lead, convincing then-Governor George Deukmejian to establish the task force as a state project.

Now, a team of researchers has taken a closer look at the idea that self-esteem is a crucial factor in personal happiness, achievement, and behavior. Their research conclusively destroys the self-esteem myth and demonstrates that the nation's obsession with self-esteem was never based on science in the first place.

The researchers, Roy F. Baumeister, Jennifer D. Campbell, Joachim I. Krueger and Kathleen D. Vohs, published their findings in the January 2005 issue of Scientific American. As the magazine explains, "Boosting people's sense of self-worth has become a national preoccupation. Yet surprisingly, research shows that such efforts are of little value in fostering academic progress or preventing undesirable behavior."

This article deserves wide attention, and should serve as a reminder that the reign of pop psychology has produced social effects that continue to influence the minds and lives of countless Americans. Many of the most cherished assumptions of secular psychology run into direct conflict with the Christian worldview. The self-esteem myth is a prime example of how unbiblical thinking can lead to countless problems. At the same time, these researchers are out to prove that the self-esteem myth was never based on any credible scientific evidence at all.

The team aims their sights at the self-esteem movement and, in particular, at the National Association for Self-Esteem [NASE], a group which aims to "promote awareness of and provide vision, leadership and advocacy for improving the human condition through the enhancement of self-esteem." But, as these researchers counter, "regrettably, those who have been pursuing self-esteem-boosting programs, including the leaders of NASE, have not shown a desire to examine the new work, which is why the four of us recently came together under the aegis of the American Psychological Society to review the scientific literature."

What did they find? Well, for one thing, these scientists discovered that many of the advocates of self-esteem have no idea what self-esteem is, and have no means of measuring it. It turns out that most of the theorists and investigators who have been dealing with the issue have simply asked persons what they think of themselves. As these researchers argue, "Naturally enough, the answers are often colored by the common tendency to want to make oneself look good." As these scientists see it, "psychologists lack any better method to judge self-esteem, which is worrisome because similar self-ratings of other attributes often prove to be way off."

Interestingly, this quartet of scientists reviewed the literature that argues for a correlation between physical attractiveness and self-esteem. As it happens, those who register self-esteem also report themselves to be physically attractive. The complicating factor in all this is that others do not see these individuals in the same way -- at least in terms of their physical attractiveness. As these authors explain, "What seemed at first to be a strong link between physical good looks and high self-esteem turned out to be nothing more than a pattern of consistency in how favorably people rate themselves."