The Self-Esteem Myth
- Wednesday, March 09, 2005
If all this seems like a parody of a self-esteem seminar, hold on. The researchers argue that both high self-esteem and low self-esteem are rooted in a person's larger worldview and self-concept. Those with low self-esteem, in the authors' term, those prone to "floccinaucinihilipilification," are not merely negative about themselves, they are negative about everything.
There's more. While self-esteem advocates have argued that high self-esteem leads to a lowering of social prejudices, these researchers found exactly the opposite: "people with high self-esteem appear to be more prejudiced."
This team also accused self-esteem proponents of confusing correlation and causation. "If high self-esteem brings about certain positive outcomes, it may well be worth the effort and expense of trying to instill this feeling. But if the correlations mean simply that a positive self-image is a result of success or good behavior -- which is, after all, at least as plausible -- there is little to be gained by raising self-esteem alone."
When it comes to academic performance, the evangelists for self-esteem have argued that raising students' feelings about themselves would lead to greater academic achievement. The team admits the early work did show a positive correlation between self-esteem and academic performance. Nevertheless, the research did not sustain the claims. Researchers Sheila M. Pottebaum, Timothy Z. Keith and Stewart W. Ehly, all then associated with the University of Iowa, tested over 20,000 high school students in both the 10th and the 12th grades. "They found that self-esteem in 10th grade is only weakly predictive of academic achievement in 12th grade. Academic achievement in 10th grade correlates with self-esteem in 12th grade only trivially better. Such results, which are now available for multiple studies, certainly do not indicate that raising self-esteem offers students much benefit. Some findings even suggest that artificially boosting self-esteem may lower subsequent performance."
In other words, telling children they are doing well when they are actually doing poorly is a destructive lie that misleads the student and, if anything, leads to even further frustration.
Another claim routinely made by self-esteem advocates is that adolescents are likely to show more sexual restraint and behavioral control if they demonstrate high self-esteem. "All in all," these researchers report, "the results do not support the idea that low self-esteem predisposes young people to 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. At the same time, bad sexual experiences and unwanted pregnancies appear to lower self-esteem." Is this surprising? When it comes to alcohol consumption, another common adolescent form of risk-taking, the data appear to conflict. Nevertheless, at least some studies have shown that high self-esteem is linked to frequent alcohol consumption. All this suggests that adolescents with high self-esteem may translate much of that confidence into risk-taking behavior.
An individual's high self-esteem does seem linked to a personal sense of happiness. "After coming to the conclusion that high self-esteem does not lessen the tendency toward violence, that it does not deter adolescents from turning to alcohol, tobacco, drugs and sex, and that it fails to improve academic or job performance," the researchers "got a boost when we looked into how self-esteem relates to happiness." They found that people with high self-esteem seem to be happier than others, and are thus less likely to be depressed.
Nevertheless, this team raises again the question of correlation versus causation. Does self-esteem produce happiness, or does happiness tend to boost self-esteem?
What about all those self-esteem programs? This research team concluded, "We have found little to indicate that indiscriminately promoting self-esteem in today's children or adults, just for being themselves, offers society any compensatory benefits beyond the seductive pleasure it brings to those engaged in the exercise."
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