Groundbreaking Research on Self-Esteem
The national insistence on self-esteem as an inalienable right may have been kicked off in 1969 with the publication of The Psychology of Self-Esteem, by Los Angeles psychologist Nathaniel Branden, who created a cottage industry with 14 books on the subject. And thousands of scholarly articles were written between 1970 and 2000, many of which suggested that self-esteem was an essential component of success in everything from school and career to marriage and sex. In 1987 California instituted a state Task Force to Promote Self-Esteem and Personal and Social Responsibility.
By the mid-1990s, to ensure that all children felt good about themselves, teachers were careful to pronounce each finger painting a Picasso, and some schools dropped honor rolls, which were thought to be too hurtful to students who did not make the list. The extreme of the self-esteem craze was personified on Saturday Night Live by comedian Al Franken, whose character Stuart Smalley intoned vapid affirmations such as "I'm good enough, I'm smart enough, and doggone it, people like me." (In one famous SNL skit, he tried to help Michael Jordan resolve nonexistent doubts about his basketball-playing ability.)
Then in 2003, a leading advocate of self-esteem theory began a review of the copious research, analyzing some 15,000 studies. A team led by Roy Baumeister, PhD, professor of psychology at Florida State University, in Tallahassee, determined that only 200 of the studies met rigorous scientific standards, and to their great surprise, those 200 failed to show that having high self-esteem does much of anything for you: It doesn't improve grades or career achievement, reduce alcohol usage, lower the incidence of violent behavior, or translate into higher estimates by others of a person's intelligence, beauty, or virtue. On the contrary, trying to pump up someone's self-worth with a pep talk can backfire. In one example recently reported in the Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, college students who did poorly on their midterms were given weekly study aids, but some were told to keep their heads up and feel good about themselves, while others were urged to take responsibility for their schoolwork. Those who received the first—self-esteem—message did dramatically worse on the final.
"There's no question you get the best results with highly contingent praise and criticism," says Baumeister. "That means praising exactly what you did right and criticizing exactly what you did wrong. Just praising kids regardless of how they do contains very little useful information; if anything, it has a negative effect on learning. I've had to revise my opinions about self-esteem several times; I'm kind of done with it. I don't think it can deliver much of what we want. Self-control, self-regulation—these give a whole lot more bang for the buck, deliver a lot more in practical results. I think self-esteem is relegated, if not to Siberia, at least to the Urals."
Perhaps the final banishment of the idea comes from Carol Dweck, PhD, a well-respected professor of psychology at Stanford University, whose latest book is Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. "People think that self-esteem is the most important thing in the world, that you can give it to children, almost on a silver platter, by shielding them from criticism and praising their skills and talents," says Dweck, who has been studying how kids succeed and fail for nearly 40 years. "It's a very common and harmful belief. In the old days, the parents would be driving kids home from Little League saying, 'When you struck out, you didn't keep your eye on the ball.' Now they say, 'The ref robbed you.' The parents think they're helping them, protecting them from injury. In fact, they're making them so vulnerable that they're not resilient."