Deflating Self-Esteem's Role in Society's Ills


Low self-esteem is to blame for a host of social ills, from poor academic performance and marital discord to violent crime and drug abuse. Or so goes the gospel, as written over the last several decades by social scientists, self-help book authors and the California Task Force to Promote Self-Esteem and Personal and Social Responsibility, a panel created in 1986 by the California Legislature to conduct a three-year study of the topic.

Recently, however, some psychologists have begun debunking the notion that a poor self-image is the malady behind most of society's complaints - and bolstering self-esteem its cure. "D" students, it turns out, think as highly of themselves as valedictorians, and serial rapists are no more likely to ooze with insecurities than doctors or bank managers.

At the same time, high self-esteem, studies show, offers no immunity against bad behavior. Research by Dr. Brad J. Bushman of Iowa State University and Dr. Roy F. Baumeister of Case Western Reserve University finds that some people with high self-regard are actually more likely to lash out aggressively when criticized than those with low-self esteem. The list of groups - neo-Nazis, street toughs, school bullies - who combine preening self-satisfaction with violence belies the power of one to ameliorate the other.

"I think we had a great deal of optimism that high self-esteem would cause all sorts of positive consequences, and that if we raised self-esteem people would do better in life," Dr. Baumeister said. "Mostly, the data have not borne that out."

In an extensive review of studies, for example, Dr. Nicholas Emler, a social psychologist at the London School of Economics, found no clear link between low self-esteem and delinquency, violence against others, teenage smoking, drug use or racism, though a poor self-image was one of several factors contributing to self-destructive behaviors like suicide, eating disorders and teenage pregnancy.

High self-esteem, on the other hand, was positively correlated with racist attitudes, drunken driving and other risky behaviors, Dr. Emler found in his 2001 review. Though academic success or failure had some effect on self-esteem, students with high self-esteem were likely to explain away their failures with excuses, while those with low self-esteem discounted their successes as flukes.

Not that feeling good about oneself is entirely without benefit. People with high self-esteem are happier and show more initiative than those with low self-regard, Dr. Baumeister noted. But when it comes to whether people use that initiative for good or for ill, or whether they succeed or fail in many different areas of life, research indicates that psychological factors other than self-esteem are far more important.

For example, in the studies Dr. Bushman and Dr. Baumeister carried out on aggression, they found that it was narcissism, self-love that includes a conviction of one's superiority, rather than a positive self-image per se, that led people to retaliate aggressively when their self-esteem was threatened.

In one study, each subject was asked to write an essay that was then criticized by a partner, really a confederate of the researchers. Then the subjects were given a chance to get back at their partners by pushing a button and blasting them with a high-decibel noise. People who scored high on scales of self-esteem were in general no more likely to take advantage of the opportunity than those with low self-esteem. But those who also scored high on narcissism turned up the volume and leaned on the button.

In another study, the researchers gave tests of self-esteem and narcissism to 63 men serving prison sentences for rape, murder, assault or armed robbery in Massachusetts and California. They compared the prisoners' scores to those found in other studies for groups of men the same age, including Vietnam veterans, college students, dentists, recreational dart throwers and problem drinkers. The violent offenders, Dr. Bushman said, did not differ from the other men in self-esteem. But they scored much higher than the other men on narcissism. (A third group of prisoners, in Minnesota, showed no significant differences in either self-esteem or in narcissism, an anomalous result the researchers hope to explain through further research.)

Many experts believe that such findings offer a persuasive rebuttal to the claims of the so-called self-esteem movement. But the accretion of evidence has done little to dampen the enthusiasm of therapists, child-rearing experts and school administrators. Many secondary schools include self-esteem building in their curriculums. Self-help books offer strategies - from hypnosis to dieting - for increasing self-confidence and self-worth.

J. D. Hawkins, president of the National Association for Self-Esteem, based in Normal, Ill., said that despite the new research his group held that a positive self-image was important and that self-esteem building exercises were effective. "For 37 years I've worked with kids and I've proved that those kinds of things work," Mr. Hawkins said. But he added that any conception of self-esteem had to include taking responsibility for one's actions and contributing to society. "If you are not personally and socially responsible, then your self-worth is built on a false reality and, therefore, it's not healthy," Mr. Hawkins said.

A preoccupation with self-esteem may be inevitable in a society where self-worth is often defined by a diploma from Harvard, a Size 4 dress or a mansion in Southampton. Dr. Jennifer Crocker, a psychologist at the University of Michigan's Institute for Social Research, argues that the frantic pursuit of self-worth through external trappings exacts a social and personal toll. "The pursuit of self-esteem has short-term benefits but long-term costs," she has written, "ultimately diverting people from fulfilling their fundamental human needs for competence, relatedness and autonomy and leading to poor self-regulation and mental and physical health."

In a series of studies, the most recent appearing in the current Journal of Social Issues, Dr. Crocker finds that people who pin their self-esteem on academic performance, good looks, the approval of bosses, friends or family members or other societally sanctioned yardsticks are at higher risk for a variety of problems, including academic difficulties, relationship conflicts, aggression and increased use of drugs or alcohol.

In a study of 642 college freshmen, Dr. Crocker found that most students scored high on a commonly used measure of self-esteem. But those who based their views of themselves on things like academic competence, outdoing others in competition, physical appearance or other people's approval were more likely to have difficulties several months later. The freshmen who based their self-regard heavily on academic performance, for example, reported more stress and more conflicts with professors and teaching assistants than did their peers. They spent more time studying than other students but did no better in their classes.

The freshmen who were invested in appearing attractive, on the other hand, reported more aggressiveness, anger and hostility than others, more alcohol and drug use and more symptoms of eating disorders like anorexia and bulimia, Dr. Crocker found. They also became more depressed as the year wore on.

The externally driven students were slightly more likely than others to have low self-esteem, but the correlation was small, Dr. Crocker said. "In analysis after analysis, external contingencies of self-worth, such as appearance, were associated with more problems of all types during their freshman year," Dr. Crocker wrote of the college students in the journal article.

In contrast, students who judged themselves by more internal measures like virtue or religious faith seemed to fare better. They were less likely to show anger and aggression and more restrained in their use of alcohol and drugs.

But Dr. Crocker said it was possible that even these freshmen found their pursuit of self-esteem problematic. On a checklist of "daily hassles," for example, they were more likely to note feelings of loneliness, suggesting, she said, that their devotion to moral strictures was experienced as off-putting by others.

An obsession with external markers of self-worth, Dr. Crocker believes, leads to self-absorption. As an example, she cited a study, carried out with a graduate student, Lora Park, in which college freshmen who based their self-esteem on academic achievement were given a test and then either told that they had failed or given no feedback. They were then asked to talk to a partner about a personal problem the partner was having.

Afterward, the freshmen who failed the test rated themselves as "preoccupied" during their discussion with their partner. Their partners, in turn, reported that they did not like the freshmen very much and would not want to share personal problems with them again.

The correction for such an exclusive focus on the self cannot be found in self-esteem classes that encourage children to believe that they are special and that their personal success and happiness are paramount, Dr. Crocker and other experts argue. "Not everything is about `me,' " she said. "There are sometimes bigger things that we should be concerned about."

Yet more old-fashioned strategies for making one's way in the world, like learning self-control, resisting temptation or persisting in the face of failure have received little study, in part because the attention to self-esteem has been so pervasive. "My bottom line is that self-esteem isn't really worth the effort," Dr. Baumeister said. "Self-control is much more powerful."

This article originally appeared in the "N.Y. TIMES" Oct 1 2002

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