In 1969, Canadian psychologist Nathaniel Branden published “The Psychology of Self-Esteem.”
In it he argued that self-esteem “has profound effects on a man’s thinking processes, emotions, desires, values, and goals” and that “it is the single most significant key to his behaviour.”
The book would become a bestseller, pushing the notion of “self-esteem” into the mainstream.
It was especially resonant in education and parenting, where the Self-Esteem Movement instructed adults to praise kids generously.
Today, self-esteem is everywhere. You can buy more than 140,000 books on the topic, and it is summoned in the oddest of situations, like when Pennsylvania governor Tom Wolfe said that the “the biggest problem in Pennsylvania is low self-esteem.”
Yet the cultural reliance on self-esteem as a cure-all may be misplaced.
According to the research of Florida State University psychologist Roy Baumeister, self-esteem can be a destructive force.
Here’s a breakdown of Baumeister’s argument from a recent profile of him in Matter:
In 1996 Baumeister … co-authored a review of the literature that concluded that it was, in fact, “threatened egotism” that lead to aggression. Evil, he suggested, was often accompanied by high self-esteem.
“Dangerous people, from playground bullies to warmongering dictators, consist mostly of those who have highly favourable views of themselves,” he wrote.
It was an astonishing theory because it ran counter to everything that society and the experts who inform it had been saying for years. It wasn’t low self-esteem that caused violence: It was when self-esteem was artificially high.
In 2003, Baumeister published another contrarian analysis of self-esteem: “Does High Self-Esteem Cause Better Performance, Interpersonal Success, Happiness, or Healthier Lifestyles?” It found that high self-esteem doesn’t predict school or job performance, nor the quality or length of personal relationships. It does predict greater happiness and initiative, though, both in the sense of raising one’s hand in class or experimenting with drugs or sex at a young age.
To Baumeister, high self-esteem isn’t innately good and can lead to despotic behaviour. He writes:
After all, Hitler had very high self-esteem and plenty of initiative, too, but those were hardly guarantees of ethical behaviour.
He attracted followers by offering them self-esteem that was not tied to achievement or ethical behaviour — rather, he told them that they were superior beings simply by virtue of being themselves, members of the so-called Master Race, an idea that undoubtedly had a broad, seductive appeal.
We have found no data to indicate that indiscriminately promoting self-esteem in today’s children or adults, just for being themselves, has any benefits beyond that seductive pleasure.
As the Hitler example vividly illustrates, having high self-esteem doesn’t guarantee that a person will actually behave in socially valuable ways. In “Generation Me,” psychologist Jean Twenge drew on 22 sets of personality data to argue that “the self-esteem movement” has made Generations X and Y more narcissistic than those before them.
Baumeister’s theory has had its critics. As Matter notes, Branden himself has said Baumeister’s research relied on “specious reasoning,” arguing that a violent person doesn’t abuse others because of high self-esteem, but rather a fragile self-conception that needs to be constantly bolstered by dominating others.
But the under-lying problem, Baumeister argues, is that the self-esteem movement encourages a praise-only approach to raising kids, which he believes is no more effective than the criticism-only approach from former eras.
Instead of relying on either extreme, parents, teachers, and perhaps even bosses may want to consider praising good behaviour and condemning bad behaviour, even if it’s “harmful to self-esteem.”
In other words, kids and grown-ups alike shouldn’t be told they’re doing well because everything they do is fundamentally praiseworthy, but because — to borrow from developmental psychologist Carol Dweck — they’re putting the effort in.
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