Tuesday, February 27, 2007

"You're Ruining My Self-Esteem!" – Part 1

From Ash:

Since we began our research on praise and self-esteem, Po and I both heard many stories from parents and teachers about self-esteem issues. My favorite was from an English teacher. She'd recently given one of her students a "C," and the mother came down to complain, saying "You're ruining my child's self-esteem." The teacher shot back, "I'm not here to make him feel better; I'm here to make him do better."

At the time, I thought that was an exceptional story – but we've spoken since, and she's had almost the same conversation with another set of parents. Apparently, it's a regular thing.

Another mother I spoke with said that her daughters were so accustomed to the idea of self-esteem building, that if an adult said something they considered to be too negative, they'd tell him, "You're ruining my self-esteem." Which she said they meant as a joke, but always gave the grown-ups pause, since perhaps it was true.

Since then, I've been constantly struck by just how pervasive the idea of building self-esteem is throughout our society. (If you think about it, even the Oscars succombed: since the Eighties, even though you may still think of the phrase, "And the winner is" – they really hand out the trophy with "And the Oscar goes to." A change they explained specifically because the Academy had wanted to event to seem less like a competition.)

The astonishing thing is just how little we know about the supposed-benefits of self-esteem building. Its efficacy has been a truism presumed to exist, like gravity. I think we made the case – that self-esteem building isn't in fact effective and doesn't actually get you much in terms of benefits – pretty powerfully in the article. But both Po and I have been particularly struck by the number of responses about that section, as small as it is, so I just thought I'd fill out the argument with a couple posts. If you're interested in a complete explanation, you might check out Roy Baumeister's Scientific American article, but (besides the fact you'll have to pay to access it) there's so much information in there, on so many topics, I think it's easy to miss some of the more major ideas.

First, consider any dialogue of self-esteem is almost inherently flawed, because everyone – from researchers to laymen – approach the issue in terms of having "high self-esteem" and "low self-esteem." "Middle self-esteem" just isn't in anyone's vocabulary. We don't know how to talk about such a thing, and the scholars don't even study it. (The "Mids" usually are dropped out of a study, because it's easier to study the extremes.) But addressing just the extremes is always problematic. The results skew much more dramatically that they should, and they leave out any consideration of those somewhere in between the two – which is often where the vast majority are.

Then, there's the seemingly-natural assumption that "high self-esteem" is good and "low" is bad, while middle (or perhaps, realistic) seems to be nonexistent.

Which brings me to the next problem is that the measures used to gauge self-esteem levels have nothing whatsoever to do with whether a person's self-esteem is warranted or not. The tests for self-esteem don't distinguish between an accurate self-perception and just complete narcissism. A Nobel Laureate and a serial killer could both have "high self-esteem" – or "low self-esteem," for that matter.

You may have heard about the studies that found people with high self-esteem are smarter, more beautiful, and more successful in their personal relationships than us poor schlumps with low self-esteem. But those studies asked people to rate their self-esteem and then asked them to rate their own intelligence, beauty, relationship skills, etc. And if you think about it, it shouldn't come as too terrible as surprise to learn that the people who thought highly of themselves said they were golden in each of those areas.

But when subsequent researchers asked third parties to rate high and low self-esteem people in terms of beauty, high self-esteem people were no more likely to be considered beautiful. IQ tests revealed they weren't any smarter. And college students said that high-self-esteem students weren't better roommates. Actually, it was the low-self-esteem students who were. Low self-esteem people assume you don't like them, so they work harder to be friendlier – they take suggestions for change more seriously, etc. For person with a high self-esteem, those comments are like water off a duck's back, because he's already sure you like him or that if you don't, that's your problem, not his.

Ironically enough, while tests for self-esteem are often frequently separated from a person's reality, the more a person's self-esteem is actually separated from reality, the more problematic it becomes. (Which brings us to the facts and phenomenon Po was exploring yesterday.)


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Interesting comments about self-esteem. I wonder if there is such a thing as "a healthy self-esteem". Which group (the high self esteem) or (the low self-esteem) are more likely to set healthy boundaries and can say "no"?


11:24 AM  
Blogger Po Bronson & Ashley Merryman said...

From Ash:

You're asking some of the right questions; however, the answers are too complex for a comment back to you. But I'm planning to do another post or two on the topic, that I think will get to these ideas.

7:02 AM  
Blogger Amoren Love said...

First of all, I do agree the main point in Po’s and your articles. Overpraise, even including praise per se has many side effects, such as underachievement, risk-averse and so on. In my opinion, the worst impact of overpraise is you inevitably spoil that person by overpraising, and make him take things for granted. Psychologically, fear is as good as praise to motivate people.

However, there is a flaw in Dr. Roy Baumeister’s theory. The definition of self-esteem from his is different from that of Nathaniel Branden’s. According to Baumeister, self-esteem is how you regard yourself or how you appear to regard yourself. But many psychologists believe that true self-esteem has little to do with external validation of the self or other people’s approval. This kind of self-esteem was labeled as "pseudo self-esteem" by Nathaniel Branden. True self-esteem comes from within - how you see and accept yourself as a person, including both strengths and weaknesses, and how you value yourself and believe your own competency and worth, regardless of what other people think.

Self-esteem is always correlated with a state of happiness. Or we can say a person with a high self-esteem is always happier than a person with a low self-esteem. But it has little to do with what you can achieve professionally. A Nobel Laureate or a president does necessarily have a high self-esteem. As a matter of fact, however, professional achievement always needs a certain level of feelings of inadequacy.

I don’t think any serial killer or this kind of criminals could have a high self-esteem or whatsoever. These people all suffer from a low self-esteem because that’s reason why they need killing to prove their superiority over others. Most serial killers have mental problem, more or less. If you guys have a chance to meet with schizophrenia patients, you will find out they all have low self-esteems as well.

And low self-esteem people may not try harder to please others. Many of them choose to withdraw themselves in order to gain control back. And they are very easy to be defensive, assuming that you are taking advantage of them if you offer them any suggestion.

8:03 AM  
Blogger raf said...

Another side effect of unearned praise that I have observed is that when an individual *knows* that he did a poor job, but is praised anyway, he loses respect for the praiser, reducing that person's ability to inflence behavior in the future. A teacher who overpraises "to build self esteem" can become less effective, leading, perhaps, to longer-term loss of self confidence or self respect in the pupil.

1:09 PM  

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