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