Most people believe that fostering self-esteem in children will have many benefits, from happiness to better school performance, but that belief is not supported by the evidence. We are encouraged to reward children and not punish them, to praise them not only for real accomplishments but also for trivial successes and even failures (“everybody’s a winner,” “Good for you; you did your best”). As a result, we are in danger of becoming a society of entitled people with unrealistic views of themselves. To cope with reality, people need to confront both their negative and their positive traits. If every experience in one’s life seems successful, how can one develop the healthy psychological skills to cope with adversity?
Some people believe that virtually every social problem can be traced to a lack of self-love. In the 1980s, it was thought that programs to increase self-esteem would produce a huge financial return. It was expected to reduce welfare dependency, unwanted pregnancy, school failure, crime, drug addiction, and other problems and would save large amounts of taxpayers’ money. This didn’t pan out.
The Association for Psychological Science has published an extensive review of the evidence. It is long and complex but well worth reading. High self-esteem is difficult to study because it is a heterogeneous category. It encompasses people who frankly accept their good qualities as well as narcissistic, defensive, and conceited individuals. Narcissism involves highly favorable, even grandiose views of self, a sense of being special or unique, fantasies of personal brilliance or beauty, and the belief that one is entitled to privileges and admiration by others.
The review found “no evidence that modern Western societies are suffering from an epidemic of low self-esteem. If anything, self-esteem seems generally high in most North American samples.” People tend to rate themselves as above average, as in Lake Wobegon, where all the women are strong, all the men are good-looking, and all the children are above average.
There are modest correlations between self-esteem and school performance, but occupational and academic success may boost self-esteem rather than the reverse. Efforts to boost students’ self-esteem have not improved their performance and have sometimes made it worse. IQ and social class seem to correlate better with school performance than self-esteem.
People with high self-esteem believe they are more attractive and likeable than others, but objective measures don’t bear that out. Just think of the people you know who have exceptionally high self-esteem. They can be very annoying and unlikeable, and you probably prefer people who are more modest. And “Those with high self-esteem show stronger in-group favoritism, which may increase prejudice and discrimination.”
Self-esteem is not correlated to violence except that “narcissism leads to increased aggression in retaliation for wounded pride.” High self-esteem is correlated with greater happiness. It doesn’t keep children from smoking, taking drugs, drinking, or having sex. It does seem to reduce the risk of bulimia in women.
People with high self-esteem rate themselves as better than other people at all interpersonal skills, but those who know them report that they are not.
Low self-esteem is neither necessary nor sufficient for depression. People who are negative about themselves tend to also be negative about everything else.
Several studies have found a high correlation between high self-esteem and happiness. People with high self-esteem were happy in good times but unhappy during stressful times, whereas the degree of life stress apparently made less difference to people low in self-esteem.
Self-esteem is a matter of perception, not of reality. It may become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Praise can be a reward for socially desirable behavior, but indiscriminate praise can lead to narcissism.
The review of the evidence concluded:
The benefits of high self-esteem are far fewer and weaker than proponents of self-esteem had hoped. Still, there are some benefits, and the costs to the individual do not outweigh them. The possible costs to society, such as from having some people regard themselves as superior to others and hence entitled to exploit their fellows or demand preferential treatment, may be another matter. Even so, these costs are associated with only particular subcategories of high self-esteem.
High self-esteem feels good and fosters initiative. It may still prove a useful tool to promote success and virtue, but it should be clearly and explicitly linked to desirable behavior. After all, Hitler had very high self-esteem and plenty of initiative, too, but those were hardly guarantees of ethical behavior. … Self-esteem simply intensifies both prosocial and antisocial tendencies.
This article was originally published as a SkepDoc’s Corner column on the CSI website.