Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Self Esteem is Bad For You

Self esteem should be a by-product of actually achieving something. Self esteem is not a viable goal by itself. Indeed, I don't see how you can inculculate self esteem as an end in itself.

Andrew Lam of New American Media and a chronicler of the Vietnamese diaspora reports that American kids have high self esteem, but lousy achievement in math, whereas Asian kids have modest self esteem, but much higher actual achievement in math. This finding is fairly well known to people in the education racket. Lam also reports a finding I had not seen, a new study by Jean Twenge at San Diego State. A quarter century ago, at the beginning of the self esteem fashion in American schools, a third of American college students had above average scores on a narcissism index. Today, two thirds of American college students have above-average narcissism scores.

If kids think that they cannot achieve anything, then they are less likely to. The cure, though, is not to tell them that they are already great the way they are. The cure to is to help them actually achieve something worthwhile. As a friend put it, "school should teach kids; let the little buggers look after their own self esteem."


Stuart Gordon said...

Amen! See Jeffrey Zaslow's articles (April 20 and May 3) in the Wall Street Journal on this subject.

The New York Times Magazine also ran an article highlighting this finding from research by a surprised psychologist: educational efforts to build self-esteem actually result in the reverse. Students in a study who were praised not for effort but for who they were ("you're so smart!") actually felt worse about themselves. They wouldn't take on hard tasks for fear of failing and looking stupid; they began to doubt any praise from adults because all the affirmation begins to sound like baloney.

On the other hand, kids who were praised for effort went on to try more difficult tasks and to enjoy the challenge.

It's time for educators to get off the self-esteem train, and to praise kids for their efforts. Children know fulsome praise when they hear it - at least once they're six or seven.

Alan said...

Unfortunately, like many edu-fads, the self-esteem game that infected K-12 education was based on half understandings of not-so-great research. I couldn't tell you how many in-services I went to when I was teaching HS about building self-esteem. Whenever I'd ask for the literature references, I'd just get blank stares.

What actually improves performance is subject-area self-esteem, that is, whether or not a kid thinks they can be successful in a particular subject area. Building that, particularly in math & the sciences is important, but of course it has to be based on real success, not just making kids feel good about themselves.

michael bush said...

Once in the 90s I heard Ken Myers tell of seeing, in an elementary school hallway, group of posters a class had made.

One young sage had entitled the poster, "My Self of Steam Project."

Jon said...

Although technically, if it is two-thirds, then it cannot be "above average." Just saying...

Gruntled said...

Jon, I worried about that, too. However, the scale, as I understand it, is an absolute standard of adjustment. I don't know what the name of the oppositive of narcissism is (the bad opposite), but presumably there is a well-adjusted middle. If they do really mean average (and Lam may be using the wrong term), then college students are not a representative sample of the population. Most college students could be above average in narcissism, just as they are above average in intelligence, without invalidating the meaning of a population average.

Jon said...

That makes sense. I was mostly just joking, and it was interesting in an article that mentioned math ability. I know there have also been studies that show that prisoners tend to report much higher self-esteem than the general population. But I thought the term "average" was a bit funny.

MensaRefugee said...

Charles Murray has written about this extensively in his book "In pursuit... of Happiness and Good Government"

The key is the difference between self esteem and self respect.

Mark Smith said...

I'll open up.

I suffer from low self-esteem. I always have. Along with that comes a smidge of depression.

I was a good (say a solid B+, A-) but not great student in school. My IQ would indicate that I should have gotten higher grades, but I didn't. Why bother?

(A fair amount of my lack of self-esteem is likely a circumstance of my brain chemistry, but another fair amount was a gift from my peers and parents.)

I do have a fairly strong drive to achieve, but in situations that are solitary. That's what got me through college (with better grades) and more recently has gotten me an airplane pilot's license. I'm also pretty good but not great at work.

Self-esteem can be bad for you, but a lack of it certainly keeps you from hitting your full potential.

P.S. the opposite of narcissism is self-loathing. Been there.

José Solano said...

The key to the problem discussed here is to deemphasize oneself. Certainly this is easier said than done. We are essentially trapped in self-centeredness. We are either inflated spoiled brats or we are deflated spoiled brats, “Oh, woe is me.” It is by a long and difficult objective self-observation process that we can recognize these problems and turn the attention and consideration away from ourselves and towards the other. American schooling in particular, with its emphasis on self-esteem, self-worth, self-absorption and away from humility, reinforces the child’s innate concupiscence and bases tendencies.

Mark Smith is right that the opposite of narcissism is self-loathing (on the negative continuum) but both are moral and personality defects. The wholesome opposite of both is humility manifested in selflessness and self-sacrifice. The direction towards this humility is to work on forgetting oneself and focusing on the other. And this focusing on the other cannot be for the sake of oneself but truly for the other regardless of oneself.

tribalchurch said...

My comment on this was way to long, so I posted on this today.

Anonymous said...

Actually, the majority of a population can be above average. Consider, for example, two six-foot men and a three-foot man. Two out of three are above their average height of five feet.

What you can't have is more than 50% of the population above the median.