Relevance of Self-Esteem to Mental Health

By Malandra, Nicole T. | Nutrition Health Review, Winter 1997 | Go to article overview

Relevance of Self-Esteem to Mental Health


Malandra, Nicole T., Nutrition Health Review


There is an entire industry based around the principles of self-esteem within the psychological community. For years, we have been told that self-esteem affects our behavior and our mental health. In the following interview with Robyn M. Dawes, Ph.D., Nutrition Health Review has attempted to distinguish whether there is a correlation between self-esteem and human behavior.

Robyn Dawes graduated Harvard University with a Ph.D. in mathematical psychology accompanied by a constant interest in behavioral decision making, social interaction, and attitude measurement. He also received graduate training in mathematics. He is the author of over 150 articles and four books, the most recent of which is House of Cards: Psychology and Psychotherapy Built on Myth, 1994. Dr. Dawes has been a Professor of Psychology in the Department of Social and Decision Sciences at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania since 1985 and department head for a five-year term.

Q.: Why do you think there is so much emphasis on self-esteem?

A.: Because, there is an availability bias from the mental health workers who have become the people who inform the general public. Those of us who behave badly and have low self-esteem will go into therapy and see mental health workers. Those of us who behave badly and do not have low self-esteem will not go and see mental health workers and therapists. So, for the mental health worker/therapist, low self-esteem and unfortunate behavior, whether it is antisocial or just very disorganized or just self-defeating, go together.

Now the other thing is, what about the American public? Wouldn't it be wonderful if all good things went together? If feeling good about yourself necessarily went with behaving well, if being optimistic necessarily went with being kind and so on; if all good things go together then naturally you would want to have high self-esteem. It would be nice if we lived in a world that didn't have tradeoffs, where there weren't some ways of being good that were counted, other ways. But there is no one way to live, and not all good things go together. You have to make choices.

So on one hand you have the availability bias of the mental health professionals, who become "gums" and tell us what everyone is like. On the other hand, you have the message they send people because they say everything good goes together. A third thing, people generally think they can change their attitudes and change their behavior, although the actual evidence is the opposite.

Q: Do you think people can expect to prove any correlation what so ever between self-esteem and desirable or undesirable behavior?

A: There are correlations in some instances, such as between academic self-esteem and academic performance. That particular correlation is mediated by working hard. In other cases, there does not seem to be any correlation, at least according to what I have read.

So, you cannot really say, independent of all contexts, that this correlation would be this way or that. What does seem to be very consistent is that we do not find the correlations we expect, and this suggests that there is no evidence that self-esteem is a prior causal variable. That is, that it is the esteem I have for myself that causes me to behave well or behave badly. Look at the academic thing; some people work hard, and they do well and they think well of themselves academically. That's not surprising. It certainly does not say thinking well of yourself or having optimism about how great you are going to be causes you to do well academically.

Q: Can people be tested for self-esteem to see whether there is any link between self-esteem and sociopathic or neurotic behavior?

A: I'm now relying on Baumeister's idea that, in fact, high self-esteem people can be not neurotic at all, or they can be neurotic or hypersensitive, that there is not a big correlation that certain people behave in ways we don't like and they can have very high self-esteem. …

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