You're OK, I'm Terrific. 'Self-Esteem' Backfires

Article excerpt

Unjustified feelings of self-worth cause aggression

SAY THIS FOR THE SELF-ESTEEM movement: despite taking hits from critics as varied as "Doonesbury" and the president of the American Psychological Association, it is still going strong 21 years after a psychologist first argued that instilling self-esteem should be a paramount goal of child rearing and education. If students work in classrooms where posters proclaim WE APPLAUD OURSELVES! and complete sentences like "I am special because ... "they will be inoculated against drug use, teen pregnancy, bad grades and just about everything else short of the common cold. Or so the story goes. Parents, like educators, have soaked up the message, trying to make their child feel good about himself no matter how many courses he fails or fly balls he drops.

At worst, all this has seemed silly (as when California established a task force on self-esteem). But now there is evidence that it might be dangerous. A new study examined inflated self-esteem, the kind that can come not from actual achievement but from teachers and parents drumming into kids how great they are. The researchers find that this sort of unjustified self-esteem can trigger hostility and aggression, and may even underlie violence like the recent school shootings. "If kids develop unrealistic opinions of themselves and those views are rejected by others," warns psychologist Brad Bushman of Iowa State University, the kids are "potentially dangerous."

It is too simplistic to blame any one cause for the horrific shootings from West Paducah, Ky., to Springfield, Ore. Some of the accused killers were abused, all grew up in a violent culture, some had psychiatric problems. But at least one, Luke Woodham, fits the profile Bushman worries about. Woodham was recently convicted of murdering his mother and two students in Pearl, Miss., last October. In a court-ordered evaluation, all three psychologists agreed that Woodham had "narcissistic" traits. Although psychologists have long believed that low self-esteem causes aggression and other pathologies, it's not that simple. High self-esteem that is unjustified and unstable-Bushman's definition of narcissism-also puts a kid at risk of turning violent, he says. In this view, narcissists are supersensitive to criticism or slights, because deep down they suspect that their feeling of superiority is built on quicksand. Even though they say "the world would he a better place if I ruled it," if that grandiosity is challen ged they may lash out.

The new study is the first-ever experimental test of this idea. Bushman and Roy Baumeister of Case Western Reserve University, writing in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, used questionnaires to assess who, among 540 undergraduate volunteers, had well-founded self-esteem and who was narcissistic. …