Rethinking Self-Esteem

Article excerpt

Why nonprofits should stop pushing self-esteem and start endorsing self-control

FOR THREE DECADES, I and many other psychologists viewed self-esteem as our profession's Holy Grail: a psychological trait that would soothe most of individuals' and society's woes. We thought that high self-esteem would impart not only success, health, happiness, and prosperity to the people who possessed it, but also stronger marriages, higher employment, and greater educational attainment in the communities that supported it.

Psychologists have not been alone in their faith in selfesteem. Organizations ranging from the Girl Scouts to the Benevolent & Protective Order of Elks, from the Southern Baptist Convention to the Jewish Community Center Association sponsor programs to increase self-esteem. Public initiatives like the California Task Force to Promote Self-Esteem and Personal and Social Responsibility deployed widespread interventions to improve citizens' self-regard.

From Little League coaches to legislators, many Americans are convinced that success - whether defined as raising good children, sustaining healthy relationships, training successful athletes, curing the ill, reforming criminals, improving economies, clearing pollution, or ending inequality - hinges on self-esteem.

Recently, though, several close analyses of the accumulated research have shaken many psychologists' faith in self-esteem.1 My colleagues and I were commissioned to conduct one of these studies by the American Psychological Society an organization devoted to psychological research.2 These studies show not only that self-esteem fails to accomplish what we had hoped, but also that it can backfire and contribute to some of the very problems it was thought to thwart. Social sector organizations should therefore reconsider whether they want to dedicate their scarce resources to cultivating self-esteem. In my view, there are other traits, like self-control, that hold much more promise.

I'm OK, You're OK

What is self-esteem? By definition, it is how people evaluate themselves. Its synonyms include self-worth, self-regard, self-confidence, and pride. Note that this definition doesn't imply anything about reality People with high self-esteem may indeed have accurate perceptions of their many fine qualities. But they may also just be arrogant. Likewise, people with low self-esteem may indeed have neurotic delusions of worthlessness. But they may also just be modest.

At the beginning of the self-esteem movement in the 1970s (and even now), many Americans believed that we suffered from an epidemic of low self-esteem. Were this idea not taken so seriously, it would probably be laughable - try telling people in other countries that one of America's main problems is low self-esteem.

There are now ample data on our population showing that, if anything, Americans tend to overrate and overvalue ourselves.3 In plain terms, the average American thinks he's above average.

Even the categories of people about whom our society is most concerned do not show any broad deficiency in selfesteem. African Americans, for example, routinely score higher on self-esteem measures than do European-Americans.4

And although women have slightly lower self-esteem than men, the difference seems to be mostly due to women's dissatisfaction with their bodies: Men think their bodies are OK, but women think they are fat or otherwise unattractive. Women do not think they are less socially skilled than men, however, or less intelligent, less moral, or less able to succeed. Overall, the differences between men's and women's self-esteem are so small that many do not consider them to be meaningful.5

Tales Out of School

The idea that boosting kids' self-esteem will make them do better in school is widely popular. Many schools have programs aimed at developing students' self-esteem. Students are encouraged to make collages and lists that celebrate their wonderfulness. …