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#18 Sharon Begley's Wall Street Journal Article on Self-Esteem

The Wall Street Journal

      April 18, 2003

      Science Journal
      by Sharon Begley

      Real Self-Esteem Builds On Real Achievement

      At the annual meeting of psychology researchers in Boston three years
ago, two scientists weighed in on a question that seemed to be as much in
need of investigation as whether the sun rises in the east.

      The pair had asked a professor to send weekly e-mail messages to
students of his who had done poorly on their first exam for the class. Each
missive included a review question. In addition, one-third of the students,
chosen at random, also received a message -- advice to study, for example --
suggesting that how well they did in the course was under their own control.
The other third received the review question plus a "You're too smart to get
a D!" pep talk aimed at raising their self-esteem, which everyone knows
boosts academic performance.


      Compared with the other e-mail recipients, the D and F students who
got the self-esteem injection performed notably worse on later tests.

      It has been 20 years since self-esteem became a household word and an
educational mantra. The watershed moment came in 1986, when California
funded a task force to increase the self-esteem of state residents, based on
arguments that the $245,000 annual cost would more than pay for itself in
reduced welfare dependency, unwanted pregnancy, school failure, crime and
drug addiction.

      With that, the self-esteem movement was off and running, preaching
that one's beliefs about oneself have important consequences no matter what
the underlying reality. Healthy self-esteem was to be the wellspring from
which wonderful outcomes flowed.

      Now, the most exhaustive study ever finds that programs to raise
self-esteem fall woefully, even comically, short.

      In the case of the struggling students, the likely reason the
self-esteem intervention backfired speaks volumes. Students work hard partly
because it helps them do better academically; 95s feel better than 65s. But
"an intervention that encourages them to feel good about themselves
regardless of work may remove the reason to work hard -- resulting in poorer
performance," suggest psychologist Roy Baumeister and colleagues in a
monograph to be published next month in Psychological Science in the Public
Interest. (The four were tapped by the American Psychological Society to
undertake the study.) If you get to feel good without learning Maxwell's
equations or the causes of the Korean War, why bother?

      It isn't just school performance. From the 200-plus studies they
analyzed, the APS group found no evidence that boosting self-esteem (by
therapeutic interventions or school programs) results in better job
performance, lowered aggression or reduced delinquency. And "high
self-esteem does not prevent children from smoking, drinking, taking drugs,
or engaging in early sex," it concluded.

      Of course, self-esteem and school or job performance are correlated.
But long overdue scientific scrutiny points out the foolishness of supposing
that people's opinion of themselves can be the cause of achievement. Rather,
high-esteem is the result of good performance.

      Boosting self-esteem without helping people learn more or perform
better does not bring higher achievement at school or work (and can
backfire, as our D and F students show). And speaking of backfiring, high
self-esteem fosters experimentation, which may increase teenage indulgence
in sex, alcohol or drugs.

      One solid link does seem to exist between higher self-esteem and
performance. The higher your opinion of yourself, the more likely you are to
persist in the face of failure. It is left as an exercise for the reader to
decide whether this is a desirable character trait. Sometimes, isn't it
better to just cut and run?

      Self-esteem proponents have also fallen into the trap of taking people
at their word. People high in self-esteem report that they're more likable
and have better relationships than do those with low self-esteem. But "this
is true mainly in their own minds," says Prof. Baumeister, a psychology
professor at Florida State University, Tallahassee. Objective measures
typically find the opposite, undercutting the claim that high self-esteem
brings superior social skills.

      Even the National Association for Self-Esteem is backpedaling.
President J.D. Hawkins, who criticizes scientists for confusing "healthy
self-esteem" with narcissism, argues that "self-esteem is more than just
feeling good about yourself. It's about being socially and individually

      Still, it's a popular product. "People contact us daily saying they
need help with their self-esteem," says Mr. Hawkins, who notes the
widespread use of the "Esteem Builders" program in K-12 education.

      Amid the ashes of self-esteem, the APS team finds one benefit: High
self-esteem makes you happier. But that jolly outcome ensues whether your
self-esteem is justified or delusional.

      As we persist in praising children even for mediocre work and trivial
accomplishments, I can't resist ending with a plea from the APS scientists:
"Psychologists should reduce their own self-esteem a bit and humbly resolve
that next time they will wait for a more thorough and solid empirical basis
before making policy recommendations to the American public."

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