To Esteem Thyself, Or Not

magical-weave-mirrorIf anyone was asked to list the top 10 topics that ignite arguments, I doubt very much that ‘self esteem’ would make the cut. And yet, this seemingly bland, bordering-on-clichéd topic is in fact the source of many battles.  Too little, or too much is the question: how much self esteem is the right amount?

Now a study from the University of Geneva (courtesy of BPS Research) suggests that self esteem at low doses is linked to higher suicide rates around the world.  Researchers evaluated suicide rates and self esteem levels, using data from the International Sexuality Description Project, across 55 nations and arrived at this conclusion:

Results indicate that suicide is especially common in nations with relatively low levels of self-esteem. This relation is consistent across sex lines, age of suicide and independent from several other relevant factors such as economic affluence, transition, individualism, subjective well-being, and neuroticism.

If these results stike you as uncontroversial, consider the work of psychologist Roy Baumeister, a decades-long public critic of the self esteem movement — and, one might confidently say, self esteem in general.  Baumeister’s research tells a different story about high self-esteem, linking it not to successful performance in life, but to tendencies toward bullying, murder, racism and gang involvement.  Here’s a snippet from an article he did in the Los Angeles Times a few years ago:

It was widely believed that low self-esteem could be a cause of violence, but in reality violent individuals, groups and nations think very well of themselves. They turn violent toward others who fail to give them the inflated respect they think they deserve. Nor does high self-esteem deter people from becoming bullies, according to most of the studies that have been done; it is simply untrue that beneath the surface of every obnoxious bully is an unhappy, self-hating child in need of sympathy and praise. High self-esteem doesn’t prevent youngsters from cheating or stealing or experimenting with drugs and sex. (If anything, kids with high self-esteem may be more willing to try these things at a young age.)

He also points to research indicating that self-esteem in high doses leads to a host of more common shortcomings:

High self- esteem in schoolchildren does not produce better grades. In fact, according to a study by Donald Forsyth at Virginia Commonwealth University, college students with mediocre grades who got regular self-esteem strokes from their professors ended up doing worse on final exams than students who were told to suck it up and try harder.

Self-esteem doesn’t make adults perform better at their jobs either. Sure, people with high self-esteem rate their own performance better – even declaring themselves smarter and more attractive than their low self-esteem peers – but neither objective tests nor impartial raters can detect any difference in the quality of work.

And Baumesiter isn’t alone, either on the secular or sectarian front. Nicholas Emler, noted social psychologist at the London School of Economics, shares this view and adds many additional caveats. And religious leaders the world over have routinely condemned the self esteem movement (in its official and generic forms) as endorsing a view of humanity too ‘esteemed’ for its own good.  “Esteem thyself not” is the anthem of many preaching this position in the West.

Of course, if you Google ‘self esteem’, what you’ll predominantly get is glowing, unabashed praise for self esteem as a movement, and simply as an essential staple of the good life.

If the University of Geneva research is correct, the pro-self esteem position seems to have the final trump card on this controversy.  Maybe.  It depends on what is meant by ‘self esteem.’ Does this term translate well across language and cultural lines?  Does someone in Beijing believe that self esteem is the same thing that someone in Birmingham believes it to be? 

With those questions in mind, I’m launching my first poll on this site.  We have an international audience right here, so who better to answer the question than you?




Filed under About Belief, About Research, Books and Ideas

2 responses to “To Esteem Thyself, Or Not

  1. David, I loved this post! I just wrote along the same lines within the past week or so. I’ve decided to drop using self-esteem as much and to stick with self-mastery for the very reasons that you cite. My belief is that true empowerment comes from our core, the True Self. It is the ego, the construct of mental attachment to the sense of self, that is to be understood and mastered in order to operate from a sense of True Self-consciousness. The term self-esteem has been butchered by the “self-conflicted” concept that somehow, thinking of yourself as valuable is harmful. The points you made and the examples you gave are excellent!

    Valencia Ray MD
    The Confidence Doc

  2. dkincheloe

    One of the difficulties in assessing “self-esteem” is separating all of the various perceptions we have of ourselves into an item we deem to be “self-esteem.” That is, we have no well-accepted, testable definition of “self-esteem” as yet. In addition, as you’ve suggested with your mention of possible cultural differences, perception of “self-esteem” is relative. Consequently, someone with a diagnosis of bipolar disorder may have horrible ‘self-esteem’ on some days, moderate ‘self-esteem’ on others, and over-inflated ‘self-esteem’ on yet other days. Since all humans have affect that cycles to some degree, and all have individual (poorly remembered) histories across which we compare, our self-assessments of ‘self-esteem’ are not very reliable. Consequently, correlations with other variables are even less reliable and difficult to validate, even across large samples.

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