Closer Look The Six Myths of Self Esteem

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Most people naturally try to enhance and protect their self-esteem, believing that it is important to psychological health. In America in the past decade there has been a growing national concern with developing self-esteem, believing it is related to all manner of good things in life. For example, the State of California set up a task force on self-esteem, which ultimately produced a report entitled "The Social Importance of Self-Esteem." In it the task force argued that "many if not most of the major problems plaguing society have roots in the low self-esteem of many of the people who make up society." As a result, self-esteem courses found their way into the grade schools and high schools around the country, fostering a "feel-good" version of self-esteem, e.g., feel good about yourself.

Recently the Association of Psychological Science set up a task force charged with reviewing the scientific literature on self-esteem, particularly with respect to objective behaviors and outcomes. The report was published in 2003 (Baumeister, Campbell, Krueger, & Vohs, 2003). We have taken this report and distilled the findings into a series of myths about self-esteem that are not supported by scientific research.

Myth One: High self-esteem is correlated with all manner of positive characteristics, such as being physically attractive, smart, kind, generous, etc. It is true that, for example, when both self-esteem and physical attractiveness are assessed using self-report (e.g., rate how attractive you are, rate your self-esteem), then strong correlations are typically found. However, when objective measures of attractiveness are used, such as having raters rate photo graphs of people in terms of attractiveness, then the correlation between self-reported self-esteem and other-rated physical attractiveness drops to zero. Those with high self-esteem may be gorgeous in their own eyes, but they are not necessarily gorgeous in the eyes of others. These kinds of findings are also obtained with a variety of other positive characteristics. For example, high self-esteem people may rate themselves as smart or high in kindness or generosity as well, yet others do not necessarily see them as being this way. In a sense, persons high in self-esteem may have an inflated or unrealistic view of their positive characteristics, a view that is not necessarily supported by those who know the person well.

Myth Two: High self-esteem promotes success in school. The issue here is really one of causality and causal direction; does self-esteem cause people to achieve success or does achieving success lead to self-esteem? Many of the educational movements imply that if only we could raise children's self-esteem then we would help them on their way to achieving success in life. Consequently teachers are sometimes taught to praise students all the time, even if they are not successful. However, there is very little empirical science to support the idea that self-esteem leads to academic success. For example, Baumeister et al. (2003) review a study which tested more than 23,000 high school students, first in the tenth grade, then again in the twelfth grade. They found that self-esteem in the tenth grade only weakly predicted academic achievement in the twelfth grade. Academic achievement in the tenth grade correlated higher with self-esteem in the twelfth grade. Many studies show similar results, and none of them indicate that improving self-esteem offers students much benefit. In fact, some studies show that artificially boosting self-esteem (through unconditional praise, for example) may actually lower subsequent performance (Baumeister et al., 2003).

Myth Three: High self-esteem promotes success on the job. The same basic issues about causality apply here; does self-esteem promote success on the job, or vice versa? When people rate their own job performance, there is often a modest correlation with self-esteem, but when job performance is assessed objectively (e.g., supervisor ratings) the correlations drop to close to zero.

Myth Four: High self-esteem makes a person likeable. Again, if we use self-reports of popularity (e.g., how much do other people like you?) then these self-ratings of likability do correlate with self-esteem, i.e., high self-esteem persons regard themselves as being popular and believe they have many friends. However, these self-perceptions do not reflect reality. Baumeister et al. (2003) report on a study of high-school students who were asked to nominate their most-liked peers. The person in the class receiving the most votes was ranked as most popular, the person with the second most votes was ranked as second most popular, and so on. When self-esteem scores were correlated with the objective peer-ranking of popularity, that correlation was approximately zero. Similar findings have been found with college students. In another study reported by Baumeister et al. (2003) college students self-reported their own interpersonal skills in several domains, e.g., initiating relationships, self-disclosure, being assertive when necessary, providing emotional support to their friends, and managing interpersonal conflict. The researchers also had the subject's roommates report what the subject was like on each of the above interpersonal skill domains. While the subject's self-esteem scores correlated with all of the self-reported interpersonal skill domains, the correlations between self-esteem and the roommates' ratings were essentially zero for four out of five of the interpersonal skills. The only interpersonal skill area that the roommates noticed that was associated with self-esteem was the subject's ability to initiate new social contacts and friendships. This does seem to be the one area in which the confidence associated with self-esteem really matters. People who think that they are desirable and attractive should be good at striking up conversations with strangers. Persons with low self-esteem may shy away from trying to make new friends, perhaps fearing rejection. In most other areas of interpersonal skills, however, self-esteem is not associated with having an advantage over other people.

Myth Five: Low self-esteem puts a person at risk for drug and alcohol abuse and premature sexual activity. The scientific studies reviewed by Baumeister et al. (2003) do not support the idea that low self-esteem predisposes young people to more or earlier sexual activity. If anything, persons with high self-esteem are less inhibited, more willing to disregard risks, and more prone to engage in sex. There is, however, evidence that unpleasant sexual experiences and unwanted pregnancies appear to lower self-esteem. As for alcohol and illicit drugs, preventing these behaviors has been a major rationale for those calling for programs to promote self-esteem. The data, however, do not conclusively show that low self-esteem causes, or even correlates with, the abuse of illicit drugs or alcohol. For example, in a longitudinal study, no correlation was found between self-esteem at age 13 and drinking or drug abuse at age 15. A few other studies have found small correlations between low self-esteem and drinking, but other studies have found the opposite. All in all, the results are not conclusive to make any statements about self-esteem protecting people from the dangers of drug and alcohol use or unwise sexual behavior.

Myth Six: Only low self-esteem people are aggressive. For decades many psychologists thought that low self-esteem was an important factor underlying aggressive behavior. Under their tough exteriors, aggressive people were thought to suffer from insecurities and self-doubt. However, recent research has shown that aggressive persons often have quite favorable views of themselves. In fact, extremely high self-esteem can blend into narcissism, which has been associated with bouts of anger and aggression when the narcissist does not get his or her way. If self-esteem is threatened or disputed by someone or some event, especially among high self-esteem persons, then they may react with hostility or violence. People with a highly inflated view of their own superiority, those with narcissistic tendencies, may be the most prone to violent reactions. After a challenge to self-esteem (e.g., getting beaten at a game), a person might protect their self-concept by directing their anger outward, attacking the victor. Baumeister et al. (2003) review the literature on bullying and conclude that bullies are often very self-confident and less socially anxious than average. The general pattern in these studies and those on adults is that even high self-esteem, especially when it blends into narcissism, can be associated with interpersonal aggression. In several empirical studies, Baumeister and Bushman and colleagues have demonstrated that, when their self-esteem is threatened, persons who are narcissistic are more likely to retaliate or aggress against the source of the threat (e.g., Baumeister, Bushman, & Campbell, 2000; Bushman & Baumeister, 1998). In a study of men in prison, Bushman and Baumeister (2002) found that those prisoners who had a history of violent offenses were significantly higher on narcissism than those prisoners with no history of violence. All of these findings run counter to the notion that low self-esteem causes aggression, and instead point to the counterintuitive notion that threatened egotism is a likely cause of aggression and violence.

After crushing these myths about self-esteem, we can ask the question: So, what good is self-esteem? As described elsewhere in this chapter, self-esteem improves persistence in the face of failure. Persons high in self-esteem perform better in groups than those with low self-esteem. Also, having a poor self-image is a risk factor for developing certain eating disorders, especially bulimia. Low self-esteem is also related to depression, and high self-esteem is related to happiness. High self-esteem also is related to social confidence and taking the initiative in making new friends. It is most likely the case that successes in academics, in the interpersonal domain or in one's career, lead to both happiness and to self-esteem. Consequently, efforts to artificially boost children's self-esteem (through unconditional praise, for example) might fail. Rather we should encourage and praise children when they put effort into learning or achieving the skills necessary to succeed in the various areas of life.

often found to interact in predicting important life outcomes (Kernis, Grannemann, & Barclay, 1992).

A second point is that self-esteem variability is related to the extent to which one's self-evaluation is changeable. That is, some people's self-esteem is pushed and pulled by the events of life much more than other people' s self-esteem. Psychologist Michael Kernis, who has written extensively about this characteristic, believes that self-esteem variability is high in some people because they

• Have an enhanced sensitivity to social evaluation events.

• Have an increased concern about their self-view .

• Overrely on social sources of evaluation.

• React to evaluation with anger and hostility .

Several studies have been conducted to examine whether self-esteem variability moderates the relation between self-esteem level and other variables, such as depression (Gable & Nezlak, 1998). In one study (Kernis et al., 1991), self-esteem level was related to depression, but this relation was much stronger for persons higher in self-esteem variability. Based on such findings researchers have come to view variabilit as a susceptability to depression (Roberts & Monroe, 1992). That is, depression is thought to be a result of a person' s vulnerability to the self-deprecating events of everyday life (Butler, Hokanson, & Flynn, 1994).

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