The Lowdown on High Self-Esteem
Thinking you're hot stuff isn't the promised cure-all.
By Roy F. Baumeister, Roy F. Baumeister, a professor in the department of
psychology at Florida State University, is the author of "The Cultural
Animal," just published by Oxford University Press.
Does low self-esteem lie at the root of all human suffering, failure and
evil? When I ran my first research study on self-esteem in 1973, that
certainly seemed to be the case. Psychologists everywhere were persuaded
that if only we could help people to accept and love themselves more,
their problems would gradually vanish and their lives would flourish. They
would even treat each other better.
Not surprisingly, California led the way, establishing a task force for
exploring ways to boost healthy self-esteem to solve personal and social
problems. The task force members — like many of us — were undeterred by
the weakness and ambiguity of the evidence suggesting a benefit in
boosting self-esteem; we all believed the data would come along in good
Then-Assemblyman John Vasconcellos (and many other experts) predicted that
self- esteem could solve, or at least help solve, such problems as crime,
teen pregnancy, pollution, school failure and underachievement, drug abuse
and domestic violence. (Vasconcellos even expressed the hope that higher
self-esteem would one day help balance the state budget — a prospect
predicated on the observation that people with high self-regard earn more
than others and therefore pay more in taxes.)
A generation — and many millions of dollars — later, it turns out we may
have been mistaken. Five years ago, the American Psychological Society
commissioned me and several other experts to wade with an open mind
through the enormous amount of published research on the subject and to
assess the benefits of high self-esteem.
Here are some of our disappointing findings. High self- esteem in
schoolchildren does not produce better grades. (Actually, kids with high
self-esteem do have slightly better grades in most studies, but that's
because getting good grades leads to higher self-esteem, not the other way
around.) 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.
Likewise, people with high self-esteem think they make better impressions,
have stronger friendships and have better romantic lives than other
people, but the data don't support their self-flattering views. If
anything, people who love themselves too much sometimes annoy other people
by their defensive or know-it-all attitudes. Self-esteem doesn't predict
who will make a good leader, and some work (including that of psychologist
Robert Hogan writing in the Harvard Business Review) has found humility
rather than self-esteem to be a key trait of successful leaders.
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.)
There were a few areas where higher self-esteem seemed to bring some
benefits. For instance, people with high self- esteem are generally
happier and less depressed than others, though we can't quite prove that
high self-esteem prevents depression or causes happiness. Young women with
high self- esteem seem less susceptible to eating disorders. In some
studies (though not all), people with high self-esteem bounce back from
misfortune and trauma faster than others.
High self-esteem also promotes initiative. People who have it are more
likely to speak up in a group, persist in the face of failure, resist
other people's advice or pressure and strike up conversations with
strangers. Of course, initiative can cut both ways: One study on bullying
found that self-esteem was high among the bullies and among the people who
intervened to resist them. Low self-esteem marked the victims of bullying.
In short, despite the enthusiastic embrace of self-esteem, we found that
it conferred only two benefits. It feels good and it supports initiative.
Those are nice, but they are far less than we had once hoped for, and it
is very questionable whether they justify the effort and expense that
schools, parents and therapists have put into raising self-esteem.
After all these years, I'm sorry to say, my recommendation is this: Forget
about self-esteem and concentrate more on self-control and
Recent work suggests this would be good for the individual and good for
society — and might even be able to fill some of those promises that
self-esteem once made but could not keep.
Copyright 2005 Los Angeles Times