National Post

Tuesday, October 15, 2002

Liking yourself is good - right?

Importance of self-esteem an idea whose time has past

Robert Fulford
National Post

Connoisseurs of human foolishness will always cherish that giddy moment in 1987 when the California legislature, convinced it had found the key to understanding human failure, set up the Task Force to Promote Self-Esteem and Personal and Social Responsibility. The assemblyman who promoted this idea, John Vasconcellos, believed that raising the self-image of the citizens would cure drug addiction, crime and many other social ills. This project, Vasconcellos argued, was as important as unlocking the secrets of the atom.

The task force's supporters considered it the takeoff point for the self-esteem movement, but it may instead have been the beginning of the end. This much-publicized example of California eccentricity made people reconsider a belief that had taken a firm grip on the popular imagination years before: That people who hold themselves in high regard will act well and those who don't will act badly.

That sounds like a reasonable notion, and millions still believe it, but it won't stand up under serious thought and it crumples under research. It now appears that those who peddle the promise of self-esteem, including the authors of some 3,000 self-help books, are the modern equivalents of 19th-century snake-oil salesmen. It also appears that high self-esteem can often be harmful rather than beneficial.

The term self-esteem goes back at least to the 17th century. Milton in Paradise Lost suggested that sometimes nothing profits us more than well-grounded self-esteem. In 1890 William James, in Principles of Psychology, outlined a relationship between self-esteem and accomplishment.

The idea as we know it began flowering about half a century ago. The ground was prepared by The Power of Positive Thinking (1952), in which Norman Vincent Peale claimed happiness and material success result from personal optimism and self-regard. Around the same time, clinical studies in psychology showed connections between high self-esteem and success in school, business, marriage and sex.

Low self-esteem, on the other hand, showed up frequently alongside teenage pregnancy, drug-taking, wife-beating and homicide. In the 1960s two books by psychiatrists, Morris Rosenberg's Society and the Adolescent Self-Image (1965) and Stanley Coopersmith's The Antecedents of Self-Esteem (1967), claimed that the right kind of parental attention produces high self-esteem, therefore success, in children.

Armies of psychotherapists leapt on that idea, and soon intellectual garbage began piling up around it in great quantities. In 1969, Nathaniel Branden, a psychologist from Toronto who was once the lover and acolyte of Ayn Rand, moved over to this burgeoning field with The Psychology of Self Esteem, declaring self-esteem "the single most significant key to behaviour." In 1996 Steven Ward wrote in the Canadian Journal of Sociology: "What started as a fragile statement made by William James had by the early 1970s expanded into an encompassing and heterogeneous academic network."

Unfortunately for all those who committed their careers to promulgating this idea, most of what they wrote turns out to be worthless. Low self-esteem often accompanies serious social deviance, but there's no evidence to show that the first causes the second. An often repeated belief of Oprah Winfrey, that poor self-esteem is "the root of all the problems in the world" remains entirely unproven. It's just something that got drummed into her head.

In 1990 California's task force turned in its report, Toward A State Of Esteem, predictably advising school teachers to make students feel better about themselves. More books appeared. Gloria Steinem, a bit late, contributed Revolution From Within: A Book of Self-Esteem in 1992. (It turned out that she too suffered from low self-esteem, despite her power, brains and looks. Who knew?)

The task force became a joke (Doonesbury made great fun of it) but the first serious criticism didn't appear until 1996. Three researchers, reporting in Psychology Review on a survey of studies in psychology and criminology, broke the bad news: aggressive people tend to think highly of themselves. Violent and hostile people -- neo-Nazis, wife-beaters, members of the Ku Klux Klan, etc. -- "consistently express favourable views of themselves."

Last year Nicholas Emler, a social psychologist at the London School of Economics, said a close study of the research shows no evidence that low self-esteem leads to delinquency, violence, drug use, alcohol abuse, educational under-attainment or racism. As for high self-esteem, that's a real problem. High scorers on self-esteem questionnaires are often racists and often engage in antisocial activities, such as drunk driving. In one study, conducted in Massachusetts and California, researchers gave standardized self-esteem tests to men serving time for murder, rape, assault or armed robbery. They discovered that the self-esteem of these criminals wasn't notably different from five other samples of men the same age: Vietnam veterans, problem drinkers, dentists, college students and recreational dart throwers.

An article by Jennifer Crocker of the University of Michigan, "The costs of seeking self-esteem," in the current issue of the Journal of Social Issues, describes the two most disastrous effects that flow from "the vicious and costly cycle of seeking self-esteem." First, people pursuing self-esteem tend to avoid acknowledging their errors. They attribute failure to external causes and can't learn from mistakes. Because they are committed to a high opinion of themselves, they react to criticism by protecting their self-esteem rather than improving their work. Second, the pursuit of self-esteem makes it hard to get along with others. In hundreds of studies, people whose self-esteem is threatened respond with avoidance, distancing, blame, excuses, anger, antagonism, and aggression -- each of them a way of undermining love or friendship. "The degree of self-focus required by the pursuit of self-esteem," Crocker argues, "is incompatible with awareness and responsiveness to others' needs." So the quest for self-esteem stands in the way of fulfilling two essential human needs, to be competent and to form relationships.

Nicholas Emler says that in England violent criminals and racists have been put through every test the profession has developed. The results are always the same. The men don't lack self-esteem. They like themselves. "These men," Emler has decided, are racist or violent "because they don't feel bad enough about themselves."

There is nothing more powerful than an idea whose time has come, says the old cliché, and we might add that there's nothing more pathetic, and nothing more embarrassing, than an idea whose time has come and gone.

robert.fulford@utoronto.ca

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