How Effective is Self-Esteem?

The previous post describes the American adoption of unconditionally based self-esteem as a significant component of our culture. That unconditional self-acceptance is beneficial and that its lack causes an array of personal and societal problems comprises a major tenet of the contemporary American statement of faith.

The acceptance of this theory as an article of faith is displayed by the researchers heading up the California Task Force on the Importance of Self-Esteem conducted in 1986. The introduction of the report includes this statement:

“Low self-esteem is the causally prior factor in individuals seeking out kinds of behavior that become social problems . . . . Or, as we say in the trade, diminished self-esteem stands as a powerful independent variable (condition, cause, factor) in the genesis of major social problems. We all know this to be true, and it is really not necessary to create a special California task force on the subject to convince us. The real problem we must address – and which the contributors of this volume address – is how we can determine that it is scientifically true.” [Robyn M. Dawes: House of Cards, pp. 9-10.]

Here we find a truly remarkable assertion, especially coming from scientific researchers. They claim to know that low self-esteem represents the cause of negative behaviors and social problems and that the solution resides in elevation of self-esteem. Yet they admit that they lack scientific evidence supporting this position, and that therefore the purpose of the task force is to supply that scientific support. This assertion leads us to ask how they know this theory is true in the absence of scientific evidence.

The answer is that this confidence is based on faith. We have noted in several previous posts that culture determines truth. These researchers even prior to the study accepted by faith the benefits of self-esteem because contemporary American culture affirms its validity.

This leads us to ask whether the outcome of this study supports the initial assumption of these researchers. Research psychologist Robyn M. Dawes in his book House of Cards reports that the task force failed to establish a correlation between self-esteem and positive behaviors. He expends substantial effort in his book reviewing the task force report, coming to the conclusion that despite their comprehensive research examining many thousands of studies on the topic, they failed to unearth evidence supporting their thesis regarding the benefits of self-esteem or the pathologies created by its absence.

John Leo, in a U.S. News & World Report article, states the case even more categorically: “The core assumption in the self-esteem movement is that children cannot learn or develop properly unless they form a positive self-image. But no study has ever demonstrated a connection between feeling good about oneself and improved performance.” [John Leo, “Damn, I’m Good!” U.S. News & World Report, 18 May, 1998, p. 21.]

It is fascinating to observe the tenacity of the belief in self-esteem in the face of research to the contrary. John Leo makes the following observation regarding this tendency: “The self-esteem movement is one of the marvels of our time. It goes on and on, even though its assumptions are wrong and its basic premises have been discredited by a great deal of research. Like a monster in the last 10 minutes of a horror movie, it has enough fatal wounds to stop a platoon. But it keeps stumbling on, seeming not to notice.”

Regarding self-esteem, Iowa State University psychologist Brad Bushman likewise concludes, “No one wants to admit it doesn’t do any good.” [Sharon Begley, “You’re OK, I’m Terrific: ‘Self-Esteem’ Backfires,” Newsweek, 13 July 1998, p. 69.]

America embraces the benefits of self-esteem by faith and in the absence of factual support. The apparent reason for its survival is that the theory is too comfortable and too compatible with the American sixties culture to give up.

To make matters worse for this theory, an extensive study published in the January 1996 edition of Psychological Review, journal of the American Psychological Association, suggests that self-esteem may be making a negative impact on individuals and on society. This will be our topic for tomorrow.

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