The Myth of Self-Esteem

January 9, 2013


Ever since the 1969 publication of The Psychology of Self-Esteem , wherein Nathaniel Branden posited that self-esteem was the single most important facet of personal well being, the self-esteem movement has been one of far-reaching influence. In the 70s and 80s anything seen as detrimental to self-esteem was done away with. Gold stars proliferated while red pens gathered dust. First place trophies gave way to awards for participation. In this new milieu, everyone was a winner; everyone was special.

As this well-intentioned movement garnered support, scholarly research followed. In the thirty-year run-up to the 21st century, over fifteen thousand articles were written on the impact of self-esteem on, well, pretty much everything imaginable. However, the results of these myriad studies were often confusing or inconclusive. In an attempt to make sense of the general trajectory of the literature on self-esteem, the Association for Psychological Science asked Dr. Roy Baumeister, an admitted proponent of the theory, to meta-analyze the extant data on the subject. What followed was what Dr. Baumeister would go on to refer to as “the biggest disappointment of my career.”

Of the fifteen thousand studies taken into consideration, a paltry 0.013 percent of them (n = 200) met the more rigorous standards for inclusion into the meta-analysis. It became apparent that many of the theories about self-esteem that had impacted policy were simply junk science. What’s more, the studies that did pass muster didn’t have much good to say about the construct’s predictive power. Self-esteem did not predict academic or career achievement, nor did it predict drug usage or violent aggression. The biggest finding to emerge from the self-esteem movement was that praise did not predict self-esteem—accomplishment did. Telling a person that she or he is special is insufficient if that person has not worked to earn such praise. We have an accurate internal sense of when we have earned praise and when we have not. Feeling as though we are being patted on the back undeservingly does not move the self-esteem needle one inch.

To use a Forrest-Gumpism (I AM from Alabama, after all), “Special is as special does.” There aren’t enough gold stars in the world to prop up a sense of self built on a foundation of empty praise. If you want to feel great this year, be great this year.

Parts of this post are taken from Dr. Daniel Crosby’s book, “You’re Not That Great”, which sets forth seven counterintuitive truths for living a meaningful life.



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