In a new study entitled 'The Dark Side of Self-Esteem,' Roy F. Baumeister and Joseph M. Boden of Case Western Reserve University and Laura Smart of the University of Virginia reported that young gang members tend to have inordinately high opinions of themselves--so much so that they feel entitled to steal from and beat up others.
The debate over the value of self-esteem is muddied by a lack of agreement on what exactly the term means. Psychologist Daniel Seligman, in his book The Optimistic Child (Houghton Mifflin, 1995), credits philosopher William James with defining the concept over a century ago as awareness that our successes equal or exceed our pretensions. In other words, true self-esteem is feeling good about what we do--not feeling good in spite of what we do, or even if we do nothing at all. That's mere egotism or narcissism.
And that, critics argue, is exactly what the self-esteem movement has fostered. By getting the relationship between behavior and feelings backwards, it has engendered positive feelings that have no basis in reality.
A case in point is a study conducted by University of California-Riverside psychologist David Funder and his colleagues, who had students rate themselves on various character traits and then compared their self-assessment with the perceptions of others. As Ann Japenga reports in Health (July/Aug. 1996), the results were not surprising: 'The students who rated themselves essentially the same as others did were respected and popular. But those who placed themselves above the observers' rankings were judged hostile, deceitful, and condescending.'
Self-deluding self-esteem can also get in the way of learning, argues Charles J. Sykes in his book Dumbing Down Our Kids: Why American Children Feel Good About Themselves but Can't Read, Write, or Add (St. Martin's, 1995). He cites research showing an inverse relationship between academic achievement and self-perception, noting that 'American students who rank last in international comparisons of math abilities, for instance, rank first when they're asked how they feel about their math abilities.'
But another critic, University of Michigan psychology professor Joseph Adelson, claims that the connection between self-esteem and learning may be more complicated than Sykes implies. Writing in Commentary (Feb. 1996), Adelson notes, 'We have, for one thing, undoubtedly exaggerated the role played by schools in establishing children's feelings of self-worth. As a general rule, children are not quite so vulnerable as the new literature would lead us to think, and when they are vulnerable, it is usually because of conditions and circumstances that predate the school setting.'
The situation may, in fact, be even more complex than Adelson suspects. Self-esteem may be an entirely different issue for females than it is for males--and may also be affected by class and race. Though Adelson argues that research claiming female self-esteem plummets during adolescence contrasts with the fact that girls perform better in school than boys do, he ignores other problems, such as eating disorders and sexual exploitation, that affect adolescent girls disproportionately. Could these things be as valid as test scores in measuring the effects of low self-esteem?
Despite the arguments advanced by the Baumeister study, the problems that plague so many young black men today cannot be linked with self-esteem issues at all, says Matthew Ramaden, a consultant to the Minnesota Department of Corrections. Attitudes among black men in prison, he argues, are strongly affected by their belief that they won't live to be 25, so it doesn't matter what they do. 'It's not self-esteem; it's hopelessness,' Ramaden says. 'I agree that people are out there with the attitude that I can do anything I want because the world owes me something. But that's not high self-esteem, that's lack of self-esteem.'
Wherever the truth may lie, our obsession with the topic may itself be a symptom of a greater malaise. As Theodore Dalrymple astutely points out in Psychology Today (Sept./Oct. 1995), we wouldn't even be debating this if as a society we weren't so prone to narcissism. 'It requires a certain degree of self-importance,' he writes, 'even to complain of a lack of self-esteem.'