The Feel-Good Follies

After more than two decades of obsessing about a lack of
self-worth, now many Americans may be guilty of feeling too good
about themselves. At least that’s what some researchers into the
mystery of self-esteem have begun to conclude.

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.’

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