NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Challenging The Benefits Of Self-Esteem

October 1, 2002

Over the years, psychologists and social scientists have promoted the theory that low self-esteem is to blame for a host of social ills -- and that raising self-esteem will result in a host of benefits to society, from firmer marriages to improved student performance.

But some psychology specialists are now challenging that theory.

  • Research by Brad J. Bushman of Iowa State University and Roy F. Baumeister of Case Western Reserve University finds that some people with high self-regard are actually more likely to lash out aggressively when criticized than those with low self-esteem.
  • In a review of studies, Nicholas Emler of the London School of Economics found no clear link between low self-esteem and delinquency, violence against others, drug use or racism -- although a poor self-image was one of the factors contributing to self-destructive behavior.
  • Though academic success or failure had some effect on self-esteem, students with high self-esteem were likely to explain away their failures with excuses -- while those with low self-esteem discounted their successes as flukes.
  • However, people with high self-esteem are happier and show more initiative than those with low self-regard.

Psychotherapists who have employed self-esteem building as part of their treatment process challenge this new theory. J.D. Hawkins, president of the National Association for Self-Esteem, holds that a positive self-image is important and that self-esteem building exercises are effective. "For 37 years I've worked with kids and I've proved that those kinds of things work," he says. Then he adds that any conception of self-esteem has to include taking responsibility for one's actions and contributing to society.

Source: Erica Goode, "Deflating Self-Esteem's Role in Society's Ills," New York Times, October 1, 2002.


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