"Know thyself," Socrates urged his disciples more than two millennia ago. Today, a person looking for the key to success in life is more likely to be told, "Esteem thyself." Self-esteem has become the beginning and the end of wisdom for those who take their cue from pop psychology and the self-help brigade.

Academics of the humanistic psychology school started the craze for self-affirmation, which assumed critical mass in the 1960s. Not only individual mental health but social progress depended on a positive self-image, they said. "Thus," wrote a popular psychologist in 1974, "whenever the keys to self-esteem are seemingly out of reach for a large percentage of the people, as in 20th-century America, then widespread ‘mental illness,’ neuroticism, hatred, alcoholism, drug abuse, violence, and social disorder will certainly occur."

This view was still current when the state of California set up a taskforce on self-esteem and personal and social responsibility in the late 1980s. State Assemblyman John Vasconellos argued that raising self-esteem in young people would reduce crime, teen pregnancy, drug abuse, school underachievement and pollution. It might even balance the state budget, since people with high self-regard earn more and thus pay more taxes.

The California task force disbanded in 1995, but the National Association for Self-Esteem carries on its mission of "improving the human condition through the advancement of self-esteem". Meanwhile a related self-enhancement industry has burgeoned and, according to the author of a new book, Self-Help Incorporated, has become an American obsession. To judge by the popularity of television "makeover" programs, the fad extends well beyond the United States.

Narcissism and crime
Where has this trend got us? The results of four decades of working on ourselves are disappointing, to say the least. Crime, drug abuse and school underachievement remain high. Fewer teenagers are giving birth, but sexual experimentation amongst adolescents also remains high.

Then there are the new criminals on the block, the chief executives of corporations like WorldCom, Enron and Tyco International, who, far from lacking self-esteem have so much of it that they cannot believe they have done anything wrong, even when convicted of fraud and theft on a grand scale—crimes that impact on the rights and welfare of large numbers of people.

Tyco CEO Dennis Koslowski, sentenced this week along with his colleague Mark Swartz to 25 years in prison for stealing more than US$150 million from their company, maintains that he is not guilty and through his lawyer has insisted that he is "a good man… a decent person" who has given money to charitable causes. The prosecutor in his trial said "he absolutely refuses to take any responsibility".

Washington DC psychologist Patricia Dalton is both horrified and fascinated by the white-collar delinquents. To her they demonstrate the tragedy of very talented people who are impervious to self-knowledge.

"To me they sound like narcissistic personalities," she told MercatorNet. "These are people who are unbelievably successful in what they undertake, because they can interact with people, they can dominate a situation, they’re smart, they can figure out how to get something done, but they can never admit that they are wrong. It’s such a severe problem because you can’t get through to them. You can’t bring them to their knees. Their pride is so strong, their sense of themselves is so enormous. It’s tragic, it’s such a handicap."

If there seems to be a lot of people like this at the top of the business world, Dalton adds, it’s because of the rarified atmosphere there, "where people say yes to you all the time and treat you as a big, big deal, so that it’s hard not to take some of that on. Human beings are really susceptible to flattery."

This ought to be a warning that systematic ego-boosting is not helpful to everybody. But is it helpful to anybody, let alone to society at large?

Threatened egotism

In the early 1990s a team led by Roy F. Baumeister, a psychologist at Florida State University, set out to review the research on the relationship between self-esteem and violence. Close to 200 studies had established such a link but these were heavier on assertion than on evidence, Baumeister’s team reported in 1996.

Rather than a convincing link between violence and low self-esteem, they found the opposite: aggression, crime and violence were more likely to be caused by "threatened egotism" in people who made "unrealistically positive self-appraisals". The therapy for such people should consist, not of building self-esteem, as they already felt superior to other people, but of "cultivating self-control" and "instilling modesty and humility".

More recently Baumeister and others undertook a wider review of self-esteem research under the aegis of the American Psychological Society. Recognising the problem of self-reports, on which such research is based, they set up their review to emphasize objective measures wherever possible. This reduced the number of relevant studies from more than 15,000 to about 200, they report. But even these provided little evidence of self-esteem as an indicator for positive outcomes.

In the school context, a representative study by Sheila M Pottebaum and others at the University of Iowa in 1986 showed that, among 23,000 students, self-esteem in 10th grade is only weakly predictive of academic achievement in 12th grade, and academic achievement in 10th grade correlates with self-esteem in 12th grade only trivially better. "Some findings even suggest that artificially boosting self-esteem may lower subsequent performance," reports Baumeister.

Nor was their strong evidence that high self-regard leads to better job performance, or to getting along better with others. When ninth-graders were asked to nominate their most-liked and least-liked peers, the resulting rankings displayed no correlation whatsoever with self-esteem scores. College students who rated themselves highly on interpersonal skills failed miserably in the eyes of their roommates, except in their ability to initiate new relationships.

What about teenagers and sex? Sex educators are still convinced that boosting a girl’s self-esteem empowers her to take "control" of any risky situation she may choose to place herself in. Baumeister’s review found that, if anything, "those with high self-esteem are less inhibited, more willing to disregards risks and more prone to engage in sex". But also, and importantly, "bad sexual experiences and unwanted pregnancies appear to lower self-esteem".

Alcohol and drug abuse? Not much support here, either, for focusing on self-image. A large-scale New Zealand study in 2000 found no correlation between self-esteem measured between the ages of 9 and 13, and drinking or drug use at 15. Other research gives mixed results, so that, overall, "no categorical statements can be made".

What Baumeister’s team did find was a very definite correlation between self-esteem and happiness among both young and older people, but they are loath to conclude, without further evidence, that self-esteem simply causes happiness. It is possible, they say, "that occupational, academic or interpersonal successes cause both happiness and high self-esteem," or even that a natural disposition to feel happy induces self-esteem. They remain thoroughly skeptical about the social usefulness of "promoting self-esteem in today’s children or adults, just for being themselves".

Earned self-esteem…
If self-esteem theory was going to bear good fruit anywhere it would in schools where, arguably, it has been most widely applied. Witness the lowering of educational standards to protect children from failure, and the chanting of "I am special," "I am beautiful," "I believe in me."

But an experienced educator, Vincent Ryan Ruggiero, condemns it as part of a culture of selfism that has produced  bad attitude among students and stops them learning. Through mass culture, and even through teachers themselves, he says, kids have imbibed attitudes such as: "Being myself makes self-discipline unnecessary," "If I have high self-esteem I will be successful," "I have a right to my opinion, so my opinions are right," "Expressing my negative feelings will relieve them," and "The teacher’s job is to entertain me."

As part of a strategy for changing these attitudes, Ruggiero advises: "Teachers will do their students a service by shifting attention from the self performing the tasks to the tasks being performed, so that students can come to experience the sweeter and more meaningful satisfaction that follows accomplishment. That means replacing the attitude ‘If I have high self-esteem, I will be successful’ with ‘Self-esteem is of two kinds: earned and unearned. Only earned self-esteem is healthy and satisfying, and it doesn’t precede achievement but follows it’."

…and unearned
The concept of earned self-esteem, which thoughtful educators have long advocated in place of the pre-emptive approach, implies an education in virtue: hard work, respect for authority, self-discipline, humility, to name only a few. This would go a long way to correct the self-ism that currently bedevils both the classroom and corporate head office.

But there is an important sense in which self-esteem is unearned, as religious people acknowledge in attributing everything they have and their very being to God. The idea that every human being has a worth independent of what they can do—an intrinsic worth—is behind the modern concept of human dignity and universal rights. In this sense the self-esteem movement is correct in insisting that "I am, therefore I am good" before "I achieve, therefore I am good".

Patricia Dalton, for one, sees an over-emphasis on achievement behind many of the personal problems in young people she deals with. "I think parents today are too often success-oriented. They think that award-related behaviors—getting an A for a paper at school or a cum laude on your diploma—is the source of self-esteem. But it’s not the main source, which is feeling valued so that you can value yourself."

What convinces children they have value, she says, is not artificial praise, which kids easily see through, but "being noticed, being talked to, being asked about what they think, what they like or don’t like, eye contact with a child and physical contact". At the same time they need moral standards, and openness to others.

"We can raise kids who we think have self-esteem, but what they really have is self-centeredness. You hear parents say, ‘Oh, I just want them to be happy.’ Well, if you really wanted that you would raise kids to have a lot of decency and a lot of willingness to give themselves to other people. Those kids will probably be very happy in their lives."

Religious belief, Dalton adds, is a tremendous asset so long as it’s "a really deep sense of being loved by God". "For people like this, setbacks in the world don’t daunt them because they see the bigger picture, which is not just about the here and now. Whereas, for people who are truly secular, this is it. They figure, ‘I’ve go to get as much out of this as I can right now,’ and often that’s in terms of acquiring things, their position in the world and so on."

Parents who lead their kids to a self-knowledge as comprehensive as this will have given them a sound basis for valuing themselves, and everybody else.

Carolyn Moynihan is the deputy editor of MercatorNet.

Michael Cook

Michael Cook is the editor of MercatorNet.