The New York Times Magazine this weekend has an interesting, if slightly
about how self-esteem is overrated. It’s based on research by, among
others, Nicholas Emler of the LSE and Roy Baumeister of Case Western
Reserve University. Here are the nut grafs:
”There is absolutely no evidence that low self-esteem is particularly
harmful,” Emler says. ”It’s not at all a cause of poor academic
performance; people with low self-esteem seem to do just as well
in life as people with high self-esteem. In fact, they may do better,
because they often try harder.” Baumeister takes Emler’s findings
a bit further, claiming not only that low self-esteem is in most
cases a socially benign if not beneficent condition but also that
its opposite, high self-regard, can maim and even kill.
”The fact is,” Emler says, ”we’ve put antisocial men through
every self-esteem test we have, and there’s no evidence for the
old psychodynamic concept that they secretly feel bad about themselves.
These men are racist or violent because they don’t feel bad enough
This rings true, as far as it goes. The Enron debacle, for instance,
was probably caused by the high self-esteem of the company’s top brass:
their feeling that they were so amazing that they could do anything.
On the other end of the spectrum, it takes an incredible amount of
arrogance (which is what we term an excess of self-esteem) to send
thousands of innocents to their deaths, as Osama bin Laden did in
I can also easily believe that statistically, people with high self-esteem
are no more successful financially, academically, whatever
than those with low self-esteem.
However, the author of the article, Lauren Slater, misses two crucial
points. The first is that people want to have high self-esteem because
they want to be happy. It almost seems to obvious to mention,
but Slater doesn’t mention it, so I will: if you feel good about yourself,
you’re probably more likely to feel good in general.
The second point is that there is such a market for self-help self-esteem
books and the like because people are aspirational. The American
Dream is that anybody can become President, or a multimillionaire.
Statistically speaking, virtually nobody will, of course. Class mobility,
I believe, is not much greater in the US than it is anywhere else.
But the country is built on aspirationalism, which is why poor southerners
vote Republican and why welfare mothers in the inner cities, when
asked, favour the abolition of welfare.
When you’re aspirational, you look to the very top, and what you
see is, overwhelmingly, men with very high self-esteem. Take Bill
Clinton: the sheer chutzpah he showed when he denied having
sexual relations with "that woman" is exactly the sort of
thing that the average Oprah watcher would love to have.
For while high self-esteem might be an extremely bad indicator of
success, I would hazard that extreme success rising to the
very top of a corporate or political greasy pole is probably
a very good predictor of high self-esteem. It’s the desire to Be Like
which drives people into the arms of groups like the Landmark Forum,
a rather scary organisation which seems to break people psychologically
in order to persuade them to spend more money on its courses.
People join the Forum because they think probably correctly
that it will give them a certain extra drive, will boost their
self-confidence. Looking at the Forum members I know in New York,
that will mean that they will take on scary amounts of debt, safe
in the knowledge of their future success. That can have one of three
effects: it can cause a horrible spiral of indebtedness; it can cause
a bubble of prosperity which lasts for a while and then bursts; or
it can succeed, creating a lot of genuine wealth. Since it’s very
hard to differentiate the third from the second (see Enron), and since
the Forum is a very large organisation, it’s easy to see it they can
find a lot of success stories with which to wow prospective members.
And so the search for self-esteem continues, for good reasons and
for bad. As Slater points out in her article, the main beneficiaries
of this societal obsession, apart from the motivational speakers,
are the psychoanalysts. But you can hardly blame the likes of the
Landmark Forum for getting in on the act as well.