The New York Times Magazine this weekend has an interesting, if slightly

confused, article

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

about themselves.”

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.

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