The Winter 2005 issue of Stanford Social Innovation Review includes an article by Jay Baumeister in which he argues that nonprofits, and by extension, all social change programs, should "stop pushing self-esteem.” Long considered the “Holy Grail: a psychological trait that would soothe most of individuals’ and society’s woes,” a recent review of the literature on self-esteem found that many of these studies “show not only that self-esteem fails to accomplish what we hoped, but also that it can backfire and contribute to some of the very problems it was thought to thwart.” [Note: the article is available through subscription only.]
What do the studies as a whole demonstrate? Here are some of his conclusions:
- Categories of people show very few differences on measures of self-esteem. African-Americans tend to score higher on these measures than European-Americans. Women score slightly lower than men – primarily attributable to dissatisfaction with their bodies. “Overall, the differences between men’s and women’s self-esteem are so small that many do not consider them to be meaningful.”
- Self-esteem is better predicted by changes in the grades one receives in school rather than what has been presumed to be its positive contribution to enhancing school performance. “In other words, good grades were the horse and self-esteem was the cart.”
- Self-esteem also has little to do with interpersonal skills or popularity. ‘Instead, people with high self-esteem run a greater risk of thinking ‘Wow, they really loved me,’ when others are actually thinking ‘What a conceited jerk!’”
- Many interventions aimed at the prevention of violence have been predicated on the idea that low self-esteem is a causal factor. As you may have guessed by now, the opposite is supported by the data. “The most aggressive people are those who score high on a particularly nasty variable of high self-esteem called narcissism.”
- Other programs have looked at improving self-esteem as a way to protect teens against indulging in sex, drugs and alcohol. “The more careful studies that track people over time have generally found no relationship between self-esteem and [the prevention of the] early onset of sexual behavior – or a small effect in the opposite direction.” Similar types of studies on drug and alcohol use among teens show the same results.
What then is the solution? “Forget about self-esteem, and invest in self-control.”
Bullying is complex of violent behaviors also linked in some people's minds to low self-esteem. Recent research has debunked several myths associated with bullying, including one that states bullies are usually the most unpopular students in school. A 2000 study by psychologist Philip Rodkin, PhD, and colleagues involving fourth-through-sixth-grade boys found that highly aggressive boys may be among the most popular and socially connected children in elementary classrooms, as viewed by their fellow students and even their teachers. Another myth is that the tough and aggressive bullies are basically anxious and insecure individuals who use bullying as a means of compensating for poor self-esteem. Using a number of different methods including projective tests and stress hormones, another researcher concluded that there is no support for such a view. Most bullies had average or better than average self-esteem.
And some other conclusions from the full report on the effects of self-esteem on which the SSIR article is based. Although further research is needed, one impression that emerges from these data is that self-esteem simply intensifies both prosocial and antisocial tendencies…We conclude our summary of findings with some general points.
- With the exception of the link to happiness, most of the effects are weak to modest. Self-esteem is thus not a major predictor or cause of almost anything (again, with the possible exception of happiness).
- Moreover, the effects of self-esteem become weaker as the criteria for evidence become more objective. It is perhaps no accident that the strongest apparent benefit of self-esteem has been found for the most subjective outcome, namely, happiness.
- It is far from clear that interventions aimed at boosting self-esteem will be sufficient to produce positive outcomes. For practitioners, the implication is that high self-esteem as such may not be worth cultivating, because some forms of it are unhelpful and possibly harmful - but other forms or versions of it may be quite beneficial.
Although many social marketers try to focus on behavior change objectives, there are many collaborators who have a high stake in focusing of self-esteem as either an outcome or mediating variable. Although science-based, or evidence-based, practice is a priority value for many different types of social change programs, old habits and beliefs can sidetrack the best of intentions, audience research and program design.