Thursday, December 23, 2004

The Self-esteem Myth Myth

See here by Instapundit.


SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN has an article on exploding the self-esteem myth. Bottom line: "Boosting people's sense of self-worth has become a national preoccupation. Yet surprisingly, research shows that such efforts are of little value in fostering academic progress or preventing undesirable behavior." This isn't a big surprise. The Insta-Wife has noted for years that inflated self-esteem is often associated with negative behavior among teenagers, while teens with low self-esteem often behave well. (Here's a chapter from her book that discusses some of those issues.)
First of all, that article isn't exactly forging new roads through uncharted wilderness. The basic synopsis seems to be, "Concentrating on self-esteem makes kids happier, but doesn't fix much else." Hold that thought.

Second of all, that book chapter is discussing the warped viewpoints of sociopaths. That's not quite the same thing as an overcharge of self-esteem.

Back to the thought I was holding. Of course self-esteem isn't going to fix behavior. Happy, healthy people aren't always the same thing as well-behaved people. In many cases the very opposite is true.

It doesn't surprise me in the least that low self-esteem teenagers behave well. The already-beaten are easily cowed into submission: there's no better student than a reasonably capable young man or woman who cherishes a deep-seated belief that it is their performance that brings love and acceptance. Of course, the children who have trouble with that kind of performance seek love and acceptance in other ways, often rebelling, but that's another issue. Most people, when moving through a haze of fear, keep a pretty low profile.

You know, I've worked under supervisors with low self-esteem before. I must admit, it does make them easier to push around. Have you ever had a deadline enforced by a pushover? Anyone in customer service can tell you that it's more pleasant to work with customers who automatically feel like they are horrible people just for complaining. People with low self-esteem are docile, malleable, pleasant for the rest of us to be around. People with high self-esteem cause trouble, because they're not ashamed to breathe the same air as the rest of us and clear out the amount of elbow room they'll be needing. They accept that not everybody is going to like them, and do what they feel is necessary anyway... unlike low self-esteemers, who will put my whims before their needs as a matter of course, because what could be more important than being liked?

It's a lifestyle more fit for dogs than children, in my opinion. Several people I know would decline even to apply it to dogs.

If the original goal in emphasizing the importance of self-esteem was to cure bad behavior, then all I can say is that was short-sighted and silly. But I don't believe that was it. I believe the original goal in emphasizing the importance of self-esteem was to help with the underlying problems of depression and anger that common disciplinary problems are so frequently a herald of. To expect higher levels of self-esteem to cure discipline problems is tatamount to helping someone climb out of a pit and then expecting them to cut of one of their hands as payment; when you enable someone to be a whole person, you don't get to then choose who the person turns out to be. People are difficult critters to raise and teach. Does that mean that making them happy and healthy is of little worth?

I'm biased on this particular issue, being, as I am, an icon of living proof that standardized test scores aren't always as indicative of future performance as psychological evaluations.

We won't gain much by discounting the idea of self-esteem as feel-good new age mumbo-jumbo. Low self-esteem is emotionally crippling. You're not going to convince me that it's not a problem by explaining to me how much easier it is to shepherd a crippled flock than a healthy, rambunctious group of animals.