Posted by: jmark | May 19, 2005

Self-Esteem and coincidence

Sometimes a few random strings all happen to fall together…

Some random strings:

Banner of Truth Magazine lands through the letterbox
Buy London Times newspaper to do number puzzle.
Books loaned to me by a pastor away on missionary service in Peru

The weaving

In a number of contexts recently I’ve been thinking about self-esteem. I’m fairly convinced it’s a pile of nonsense. The Christian is a worthless sinner, useless in the universe, but for some reason God has set His love on them and He esteems them. That is where their esteem comes from.

Saturday – I need input for help in counselling so I pull down a Rich Ganz book from my shelves. PsychoBabble, published by Crossway. Its not mine, but belongs to Tim Donachie a minister working in Peru. I read through most of it in one sitting. Great help. Well basically it told me stuff I should have known. More accurately it told me that when God’s people use God’s word to help people with their lives, they will do better than psychologists who pay no attention to the manufacturer’s instructions.

Monday – Banner of Truth magazine plops on the doormat. This is a publication that excites me as much as Brussel sprouts. Anyhow – I do often read the news items and book reviews. And under News items this month was the news (strangely enough!) that Mt Olive tape library has been turned into MP3 and put on SermonAudio.com. Never having heard of Mt Olive Tape Library, I looked it up to find among their list of speakers – Ted Donnelly, Sinclair Ferguson, Eric Alexander, Geoff Thomas and, you’ve guessed it – Rich Ganz. So I clicked on the link for Rich and there staring me in the face was a talk entitled “Self Esteem – Myth or Marvel”. I haven’t listened yet, but I intend to give it a go asap.

Tuesday – I’m down at the hospital visiting, and I buy The Times to kill some time and do their number puzzle. As I flick through the rest of the paper the T2 section falls out and their on the front cover is a women kissing herself in the mirror with the headline: The Myth of Self Esteem – Why thinking you are great will get you nowhere. It was a really interesting article – here’s the link, but since The Times have a habit of moving stuff, I’ve included the most of the article below.

Sometimes it’s strange what patterns come together from seemingly disparate threads.

The Article

Forget self-esteem and learn some humility
Contrary to the received wisdom, showering yourself, your children or your employees with praise is counter-productive

IN THE film Meet the Fockers, a proud Bernie Focker attempts to impress the parents of his son’s fiancée by waving to a shelf of trophies. “I didn’t know they made ninth-place ribbons,” says the bemused would-be father-in-law.

“They have them up to tenth place,” Focker replies earnestly. “There’s a bunch on the ‘A for Effort’ shelf there.”

Greg Focker, played by Ben Stiller, represents a generation of American kids reared in the 1980s on the philosophy that any achievement, however slight, deserved a ribbon. Plaudits replaced punishment; criticism became a dirty word. In Texas, teachers were advised to avoid using red ink, the colour of reprimand. In California, a task force was set up to inject the concept of self-worth into the education system. Swathing youngsters in a sturdy shield of self-esteem, went the philosophy, would protect them from the nasty things in life, such as bad school grades, underage sex, drug abuse, dead-end jobs and criminality. Even the taxman would benefit – those kids would supposedly go on to earn more. And so the National Association for Self-Esteem rolled out the feel-good mantra across the States.

Except that the ninth-place ribbons are in danger of strangling the very children they were supposed to help. America’s obsession with self-esteem – like all developments in psychology, it gradually filtered its way to Britain – has turned children who were showered with compliments into adults who crumple at even the mildest brickbats. Deborah Stipek, dean of education at Stanford University, revealed recently how she keeps a box of Kleenex in her office for students who, for the first time in their lives, receive tough feedback and can’t deal with it. Many believe that the feel-good culture has risen at the expense of traditional education, an opinion espoused in a new book, Dumbing Down Our Kids: Why American Children Feel Good About Themselves But Can’t Read, Write, or Add, by the conservative commentator Charles Sykes.

Not only that, but the foundations on which the self-esteem industry is built are being exposed as decidedly shaky. Roy Baumeister, professor of psychology at Florida State University and once a self-esteem enthusiast, is now pioneering a revision of the populist orthodoxy. “After all these years, I’m sorry to say, my recommendation is this: forget about self-esteem and concentrate more on self-control and self-discipline,” he wrote recently. “Recent work suggests this would be good for the individual and good for society – and might even be able to fill some of those promises that self- esteem once made but could not keep.”

In 2001, at the invitation of the American Psychological Association, Baumeister and three other academics came together to review the self-esteem literature to investigate whether a positive opinion of oneself really did trigger an avalanche of measurable benefits. After all, given that the bandwagon started rolling in the Eighties, it should be clear if the intellectual policy was paying practical dividends. The result, Baumeister says, was “one of the biggest disappointments of my career”.

The take-home messages were these: high self-esteem does not of itself earn children higher grades (although high grades cause self-esteem to rise); it does not make people better at their jobs, although employees with a strong sense of self-worth may erroneously think they are more competent than their less confident colleagues (much to their colleagues’ annoyance); a survey for the Harvard Business Review found that humility, rather than self-regard, is a better predictor of who will make a successful leader; far from having a low sense of self-worth, bullies and other aggressors tend to have an inflated sense of their own importance; praising a child constantly won’t stop him from cheating, stealing, engaging in risky sex or abusing drugs; adults who think highly of themselves do not have better love lives, and are not necessarily more popular with their peer group than adults who don’t think much of themselves.

It is not unadulterated bad news – people with high self-esteem tend to be happier, show more initiative and are less prone to eating disorders. Even so, Baumeister was unable to uncover proof that ratcheting up an individual’s self-esteem could either increase happiness or reduce depression. In other words, the link is there but the evidence of causality is not. As Baumeister puts it: “Those (benefits) are nice, but they are far less than we had once hoped for, and it is very questionable whether they justify the effort and expense that schools, parents and therapists have put into raising self-esteem.”

In a comprehensive article for Scientific American, Baumeister reveals that much self-esteem work is flawed because researchers have asked people to rate themselves, and psychologists accept that we are not always as truthful or impartial as we should be (psychometric tests even include questions designed to elicit the extent to which a candidate is bending the truth to appear socially desirable).

For example, when people are asked to judge both their own looks and self-esteem, a clear correlation emerges. People who rate themselves as attractive also report high self-esteem, while those who consider themselves unappealing report low self-esteem. It sounds plausible – beautiful people appear to be valued more highly in society and treated better, which may well lead to high self-esteem.

But when objective assessments are carried out – with a panel of judges deciding the attractiveness scores – the link between prettiness and self-esteem vanishes. “Clearly, those with high self-esteem are gorgeous in their own eyes but not necessarily so to others,” he sums up. In fact, whenever a correlation crops up between a self-reported positive attribute and high self-esteem, it may just reflect that people who think highly of themselves rate themselves highly in other areas, perhaps without justification.

Only 200 out of around 15,000 studies used objective measures, all but emptying the pool of reliable data on self-esteem. The remaining puddle, Baumeister argues, just doesn’t provide proof that self-esteem can steer an unswerving course towards fulfilment. Not only that, but an unjustifiably high self-esteem can tip over into narcissism (excessive self-love). A failure by others to return this unearned high regard can result in violence. The data on bullies, for example, shows that they report less anxiety than other children.

Baumeister concludes: “We have found little to indicate that indiscriminately promoting self-esteem in today’s children or adults, just for being themselves, offers society any compensatory benefits beyond the seductive pleasure it brings to those engaged in the exercise.”

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