CAUSE OR EFFECT? It can be hard to tell, but when grant dollars and government spending are involved, it's worth figuring out.
For example, self-esteem - how much one likes and respects oneself - has been hailed as an avenue to fix most problems social and psychological. In more than 2,000 studies, people who report they have high self-esteem seem to be more successful, healthier, better behaved and better decision-makers and marriage partners. Based on this evidence, a lot of money, time and effort have been invested in working to boost low self-esteem, in public schools, after-school programs and elsewhere.
But the evidence may be flawed.
Only 200 or so of those studies use any objective measures - such as not only asking test subjects if they consider themselves smart or handsome but also checking their test scores and others' opinions of their looks, according to a review by scientists commissioned by the National Institutes of Health and the Humanities Research Council of Canada. All the studies suffer from a core problem: They assume a test subject expresses a positive view of herself because she has high self-esteem. But she could simply be giving the answer she thinks the tester wants. Or she could be a narcissist. Or she could be trying to be sarcastic, and really mean she holds herself in low regard. If a person reports low self-esteem, is it because he hates himself, he's depressed, his family taught him never to brag - or something else?