Like yourself? So what?

Editorial Notebook

February 05, 2005|By Nicky Penttila

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?

The reviewers did confirm that higher self-esteem is a benefit in two ways - it feels good and people with such confidence show more initiative. But they also found well-made studies that showed that self-esteem doesn't necessarily result in better school grades, better job performance or better social success. It will not stop people from becoming bullies, cheating on tests or experimenting with drugs and sex. Other studies suggest it may foster reckless behavior, as kids with higher self-esteem seem more willing to try new things.

Thus, it appears that what once was considered the cure is actually only a symptom, and artificially boosting it - praising all children equally until they get confused about the goal - may cause more harm than good.

More research is needed, as scientists are always so careful to say, but shutting off the federal and state money spigot for such programs looks like a good idea.

There's plenty good about feeling good, about having pride and self-respect. But these are not so much the result of high self-esteem as of self-control and self-discipline, reliable studies show. Old-fashioned words with easier definitions, and clearer results.

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