Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Study finds self-esteem programs don't work

FSU study finds self-esteem programs don't work


Feeling pretty good about yourself?

That's great, but it doesn't necessarily mean that you are smarter, healthier or more successful than others. And if that's not bad enough, people may not like you very much, either.

After nearly two decades of teachers, parents and therapists focusing their efforts on boosting children's self-esteem, a team of psychologists led by Florida State University Francis Eppes Professor Roy Baumeister has found no evidence that boosting self-esteem through school programs or therapeutic interventions leads to any positive outcomes.

"Raising self-esteem will not by itself make young people perform better in school, obey the law, stay out of trouble, get along better with their fellows or respect the rights of others," he said.

Baumeister came to that conclusion after he and co-authors Jennifer Campbell of the University of British Columbia, Joachim Krueger of Brown University and Kathleen Vohs of the University of Utah conducted a thorough review of all of the major studies on self-esteem. He presented his findings at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Sciences (AAAS).

Schools and others jumped on the self-esteem bandwagon after many experts began to espouse self-esteem as the key to success.

"Once schools started self-esteem programs, I think they developed a momentum on their own, partly because the exercises, e.g. going around the room and letting everybody say what is special about himself or herself, feel good to all concerned," Baumeister said. "Certainly it is a more enjoyable way to pass some hours in the school day than, say, doing math or spelling drills."

A better approach, the researchers say, would be to boost self-esteem as a reward for ethical behavior and worthy achievements.

"We think it will require a basic change in many self-esteem programs, which now seek to boost everyone's self-esteem without demanding appropriate behavior first," they wrote. "Using self-esteem as a reward rather than an entitlement seems most appropriate to us."

Baumeister's team looked at studies linking self-esteem to school performance, job and task performance, interpersonal relations, happiness, aggression and antisocial behavior, and health issues such as eating, drinking and drug use, smoking and sex.

Although there are modest correlations between self-esteem and school performance, it is more likely that good performance leads to high self-esteem rather than the other way around. The same holds true for job performance.

More importantly, the researchers found that efforts to boost self-esteem have not been shown to improve academic performance and may sometimes be counterproductive. Nor does high self-esteem prevent children from smoking, drinking, taking drugs or engaging in early sex. If anything, high self-esteem fosters experimentation, which may increase early sexual activity and drinking.

Studies on violence, aggression and antisocial behavior yielded mixed results, according to the researchers. They found that neither high self-esteem nor low self-esteem is a direct cause of violence, although narcissism leads to increased aggression in retaliation for wounded pride. Certain subcategories of high self-esteem also yield both the highest and the lowest rates of antisocial behavior such as cheating or bullying. On the other hand, low self-esteem may be a contributing factor to delinquency.

People with high self-esteem claim they are more likable, attractive and have better relationships than others, but these advantages exist mainly in their own minds, the researchers found. Objective data, such as ratings by their peers, generally fail to confirm their high opinions of themselves, and in some cases, they are actually disliked more than others.

That finding highlights an intrinsic problem with studying self-esteem, Baumeister noted, and that is that self-esteem is a perception rather than a reality. Those with high self-esteem include people who honestly accept their good qualities as well as narcissistic, defensive and conceited individuals who exaggerate their successes and good traits.

There are some potential benefits to high self-esteem, however. The researchers found that high self-esteem reduces the chances of bulimia in girls and women. The researchers also concluded that high self-esteem helps make people happy and may promote acting on one's own initiative.