Sunday, January 23, 2005


An interesting Scientific American article: Exploding the Self-Esteem Myth:
Consider, for instance, research on the relation between self-esteem and physical attractiveness. Several studies have explored correlations between these qualities, generally finding clear positive links when people rate themselves on both properties. It seems plausible that physically attractive people would end up with high self-esteem because they are treated more favorably than unattractive ones--being more popular, more sought after, more valued by lovers and friends, and so forth. But it could just as well be that those who score highly on self-esteem scales by claiming to be wonderful people all around also boast of being physically attractive. [Gee, you think?]

In 1995 Edward F. Diener and Brian Wolsic of the University of Illinois and Frank Fujita of Indiana University South Bend examined this possibility. They obtained self-esteem scores from a broad sample of the population and then photographed everybody, presenting these pictures to a panel of judges, who evaluated the subjects for attractiveness. Ratings based on full-length photographs showed no significant correlation with self-esteem. Head-and-shoulders close-ups fared slightly better, but even this finding is dubious, because individuals with high self-esteem might take particular care to present themselves well, such as by wearing attractive clothing and jewelry. The 1995 study suggests as much: when the judges were shown pictures of just the participants' unadorned faces, the modest correlation between attractiveness and self-esteem fell to zero. In that same investigation, however, self-reported physical attractiveness was found to have a strong correlation with self-esteem. Clearly, those with high self-esteem are gorgeous in their own eyes but not necessarily so to others.

* * *

People who regard themselves highly generally state that they are popular and rate their friendships as being of superior quality to those described by people with low self-esteem, who report more negative interactions and less social support. But as Julia Bishop and Heidi M. Inderbitzen-Nolan of the University of Nebraska–Lincoln showed in 1995, these assertions do not reflect reality. The investigators asked 542 ninth-grade students to nominate their most-liked and least-liked peers, and the resulting rankings displayed no correlation whatsoever with self-esteem scores.
Earlier social "scientists" had gone around asking students about their self-esteem, and then finding a correlation with the students' assessments of their own physical attractiveness or popularity. Apparently, it took a while for anyone to make the utterly common-sense observation that people who overrate themselves on self-esteem measures might also be overrating themselves as to beauty or popularity.

As for academic performance:
Modern efforts have, however, cast doubt on the idea that higher self-esteem actually induces students to do better. . . . Such results, which are now available from multiple studies, certainly do not indicate that raising self-esteem offers students much benefit. Some findings even suggest that artificially boosting self-esteem may lower subsequent performance.
Indeed, simply viewing the first episodes of American Idol last week showed that self-esteem is often inversely proportional to ability. The rotten singers usually showed up bragging that they were going to win, that they had the "complete package," that they personally would make American Idol a success, or some such nonsense. The best singers were usually more modest, diffident, self-deprecating.1

Again, common sense explains why this would be so. The best singers are usually perfectionists who have good ears, all of which makes them highly aware of any mistakes that they make. After ending a selection, they might think to themselves, "Well, that was decent, but I was a bit flat on the high note; I'll have to do better next time." But the worst singers are precisely the people who have no musical sense or standards whatsoever, and who therefore genuinely can't tell that their own singing is awful. Their high self-esteem is a sign of their pathological inability to be self-aware.

1 Down the road, of course, if good singers hear nothing but incessant praise and adulation for their wonderful voice, they might end up as a diva with bloated self-esteem. So it's not impossible for someone with genuine talent/ability to end up having high self-esteem. But the fact remains that such over-inflated self-esteem is harmful: It may prevent the diva from paying attention to valid and constructive criticism. No one is perfect, and the best people in any field are usually the best precisely because they are most aware of their own mistakes or inadequacies, enabling them to improve as time goes on.

Stuart Buck


Blogger Alessandra said...

I had seen the media do a big hoopla about this self-esteem study, thinking, "there we go again..." I would like to remind people that the media loves to take one single little study in a very complex field and throw it out in a sensationalist, biased way. You don´t know how this study was designed, and you don´t even know if there are a million other studies that show this is not so. You don´t even know what the researchers here defined as self-esteem, and what exactly were they measuring and how.

Self-esteem is a necessary psychological process for mental health and happiness. I don´t want to make this a treatise on the subject, but it´s just ridiculous to say "because some students will less self esteem have achieved something, self-esteem is a human throw away thing." This study must make all the people responsible for destroying self-esteem in youngsters extatic, they now must feel less guilty, and less stupid. And aren´t there a lot of these kinds of people?

Don´t buy it, self-esteem is fundamental for *life*. It´s a fundamental role of any teacher to "fuel" it in their students.

10:17 PM  
Blogger Stuart Buck said...

You don't seem to have read the article, or even the bits I quoted. The authors were not conducting a "little study" on their own. Rather, they were reviewing the entire literature of studies on self-esteem. What they found was that study after study failed to show the supposed positive value for self-esteem.

11:59 AM  

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