When everyone wins, most of us lose

The failure of self-esteem as a ‘social vaccine’

It promised so much – a solution to the evils of crime and violence, alcohol and drug abuse, premature pregnancy, child abuse, chronic dependency on welfare and education failure. But has the self-esteem movement created a measurable rise in narcissism and a generation of selfie-snapping millennials? And is the entire movement a gigantic mistake based on a lie?

In ‘How We Became So Self-Obsessed And What It’s Doing To Us’, journalist and novelist Will Storr reveals the origins of the self-esteem movement and how many of its original claims were based on faulty science and a quasi-religious faith.

Writing for The Guardian, Storr traces the movement back to John Vasconcellos, a Californian politician who underwent a kind of conversion from Catholic guilt to self-empowerment. ‘Vasco’, as he became known, not only secured funding to research the benefits of increasing high self-esteem in education and society, he trumpeted positive findings before the research was complete, effectively burying any evidence to the contrary.

At first the movement was ridiculed, until Vasco attacked the media (for “low self-esteem”) and became a national figure, promoting high self-esteem as the cure-all for just about any of society’s ills.

He even got professors from the University of California to research the link between low self-esteem and these ills. He reported their findings as “positive and compelling” and went on to appear on television in the US, UK and Australia.

And it worked. Students were awarded sports trophies for turning up. Gym classes encouraged students to skip without actual ropes (in case they tripped), police asked the public to look for suspects with low self-esteem and defendants who showed up to court were rewarded with special key-chains to prove they really had achieved something. Oprah Winfrey devoted an entire TV special to self-esteem.

But the original research didn’t back up the promise that Vasco was evangelising. The professors said that, “the association between self-esteem and its expected consequences are mixed, insignificant or absent”. In other words, the data didn’t produce the positive and compelling results Vasco had hoped for, so it was hidden under a tsunami of good news, spin and simple faith in the idea.

While Storr believes the world got conned by Vasco, many in the teaching profession would argue better self-esteem does in fact produce improved results and arguments continue as to getting the balance between self-esteem and self-criticism right.

This cautionary tale once again reveals human biases when it comes to our understanding of science and evidence.

Many ideas we think are based on accepted scientific fact can be the result of repetition, which become norms, reinforced by others and not questioned by ourselves.

The idea that simply feeling good about ourselves can be a kind of ‘mental inoculation’ to human failings is appealing.

Behavioural science would tell us it’s just not that simple.

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Second Place After Dressage by Five Furlongs via Flickr