March 1, 2008

What's the deal with self esteem?

Many people in education have long believed that in order to improve performance of pupils at school you have to first make them feel good about themselves. The idea behind this was: it is easier to function well if you feel good about your self. Many educators, psychologists and parents have tried this. But does it work? Here is a long quote from a very interesting article by Albert Mohler:
"Since the 1969 publication of The Psychology of Self-Esteem, in which Nathaniel Branden opined that self-esteem was the single most important facet of a person, the belief that one must do whatever he can to achieve positive self-esteem has become a movement with broad societal effects. Anything potentially damaging to kids' self-esteem was axed. Competitions were frowned upon. Soccer coaches stopped counting goals and handed out trophies to everyone. Teachers threw out their red pencils. Criticism was replaced with ubiquitous, even undeserved, praise. In 2003 the Association for Psychological Science asked Dr. Roy Baumeister, then a leading proponent of self-esteem, to review this literature. His team concluded that self-esteem was polluted with flawed science. Only 200 of those 15,000 studies met their rigorous standards. After reviewing those 200 studies, Baumeister concluded that having high self-esteem didn't improve grades or career achievement. It didn't even reduce alcohol usage. And it especially did not lower violence of any sort. (Highly aggressive, violent people happen to think very highly of them selves, debunking the theory that people are aggressive to make up for low self-esteem.) At the time, Baumeister was quoted as saying that his findings were "the biggest disappointment of my career". Now he's on Dweck's side of the argument, and his work is going in a similar direction: He will soon publish an article showing that for college students on the verge of failing in class, esteem-building praise causes their grades to sink further. Baumeister has come to believe the continued appeal of self-esteem is largely tied to parents' pride in their children's achievements: It's so strong that "when they praise their kids, it's not that far from praising themselves."
The basic idea of the self esteem movement sounded plausible but was incorrect. Trying to improve a child's functioning by first trying to make them feel good about themselves ... does not work. But is there no relationship at all between functioning and self esteem? Yes there is, but as Martin Seligman has written, the causal relationship is more likely to be the other way around. By functioning well, people are more likely to start feeling well about themselves. So, first there is functioning well, then there is self esteem, not the other way around.

But does this mean there is no need for or place for praising children (or co-workers) at all? Sure there is. Here we get back to the thrilling research by Carol Dweck. She has shown it depends on the way you compliment. As I wrote before, she compared two forms of praise: process praise and trait praise. With process praise you compliment the child with his or her effort or strategy ("You must have worked hard", or: "You must have used a good strategy to solve this"). With trait praise you compliment the child for a trait, some kind of fixed internal quality ("You have done well, you must be very smart."). Both forms of praise feel good at first but after some time trait praise turns out to lead to some negative effects: it makes the person afraid of taking risks and defensive whereas process praise works well also in the long term.

So what does this mean? Don't go for the self esteem movement idea. Don't believe you have to make the person feel good about themselves first before you can expect progress. Praising can be very useful but process praise has a far better chance of working than trait praise, even when the child has a low self esteem.


  1. I'm amazed more people haven't responded to this. This is a very important idea. And unfortunately since so many parents, teachers and coaches have it wrong today, I wonder how we will help these misguided kids who are already entering the workforce.

    Coert, what's a solution-focused way of handling what's alreay happened to these kids many of whom are adults now? How can we get more parents, teachers and coaches to realize there is a better way?

  2. Hi Rodney, I agree. I think Carol Dweck's work offers a useful perspective.

    Sometimes, I still see examples of the idea that you first have to feel good about yourself before you can start focusing on performing. Intuitively it seems an appealing theory.


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