Phony vs. Earned Self-Esteem
A study by Jean Twenge of San Diego State University, published in the current issue of Social Psychological and Personality Science, is getting a lot of news this week. Twenge found that college kids today are more likely to call themselves gifted and driven to succeed, while their test scores and hours spent studying are decreasing. She also found that the tendency toward narcissism among college students has also increased over the last 30 years.
Some reports get a bit more frenzied than I prefer. Titles and writing like, "We are raising a generation of deluded narcissists!" just gets us scared, whereas I prefer to be effective. Twenge has been studying this trend for several years, has accumulated some impressive research and has written several books.
Today I want to look at what I consider one of the sources of this trend: the phony self-esteem movement, and how it feeds the fixed trait mindset – and thus the need to see oneself as just fantastic. This also shows what can be done to remedy the situation, instead of just freaking out.
I have written before about Carol Dweck's work on mindsets. The fixed trait mindset is one based on inborn gifts or shortcomings; the growth mindset is one based on what we do with our gifts and circumstances. The growth mindset is much more desirable. Different views of self-esteem feed into each.
Many years ago, when I was a young psychology graduate student studying with Nathaniel Branden, I remember him talking one day about having been invited to be part of The California Task Force to Promote Self-Esteem, led by California State Assemblyman John Vasconcellos.
Nathaniel declined, as he couldn't see why he would be involved in that since he did not see a role for government in the development of self-esteem. Nonetheless, the task force carried on and created guidelines for building "self-esteem" in a way that Branden would never have advocated.
According to a New York Times article about the study group in October of 1986:
Mr. Vasconcellos, a 53-year-old Democrat, is described by an aide as 'the most radical humanist in the Legislature.' Mr. Twombly said the study group was an attempt by the Assemblyman to translate into political action his 20 years of 'personal emotional work' in various forms of psychological therapy at Esalen Institute near Big Sur and other places.
'I've explored a lot of alternative ways of being and relating,' Mr. Vasconcellos said. The bill that created the 25-member study group says its aim is to compile 'the world's most credible and contemporary research regarding whether healthy self-esteem relates to the development of personal responsibility and social problems' such as crime, drug abuse, teen-age pregnancy and welfare dependency.
Whether it was Vasconcellos's intention or not, the model of self-esteem that the task force has effectively encouraged was the one that my favorite social psychologist, Roy Baumeister, showed did nothing to improve a person's happiness, success or character.
The common definition of self-esteem is "feeling good about yourself." By that definition, the population with one of the highest levels of self-esteem is criminals. (I'm not kidding; they feel great about themselves)!
This is worlds away from the self-esteem written about and advocated by Branden, for whom the definition is "the reputation we build with ourselves." Branden's self-esteem is earned self-esteem.
The differences between these two visions could not be more dramatic, or more consequential. It is the difference between inflating a student's grades so that their self-esteem is not injured versus giving students clear and honest feedback on their performance so that they can take the action they need to improve.
It's the difference between giving awards for simply participating in an event versus giving awards for actual performance – and regardless of what place they come in, praising a child's effort, not just their participation.
It is also the difference between encouraging a fixed trait mindset versus encouraging a growth mindset.
A fixed trait mindset is one where you think of yourself in terms of set qualities such as intelligence, talent, attractiveness, etc.
When kids learn to think of themselves in such terms, there are consequences. A fixed trait by definition does not change. So if you have a fixed trait self-concept that is negative, there is no hope for improvement. If you have a fixed trait self-concept that is positive, there is nothing you need to do to maintain or improve it; in fact, all that can happen is that you can lose it – so you become very risk-averse.
With a fixed trait mindset, your positive self-concept becomes fragile. Let's say you think of yourself as "brilliant." What happens if you do poorly on a test at school? You're brilliant, right? How can a brilliant kid do poorly on a test? Brilliant kids do brilliantly on tests, without having to do much work, since they're so brilliant. If you do poorly, then by this logic it must mean that you're not so brilliant, and your inflated self-concept can be crushed.
In the same way, an inherently "talented" artist, musician, or athlete should be great at everything they do, regardless of how much or how little work they put into it. Any setback to this scenario can be a devastating blow to the fixed trait self-concept.
With a "positive" fixed trait mindset, the easier something comes to you, the more that confirms the trait; the harder you have to work at something, the more that label is thrown into doubt.
This translates into behavior: A person with a fixed trait mindset will tend to avoid challenges, give up easily and collapse in the face of failure. This all follows very logically from the fixed trait mindset.
Why challenge yourself? The brilliance or talent has already been established so the best you can do is confirm it once again, while any shortcoming can be devastating.
This is exactly what the "self-esteem movement" championed by the California Task Force to Promote Self-Esteem has helped to grow in our kids. I suspect that the higher levels of depression and other psychological troubles and the inflated sense of entitlement that we see today in college-age kids and young adults may have something to do with this.
In contrast, if you think of self-esteem as "the reputation that you build with yourself," then by that very definition it is something that must be earned. Looked at in another way, it is also something that can be earned – which makes pursuing excellence, confronting challenges and bouncing back from adversity very attractive and exciting endeavors.
Success can be achieved and the problems along the way solved; you're not at the mercy of luck or inborn traits.
This is analogous to Dweck's growth mindset.
Indeed, when people have a growth mindset, they tend to be excited by challenges and energized by the pursuit of excellence, and they also tend to come back strong after experiencing failure.
In short, if you want to truly enhance a child's self-esteem, don't dwell on their gifts, talents and intelligence; focus instead on their actions. Give children tasks that are challenging, hold high expectations for the work they do, teach them the joy of facing difficulties and overcoming them with hard work and discipline.
Get to know them, see them for who they are and praise them for what they put into something, not whether they happen to be gifted.
You do a child no good by praising how wonderful, talented, gifted, brilliant or beautiful they are. These are things over which they have no control and they know it. It's like praising them for their eye color. All the ribbons and certificates and medals given to children for "being a great participant" mean nothing, particularly when a child knows darned well they did nothing to earn it.
You don't have to deny a child's brightness or talent but your focus should be always on what they do with whatever their abilities and circumstances are. Teach them to earn their achievements; challenge and support them to dive into what they're doing with enthusiasm, curiosity, focus and hard work so they can see what they are capable of.
There is no free lunch, and there is no free self-esteem, either. Real, earned self-esteem is not something that can be given to you by another person; it is a reputation that you build with yourself over time, and through conscious thought and action.
The California Task Force to Promote Self-Esteem was a typical politician's attempt at a shortcut; more effective in giving politicians a sense of meaning and accomplishment for having made people "better" through forcing certain behaviors through law.
But there are no shortcuts when it comes to your reputation; and this is no less true when it comes to your reputation with yourself.
Joel F. Wade, Ph.D. is a Life Coach who works with people around the world via phone and e-mail. He can be reached for life coaching service at firstname.lastname@example.org or through his website, www.drjoelwade.com, where you can arrange a free 20-30 minute phone call and see whether coaching can help you to make the changes you want and reach the goals you aspire to. Joel is the author of Mastering Happiness and A Pocket Guide to Mastering Happiness. "A highly skilled clinician, trained in a variety of psychological disciplines, Joel Wade is a man of immense sensitivity and compassion who has a wide repertoire of problem-solving strategies to bring to the practice of Coaching." Nathaniel Branden, Ph.D., author of The Art of Living Consciously.
Posted by dave jr on 01/12/13 08:20 AM
In layman speak wasn't this about "spoiling" the child? Which I think is the attempt to purchase love without taking the time for recipocal exchange. It is more difficult to guide and support a childs effort than to provide for his/her desires with a cash settlement. It is more difficult to assess behavior with brutal honesty than to lie about about the cause and effect.
Life in this modern society has become more like a feeding frenzy than a time honored art. Does the child want a cookie? Then offer to help him/her bake some. Should we cry over spilled milk? Of course not. Clean up your mess and pour a new glass.
Self-esteem is the effect, not the cause. You can't have the outcome without the effort. But we can make believe and demand that others play along.
Posted by fabien on 01/11/13 10:36 PM
I read the other day that the guy who is making my sandwich at Subway is a sandwich artist. That's an improvement.
Posted by piolenc on 01/11/13 10:32 PM
Mere presence should indeed not be praised, but effort certainly SHOULD be, at least in children. Self-esteem doesn't get earned without work. Hopefully, later in life an individual will be able to motivate himself to continue striving even without an immediate reward, but in children any significant gap between effort and reward is discouraging and that gap needs to be filled by parents and teachers noting and encouraging effort that will ultimately produce positive results, even if the kid in question hasn't yet made the top three.
Posted by dimitri on 01/11/13 09:15 PM
Great article and many useful points. And wouldn't you know it, Esalen Institute smack dab in the middle of the esteem sheisse.
Recently there was a pathetic news story with video relating a grade school wrestling match, yes - wrestling match. The contestants were a normal looking kid and his "opponent", a boy rather disabed and physically twisted up from muscular dystrophy. The rules for this match were as follows: the normal looking kid walks out on the mat and shakes hands with his opponent (who is held erect by a coach); then he (normal) proceeds to lie down on the mat on his shoulder blades. The MD kid climbs on top of him and wins the match in the fastest pin of the season.
This contest should have never taken place. But somewhere in the great US of A some "self-esteem fanatics" must have dreamt this great equalizer of a match up. I can barely conceive the confusion of values and self appraisal that must have gone through the minds of those boys... and probably still does and in some ways may stay forever.
Posted by rossbcan on 01/11/13 06:42 PM
JW: "the difference between inflating a student's grades so that their self-esteem is not injured versus giving students clear and honest feedback on their performance so that they can take the action they need to improve."
Hmm, perhaps "improving" is according to the definitions of those whom provide FALSE feedback. Garbage in, garbage out:
Click to view link
Only predators can believe that "improvement" is YOUR demise, a simple matter of perspective.
as to the "the phony self-esteem movement", ran into that backed by gavels during my equally phony "legal" divorce. Apparently, my "carrots (rewards) and sticks (loss of privleges)" approach to teaching personal responsibility to my daughters was considered both "abusive" and destructive to the little darling's "self-esteem".
So, went to "plan B", raised them alone with total state opposition. Now, they are both career women, university educated, with REAL "self-esteem", very happy.
What don't THEY get? Self-Esteem is "from self", your own internal evaluation of yourself. Some may "pretend", but, there is no lying to yourself, not in the long term.
Posted by alaska3636 on 01/11/13 05:45 PM
tone-bone: Michael Jordan was a genius?!?
Alaska: The point of throwing Jordan in there was to point out that genius isn't necessarily the intellectual-kind.
But if you don't think Jordan was a genius (by my definition, anyway: predilection meeting discipline) than you clearly have not followed a lot of basketball. He completely changed the notion that a shooting guard could be dominant enough to win games, much less championships (6 of them, second only to, the much taller, Bill Russel's 11). Of the top ten highest scoring players all-time, all are power forwards or centers, and Jordan sits at number three. Kobe is at number five, and if anything, his gameplay, derivative of Jordan, points towards the effectiveness of the style.
And I don't want to hear that pro sports is a massive government-sponsored circus to placate the masses and subjugate their violent feelings towards the culture they live in. I know that; but it still doesn't change the fact.
On another note, as far as the guy at the dry cleaners gets the red wine stains out of my button-downs, he's a genius too...
Posted by MarketMentat on 01/11/13 04:55 PM
This is a terrific piece, and sits nicely next to the fascinating Dunning-Kruger paper (showing that the incompetent are also incompetent at assessing their competence - a form of mental anosognosia).
I had a very quick answer to this bit...
"Let's say you think of yourself as "brilliant." What happens if you do poorly on a test at school? You're brilliant, right? How can a brilliant kid do poorly on a test? Brilliant kids do brilliantly on tests, without having to do much work, since they're so brilliant. If you do poorly, then by this logic it must mean that you're not so brilliant, and your inflated self-concept can be crushed."
Sadly, no. What is more likely to happen is a temper tantrum and a parent mewling that Little Johnnie has always been above average and so the teacher must simply hate him irrationally.
Back in the late 90s when I was teaching undergraduate economics and econometrics (which had reasonably stringent entry criteria), I would always office visits from get students who did not get the mark they expected: it was always a problem immediately after mid-semester exams for first year classes.
"But I got 97% for Economics at High School!" they would mewl.
"So did everyone else in the class, kid." would come the stern reply.
Those who were good enough to stay on until 3rd year (where almost all classes are elctive) did not suffer from this: they had passed through the crucible and were better able to evaluate their position in the hierarchy.
@alaska3636, I agree up to a point: **some** folks who are touted as 'genius' often don't get the recognition of just how hard they work... it's just assumed that they have preternatural skills.
But there is also the fact that a bright person has attributes favourable to their field of endeavour AND (in intellectual pursuits) is better able to find ways to improve the marginal productivity of their time.
They then get the opportunity to 'satisfice': rather than maximising their result, they can simply set a level below they refuse to fall, and take more leisure. I did that all through school, and can honestly say that the only time I 'pulled on the oars' was my Masters coursework year.
The existence of "my IQ is 140" individuals who live in their parents' house at age 35 is a different issue - possibly due to the fact that very bright people rapidly see the futility of a standard "commute to a cubicle" model... although replacing it by drinking soda and playing World of Warcraft for days on end probably just means that their number is fake: the test can be hacked - by which I mean people will "prep" for the test by doing other tests, and only do the Mensa test when they know what it's going to look like).
Posted by Friend_of_John_Galt on 01/11/13 03:52 PM
Some time around fifth or sixth grade, I managed to discover my IQ (thanks to a careless teacher reviewing my school records).
Later, when I discussed my finding with my parents, they pointed out: It's not enough to "be a genius" -- you must be "a genius" AT SOMETHING.
While my intelligence has been a help ... it is more true than ever that my accomplishments (and resulting self esteem) was the result of hard work and considerable effort. One may be born with certain talents and _potentials_, but it requires development, concentration, hard work, and time to accomplish tasks and goals -- to then EARN the respect of others and the ability to feel good about oneself.
Posted by tone-bone on 01/11/13 03:34 PM
Geniuses... . so few true ones, so many imposters. Michael Jordan was a genius?!? Exactly what I'm talking about.
Lets drop the word, 'genius', from the lexicon.
Intellegence takes many diverse forms.
There's photographic-memory type intellegence. But unless the PM type genius reads it, he/she can't come to the conclusion because it hasn't been presented to him/her. Good for rote memory style tests, and cocktail parties.
Financial Intellegence. There are some people that can turn almost anything into a profit. Take Donald Trump, or Jamie Dimon for example. But are they intellegent? Not from what they say, write. They seem rather average to me, as far as being well rounded intellegent people. Dead moralistically.
Making Connection(s) type intellegence. Einstein is very adept at making connections like, understand that mass and energy are 2 sides of the same coin, and when releasing the energy of mass, a rather loud "boom" will result. But Albert wasn't good at making money, or actually, he admits not all that good at mathmatics.
Political intellegence. The ability to seem very sincere, while lying through their teeth.
The list goes on and on. Show me 1 person that has all these attributes, and only then will you have your genius. I agree with alaska3636 that most 'geniuses' are completely obsessed with their pursuit and because of that discover and master new ideas.
Posted by alaska3636 on 01/11/13 12:15 PM
When I hear people bandy about the word genius, it's usually in the context of a divinely gifted individual. Einstein was a genius; Mozart was a genius; Michael Jordan was a genius. Talk about a fixed trait mindset...
Usually, my response is that when you see a genius in action, it's the tip of the iceberg. Genius is a pursuit highly driven by high expectations and discipline. What you don't see is the blood, sweat and tears that the genius spent honing their craft.
To me, genius is what happens when predilection meets discipline. Thus, and I truly believe this, we all embody the capability for genius in some aspect of this complex life.