The self-esteem wave may have crested. For the last couple of decades it's been an article of faith among experts of many stripes that high self-esteem is the font from which all human goodness springs. The movement reached a fever pitch in the 1980s when California funded a state task force on self-esteem, claiming that "many, if not most, of the major problems plaguing society have roots in ... low self-esteem."
Research on the subject has yielded a mixed bag of results. But a lengthy review of the literature, led by psychologist Roy Baumeister of Florida State University in Tallahassee, now concludes that high self-regard per se is not necessarily good, nor does it translate into higher estimates by others of a person's brains, beauty, or virtue. The authors scanned the published literature on self-esteem's purported effects on school and job performance, interpersonal relationships, antisocial behavior, and drug abuse. Self-esteem, they conclude, "is ... not a major predictor or cause of almost anything (... with the possible exception of happiness)."
Psychologist Robert Bjork of the University of California, Los Angeles, says the self-esteem movement has led to the credo that "every kid should feel good about him- or herself ... in some contest, for example, whatever the actual merits of their carved pumpkin every kid had to get the same prize." But contrary to the assumption behind such approaches, "self-esteem is a result, not a cause, of doing well," the authors write in the May issue of Psychological Science in the Public Interest.
They also point out that "indiscriminate praise might just as easily promote narcissism." And thinking you're great doesn't necessarily mean you are. After all, observes Brown University psychologist Lewis Lipsitt, Hitler thought highly of himself. So far, research has not succeeded in teasing apart the effects of "good" self-esteem from the grandiose or self-deluded varieties.
Self-esteem as panacea is "a very compelling illusion," because it correlates with happiness and other good things, says Baumeister. But he believes psychologists "were a little too eager in promoting the program before the data were in." Baumeister says his current research contains quite a different lesson about how to be a successful person: "Forget about self-esteem--concentrate on self-control."