Study: Self-esteem may be doing harm

Undue pride tied to violence

By Bernard Bauer, San Jose Mercury News, Saturday February 24, 1996 (Front page)

Too much self-esteem--not to little--can be a key factor in determining aggressive and violent behavior.

That's the message from three researchers who analyzed more that 150 studies in psychology and criminology, then published their findings in this month's edition of the scientific journal Psychology Review.

"The societal pursuit of high self-esteem for everyone may literally end up doing considerable harm," the researches say in the journal, which is published by the American Psychological Association.

They found aggressive people have unusually high self-esteem--defined as "a favorable global evaluation of oneself"--especially compared to achievements.

The research was immediately challenged by self-esteem proponents who said they had seen success with their programs. But the study has potentially profound implications for dealing with social problems linked to aggression, from gangs and rapists to angry, hostile Type A personalities.

"You've got a lot of people running around with seriously inflated egos who come crashing down to earth all the time," said study co-author Joseph Boden, a post-doctoral research associate at the University of Virginia. "You've got to attach it to real, concrete accomplishments and skills."

The study found that aggressive, violent and hostile people--such as neo-Nazis, wife-beaters and members of the Klu Klux Klan--"consistently express favorable views of themselves."

'Threatened egotism'

When confronted with their weaknesses and failures, however, they lash out--typically at those who have challenged what the researchers call their "threatened egotism."

Psychologist Charles Spielberger, a nationally recognized expert on anger and hostility at the University of South Florida, said the same principle applies to the Type A personality. Type A aggression is used to ward off facing unpleasant facts about oneself, said Spielberger, who was not a member of the research team. "These people think, 'You can't hurt me because I'm going to beat your brains out before you have a chance to.'"

The research could fuel the controversy over school-based programs to boost self-esteem.

"Young black children often have very high self-esteem, but their academic performance is often very low," said black writer Shelby Steele, a research fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University. "The whole emphasis on culture and self-esteem will never work. It will just add to the grandiosity. You're denying the real problem--which is the poor performance."

Boosters aren't backing down, though they acknowledge they've relied on anecdotal evidence, rather than data, to support their view.

'Precedes "doing"'

"We didn't claim to have proven it at all," said state Assemblyman John Vasconcellos, D-San Jose, who sponsored the legislation that created California's Task Force to Promote Self-Esteem and Personal and Social Responsibility in 1987. "The science was not very far advanced."

But he insisted that an underlying sense of self-esteem is important and leads to accomplishment. "Self-esteem precedes 'doing,'" Vasconcellos said.

But the Psychological Review study says that programs aimed at improving self-esteem could be making problems worse.

"Trying to build the self-esteem...could be counterproductive," said study co-author Laura Smart. "It would be better to focus on actual achievements and accomplishments, rather than simply patting them on the back and trying to raise their self-esteem."

The study also suggests that psychotherapy aimed at raising the self-esteem of violent people could be harmful. "These people are often violent precisely because they already believe themselves to be superior beings," the authors write. "Perhaps it would be better to try instilling modesty and humility."

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