| Analysis: Questioning the conventional
wisdom of self-esteem
Host: NEAL CONAN Time: 3:00-4:00 PM
NEAL CONAN host:
This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.
There are thousands of books on how to raise your
self-esteem, or what to do if your self-esteem is low.
There are self-esteem programs in
schools, at rehab centers and self-esteem seminars for the
average Joes. It's an idea that seems perfectly in tune with an
America that emphasized the self, happiness and how to pursue it.
Feeling good about yourself is the key to unleash the potential for
goodness inside us all.
Now a small group of researchers is beginning to question the
conventional wisdom about self-esteem. In fact, they argue
that thinking well of yourself could be a problem for some people.
One of these self- esteem skeptics is psychologist and author Lauren
Slater. She described her concerns in an article in yesterday's New
York Times Magazine. Lauren Slater is our guest today. She joins us
from member station WBUR in Boston.
And welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.
Ms. LAUREN SLATER (Psychologist; Author, "Great Psychological
Experiments of the 20th Century"): Thank you.
CONAN: Is the assumption that happiness or well-being comes from
how we feel about ourselves--is that fundamentally flawed, do you
Ms. SLATER: Well, I think that it depends how you define
happiness. I mean, I think that the assumption that life will be
pleasurable if we feel good about ourselves is a fairly logical
assumption to make. The question is does feeling good about
ourselves make for the life that's really worth living?
CONAN: So to the listener, what is self-esteem anyway? And
it is American to want to have a lot of it? Why don't you get in on
this conversation? Our number here in Washington is (800) 989-8255.
That' s (800) 989-TALK. Our e-mail address is email@example.com.
And, Lauren Slater, why don't we go to that definition? What is
Ms. SLATER: Well, that's part of the problem. I mean,
self-esteem is a really slippery ephemeral kind of word
that's hard to pin down, and it means different things to different
people. It's probably at--its most striped down meaning as a
favorable global view of one' s self and one's capacities. And
that's measured in the field of psychology oftentimes on
pencil-and-paper tests. So if you score high in a test, that shows
that you feel good about yourself. Then you would be deemed to have
CONAN: Is self-esteem one of those terms of art that we
laypeople have confounded with a whole bunch of other stuff?
Ms. SLATER: I don't know that you laypeople are any more guilty
of that than any of the so-called professional people, but we
certainly toss around the word an awful lot and don't really know
what it means. I, for one, am not sure what it means. I mean, it
means to esteem yourself, but what does that mean? Does that simply
mean to think highly of yourself, or is self-esteem partly
rooted in the ability to tolerate not thinking highly of yourself?
So, you know, again it depends how you want to define the term. But
what research has shown is that high self-esteem, as defined
by a global positive self- assessment of one's self is not
necessarily correlated with academic achievement, with educational
achievement, with positive parenting skills. In fact, sometimes high
CONAN: It's what we generally describe as a success in life.
Ms. SLATER: Exactly. In fact, it can be just the opposite. High
self-esteem can actually be problematic. It actually is
correlated at times with crime rate, violence, racist attitudes,
that sort of thing.
CONAN: So why do we esteem it so highly?
Ms. SLATER: Well, it feels good to have high self-esteem,
I think. I myself don't often have it, so I'm not sure. But the few
fleeting moments that it happens to me it's just a good feeling. And
I think that in this--I hate to make huge, sweeping generalizations,
but I think it's fair to say in this country we're fairly tethered
to the notion that we should feel good and that that is our right,
so thus we pursue self-esteem. We think that the good life is
feeling good as opposed to acting good.
CONAN: Well, one of the questions that you raise in your article,
and one of the questions that we hope to explore a little bit now,
is whether there's any proof of that. And joining us now is a man
who researched and conducted a study on self-esteem, Roy
Baumeister. He's professor of psychology at Case Western Reserve
University, and he joins us from Stanford University's campus in
Palo Alto, California.
Welcome to the program.
Professor ROY BAUMEISTER (Case Western University): Thank you.
CONAN: So how did you define self-esteem as you conducted
Prof. BAUMEISTER: Well, self-esteem means thinking well of
yourself, like Lauren said. And high self-esteem is people
who hold a favorable view of themselves, thus it's perception, not
reality. You can think well of yourself because you accurately
appreciate what you're good at. You can also think well of yourself
just 'cause you're a conceited snob. And the self-esteem is
the same in either case. We might like to make some other
Beyond that, in terms of our research, we waded through something
like 15,000 published studies on self-esteem using
essentially the ways that people have tested at them in research,
which is the kind of questionnaires the Lauren mentioned.
CONAN: Now were you surprised at the results?
Prof. BAUMEISTER: Well, we'd had some inklings, but yes, there
are always surprises in anything of that magnitude. I thought the
correlations would be bigger, if only because doing well in school
should produce high self-esteem, even if high
self-esteem isn't a cause. We thought, you know, that that
form of success should lead to self-esteem. And, you know,
maybe it does a tiny little bit, but there sure isn't even much sign
of that. Certainly self-esteem doesn't seem to cause people
to do better in school.
CONAN: And you say low self-esteem is not harmful. So why
does everyone tell us it's terrible?
Prof. BAUMEISTER: Well, I don't know who everyone is who's saying
that it's terrible. But no, first of all there doesn't seem to be a
great deal of really low self-esteem around. The average
person already thinks that he or she is above average. There's lots
of evidence of that. Yes.
CONAN: We all go to school in Lake Wobegon.
Prof. BAUMEISTER: That's correct.
We started a survey of driving, I think about 15, 20 years ago,
and asked, `How do you compare with the average driver?' And 90
percent of the people claimed to be above average. And then there
are more and more findings like that. There was a survey of
high-school students in which nobody at all claimed to be below
average in getting along with others--zero. Everyone was in the top
50 percent. And there are just lots and lots of findings like that.
People think they're smarter than they are and more attractive and
so on. So low self- esteem is not the epidemic problem we think. Now
here and there there may be a person who really seriously
underestimates himself or herself. But, you know, the only even hint
of that on a broad systematic finding is that women don't like their
bodies so they complain about their bodies.
CONAN: And just as you were talking about, you know, high
self-esteem as--well, arrogance comes to mind. And low
self-esteem, a little humility?
Prof. BAUMEISTER: Yes. Well, I think humility has much to be said
for it. It hasn't fully been appreciated. We know the religious
traditions- -in Christianity, in Judaism and Buddhism and the
others--have always stressed humility as a path to spiritual
advancement and it's something that's good for society at large.
And, well, that has a point, too. But the thing is that
self-esteem doesn't have really strong impact either way.
Either high or low self-esteem doesn't have nearly the
consequences of certainly I hoped when I started studying this 20,
25 years ago. I thought it was going to be a really important key to
understanding lots of behavioral phenomenon, but it just doesn' t
CONAN: Our telephone number is (800) 989-8255. That's (800) 989-
TALK. Our e-mail address, firstname.lastname@example.org. And our first caller is
Tyna(ph), who joins us from Denver, Colorado.
TYNA (Caller): Hi, Neal.
TYNA: My concern is having read her article last night...
CONAN: This is Lauren Slater's article.
TYNA: That's right. At the time reading it I was concerned about
the gender questions involved, that all of the examples of negative
correlation with high self-esteem, violence and racism, etc.,
were examples of guys who have that difficulty. And it seems to me
that in our society self-esteem is something that the vast
majority of women need to work on having more of. And that
self-esteem, as a matter of hubris and lack of concern for
other people is, to a large extent, a male problem.
CONAN: Well, Lauren Slater?
Ms. SLATER: On the one hand, I agree with that. On the other
hand, I don't. I do think that women have less hubris than men. And
certainly in the piece that I wrote, I cite far more problems with
male high self-esteem than females. In fact, probably all
examples are drawn from men. However, in my practice as a
psychologist, I have not found it to be useful for people to focus
on raising their self-esteem as a way of feeling better. And
that is the tendency--people do tend to come into treatment with
that expectation, that they'll somehow raise their
self-esteem and feel better. And, in fact, what makes people
feel better is usually when they put all assumptions or aims about
how they're going to feel aside and just start acting in a certain
way, not even thinking about self-esteem. And when
self-esteem comes it's really purely a byproduct of that. So
my piece is really largely coming out of this relentless focus on
making the self feel better and that that actually has not, in my
experience, really worked at all. So self-esteem is really
best left as a maybe somewhat remarkable byproduct of an industrious
TYNA: I feel that way, too, actually. But as its therapeutic
opposite, is it possible to work with people who have a destructive
level of self-esteem to get them to undo that?
Ms. SLATER: That's a huge question. I mean, is it poss--I mean,
again, I mean, part of the problem is how are we defining
self-esteem? But is it possible to undo narcissism? That's a
TYNA: That's it.
Ms. SLATER: ...psychological state. So, I mean...
TYNA: So we're speaking of self-esteem as narcissism...
Ms. SLATER: Well, that's a question I have actually. I mean...
TYNA: Me, too.
Ms. SLATER: ...I think there's a narcissistic component in the
kind of high self-esteem that researchers have looked at. And
maybe Roy Baumeister can comment on that. And I'm not sure that
narcissism is exactly the same thing as self-esteem, although
it shows up the same on paper-and-pencil tests. That's where we get
into some trouble.
TYNA: OK. Right.
CONAN: Roy Baumeister? Professor?
Prof. BAUMEISTER: Yeah. Actually they are now some tests for
narcissism, too, and they can be distinguished but they do overlap.
I think what the crucial issue here is that high self-esteem
is a mixed bag. There are very different kinds of high
self-esteem. Some of them are people with this narcissistic
sense. And for the readers who aren't familiar with the term, it
comes from the Greek myth of the guy who fell in love with his own
reflection in the water. And it refers to that sense of being
superior to others, and always deserving the best, and thinking you
can use people for your own advantage, and that sort of sense of
privilege and superiority. And that's the obnoxious version of high
self-esteem. And there's also a very easy- going,
peace-loving version of high self-esteem, people who just
kind of love themselves for what they're good at and aren't so upset
about other people.
And I think research has to make more of this distinction and
focus more on that because just talking about high
self-esteem we often see them at the opposites. Studies of,
you know, do people do socially desirable behaviors? Well, some
people with high self-esteem do more and some people with
high self-esteem do less than the others. The high
self-esteem gravitates to both extremes, with narcissism
perhaps explaining part of that.
And getting back to the gender question, there is a slight gender
difference in self-esteem, but it's not that big. It's small.
It' s sort of biggest in the teen years. But all this notion that
girls' self-esteem plummets or there's a big problem among
young women of low self-esteem, no. That appears to be
CONAN: OK, Tyna. Thanks very much for the call.
TYNA: Thank you.
Let's go now to Chris, who joins us from St. Louis.
CHRIS (Caller): Yes. Good afternoon.
CHRIS: I just wanted to kind of throw out the idea that the whole
idea of self-esteem, or particularly kind of the more, I
guess you could say, pathological manifestations of high
self-esteem, seem to me to be a profoundly American
phenomenon. It's very much in accordance with our kind of mythology,
this bootstrapping Horatio Algeresque kind of thing where we get
this sense of privilege and perhaps even superiority because we've
done our darndest to get ourselves there.
CONAN: Raising ourselves from humble origins by our own efforts.
CONAN: Yeah. That's the Horatio Alger myth.
And Lauren Slater, you raise it in the article, this...
Ms. SLATER: Mm-hmm.
CONAN: ...confusion, or at least not necessarily confusion but
this lumping together...
Ms. SLATER: Yeah.
CONAN: ...of self-esteem in the pursuit of happiness.
Ms. SLATER: Yeah. Well, I think that the caller is right. It
certainly does seem that in this culture we think it's our right to
have self- esteem. And it is probably a particularly Western or
American idea that we should feel good about ourselves. And because
of that I think it's been very hard for us to actually assimilate as
a culture researchers like Roy Baumeisters or Nicholas Emler's or
other people who are really challenging this idea of
self-esteem. It's gotten very little press I think because
it's as though we're challenging the alphabet. I mean, it's just a
given. Self-esteem is a given. But, in fact, it' s not. The
fact that we have not looked at it, though, shows how entrenched the
CONAN: Chris, thanks for the call.
CHRIS: Thank you.
CONAN: We're talking about self-esteem and its worth. Is
it essential to our personal well-being, or is it way overrated?
When we return, we'll hear from Nathaniel Branden, known as the
father of the self- esteem movement. And we want to hear from you.
Now don't be shy; (800) 989-TALK. I'm Neal Conan. This is TALK OF
THE NATION from NPR News.
(Soundbite of music)
CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.
Today we're talking about the importance of self-esteem
and whether it may be overstated. Our guests are Lauren Slater,
psychologist and the author of several books, the latest the
forthcoming "Great Psychological Experiments of the 20th Century;"
and Roy Baumeister, a professor of psychology at Case Western
Do we really need to think highly of ourselves to feel good? And
is low self-esteem necessarily such a bad thing? We need you
to get in on this conversation: (800) 989-TALK. Our e-mail address
And joining us now is Nathaniel Branden, psychologist and the
author of "The Six Pillars of Self-Esteem." He is sometimes
described as the father of the self-esteem movement. And he
joins us from his office in Los Angeles.
And welcome to the program.
Dr. NATHANIEL BRANDEN (Psychologist; Author, "The Six Pillars of
Self- Esteem"): Thank you. Happy to be here.
CONAN: Now four decades ago, when you began lecturing on
self-esteem, the challenge, at that point, was to get people
to listen to this wacky idea, wasn't it?
Dr. BRANDEN: The challenge then was to get people to realize the
subject was important. Today a much bigger challenge is to prevent a
very important idea from becoming trivialized.
CONAN: And how do you think it's become trivialized?
Dr. BRANDEN: Well, this leads us right to my problems with what's
been said so far on this show.
Dr. BRANDEN: Unless you have a rational reality-based concept of
self-esteem, everything falls apart when you try to reason
about it. So that it's kind of you to describe me as the father of
the self- esteem movement, but the truth is that I often differ from
many spokespersons for this movement in that I think that they have
a notion of self- esteem of a very shallow kind and which leads to
just the problems we've been hearing discussed. Self-esteem,
as I understand it, is not, quote, "a feel-good phenomenon." It's
about something much deeper than that.
Let me begin with the definition. By self-esteem I mean
the experience of being competent to cope with the basic challenges
of life and of being worthy of happiness. So self-esteem has
two components. The first I call self-efficacy, which has to do with
the trusting of one' s ability to think, to learn, to make
appropriate decisions and choices. And self-respect, the second
constituent, which has to do with a sense of one's own values.
That's that achievement, love, trust and the word `happiness' seem
natural and appropriate to one, by which I don't mean that they're
honoring gifts of nature but rather that when they do arrive, and
providing one has done the wherewithal to earn them, they're not
incomprehensible miracles either.
Now self-esteem is not a direct causal agent, as I
understand it. It's not that it causes higher grades. I think of
self-esteem rather as a container for our experience.
Self-esteem, in a healthy sense, is a context which makes
behaviors more or less likely so that if a person has a solid
reality-based--this world-based--confidence in his or her own mind
and judgment, he or she is more likely to respond appropriately to
challenge than somebody who fundamentally has a significant lack of
trust in his or her own mind, judgment and thinking abilities.
I can't even imagine how that could be disputed. What further
needs to be said is this. You don't even have to be a freshman
student of psychology to know there is such a thing as compensatory
mechanisms whereby people who have a painfully low, deep, deep,
deep, often unadmitted view of themselves can compensate, can try to
buff themselves up with delusions of grandiosity, superiority,
making others wrong in order to make themselves right. But that is
pathology. That's not a problem of high self-esteem. It's
rather one of the ways that low self-esteem manifests in
behavior. I mean, who isn't aware of the fact of compensatory
mechanisms of this kind?
So I'm completely bewildered when I hear about discussions of
somebody, let's say one person, Mr. A....
Dr. BRANDEN: ...has a self-esteem grounded in the fact
that he lives consciously, he lives mindfully, he lives
self-responsibly, he lives with integrity and he has a solid, good
sense of himself as a human being, and a second person who
experiences temporary highs through the ingestion of drugs. But as I
recall in Dr. Baumeister's piece, no distinction is made between
these two states of consciousness. They're both called high
self-esteem. Well, it eradicates a distinction which I would
argue is of the most fundamental importance.
Is it a self-esteem based on reality? Is it a
self-esteem based upon the fact that the mind has, in fact,
developed in a way that makes genuine self-trust appropriate? Does
this person operate in a way that generates authentic self-respect,
or is it some kind of delirium produced by an alcohol or a drink or
a sexual experience? To lump all that together and then, on the
basis of that, to try to reason about self-esteem, I submit,
leads to a dead end. You can't go anywhere with that because your
starting base is not good enough.
CONAN: Well, why don't we bring Roy Baumeister in on this? You
were called by name there.
Prof. BAUMEISTER: OK. Yeah. And I'd like to say hello...
Dr. BRANDEN: Hi.
Prof. BAUMEISTER: ...and repeat Dr. Branden's research was some
of the things that inspired me to get interested in
self-esteem way back in the '70s. So I appreciate that. And
I'm really glad to hear him say this about the reality-based
self-esteem. And that's so discrepant from I think what was
being practiced in the schools, and parents where you just praise
Dr. BRANDEN: You see, that's the whole point.
Prof. BAUMEISTER: But that's exactly the wrong thing. Yeah. But
the reality-based sounds...
Dr. BRANDEN: It's not about being, `As long as I'm unique,' or
Prof. BAUMEISTER: Yeah. The reality...
Dr. BRANDEN: I tell the teachers--I say don't tell your kids
they' re unique. A hay sandwich is also unique. So what?
Prof. BAUMEISTER: Yeah. And I think the crucial point is what I
suggested a couple moment ago, is that high self-esteem is a
mixed bag and that there are people who are just defensively or
narcissistically who just think they're superior than others,
whether it's, I don't know, if drug induced or whether it's just
being brought up to, `I think your God's gift to the world.'
CONAN: But listening...
Prof. BAUMEISTER: And there are other people who accurately, you
know, appreciate there are good things. And those are going to be
totally different in terms of implications.
Dr. BRANDEN: Yeah, but that's only if one accepts your idea that
any inflated--or, pardon me, any pleasurable positive feeling about
the self equals self-esteem.
Prof. BAUMEISTER: Well...
Ms. SLATER: Well, I think that it's become--I think that one of
the things that this research that Roy Baumeister's or Nick Emler's
research is pointing to is that that is the general feeling about it
in our culture. I mean, when they're talking...
Dr. BRANDEN: Then I think one has to attack that misconception
rather than attack self-esteem.
Ms. SLATER: Well, I think that what we're talking about is
defining self-esteem and defining--in the piece I wrote I
talk about high, unstable self-esteem vs. high, stable
self-esteem. But self-esteem has become a kind of
knee-jerk word for our culture that means pursuing good feelings.
And that's what I think this research is challenging.
Prof. BAUMEISTER: Yeah.
Dr. BRANDEN: Well, then isn't it our job, as people who wanted to
work in this field, to really think through carefully what would
represent a fundamental, meaningful definition of self-esteem
that wouldn't obliterate distinctions which are really terribly
Ms. SLATER: But we should get rid of the whole word, same as we
should get rid of the word `addiction,' which has also come to mean
nothing. I mean, you talked about self-efficacy, and it sounds to me
like your work is rooted, at least partially, in sort of Ericksonian
ideas about industry vs. inferiority and developmental stages like
that. That, to me, is much more useful than the word
self-esteem, which is a puff word.
Dr. BRANDEN: Well, you see, here's the thing. It wasn't a puff
word when I began writing about it 40 years ago, and I grant you
that television just caught on to it and...
Ms. SLATER: Exactly.
Dr. BRANDEN: ...and I grant you that today an awful lot of
foolishness is said, but I'm not prepared to give up the term
because there's no other expression which has the potential to nail
a very important human experience. If we--somehow this word
disappeared from our language, it wouldn't take long when somebody
would put together some other words that would communicate what this
word has the potential to communicate.
And the interesting thing is, one of the ways that I validate
this is that I speak to groups all over the country and I try to
establish the fact that at a subconscious level we often know much
more than we think we know on this subject. And I will often ask
them to do a pencil and paper sans completion little experiment
before my lecture begins, before they've heard a single word from me
on the subject of self-esteem. I will ask them to write a
sentence such as the following: `If I brought 5 percent more
self-esteem to my work' or `If I brought 5 percent more
self-esteem to my relationship with my partner' or `If I
brought 5 percent more self-esteem to my interactions with my
children.' What is interesting is that almost unerringly, in any
city in the US or North America and in a number of cities where I'
ve done this in Europe, you always get the same responses you get-
-you tend to get overwhelmingly very realistic, very sane, very
accurate expressions that indicate that, at some level, they know
what real self-esteem means and they know in what ways it
makes a difference in behavior.
And to anybody who wants to independently check my thinking, that
is one of the reasons why in many of my books, such as "The Six
Pillars, " I give a lot of sans completion exercises and I tell
commissions, `Try this with your own clients and see if you get
results different from mine.' Nobody has ever reported that he has.
I get mail all the time from people who use the exercises and they
get exactly the results that show us that people know, at some level
of the psyche, what authentic self-trust vs. spurious,
self-delusional self-trust is like and in what kind of ways it makes
a difference to performance in professional life or in personal
CONAN: Nathaniel Branden, thank you very much for joining us.
Nathaniel Branden is a psychologist and the author of "The Six
Pillars of Self Esteem," and he spoke to us from his office in Los
Now let's get some more listeners involved in this. Our telephone
number is (800) 989-8255. Still with us, Lauren Slater and Roy
Baumeister. And the next caller is Matt, who's on the line also from
MATT (Caller): Well, good afternoon, Neal. It's a pleasure to be
on your show, and good day to all the distinguished scholars. And
I'd like to address in slightly different terms what Dr. Branden was
just saying, and I drew a lot of this from a wonderful column by
E.J. Dionne--I'm afraid I've fractured his name, but I...
CONAN: No, you got it pretty close.
MATT: It was printed several years ago and it was about the
difference between self-esteem and self-respect. And as I see
it practiced in schools an awful lot now, self-esteem is, you
know, `I am me. I am wonderful. I can do no wrong.' And, of course,
this is a sweeping generalization, so, you know, there's problems
with it. Self-respect comes about from accomplishments, knowing your
limitations, knowing what you can do well and what you can't do
well. And if you have self-respect, you will have self-esteem
and you will have respect for those around you. However, if you have
self-esteem, a lot of it is based on arrogance. You may not
have self-respect, you may not have, you know, respect for the
others around you. And I've seen an awful lot of teachers and an
awful lot of older students that are functionally illiterate--not
the teachers functionally illiterate, but everybody thinks it's OK
because they feel good about it. And again, this is a sweeping
generalization, but it leads to a nation full of adults that are
ignorant and perfectly content to be ignorant.
CONAN: Hmm. Lauren Slater, is that some of the trivialization
that Mr. Branden was talking to us about?
Ms. SLATER: Yeah. I think that that's exactly the way
self-esteem is billed and certainly the way it's transmitted
in educational programs and in many therapeutic settings. And that
is a trivialization. I think Mr.--or Dr. Branden is correct about
that and so is the caller.
CONAN: Mm-hmm. Matt, you say you see this--the effect on
students. What is the effect on the school?
MATT: Well, the effect on schools, you can see it nationwide. You
have schools that are not turning out educated students. You have so
many teachers that their major concern is management problems
because kids think it's OK to do what they want to do, when they
want to do it. And personally, 25 years ago, I had a lot of
self-esteem and I was a loser. Now I've got accomplishments
to look back at, I know what I can do, I know what I can't do. I
have self-esteem, but it stems from my self-respect. So a lot
of this is from personal experience. And, you know, again, this is a
sweeping generalization, but I see it ruining a lot of schools
where, you know, if a kid can read and a kid can think, then they'll
have self-respect and they'll have self- esteem. But you have a lot
of kids out there that can't read and can't think, and they're
perfectly content with it.
Ms. SLATER: And we're afraid to tell them that they can't read
and they can't think because then we might lower their
self-esteem and then they really won't be able to read and
think. We're really worried about this vicious cycle that we might
get into. And I think it has lowered standards in this country.
CONAN: Well, Matt, thanks very much for the call.
MATT: Well, thanks for letting me speak my piece.
CONAN: Sure. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR
And our next caller is Margaret, who's on the line from Oakland,
MARGARET (Caller): Hello.
MARGARET: Thanks for taking my call.
MARGARET: And I would like to just say that I think there is some
value in getting across to children that they do count in this world
and that they are important because I think there are lot of outside
sources that are making them feel just the opposite. Certainly we
see that where there are problems with racism, and I think poverty
can make children feel that they're not as valuable as other people
that are more--that are well-positioned. And I think that we need to
have some sort of an antidote for that.
MARGARET: I think the schools are trying to do that, but this--to
differentiate between self-respect and self-esteem I think is
a very good point.
CONAN: Let me ask Roy Baumeister, in your research, did you find
any special low esteem amongst persons of color, particularly kids,
as Margaret is talking about, or is it in terms of class?
Prof. BAUMEISTER: This has been studied very thoroughly. Black
children and black adults actually have higher self-esteem
than white people in America. The other minority groups have
slightly lower self-esteem than the white majority. But
self-esteem is highest among black people. So on the
receiving end of prejudice, that's where it stands. In terms of
holding prejudice, looking within a group, people with higher
self-esteem are more prejudice toward members of other
CONAN: Hmm. Is there--Margaret's point about the idea that kids
in endangered situations, whether that's as a result of poverty or
racism, need a special boost.
Prof. BAUMEISTER: Well, you know, I think we all want to help
people who are at a disadvantage. Whether self-esteem is the
important way to help them, given how little self-esteem
seems to make a difference, I wouldn't emphasize that. And again,
going back to the racial data, there's no question that particularly
our black fellow citizens have suffered a number of disadvantages.
But given that their self-esteem is higher, that doesn't seem
to be the focus of what we need to focus on in terms of trying to
help them out. And I think there are more palpable resources and
other things that we can do to help people other than encouraging
them to think a lot of themselves.
MARGARET: Yep. I would agree with that. But I do think that just
getting them to have self-respect, because I think a lot of children
come from homes where they're not given a sense of self-respect and
so maybe that's the approach that's needed, and not to expect the
schools to do it, but I think the schools have been trying to make
up for that.
CONAN: Well, thanks very much for the call.
MARGARET: OK. Thank you.
CONAN: And let's go to Joe, who's in Oshkosh, Wisconsin.
JOE (Caller): Hi, Neal. I've worked with drug education programs
in school districts here in Wisconsin for the last decade and I'd
like your guests to react to a comment of mine. And in looking
through as much literature as I could on the issue--on the
connection between low self-esteem and increased rates or
levels of drug use, I just really couldn't find anything that
validates all of this stuff in drug education programs that are
based on the premise, you know, that people who have low
self-esteem are much more likely to indulge in drug use and
have drug problems where, in fact, I think what's more the case is
as people start using drugs and they're faced with, you know, the
feelings that, you know--especially if they become dependent on
drugs in one way or the other...
CONAN: Joe? Joe, excuse me. We're running out of time in this
segment. Can you hang on with us?
CONAN: We'll get an answer or a comment after we come back?
CONAN: OK. Press the right button. We're talking about
self-esteem and its worth. Is it overvalued and is it an
American ideal to want to have a lot of it? When we return, besides
Joe, we'll hear from somebody who studied a popular form of
psychotherapy in Japan which says self-esteem is not a goal
in itself but a byproduct of having fulfilled a life.
I'm Neal Conan. This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.
Tomorrow at this time, the trial of Slobodan Milosevic begins on
February 12th at an international tribunal in The Hague. It's the
first time a head of state has been tried for war crimes since the
Nuremberg Nazi trials after the Second World War. We'll talk about
the case for and against Slobodan Milosevic and the larger issues of
stability in the Balkans.
Today, though, we're talking about how much we value
self-esteem in America. Our guests are Lauren Slater,
psychologist and author, and Roy Baumeister, professor of psychology
at Case Western Reserve University. To get in on the conversation,
give us a call at (800) 989-8255, (800) 989-TALK. Our e-mail
And before we went away to the break, Joe from Oshkosh,
Wisconsin, had called with a question about the relationship between
low self- esteem and drug abuse. And, Roy Baumeister, this is
something you' ve studied.
Prof. BAUMEISTER: Oh, yes. There are extensive data on it and Joe
is right, it just doesn't pan out. It's not true that low
self-esteem leads to a greater drug use or addiction or
anything like that. There may be a slight effect that becoming an
addict and screwing up your life lowers your self-esteem, but
even that is much weaker than we might hope.
Prof. BAUMEISTER: And I think Emler in his self-esteem
book that just came out, he talked more about DARE and some of these
programs, or D-A-R-E, that are aimed at boosting self-esteem
and these, by this point, are pretty proven failures as Emler
surveys a number of published studies to that effect. So I think Joe
is quite on target that rating self-esteem is not--you know,
may be good for some things, but for avoiding drug abuse or alcohol
abuse or anything like that, it does not seem to be the answer.
JOE: Well, thanks. You know, that's kind of the answer that I was
hoping for, and hopefully we can get some of these school
administrators to sit up and take notice.
CONAN: Well, thanks very much for the call and thanks for hanging
JOE: Thank you.
CONAN: Appreciate it.
Joining us now is David Reynolds, a psychological anthropologist,
founder of Constructive Living, which is a kind of therapy based on
a popular form of therapy in Japan. He lives and practices in
Oregon, but he joins us today from Gabriola Island in British
Mr. DAVID REYNOLDS (Psychological Anthropologist; Founder,
Constructive Living): Hello. Glad to be here.
CONAN: I have not been to Gabriola Island, but it sounds
Mr. REYNOLDS: It's quite a place. And I'd like to offer another
perspective on self-esteem.
Mr. REYNOLDS: So far people have been talking about
self-esteem as a kind of--almost a constant, more or less
unchanging over time. And you get that perspective especially if
you're doing pencil and paper tests. They're sort of snapshots of
where people are at at a given time. But I remember when I was a kid
growing up, people told me to take pride in myself or to feel good
about myself all the time, and it didn't seem to be realistic
because some of the time I'm a really nice guy and some of the time
I'm not so nice. Some of the time I'm really sharp and some of the
time I'm dull. Some of the time I'm kind, some of the time I'm not.
So why should I keep feeling good about myself consistently over
time when I keep changing like that? I think most people are like
Mr. REYNOLDS: So the question then is: What do you do about this,
these changes that take place? Well, in our society, people, I
think, expect that you need to fix feelings in order to get things
done in your life. That's the strategy that underlines a lot of
psychotherapy in our world. And in the Japanese world, one of the
things that people need to take into consideration is that even when
I'm being a jerk- -I hate to use these technical terms...
Mr. REYNOLDS: ...but even when I'm not being exactly the perfect
person that I really ought to be all the time, the world keeps
supporting me, I mean, in very concrete, specific ways. This phone
connection keeps us in contact, whether I happen to be full of
self-esteem or not at the moment, whether I deserve
self-esteem or not at this moment.
Mr. REYNOLDS: People keep trucking food to the market and selling
the food to me and giving me money so that I can buy the food and so
forth, whether I deserve it or not. So there's something that you
might consider reality esteem. And whether my self-esteem is
up or down at any particular point in time--and that keeps changing,
realistically--that reality keeps supporting me and I think it's
more constant in some ways than self-esteem might be.
CONAN: Hmm. Well, can you stay with us and take some phone calls?
Mr. REYNOLDS: Sure.
CONAN: All right. Why don't we go next to Ken. Ken joins us from
San Diego, in California.
KEN (Caller): Well, hi, Neal. Thanks for taking my call.
KEN: I was brought up in two cultures. I was born in India. I
moved to England, where I did a PhD and where I spent 16 years of my
life. And I have to tell you that I haven't heard the word
self-esteem either in India or in England as much as I hear
it in this country. After I got my PhD, I moved back to India and
then I moved to MIT. A lot of people, the way they were saying
things that, `Oh, how on earth can you compete in a place like
this?' And I feel this word has been overused so much in this
country, and I think sometimes it' s really causing harm to kids
that I come across every day in high school and so on, because every
time they fail to do something and if you tell them, `Well, you
know, this is not the way to do it. You have to work hard if you
want to get somewhere,' they would think that I'm doing something to
lower their self-esteem. I feel the word really has been
misused or overused so much that it is causing what I would call a
really--a rather harmful effect on children who are not ordinarily
able to cope with any kind of criticism. And I would like your panel
to really make comments on this, that how does these words
`self-esteem'--whether they have done any kind of research in
other countries, particularly where there isn't this kind of
emphasis on the words that we find here in our country?
CONAN: Well, thanks very much for the suggestion. David Reynolds,
I must say that Ken's comments seem to resonate with some of what
you were talking about.
Mr. REYNOLDS: Yeah. And I don't want you to think that this is an
Oriental concept. I want you to consider that life is not a
snapshot, it's a moving picture.
Mr. REYNOLDS: And notions about the self ought to change,
naturally, from moment to moment. And when you check out that
reality, you' re going to come to the conclusion that you can't make
general statements about--or reasonable general statements about
where a person's self- esteem is at over time.
CONAN: OK. Lauren Slater?
Ms. SLATER: Yeah?
CONAN: Well, I'm not asking you to disagree with that...
Ms. SLATER: I'm still here.
CONAN: ...now, but...
Ms. SLATER: Well, I find myself...
Prof. BAUMEISTER: Well, I can disagree with that.
Ms. SLATER: Well, one of the things, before you disagree, is that
I think we need to also just--we're throwing around the word `self-
esteem' and there's real reason for that. But, I mean, one of the-
-I think that one of the callers was saying that self-esteem
is used a lot here, and why is it continuously used and it has a--it
leads to poor outcomes. And, you know, I actually think that that's
probably true. But one of the things we maybe need to touch on is,
`Well, what will fill its place?' I mean, there's a--we're not going
to get rid of this sort of fluffy concept of self-esteem
unless we have something else to fill in for it and that's something
that I hope we get a chance to consider. But, Roy, were you going to
Prof. BAUMEISTER: Yes. I was going to say we--there are studies
that look at self-esteem across time and it fluctuates but
only a small amount. I--this was a surprise to me and, I think, to
many researchers, that mostly people have kind of a baseline of how
well they think of themselves and, you know, something good happens,
it goes up a little bit, or they get rejected or a bad grade or
something, then they go down a little bit. But it only goes up or
down a small amount, and pretty fast it goes back to its baseline,
Mr. REYNOLDS: Or at least that's they way they...
Prof. BAUMEISTER: ...self-esteem is indeed quite stable.
Mr. REYNOLDS: ...respond to baseline tests--pencil and paper
tests at particular points in time over time.
Prof. BAUMEISTER: Well, that--yes.
CONAN: OK. Could be.
Ms. SLATER: But if we were to go back to the baseline of this
particular show and to say that we--there has been some compelling
work that low self-esteem is not the risk factor we thought
it was for delinquency, violence towards others, drug use, alcohol
abuse, educational underattainment or racism, if we were to grant
that research some status and to say, `OK, let's go with that,' then
the question is, what do we need to put in the place of
self-esteem programs? If self-esteem is not going to
fix these things or help ameliorate these conditions, and these are
serious social problems, then what is?
Mr. REYNOLDS: There's something even more fundamental under that,
and that is, why is America so feeling-focused? Why is it that we
want to fix feelings before we can get on a plane? I'm afraid to
fly, for example, and I fly all the time. And people keep telling me
that I should be more comfortable about flying so that I can fly.
But really, all I need to do is buy airline tickets.
Ms. SLATER: I completely agree with you, although, of course, I
don' t ever get on the plane. I just talk--or sit around talking
about how afraid I am, but I completely agree with you, we focus way
too much on feelings. But you can't just tell someone not to focus
on feelings, you have to give them a way to not do that.
CONAN: Well, I'm afraid we're running out of time in this
segment. And in relation to what Lauren Slater was just saying, what
she was talking about is the idea of responsibility. She ends her
article in The New York Times talking about the importance of the
sense of responsibility and not esteem, so maybe if you wanted to
pursue the question further, yesterday's copy of The Sunday New York
Times Magazine might be the first place to begin. But, Ken, first of
all, thanks for your call.
KEN: Well, thanks a lot. And I'm enjoying the discussion.
CONAN: OK. Thank you. David Reynolds, thank you for joining us.
Mr. REYNOLDS: You're quite welcome.
CONAN: David Reynolds, a psychological anthropologist, the
founder of Constructive Living based on a Japanese therapy. And also
we wanted to thank our guests for the hour: Lauren Slater, a
psychologist and author, and her article in The New York Times
Magazine was entitled The Trouble With Self-Esteem. She
joined us from member station WBUR in Boston. Thank you.
Ms. SLATER: Thanks for having me.
CONAN: And Roy Baumauster--Beim--eh, Roy Baumeister--I'll get
that right--professor of psychologist at Case Western Reserve
University, and he joined us from the campus of Stanford University
in Palo Alto. Thank you for joining us.
Prof. BAUMEISTER: Thank you. And if I could just making a closing
comment, I'd like to amplify Lauren's statement that I think
forgetting about self-esteem and concentrating on
self-control is a much more productive way to help people lead
happy, productive lives.
CONAN: You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
NEAL CONAN, Analysis: Questioning the conventional wisdom
of self-esteem. , Talk of the Nation (NPR),