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Analysis: Questioning the conventional wisdom of self-esteem
Date: 02-04-2002; Publication: Talk of the Nation (NPR); Author: NEAL CONAN

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Talk of the Nation (NPR) 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 think?

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 totn@npr.org.

And, Lauren Slater, why don't we go to that definition? What is self- esteem?

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 high self-esteem.

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 self...

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 your study?

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 distinctions.

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 pan out.

CONAN: Our telephone number is (800) 989-8255. That's (800) 989- TALK. Our e-mail address, totn@npr.org. And our first caller is Tyna(ph), who joins us from Denver, Colorado.

TYNA (Caller): Hi, Neal.

CONAN: Hi.

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 life.

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 snarled...

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 completely wrong.

CONAN: OK, Tyna. Thanks very much for the call.

TYNA: Thank you.

CONAN: OK.

Let's go now to Chris, who joins us from St. Louis.

CHRIS (Caller): Yes. Good afternoon.

CONAN: 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.

CHRIS: Precisely.

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 idea is.

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 Reserve University.

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 is totn@npr.org.

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.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

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....

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

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 everything indiscriminately.

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 `I...'

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 important?

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.

CONAN: Yeah.

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 life.

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 Angeles.

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 Los Angeles.

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 News.

And our next caller is Margaret, who's on the line from Oakland, California.

MARGARET (Caller): Hello.

CONAN: Hi.

MARGARET: Thanks for taking my call.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

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.

CONAN: Are...

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 groups.

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.

CONAN: Margaret?

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: Bye-bye.

MARGARET: Bye.

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?

JOE: Sure.

CONAN: We'll get an answer or a comment after we come back?

JOE: Sure.

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.

(Announcements)

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 address: totn@npr.org.

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.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

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.

CONAN: Joe?

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 with us.

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 Columbia.

And welcome.

Mr. DAVID REYNOLDS (Psychological Anthropologist; Founder, Constructive Living): Hello. Glad to be here.

CONAN: I have not been to Gabriola Island, but it sounds fabulous.

Mr. REYNOLDS: It's quite a place. And I'd like to offer another perspective on self-esteem.

CONAN: Please.

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 that.

CONAN: Hmm.

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...

CONAN: Yeah.

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.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

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.

CONAN: Sure.

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.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

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 say something?

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, so...

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), 02-04-2002.

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