| The self-esteem movement may be
running out of esteem.
With its feel-good slogans and extravagant claims, the movement
is hopelessly naive and doomed to failure, according to William B.
Swann Jr., one of the leading researchers of how self-concept is
"My little girl came home from school with a T-shirt saying, `I
am lovable and capable,' and she didn't even know what capable
meant, " says Mr. Swann, adding that kids see through such hollow
Mr. Swann, 44, a psychology professor at the University of Texas
at Austin, has studied the workings of self-concept for 15 years,
with funding from the National Institute of Mental Health and the
National Science Foundation.
His findings are outlined in a new book, Self-Traps: The Elusive
Quest for Higher Self-Esteem (W.H. Freeman, $23.95).
Mr. Swann sees a backlash building against the mantra of
self-esteem, which holds that poor self-image is the root
cause of poverty, school failure, drug abuse and a host of other
social problems. The most famous - or infamous - outgrowth of the
movement is California's Task Force to Promote Self-Esteem
and Personal and State Responsibility.
Not only is there no evidence to support such a cause-and-effect
relationship, Mr. Swann says, but boosting self-esteem is far
more difficult and complex than many people realize.
One teacher, for example, told Mr. Swann she had been advised by
the school counselor not to ask a certain stu- dent any questions
unless she was sure the boy knew the answer, lest she damage his
"So she stopped asking him questions," Mr. Swann says. "The kid
gets ignored and less knowledgeable, and it actually makes the
problem worse. The thing that frustrates me is those people all have
the best intentions. They simply have these naive ideas about how to
Mr. Swann says one in four people suffer from chronically low
self- image, which can trap people in abusive relationships and
contribute to depression and suicide.
"Self-esteem can be changed," he says. "It's a doable goal
and it's an extremely important concept, so I think it would be a
terrible tragedy if the outcome of this cynicism that's emerging is
that self- esteem is thrown on the trash heap of dumb ideas."
Anthony Greenwald, a University of Washington psychologist who
also specializes in self-esteem research, says Mr. Swann is
well known in the field and most of his views are widely accepted.
"Swann's position is probably a reasonable one," Mr. Greenwald
says. "He's one of the more sensible researchers in
Mr. Greenwald adds, however, that the policy implications of
self- esteem research are still controversial.
Mr. Swann is not the first to question the self-esteem
movement. Last year, psychologist Martin E.P. Seligman at the
University of Pennsylvania raised similar objections. In his book
The Optimistic Child (Houghton Mifflin, $24.95), Mr. Seligman argued
that children develop self-esteem by becoming competent, not
by being told to feel good about themselves.
"America has seen 30 years of a concerted effort to bolster the
self-esteem of its kids," Mr. Seligman wrote. "This movement
would be justified if it worked and self-esteem were on the
rise. But [the nation's children] have never been more depressed."
Mr. Swann's interest in self-image stems from his college days,
when he worked as a counselor at a camp for underprivileged
"I noticed this one kid went around with another kid who beat him
up all the time," Mr. Swann says. The victim of the abuse was all
ears whenever anyone was critical toward him, but, surprisingly, he
rebuffed any attempt to bolster his ego. "That always stuck with me,
" Mr. Swann says.
Years later, Mr. Swann's research indicated that people often
cling to a poor self-image because of their strong drive to maintain
a stable identity, even if it's a negative identity. By not rocking
the boat, they nurture the sense that the world is predictable and
"In fact," Mr. Swann writes, "the rudiments of a desire for
predictability appear to be wired into our neural circuitry."
Mr. Swann sees this drive for constancy as a major "self-trap"
that can contribute to destructive behavior. A good example is
people who repeatedly seek out abusive relationships.
"What makes them so puzzling," Mr. Swann says, "is that on one
level they really want to feel good about themselves. These people
aren't masochists. What they are is people who are locked in a
Self-esteem depends on a balance between feeling competent
and feeling lovable.
People who focus on either whirlwind romance or material success
as an ego boost are likely to be disappointed, Mr. Swann says. That'
s because relationships based on angst and fake images usually fail
(leading to lower self-esteem), and owning fast cars and big
houses isn't intrinsically satisfying.
People who feel bitter about being cut off from the American
Dream also have self-esteem problems - with a surprising
twist. Mr. Swann says a 1989 study showed that antisocial behavior
boosted self-esteem among low-income, 10th-grade boys, but
not among high-income boys. And the more deviant the behavior, the
higher the self-esteem, researchers
Self-esteem does not develop in a vacuum, Mr. Swann says,
but is maintained by a complex web of relationships. Parents play a
big role in the early years.
"By age 18 months you already have set kids on a trajectory," Mr.
Swann says. "You can predict what their self-esteem will be
at 6 years of age. But that doesn't mean you can't turn it around.
It's never too late to change self-esteem."
Ironically, he says, teachers and parents who heap false praise
on children may damage their self-esteem by giving them a
false or shallow sense of self. But an unending stream of negative
feedback is equally damaging, he adds.
Instead, parents should strive to be positive yet "responsive" to
their children's behavior, so that children learn limits and develop
"What I fear," Mr. Swann says, "is we're going to go back to
something like `Spare the rod and spoil the child,' really negative.
I want the pendulum to swing back to the middle, not the other
Distributed by New York Times News Service CHART(S): RAISING
Cecelia Goodnow / Seattle Post-Intelligencer, There's a bad
feeling about self-esteem trend. , The Dallas Morning
News, 07-02-1996, pp 1C.