Friday, November 14, 2008

Taking A Second Look At Self-Esteem

Seeing is believing, as the old saying goes. We believe what we think we are seeing. As we age our observation skills may grow alongside our other abilities, and with that growth comes the likelihood that increased perception, especially our self-perception, will demand a change of our beliefs.

How do we handle this sudden recognition, how does our self-esteem negotiate the obvious need for self-criticism, this self-adjustment to new revelations?
How terrifying is the question, "what if I've been wrong..?"

As I approached my fortieth birthday a few years ago, I started realizing how much there was to look back on; one fascinating perspective was to see how many times I had been wrong in my life up to that date, wrong about deeply-held beliefs that had once been vitally important to me. So many times, the awareness that I had been mistaken about something came long before the acceptance of it; I could see it, but didn't want to believe it. This delayed acknowledgment seemed to come from the can't-live-with-it, can't-live-without-it baggage we human beings lug around within ourselves, called "self-esteem".

Self-esteem, like so much else about life, seems at best a mixed blessing; without self-esteem, how would we care enough about ourselves to improve ourselves? Yet with self-esteem, how do we dare change ourselves for the better, since the revelation that we even had room for improvement, the honest assessment of just how much room for improvement there may be, this courts the risk of obliterating our self-regard.

It seems to be a never-ending struggle to maintain a balanced self-esteem, as we individually grope in the dark for a way of understanding the contradictory belief that we're worth improving, no matter how pitifully small we shall forever remain. For myself the balance only came late in life, through my religious faith; it massages the pain that comes with increased observation skills, just as it humbles the pride that can also accompany more thorough self-perception. An article this week in Yahoo Health leaves me hoping that the same happy ending can be found for the next generation, the one currently overflowing with self-esteem:
Today's American high school students are far likelier than those in the 1970s to believe they'll make outstanding spouses, parents and workers, new research shows.

They're also much more likely to claim they are "A" students with high IQs -- even though other research shows that today's students do less homework than their counterparts did in the 1970s. The findings, published in the November issue of Psychological Science, support the idea that the "self-esteem" movement popular among today's parents and teachers may have gone too far, the study's co-author said.

"What this shows is that confidence has crossed over into overconfidence," said Jean Twenge, an associate professor of psychology at San Diego State University.

She believes that decades of relentless, uncritical boosterism by parents and school systems may be producing a generation of kids with expectations that are out of sync with the challenges of the real world.

"High school students' responses have crossed over into a really unrealistic realm, with three-fourths of them expecting performance that's effectively in the top 20 percent," Twenge said. For the study, she and co-researcher W. Keith Campbell, of the University of Georgia, pored over data from the Monitoring the Future study, a large national survey of thousands of U.S. high school students conducted periodically over the past three decades.

The researchers compared the answers kids gave in 1975 and 2006 to 13 questions centered on students' "self-views." These questions solicited students' opinions on such things as how smart they thought they were, or how likely they were to be successful as adults.

"When we look at the responses of the students in the '70s, they are certainly confident that they are going to perform well, but their responses are more modest, a little more realistic" than teens in 2006, Twenge said.

For example, in 1975, less than 37 percent of teens thought they'd be "very good" spouses, compared to more than 56 percent of those surveyed in 2006. Likewise, the number of students who thought they'd become "very good" parents rose from less than 36 percent in 1975 to more than 54 percent in 2006. And almost two-thirds of teens in 2006 thought they'd be exemplary workers, compared to about half of those polled in 1975.

As for self-reported academic achievement, twice as many students in 2006 than in 1976 said they earned an "A" average in high school -- 15.6 percent vs. 7.7 percent, the report found. Compared to their counterparts from the '70s, today's youth also tended to rate themselves as more intelligent and were more likely to say they were "completely satisfied" with themselves. ...

Twenge stressed that youthful confidence isn't necessarily bad. "Young people have always had some degree of starry-eyed optimism, and that's probably a good thing," she said. "And setting goals for yourself is a good thing. It's just when those goals are wildly unrealistic, then that can cause trouble for everyone."

For example, young people entering the workforce may score well in job interviews if they exude self-confidence, she said, but that can quickly sour if a new employer doesn't provide them with the perks or promotions they feel they deserve. "They don't set the right goals for themselves, because they are overconfident -- and that's when it blows up in their face," Twenge said. The blame for all this may lie with well-intentioned adults, she suggested.

"These kids didn't raise themselves, they got these ideas from somewhere," Twenge said. With Mom and Dad handing out endless praise, kids today readily believe they are somehow superior, she said. And teachers aren't blameless, either: According to Twenge, research shows that high school teachers now give out an "A" grade more easily than their counterparts did in the 1970s, even though today's high school students report doing less homework than students from that era.


Sean Orr said...

Do you get your self esteem from staring at your own navel?

Dag said...

Sean, you are the perfect foil here. I fear that most readers will think we pay you for these comments, but rest assured, dear readers, this is all Sean, all the time.

Thank you, Sean. Love you, man, I really do. Don't you go changin'.

tiberge said...


Very worthy article. Jean Twenge is absolutely right - confidence has become over-confidence.

In the public schools ALL they ever did was hammer into the minds of kids who did virtually no work at all that they were wonderful, gifted, bright, that they would succeed, that they would go to Harvard, that they COULD go to Harvard, that they could do ANYTHING they wanted to, if only they had SELF-ESTEEM. It was pumped into them, forced down their throats, and we were always harangued for being ego-destroyers when we were critical or when we gave low grades, etc..

Any attempt to point out to these counselors, pedagogues, policy makers, administrators, and others (including many deluded teachers) that we were in fact destroying them with unearned praise fell on deaf ears.

The rationale was that they were oppressed, they had been given a raw deal in life, and they could be INJECTED with confidence in their (non-existent) abilities through high grades, scholarships to good universities, and verbal praise (including the infantile custom of gold stars on test papers, even though it was a high-school!) the same way a vaccine is injected.

Anyway, I go on too long... You get the idea.

And so the country is left with all these bright-eyed bushy-tailed young super-confident people who will end up hating the world when they have to face it squarely.

I was raised by teachers who were chary with praise. We always felt we had so much to learn. We just wanted a job (not a career) and a small apartment, not a quarter-million dollar home with a huge morgage...