Findings puncture self-esteem claims

High self-esteem may not live up to its reputation. A strong regard for one’s own traits and abilities exerts few of the beneficial effects claimed for it by teachers, parents, psychotherapists, and others, according to a new review of the voluminous scientific literature on this issue.

Roy F. Baumeister of Florida State University in Tallahassee and his colleagues find that high self-esteem–whether present in individuals from the start or induced through educational programs–generally doesn’t lead to improved school or job performance. However, academic and job successes often boost self-esteem, Baumeister and his coworkers note in the May Psychological Science in the Public Interest.

People who evaluate themselves extremely positively aren’t more likely than others to have satisfying relationships, assume leadership positions, or avoid bouts of depression, the researchers say. Also, high self-esteem doesn’t prevent children and teenagers from smoking cigarettes, using alcohol and illicit drugs, engaging in sex, or behaving violently.

Overall, high self-esteem enhances pleasant feelings and generally increases a person’s willingness to initiate either positive or negative behavior, the scientists note. For instance, schoolyard bullies, as well as those who stand up to them, frequently report high self-esteem.


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Bruce Bower has written about the behavioral sciences for Science News since 1984. He writes about psychology, anthropology, archaeology and mental health issues.