Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Character Building and Happiness

Apparently, the best psycho professionals are having second thoughts about self-esteem. They have discovered, Lisa Damour reports, that high self-esteem, the kind that comes from being coddled and helicoptered, the kind that makes you feel that you have never done anything wrong, produces dysfunctional and unhappy adults.

Damour is too polite to call it self-esteemism, but the term fits a what happened when she caught one of her students plagiarizing a paper.

Shortly after she confronted the student plagiarist, Damour found herself on the phone with the girl’s father. His message: if any harm befell his daughter he would take legal action.

This anecdote tells us that self-esteemism is not merely the province of schoolteachers. Parents are heavily involved in this mindlessly hyper-protective behavior.

Often the parents who coddle their children are those who have the power to do so.

Damour explains:

Of course, people who hold economic and social power enjoy more opportunities than most to operate around the rules: to bully coaches into a lineup change, to buy their way into a school, to help secure an undeserved job. But “exceptionalism” – my term for the belief that rules or conventions are to be observed only when convenient – is not limited strictly to the wealthy or influential. All parents share the instinct to protect their children, and a subset of parents in every tax bracket can be found exercising any leverage they have to have exceptions made on behalf of their children.

Keep in mind, if you child is never allowed to fail, he will never learn how to compete in the free market. If he is never allowed to suffer the consequences of bad behavior, he risks becoming a pathological narcissist.

Self-esteemism produces a class of entitled aristocrats who have no use for the workings of the marketplace.

I find it heartening to see that psycho professionals are coming to realize that parents who want to ensure their children the best chances for future success and happiness should work to build character.

Unfortunately, Damour does not call character-building by its name. She mislabels it as “conscientiousness.”

One is inclined to forgive her and her profession’s conceptual lapse. Psycho professionals are not very strong on concepts.

Someone who is conscientious is meticulous and careful in fulfilling any task. In that sense, conscientiousness is a quality that contributes to good character.

Yet, conscientiousness also means following the dictates of conscience, and in that sense the term is inapposite. Learning how to follow your conscience is not the same as what Damour prescribes: learning how to follow the rules.  

She explains:

It turns out that adult happiness doesn’t arise from parents bending the rules to a child’s advantage; it comes from children learning the rules and conforming to them.

Don’t follow your bliss; follow the rules.

Damour identifies othere qualities that make for good character:

Children who are industrious, orderly and have good self-control are more likely than their careless or undisciplined peers to grow into happy adults.

All classical books on ethics would offer the same prescriptions. They would call it character-building, not conscientiousness.

If we ignore the word, we see that psychologists have grasped the essential point.

Damour describes the current state of the research:

As with many findings in academic psychology, the connection between childhood conscientiousness and adult well-being simply proves common sense. Conscientious people enjoy better health as adults because they chose long-term payoffs over short-term gratifications. Most conscientious people would prefer a cheeseburger to a trip to the gym, but they know that – genetic factors aside – heart disease doesn’t care who your parents are.

In their relationships, conscientious people are unlikely to lie and cheat or, presumably, put up with that behavior in their friends and lovers. When it comes to having a feeling of mastery in one’s endeavors – whether one chooses to be a homemaker or a homebuilder – conscientious people come out ahead because they do good work even when no one is looking.

The last is one of the great principles of classical ethics. If I recall correctly, it goes back as far as Confucius. It says that a person of character does the right thing even when no one is looking. Thereby, doing the right thing becomes a good habit.  

I also find it heartening that Damour emphasizes following rules over feeling empathy. Hers is a vision of human development that helps children to learn how to play the game of life, not to teach them to feel everyone’s pain.


JP said...

"Keep in mind, if you child is never allowed to fail, he will never learn how to compete in the free market."

As the son of a school superintendent, I learned the power of having de facto control over your own high school teachers.

So, I learned why business seek to be monopolies, which is why the "free market" needs restrictions on monopolies.

And I also learned that the employment "market" was quite far away from anything resembling a market for a commodity.

n.n said...

People need to distinguish between intrinsic and earned value. Something like self-esteem, by its nature, is in the former class, unless it is also supported by merit. Unfortunately, intrinsic value does not enable discernment. Not with respect to limited and finite resources, or any other constraining aspect of the real world. It does offer a basis to reject elective abortion, and other acts of premeditated murder, which are committed without cause or due process.

Self-esteem which is not qualified with merit is a principal cause of corruption. It is a means to dissociate from risk and responsibility. It is a justification for redistributive change and other policies which denigrate individual dignity, devalue human life, and sponsor corruption.

George Boggs said...

The great logician Charles Dodgson (aka Lewis Carrol) immortalized the Dodo Bird theory with these words:

Everybody has won and all must have prizes.
--- Alice in Wonderland, Ch 3

Contemporaneously, Roy Baumeister has done groundbreaking work on self control and, in Baumeister's words, "the secret ingredient - willpower".

Individuals with more self-control do better in school and at work, have happier relationships, enjoy better health, better mental health, live longer, are less likely to engage law enforcement agencies and/or end up in jail.

None of this was surprising for several millenia until Maslow and his unfortunate and benighted acolytes began beating the drums for self-esteem. Now, we have at least two generations of students whose demonstrable academic performance is comparable to countries like Chad, but who believe they are the best.

Bobbye said...

I thought about it, so here goes:
To JP; as the son of a government employee there was never a "free market" associated with your parent's job. In fact, a free market and government cannot co-axist. Governments are 'power centers' with a monopoly on force( violence) and as such attract the elite(rich) to get government to grant special treatment. In all the history of civilization there has almost never been "free markets". And the employment market IS a commodity market. That is why all 400 American billionaires are on board for " immigration reform". It lowers the cost of that commodity.
n.n. says "Self-esteem which is not qualified with merit is a principal cause of corruption". Lord Acton, of course thought "power' was what corrupts. Corruption is one of those Humpty Dumpty words. Corruption means 'to be corrupt'. Corrupt( from the Latin) means 'to destroy'. Destroy what? And that is where you go Thru the Looking Glass.Of course, if corruption means," some are bound by the rules(whatever rules there are) while others are not bound", it will turn out that we are all corrupt.
George Boggs, thanks for remembering Alice. Concerning 'willpower'; another Humpty Dumpty word that seems to mean " the ability to exercise self-control." Why? Can you get more willpower by, doing what? What if you don't have any willpower? Then you also cannot have self-control. You can read 100 books on 'the will' and still be just as in the dark about it as before.
Just felt like 'stirring-the-pot' today and don't know if it is corruption or willpower, or the complete lack there-of.

Anonymous said...

John Rosemond has a great line that people in prison have the highest levels of self-esteem in society.

George, Thanks for the recommendation of Roy Baumeister. I'd heard his name before, but not been familiar with his work. I've actually enjoyed Maslow's models and his encouraging philosophy, but I do of course recognize that self-esteem cannot be conferred. If Maslow said it could, that's rubbish. I agree that much of what ails education is trying to do for children what their parents should be doing, and that includes having significant consequences for intellectual theft (plagiarism). Consequences are a normal, socializing force. Again, people in prison think they're innocent... with their high self-esteem.

And, as per usual, I agree with what Bobbye said. There is little that sickens me more than government corruption, because the aggrieved have nowhere to turn for justice or recompense. Don't like your health insurer? Well, wait until you see your options for redress nder ObamaCare!


Anonymous said...


Gold For RS said...
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Dennis said...

"When you want to help people, you tell them the truth. When you want to help yourself, you tell them what they want to hear."

Thomas Sowell

George Boggs said...

re: Willpower and H. Dumpty

Experimental cognitive psychologists study many things that, in common usage, are "Dumpty words". A perfect example is motivation. There is a huge literature on motivation, yet in everyday usage it is a very fuzzy term.

In general, casually fuzzy concepts can be systematically studied by operationally defining the word in terms of observable parameters. So, a fuzzy concept like motivation might be defined as number of calories consumed per day. The fewer the calories/day, the more highly motivated the organism will be to obtain a food reward.

As a concrete example of operational willpower, here is a quote from from an paper published in a peer-reviewed (and very prestigious) journal, (Metcalf and Mischel, 1999):

A 2-system framework is proposed for understanding the processes that enable – and undermine – self-control or “willpower” as exemplified in the delay of gratification paradigm.

In those studies, "willpower" was operationalized as the subjects' ability to delay gratification over a period of time. That seems quite reasonable to me and far from Dumptyesque.

If your quarrel is with the delay of gratification experimental paradigm, I'll be happy to debate that with you.

Bobbye said...

Sorry George, but I don't have a quarrel at all. It just seemed to me that the terms we use are so vaugely defined or understood that for all of our discussion we get no closer to solving or resolving anything. To the point of willpower, I do remember a story by Steven King about a guy trying to stop smoking, and an agency that helped. Seems if he 'fell off the wagon' this agency would cut off a finger of his wife with 'motivations' getting more severe with more failings. Is that self-control or willpower?

George Boggs said...

I couldn't agree more with your general point that we often talk about different things when we think we're talking about the same thing.

And politicians in particular tend to follow the Dumpty Rule:
When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less."

One of those words is War. Let's see... we've had a War on

Incivility (now there's an oxymoron)

I'm sure there are more Wars going on.

Alice would be dismayed...
The question is, whether you can make words mean so many different things.

As you point out, good question!

Anonymous said...

Don't forget the "War on Sanity," fought against us by DC politicians every day!


Anonymous said...

In society there are rule makers, rule takers, and rule breakers. Who decides which rules are good to follow?

The Bible tells the story of the wicked and the just. What are the rules followed by the just, and why are these rules better than the ways of the wicked?

Reducing character to the ability to control oneself and follow rules is just absurd. Hitler's henchman had plenty of ability to follow rules and self-control but their value system and empathy were seriously deficient with regard to the standards of the just and reasonable person who hopes to care for self and others in the more general terms.

Lindsay Harold said...

True self-esteem is a quiet confidence in one's own abilities and a satisfaction with one's own person and character. What society has been pushing for the last few decades is not true self-esteem, but a dependence on one's peers to build one's ego.

It is impossible to build true self-esteem by perpetually telling children they are "special" or by giving them rewards they have not earned. However, this is precisely what we have been told we must do. And parents and teachers have dutifully spent large amounts of time in trying to build self-esteem in children by these methods. What we have produced by such tactics is a generation of people who are plagued with doubts about themselves unless they have others to tell them good things about themselves. And when others fail to do this, they blame those people for failing to build them up rather than examining their own worthiness to be exalted. In short, we have raised a generation of incurable narcissists.

True self-esteem comes from teaching children to accomplish worthwhile tasks, and letting them fail when they do not do well. Children who actually learn valuable skills and virtues have an internal knowledge of their own abilities that does not depend on the fawning of those around them. These children will grow up to be happy and well-adjusted adults rather than entitled brats.