Thursday, September 26, 2013

"Everybody Gets a Trophy"

Countless researchers have definitively debunked the self-esteemist ideology that has been sweeping through America’s schools and homes.

And yet, like a preternatural blob self-esteemism continues apace. It almost seems unkillable.

Unfortunately, this is easily explained. Those who believe in self-esteem, who believe that children should be praised and encouraged regardless of their achievements, do not believe in reality checks. They do not believe that self-esteem should be accorded on the basis of facts that can be verified objectively.

It makes sense that they apply this rule to themselves. By inflating their own self-esteem to the point where they never fail, they can remain impervious to the consequences of their policies.

After all, their hearts are pure. They are surely a lot purer than yours or mine. You see, self-esteemists see themselves promoting mental health. They believe that if they give everyone trophies, regardless of their merit, they are producing better mental health.

After all, success feels good; failure feels bad. We do not want anyone to feel bad because that is a sign of mental illness. Anyone who enjoys high self-esteem will naturally flourish.

Of course, this rests on a logical fallacy. If you notice that people who succeed have a high level of confidence then you might believe that if you can artificially produce a high level of confidence in people who have not succeeded they will be more likely to succeed.

But if they are old enough to know the difference between success and failure and will end up believing that you are patronizing them. Besides, those whose success has produced high self-esteem will cease to strive. Why work to succeed when failure is rewarded as richly as success.

Modern psychology seems to have originated in a study of psychopathology. It has worked to develop ways to cure injured or deranged or traumatized psyches. It has assumed that once you remove the internal impediments to full psychic flourishing the mind will naturally know what to do, when to do it, how to do it, with whom to do it.

Perhaps it’s not quite the same as Plato’s idea of innate ideas, but the theory is suggesting that the mind knows how to do this or that innately and will accomplish all tasks successfully, if only it is healed of its lack of confidence.

One understands that Freud himself aimed much lower. He believed that the best he could do was to turn misery into everyday unhappiness. Yet, his followers and most psycho professionals have happily kept open the promise of mental health and glorious flourishing.

If they hadn’t they would have put themselves out of business.

Seeing the psyche in terms of disease and health produced two flaws. I will leave it to you to decide whether or not they are fatal.

By seeing human behavior as an expression of a healthy or sick psyche the theory ignores the fact that behavior is more often a function of experience.

To accomplish a task you need to develop a skill. Remove the psychic impediments that are preventing you from playing golf or riding a bicycle and you will not be one step closer to playing golf or riding a bicycle.

In truth, what you see as a psychic impediment may simply be a function of inexperience or inadequate instruction. One overcomes one’s fear of bicycles by getting on a bicycle and riding it. Surely, the experience will involve a few falls and a few scraped elbows, but, the problem cannot be solved by convincing yourself that you are the world’s most talented cyclist when you have never ridden a bike.

If you can be that good without getting on a bike, why bother to get on a bike. You would have nowhere to go but down.

Second, the mental health based view of human psychology fails to deal with questions of motivation and leadership. Knowing how to get other people to do what is needed is one of the thorniest psychological problems. Those who practice therapy deal with the problem all the time. In some cases they avoid it by saying that their job is not to give advice, but this only makes their bias more flagrant. They do not see human beings functioning society. They see them as monadic units, radical individuals.

If you are a leader how do you motivate your staff to do their best work? Do you submit them all to sensitivity training sessions where they learn that they are the best? Do you point out their failings and flaws, the better to help them to overcome them? Is it better to give pep talks or to allow people to find their own way? If it is, are there better or worse ways of doing it?

In its own warped way the self-esteem movements has shed some light on these questions. At the least, it shows how not to motivate children. It has shown, clearly and definitively, that if you give everyone a trophy no will bother to try, no one will bother to excel, no one will bother to work to improve.

People are motivated when they compete. When they compete some people do better than others. Some achieve more than others. Some acquire more goods than others.

To the self-esteemists, it’s all unjust. They are opposed to competition, whether it involves spelling bees or dodge ball. Obviously, they have no use for the free enterprise system.

If all men and women are created equal it is unfair and unjust for competition to give some more than others. Those who have more must have cheated, or, more benignly, must have exerted unfair privileges.

Increasingly, we are reconstructing our nation on the concept that success should be penalized and that failure should be rewarded.

Ashley Merryman has offered some sensible observations on these points (via Maggie's Farm):

By age 4 or 5, children aren’t fooled by all the trophies. They are surprisingly accurate in identifying who excels and who struggles. Those who are outperformed know it and give up, while those who do well feel cheated when they aren’t recognized for their accomplishments. They, too, may give up.

It turns out that, once kids have some proficiency in a task, the excitement and uncertainty of real competition may become the activity’s very appeal.

If children know they will automatically get an award, what is the impetus for improvement? Why bother learning problem-solving skills, when there are never obstacles to begin with?
In college, those who’ve grown up receiving endless awards do the requisite work, but don’t see the need to do it well. In the office, they still believe that attendance is all it takes to get a promotion.

The moral of the story: self-esteemism is child abuse.


Anonymous said...

In The Psychology of Self Esteem author Nathaniel Brandon ignores the psychogenic origins of self esteem in infancy, but he does recognize self esteem as a judgment passed upon the self in two forms: I am fit and worthy to live.

This judgment is the result of a socialization process and it is a necessary component of cognition to judge the self as fit or unfit, as worthy or unworthy.

Helping others feel fit and worthy to live would be the general idea behind coaching, teaching, or parenting. Pleasure must dominate this process because persistent pain causes a judgment that one is unfit and unworthy to live.

Adults who assume they know how children should feel rather than being open to help self and others experience and process the meaning of feelings tend to cause pain inadvertantly. It is not about feeling pleasure always, but about developing the talent to sustain pleasure and moderate pain for oneself in relationship to others. The successful result of this process is a feeling of self esteem or of being fit and worthy to live as a social being.

Dennis said...

Years ago I had two friends who were extremely fine musicians. One had studied from one of the finest brass teachers on the West Coast from the age of three. Consequentially he always received kudos about his playing and his self esteem was very high and from knowing him he believed he was fit and worthy. I remember marveling at the ease of his playing, the beauty of his sound and how the instrument just seemed to be a part of him
The other was as good, but he had to work to attain the skills and abilities he had. He faced a number of challenges and knew what failure was as well as success. He had learned how to conquer the "Wall" that exists in most of our lives.
As one would expect the first player finally hit the "Wall," but because every thing had come easily he could not find enough self esteem or knowledge of being fit as a social being to meet the challenges placed before him. Sadly he became so disgusted that he had a road grader run over his musical instrument and made a wall plaque out of it.
The second player, who had not had anyone trying to give him self esteem or proving to him that he was fit and worthy as a social being enjoyed a long playing career and a very happy life. His satisfaction came from knowing that he had the wherewithal to meet the challenges whereas the first player did not have that career or satisfaction. As I understand some of the people who have the greatest self esteem and belief of being fit an worthy of life as a social being are prisoners in maximum security institution. A goodly number of them had social problems.
The greatest joy in life does not come from people telling one how good one is, but from the satisfaction of knowing one has faced the challenges, good and bad and maybe not getting the "trophy at first, and accomplishing great things despite the approval of others.
When life gives you lemons make lemonade. Far too many people have become successful from backgrounds where the last thing they received was the feeling of self esteem or being told they were fit and worthy to live as a social being. Dysfunctional would be a common diagnosis for the early life.

Anonymous said...

I wrote the post at 9:49AM. Self esteem is a very important social process which transcends any particular skill or ability but relates generally to social pleasure and vitality. A person who does not get the benefit of his or her gifts likely suffers a social wound preventing enjoyment.

Baby Jesus, pa rum pum pum pum
I am a poor boy too, pa rum pum pum pum
I have no gift to bring, pa rum pum pum pum
That's fit to give our King, pa rum pum pum pum
Rum pum pum pum, rum pum pum pum
Shall I play for You?, Pa rum pum pum
On my drum

Mary nodded, pa rum pum pum pum
The ox and lamb kept time, pa rum pum pum pum
I played my drum for Him, pa rum pum pum
I played my best for Him, pa rum pum pum pum
Rum pum pum pum, rum pum pum pum
Then He smiled at me, pa rum pum pum pum
Me and my drum

Drummer Boy Lyrics

Gary said...

Working in an applied physics field (medical physics), I have noticed over the years that young people have a lot of self-confidence but it is brittle.
If they do not understand something, rather than being able to accept that and move on to learning the answer (i.e. growing in knowledge and skill) they react with anger and try to claim that either they are really correct (when they obviously aren't) or that not knowing is somehow better.
A long experience of gradually dragging ourselves from our condition at birth (ignorance) to our desired state (knowledge), painfully, fitfully and with many side trips into folly, helps us cope with life challenges and our many failures. To err is human, to keep trying despite our errors is what makes us successful.
Self-esteem building (as now practiced everywhere) gives people a confidence in themselves that is a mile wide but an inch deep. Once the surface is damaged, they give up.
Sad for them but disastrous for society.

Dennis said...


Utter twaddle.

"After reviewing those 200 studies, Baumeister concluded that having high self-esteem didn’t improve grades or career achievement. It didn’t even reduce alcohol usage. And it especially did not lower violence of any sort. (Highly aggressive, violent people happen to think very highly of themselves, debunking the theory that people are aggressive to make up for low self-esteem.) At the time, Baumeister was quoted as saying that his findings were “the biggest disappointment of my career.”

Now he’s on Dweck’s side of the argument, and his work is going in a similar direction: He will soon publish an article showing that for college students on the verge of failing in class, esteem-building praise causes their grades to sink further. Baumeister has come to believe the continued appeal of self-esteem is largely tied to parents’ pride in their children’s achievements: It’s so strong that “when they praise their kids, it’s not that far from praising themselves.”

It would behoove one to acknowledge that there is a wide diverse opinion, underline opinion, about self esteem and its affect and how far one goes with it. No one is arguing that self esteem does not play a part, but it is far from the main factor.
When one reads books and studies one is expected to read it with a critical eye towards facts and opinions.
You might try analyzing the larger ramifications of the self esteem movement and your comments as well. Though I did enjoy the attempt at humor. Drum roll please.

Stuart Schneiderman said...

Thank you, Gary and Dennis... I have heard tell of the phenomenon that Gary observed... it's good to have some verification.

I am just starting to read the NY Mag article that Dennis links... it looks very interesting.

Anonymous said...

I apply a very general model of self-esteem "I am fit and worthy to live."

Those who apply much more narrow definitions are engaging in moral judgments about specific behaviors.

Are these people studying self esteem or chasing their own moral judgements around in a circle?

Anonymous said...

(Highly aggressive, violent people happen to think very highly of themselves, debunking the theory that people are aggressive to make up for low self-esteem)

A person who expresses care for self and others can be judged to have high self esteem. A person who expresses contempt for self or others can be judged to have low self esteem. Reports of high self esteem are not the "test" of high self esteem: the behavior must be considered in comparison to other modes of behavior.

If I feel fit and worthy to live, there is no need for me to engage in acts of displaced aggression, so I treat others as I treat my self. And I treat myself to some degree as others have treated me in the past ... because I am an ape I tend to ape the good and bad behavior (I tend to keep the causes of pleasure and causes of pain active in my muscle memory).