Wednesday, May 31, 2017

The American Cult of Self-Esteem

What would we do without New York Magazine?

Through its two advice columns, “Ask Polly” and “What Your Therapist Really Thinks” the magazine shows us what really happens in therapy. The earnest advice of a happy therapy patient and the insights of a real, live therapist allow us to grasp how bad everyday therapy has become.

Then the magazine has a wonderful column about social psychology, a column called “Science of Us.” I have often praised this excellent compendium of the latest from social science research.

Today, I praise Jesse Singal for exposing the nonsense that passes for psycho wisdom in our contemporary culture. Now that God has passed away, no one turns to religion for moral teaching or for instruction on how best to conduct one’s life. Too often one turns to the pseudo-scientific nostrums that therapy offers to our gullible minds. Therapists have taken over the culture and have been peddling bottles of snake oil. Calling them placebos would be too generous.

Therapists claim that if you take this or that all of your problems will be solved. You will be happy, healthy, wholesome and successful. For decades now therapy has been saying that this will be solved by increasing one's self-esteem.

The concept was first conjured up by Nathanial Brandon and Carl Rogers, but now it has been merchandized to the mass market. People have bought it. Companies have embraced it. They accept that a good dose of self-esteem will solve all of our problems.

And now, following fast on the self-esteem movement, we have a new obsession: grit. If self-esteemists were selling confidence, the gritters are selling perseverance. It is fair to say that confidence is a good thing, as long as it does not become transformed into arrogance. And it is also true that grit, or perseverance is a good thing too, as long as we do not imagine that it alone will solve all of our problems.

Singal summarizes:

Maybe the biggest problem here, whether one is discussing the waning self-esteem craze or the possibly burgeoning grit one, is the basic idea that some behavioral-science eureka moment will, on its own, do all or much of the work of solving big problems in education or the justice system or any other area rife with inequities. No problem important enough to attract the attention of social scientists is simple enough to be solved by the latest idea to spring forth from their labs. Things are always more complicated than “If only we could get people to be more X, then surely we’d see improvements in social problem Y.” Social science, in short, should be seen as just one part of the very complicated process of solving big societal problems – not as a fountain of revolutionary One Simple Tricks.

In other words, they are selling snake-oil, a magical cure for everything that ails you. Strangely enough, Singal notes, the movement has flourished even though its claims have been widely debunked. Serious researchers like Roy Baumeister have noted that while achievement brings more confidence, puffing up your confidence without achieving anything leaves you deluded.

Impervious to scientific debunking self-esteem has helped found a new religion, or dare I say, a pseudo-religion, a cult that provides moral teaching for people who believe that modern science has all the answers. Doesn't it resemble scientology? We must mention that self-esteem, as currently presented by its proponents, offers nothing other than the deadliest of the seven deadly sins: pride.

Singal explains:

TED Talks aside, there’s more understanding of the ways in which the scientific method can lead us astray, can prop up misleading notions about human nature and behavior. So it would be nice to think that these days, something like the self-esteem craze couldn’t happen, that we wouldn’t fall for it.

What does it look like in practice? Singal quotes from a 1991 chidren’s book, The Lovables in the Kingdom of Self-Esteem. I had not known about the book before, and am happy to see the process in action. The book tells children to repeat a mantra, over and over again. They should tell themselves that they are lovable. Even if no one loves them. When they do it they will discover that everyone else is lovable.

The book jacket explains it all:




By using these magical words, the gates to the Kingdom of Self-Esteem swing open for readers of all ages. Inside the Kingdom live twenty-four animals — the Lovables — each one with a special gift to contribute. Mona Monkey is lovable. Owen Owl is capable. Buddy Beaver takes care of the world around him. Greta Goat trusts herself.

Children who were fed these nostrums might well end up believing in the dogma of multiculturalism.

Apparently, it’s all about convincing yourself to believe in something that does not make sense. As its proponents and detractors have noted self-esteem is a belief. You are supposed to believe it no matter what. When the world does not affirm your high opinion of yourself, it is testing your faith and inviting you to become even more deluded.

The self-esteem movement invaded the nation’s public schools and produced the millennial generation. Singal writes:

If you grew up, or raised a child, during the 1980s or 1990s, you almost certainly remember this sort of material, as well as goofy classroom exercises focusing on how special each individual child was. A certain ethos took hold during this time: It was the job of schools to educate, yes, but also to instill in children a sense of their own specialness and potential.

If you were wondering why American millennials cannot compete against their peers in the rest of the world, the self-esteem movement explains it. Link here. It was not just the schools. Many corporations bought into the illusion.

Singal explains:

The self-esteem craze changed how countless organizations were run, how an entire generation — millenials — was educated, and how that generation went on to perceive itself (quite favorably). As it turned out, the central claim underlying the trend, that there’s a causal relationship between self-esteem and various positive outcomes, was almost certainly inaccurate. But that didn’t matter: For millions of people, this was just too good and satisfying a story to check, and that’s part of the reason the national focus on self-esteem never fully abated. Many people still believe that fostering a sense of self-esteem is just about the most important thing one can do, mental health–wise.

Psychologist Jean Twenge examined the effort to inculcate belief and declared that it was making people delusional. For the record, when you hold to a delusional belief you reject the notion that it can be disproved or discredited by reality. When a schizophrenic believes that the voice of God is whispering in his ear nothing you can say or do will shake his belief. Since the culture is currently having a national debate about facts, we should note that self-esteemist cult followers will never accept a fact that would disprove its dogmas.

In Singal’s words:

Take, for example, research Twenge and others have conducted on the frequency of certain feel-good sentences phrases in English-language literature — sentences like Believe in yourself and anything is possible, and You have to love yourself first before you can love someone else. “Those phrases are taken for granted as advice we give teens and adults,” explained Twenge, “but they’re very modern. At least in written language, they were very uncommon before about 1980, and then became much more popular. They’re all very individualistic, they’re all very self-focused, they’re also all delusional. 

Given the evidence demonstrating that it has been oversold, the self-eseteem movement requires that people take it all on faith. The more grandiose its claims the more people are enticed to believe in it, without question.

Strangely enough, it's not news. Writing in the New York Times in 1990, Lena Williams explained:

IT is being called a vaccine against drug abuse, teen-age pregnancy, welfare dependency and other social ills. But some experts are calling it little more than yet another ''feel good'' approach to life's travails.

At issue is the age-old concept of self-esteem, defined by the Second College Edition of Webster's New World Dictionary as ''belief or pride in oneself.'' But the California Task Force to Promote Self-Esteem and Personal and Social Responsibility reported recently that there's a lot more to it than that.

She continued:

Hundreds of school districts have added self-esteem motivational materials to their curriculums. American employers have turned increasingly to consultants who say they can raise employees' morale and work performance through self-esteem techniques. New companies have formed, devoted to teaching on self-esteem themes, and hundreds of books on self-esteem and self-enhancement have been published.

And she added the following version of the “I am lovable” mantra:

In his self-esteem course at Apollo High School in Simi Valley, Calif., Geoff Schofield was taught such maxims as, ''It doesn't matter what you do, but who you are.''

''It helped me a great deal,'' said Mr. Schofield, who is 21 years old now and is an apprentice plumber. He is not upset that his friends are swapping campus-life stories while he is fixing sinks. ''I'm learning a skill and I'm earning money,'' he said.

Astonishingly, Schofield does not even understand that when you are a plumber... what you do matters. It must matter. If you cannot fix the leak you are a lousy plumber. You might not even be a plumber. But, dismissing the verdict offered by your performance and achievement, pretending that it does not matter… will lead you down the road to cultural perdition.


trigger warning said...

Singal: "[T]he central claim underlying the trend, that there’s a causal relationship between self-esteem and various positive outcomes, was almost certainly inaccurate."

I disagree. There is a correlation. What was "inaccurate" was the interpretation of the direction of causality. Positive outcomes tend to yield self-esteem, not the reverse.

It's a very common mistake, like Bill Clinton believing that homeownership yields stable, crime free neighborhoods - instead of the reverse. We know how that worked out: 2008.

Stuart Schneiderman said...

Huh? Singal's point, repeating the point that Roy Baumeister made and that I echoed, was that they had merely gotten the direction of the causality wrong. There's no disagreement.

trigger warning said...

I'm interpreting "inaccurate" from a statistical perspective. The observed correlations probably aren't far from the "true" value, hence "accurate". The problem, as I see it, is the causal interpretation is invalid; ie, the theoretical construct is wrong. Very different things in my world.

But we're talking past one another in different languages.

James said...

Hey wait a minute, I thought I got a trophy for coming here!?!?!?

Shaun F said...

The whole self esteem thing is just behavioural based validation. And it feeds ones pride - that's why we feel good. I have people (strangers) approach me looking to build their self esteem - when I don't respond according to the expected norms - their "self esteem" is visibly lowered - their pride was hurt and their self esteem is lowered.

This book covered the relationship of pride and self esteem. They are basically the same - I concluded after reading the book.

Ares Olympus said...

It seems like pride is associated with self-esteem, or at least as long as you have
"pride in what you do", you are likely to have self-esteem. But if you can gain self-esteem independent of action, its harder to see how that works.

My understanding for the whole "self-esteem" movement is that self-esteem promotes autonomy, so you're not as dependent upon the opinions of others, so when everyone else is jumping off a bridge you have an independent innervoice that can say "That's stupid" and you can walk away.

So that sort of self-esteem isn't based on what you do, but your prudence to know what not to do.