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How to Avoid the Self-Esteem Trap

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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I have always assumed that having a strong sense of self-worth was important. I figured it made a person happier, healthier, more successful, and easier to be around. Turns out that these benefits of self-esteem are rather hard to prove. Having high self-esteem has some modest pluses, studies suggest. It makes you more persistent, for example, and boosts performance at school and work ever-so-slightly, writes Jennifer Crocker and Jessica J. Carnevale in the cover story in the current Scientific American Mind (see “Self-Esteem Can Be an Ego Trap”). But those with big heads also seem plagued by a problem: they can’t see where they fall short, which makes self-improvement difficult. Worse, Crocker and Carnevale write, a focus on self-esteem lays out a humungous, hard-to-see trap.

Courtesy of Key Foster via Flickr.

Like paparazzi stalking a celebrity, many of us try to chase self-esteem. The hunt often consists of striving for achievements that prove us worthy. But everyone fails sometimes, even at what they do best, so to base your self-esteem on getting an A or winning an award makes you psychologically vulnerable to other, perhaps more likely, outcomes. This attitude also can diminish your chances of success. If you spend your time trying to prove your worth, rather than working to improve your abilities, you are likely to put in less effort toward meeting your goals (because people with this bent often feel that having to work hard is a sign that they are less capable). You may even handicap yourself—staying up late the night before a test, say–so that you will have a ready excuse if you fail. What is more, your desire to demonstrate your excellence makes you a lousy companion, as you are more likely to direct the conversation around this topic.

The point here is not that you shouldn’t be ambitious or work toward meaningful ends. It is that you need a less egocentric reason for doing so. Instead of worrying about how you measure up, set your sights on helping your family, friends, or team or working toward the greater good. Try to lose yourself in a project or endeavor or focus on what you might learn from it rather than concentrating on what its outcome means about you. When you fail or fall short, it is natural to feel lousy, but it will feel less lousy if you divorce this result from what it says about you. Add a dollop of compassion for yourself and you will feel even better. What is more, if you can separate mistakes from personal failure, you will be better able to learn from your blunders and find greater success in the future.

How We Learn

Speaking of learning, this issue of Mind includes a Special Report that highlights learning techniques. In the lead article of this section, John Dunlosky, a psychologist at Kent State University, and his colleagues explain how they sifted through hundreds of scientific papers to determine what study methods work best (see “Psychologists Identify the Best Ways to Study”). These techniques cement knowledge in the long run, no matter what the material to be learned or the test used to measure comprehension. Here’s the lowdown.

The winners!

Test Yourself. Making flash cards, answering questions at the end of a chapter, or devising your own tests of the material are excellent ways to cement your knowledge.

Spread out Study Sessions. To remember something for a week, rehearse the material in sessions separated by 12 to 24 hours. To retain the information for five years, wait six to 12 months before going back to it.

The losers…

Highlighting. Brandishing those bright pens or underscoring noteworthy phrases doesn’t inscribe the information in your brain. Marking up text is only useful if it is combined with a more helpful learning technique.

Rereading. Don’t waste time running your eyes over the text again. Instead, engage in more active strategies such as testing yourself or asking yourself why the material makes sense.

Courtesy of CollegeDegrees360 via Flickr.

The in-between

Asking Why. Asking yourself to explain or elaborate on the material you are learning can help you retain it.

Mixing up Lessons. Instead of finishing one type of problem or body of information before moving on to the next, switch off between different subjects or topics more often.

Other articles in this special report discuss the downsides of dispensing with handwriting and a creative new technique for teaching math, which will be the topic of a future blog post. I hope you enjoyed learning about the issue!

Ingrid Wickelgren About the Author: Ingrid Wickelgren is an editor at Scientific American Mind, but this is her personal blog at which, at random intervals, she shares the latest reports, hearsay and speculation on the mind, brain and behavior. Follow on Twitter @iwickelgren.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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  1. 1. rationalrevolution 8:14 am 08/10/2013

    A number of years back I read some articles, possible in SA or MIND, about how the “self-esteem” movement was the produced by a confluence of liberal and conservative educators, the primary goal of which was to reduce teen sexual activity. They basically viewed teen sex as a product of “low self esteem”, thinking that people, especially girls, had sex because they had a low sense of self-worth and viewed sex as a way to gain self-worth.

    This, or course, seems like total nonsense from an evolutionary psychology perspective, and of course, the follow-up studies bore out that “increasing self-esteem” had the opposite effect of reducing teen sex.

    From an evolutionary psychology this outcome seems self evidence. People with low self-esteem would be less likely to engage in sex, while those with high self-esteem would be the more outgoing and likely to engage in sex.

    The whole idea of low self-esteem being associated with sexual activity seems to completely misunderstand sex and behavior. These anti-teen folks seemed to think of teen sex as something that happened among poor, rejected, lonely people, which of course makes no sense, when in fact teen sex is predominate among out-going popular, highly social people.

    But, generally speaking, it also seems that high self esteem is associated with higher risk behavior in general, since, as you say, it can lead to over estimation of the potential for success.

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  2. 2. sjfone 9:48 am 08/10/2013

    No negative waves man, now I can have positive feedback when I am buying my supermarket tabloids.

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  3. 3. BaldEgalitarian 12:19 pm 08/10/2013

    I lose my self-respect when I have self-esteem.
    • Self-esteem is oblivious to thankfulness for our genetics and encounters.
    • Like pride in learning the earth is flat, self-esteem can keep us from reality.
    • Like a trained dog chasing rewards, we become trained humans.
    • Trained humans work hard at defeating other humans or getting money out of other humans. This enslaves one another.
    • Like being judged a “bad dog”, self-esteem tends to judge other peoples` capabilities to our capabilities. Humans without capability, untrained humans and humans that know better must endure being classified as a “bad human”.
    • Self-esteem is repugnant.

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  4. 4. marclevesque 8:39 pm 08/10/2013

    ! ! ! Like

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  5. 5. jtdwyer 2:56 pm 08/11/2013

    I don’t follow pop trends in psych culture, but it seems to this pedestrian that low self-esteem often presents serious problems, especially for children. IMO, this must be a major component of the apparently increasing problems children are having with bullying as well as child suicides.

    I’d never heard high self-esteem being discussed as a social issue – I suspect that it’s not really, except perhaps for young adults rebounding from low self-esteem in childhood!

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  6. 6. jimmywat 11:45 pm 08/11/2013

    World-renowned Dr Albert Ellis and other REBT and CBT psychologists have argued against self-esteem and all self-ratings, saying self-esteem is probably the greatest emotional disturbance known to humans. Self-esteem results in each of us praising ourselves when what we do is approved by others. But then we damn ourselves when we don’t do well enough and others disapprove of us. What we need more than self-esteem are unconditional self-acceptance, 2) acceptance of others and 3)acceptance of existance as it is. Acceptance does not mean acquiesence but more along the serentity prayer:
    God, give me grace to accept with serenity the things that cannot be changed, Courage to change the things which should be changed, and the Wisdom to distinguish the one from the other. Living one day at a time, Enjoying one moment at a time, …Taking… This … world as it is, Not as I would have it, …

    Ellis argues for USA (unconditional self-acceptance) “the individual fully and unconditionally accepts himself whether or not he behaves intelligently, correctly, or competently and whether or not other people approve, respect, or love him” “People rate themselves, their totality, as “good” or “bad” when their traits are effective or non-effective. This gets them into trouble. But dysfunctional behavior is to be evalutated as undesireable and changed.” “Self-esteem is a good feeling that is very fragile. Its flip side is self-downing. It tends to create so much anxiety and dperession that it often sabotages your self-efficacy. So at times applaud your deeds and actions, but not your self or essence.”
    “1. You can simply decide to [accept yourself] and can then do it… 2.You can see… that rating yourself totally or in general is really impossible – since you are a very complex person who does many “good” and many “bad” things… therefore, if you choose to see yourself as a “good person” you would have to only and always to good deeds [and vice versa]… You can… more accurately see yourself as a person who does many “good” and “bad” acts. Although you can evaluate all of your acts as good or bad, you cannot legitmately rate… your complete self… 3. You can figure out that rating yourself as good will work well by giving you confidence… while rating yourself as bad will frequently lead to self-defeatism, anxiety, and depression… 4. You can take the existential position… that all people have existance, life, humanness and uniqueness and therefore they are all to be accepted as good in spite of …[doing] bad things.”

    Self-esteem is different from self-worth. Since anyone can give themselves pleasure and useful things, everyone has self-worth, worth to themselves. We are all worthless to many people and worthwhile to some, to some more than others. So everyone has self-worth and no one has to believe others when they say they are worthless. That is just a mind game to either control the other person or raise their own self-esteem, which is neurotic.

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