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.

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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!