A short history of self-esteem

The history of self-esteem can be traced back throughout time. In this section we have a critical look at the self-esteem movement.
Though an overweening conceit of our own merit be vicious and disagreeable, nothing can be more laudable than to have a value for ourselves, where we really have qualities that are valuable.... it is certain that nothing is more useful to us, in the conduct of life, than a due degree of pride, which makes us sensible of our own merit, and gives us a confidence and assurance in all our projects and enterprises.'
David Hume, Treatise of Human Nature, vol. 2

As the quote from the great 18th century Scottish Enlightenment thinker, David Hume, shows the idea that it is important to value and think well of yourself has been around for a long time. However, the first pure psychological use of the term can be traced back to 1890 and the work of William James who is generally seen as the father of modern psychology. James had a very simple definition of self-esteem: success divided by pretension. According to James the more success we have and the lower our expectations or pretensions then the higher our self-esteem. To raise self-esteem, therefore, we have two options: lower our expectations of ourselves or increase our achievements.

In The Optimistic Child Professor Martin Seligman gives a brief history of self-esteem starting with William James. Seligman believes the beauty of this definition is that it stresses two ingredients of self-esteem which have been present in debates about the concept ever since: namely, self-esteem includes the idea of ?feeling good? and ?doing well?.  

In his subsequent summary Seligman maintains that James?s work was largely ignored for 75 years as a result of academic and socio-economic factors. World wars and economic depression did not create fertile territory for a focus on how people feel about themselves and psychology itself was dominated during this period by various schools of thought (Freudianism and behaviourism, for example) which had in common the belief that individuals? lives were determined largely by forces outwith their control.

Seligman argues that the 1960s changed all this. First the rise of wealth and consumerism meant that it was easier to conceptualise the individual at the centre of his/her destiny. And psychology, partly as a result of Seligman?s own ?learned helplessness? experiments, created theories which put the ?self-directed' individual at the centre of his or her own life.

The rise of the self-esteem movement

From the late 1960s on self-esteem became a fashionable and influential idea. One of the first exponents was a young psychology professor called Stanley Coopersmith from California. A more influential figure was Nathaniel Branden. Branden was a psychtherapist and devotee of the philosopher Ayn Rand. He has written countless books on self-esteem and is considered the intellectual father of the self-esteem movement. As we shall see in another section, Branden?s work is sophisticated and his definition of self-esteem, and notions of how it can be boosted, is a far cry from the exhortations to feel special that have come to characterise self-esteem building exercises in American schools.

Self-esteem may simply have remained a psychological and philosophical concept, debated by academics, if it hadn?t been taken up by politicians in California in the late 1980s. John Vasconcellos was a state assemblyman who believed that low self-esteem was the cause of crime, teenage pregnancy, drug abuse and school underachievement. He believed that boosting young people?s self-esteem could be seen as a ?social vaccine?. Money spent on this, he argued, would dramatically reduce the problems plaguing modern society. John Vasconcellos even believed that improving self-esteem would help the state balance the budget since those with high self-esteem earned more money and so paid more in tax.

Vasconcellos persuaded the California State Governor George Deukmejian to set up a task-force on self-esteem and personal and social responsibility. Following a three-year study of the literature it produced a report which did not completely corroborate Vasconcellos? views. Indeed in the introduction to the report one of its authors writes: ' one of the disappointing aspects of every chapter in this volume ... is how low the associations beween self-esteem and its [presumed] consequences are in research to date.' The response of those involved in the movement was not to question the importance they were attaching to self-esteem but to try and find more evidence. The task-force was disbanded in 1995 and replaced by a not-for-profit organised called the National Association for Self-Esteem (NASE).

The challenge

Roy Baumeister was a psychology professor in the US and a supporter of the self-esteem movement and he was concerned about the the paucity of hard evidence to support the claims being made for self-esteem. He was also concerned about some of the approaches and underlying assumptions of the research which had been undertaken. Many of the studies which were repeatedly quoted only used subjective assessments of self-esteem and, since self-esteem is a socially desirable characteristic in western societies, such self-reports had to be viewed sceptically. Moreover, although there appeared to be some link between self-esteem and academic performance, for example, it was difficult to discern if the academic performance caused the self-esteem or vice versa.

As a result of his research carried out in the 1990s, Baumeister concluded that the premise that low self-esteem was a problem, and that curing it could cure many social ills, was ?completely false?. The link between self-esteem and academic achievement, he concluded, was weak or non-existent. It just wasn?t true that bullies always lacked self-esteem or that high self-esteem was important for good relationships. On the plus side he did find that people with high self-esteem tend to be happier, show more initiative and are less prone to eating disorders. But he no longer believed that it was simply possible to artificially boost self-esteem. Later Baumeister said that coming to these conclusions was ?one of the biggest disappointments of his career?.

The demise of the notion that raising self-esteem is some kind of panacea was further hastened in 2001 with the publication of Professor Nicholas Emler?s work. Emler was at that time a professor of psychology at the LSE in England. His research, including longitudinal studies of children, supported Baumeister?s findings that low self-esteem was not a risk factor for educational problems or problems such as violence, bullying, delinquency, racism, drug-taking or alcohol abuse. His research indicated that violent, anti-social men do not have problems liking or valuing themselves. If anything they like and value themselves too much.

However, his research showed that low self-esteem was involved in some problems such as suicide, teenage pregnancy and eating disorders, however he also stressed low self-esteem was only one risk factor among many.  

What is most significant in Emler?s work is that it led him to argue that those with high self-esteem posed a greater threat to society than those with low self-esteem. Those with low self-esteem are only likely to damage themselves whereas those with high self-esteem are more likely to indulge in behaviour which has negative effects on others. (For more on Emler?s research see next section.)

Another challenging critique of self-esteem came from Professor Martin Seligman. Seligman put forward a number of powerful arguments against the idea that self-esteem was something that could be externally boosted. In fact he thought the type of self-esteem building activities parents and teachers were using with children were, if anything, fuelling the epidemic of depression. (Seligman?s critique is set out fully in another section.) Another psychology professor, Jennifer Crocker from the University of Michigan, conducted empirical research which indicated that the pursuit of self-esteem has considerable costs for individuals and could undermine well-being. Again Crocker?s research is summarised elsewhere and you can also listen to her outline her work in the audio section.  

However, the biggest challenge now to the notion of self-esteem as a ?social vaccine? is coming from Professor Jean Twenge. She is a psychology professor in San Diego and she has spent a good number of years undertaking research into how the attitudes and personalities of young Americans are changing. In 2006 she published the conclusions of her research in a book called Generation Me. On the cover it reads: Why Today?s Young Americans are More Confident, Assertive, Entitled ? and More Miserable than Ever Before. Twenge?s research is also outlined in more detail in another section but it is worth pointing out here that like Seligman she believes that obsession with self-esteem has fuelled the rise of depression in the US, is encouraging narcissism,  and undermining the skills of young people.

Why self-esteem work still goes on in the US

It is now over ten years since Baumeister?s research completely demolished the notion that self-esteem building is some kind of magic bullet and more than five years since Emler?s research indicating it might be positively harmful. Yet in the US the self-esteem bandwagon rolls on unabated. Twenge reports that in January 2006 a search on Google for Elementary School Mission Statements for Self-Esteem yielded a staggering 308,000 web pages.

Lauren Slater, a psychology therapist and writer, has advanced the most likely explanation why, despite the damning evidence and critiques of the idea that self-esteem is a panacea, the interest in the subject continues unabated, at least in the US. She argues that the pursuit of self-worth has become the dominant ?paradigm? and it has inveigled its way into education programmes, rehabilitation and therapy. She also believes it fits so much with how Americans see the world:

Self-esteem, as a construct, as a quasi religion, is woven into a tradition that both defines and confines us as Americans. If we were to deconstruct self-esteem, to question its value, we would be, in a sense, questioning who we are, nationally and individually. We would be threatening our self-esteem. This is probably why we cannot really assimilate research like Baumeister?s or Emler?s.  

Slater also believes that challenging self-esteem flies in the face of ?inexorable market forces? and how many people make a living. While she does not argue that therapists have any desire to ?perpetuate a perhaps simplistic view of self-esteem? they are, she argues, ?the cultural retailers? of the self-esteem concept. ?Who would come to treatment to be taken down a peg, to be, if not insulted, at least uncomfortably challenged?' she asks.   She also argues that while there are pills for depression and shyness ?I have yet to see an advertisement for a drug of deflation?.

As a therapist, Slater concentrates her remarks on therapists but exactly the same could be said about coaching or personal development training. And, given that self-esteem is important for happiness, there may still be some merit in this type of development work.

Self?esteem in the U.K.

The U.K., with its inclination to a ?put down? rather than a self-worth culture seems less fertile territory for the importance of self-esteem but this is not the case. There is a thriving ?self-help? book market in the U.K .and many of these titles focus on self-esteem and how to build it. A search on Google using ?self-esteem? and ?U.K.? as keywords came up with three million hits. Many of them would not have referred to U.K. material but many did, including, for example, an uncritical story on the BBC?s website in 2002 about how new tests had been developed to assess ?children as young as three? to see how high or low their self-esteem is. The story continues ?self-esteem can be one of the key factors in determining how successful a child will be at school and later in life.?

Across education in the U.K. many teachers are consciously aiming to improve pupils? self-esteem, either through increased praise and awards, or through specific programmes. A retired head teacher member of the Professional Association of Teachers put forward a motion at the 2005 annual conference proposing that the word ?fail? be deleted from school vocabulary and replaced it with the term ?deferred success? as a way to protect young people with fragile self-esteem. The motion was defeated but some argued it was unnecessary as schools no longer use the word ?fail? anyway.

In 2004 two prestigious, and influential think tank bodies published reports on self-esteem. One was for Demos and called ?The Self-Esteem Society?. In it the author acknowledges the research by Baumeister and Emler but still proposes widespread action throughout society to create a self-esteem society. Her argument is that we need to boost self-esteem to protect and develop democracy. She argues that individuals with high self-esteem make ?good citizens? and ?good choices?. But in fact Twenge?s research on young people in the US, who have high self-esteem, does not indicate this at all. She shows they are obsessed with themselves and their feelings, prone to anxiety and depression, lonely and lacking in belief that you can do anything much to change the world round about you.

What is also odd about the Demos research is that they conducted their own poll and asked people to rate their self-esteem. Only 6% of the sample rated their self-esteem as low or very low ? so hardly something that needs widespread action.

The Work Foundation produced a similar paper in 2004. It is called 'Me, Myself and Work'. It makes passing reference to Emler?s work but largely ignores his conclusions or that of Professor Roy Baumeister. Referring to the California task-force?s original research the author writes:

It found that the family ? and parental influences in particular ? was an important factor in establishing. The school climate was considered crucial. Once people had developed higher self-esteem they were less likely to be involved in self-destructive behaviour such as alcohol abuse, violence or crime and less likely to become pregnant as teenagers.

Having completely failed to grasp that this simply is not true, the author then goes on to exhort the Labour Government to do more to ensure that self-esteem is increased in ?early years, general education ? welfare to work? and so forth, without one question, of the merit of such an approach.

A conundrum

Perhaps one of the reasons why self-esteem has become such an important concept in modern society is that we all understand it and know its relevance to our own life. David Hume was right: it feels great when we are proud of ourselves. Even Martin Seligman, an arch critic of the self-esteem movement acknowledges that self-esteem is a ?delicious feeling?. Baumeister and colleagues explained eloquently, in an important 2003 paper for the Amerian Psychological Society, why people are routinely drawn to the notion that self-esteem is of vital importance in people's lives:

Most people feel that self-esteem is important. It is difficult, if not impossible, for people to remain indifferent to information that bears on their own self-esteem, such as being told that they are incompetent, attractive, untrustworthy, or lovable. Increaes and decreases in self-esteem generally bring strong emotional reactions. Moreover, these fluctuations are often coincident with major successes and failures in life. Subjective experience creates the impression that self-esteem rises when one wins a contest, garners an award, solves a problem, or gains acceptance to a social group, and that it falls with corresponding failures. This pervasive correlation may well strengthen the impression that one's level of self-esteem is not just the outcome, but indeed the cause, of life's major successes and failures.

The issue then is not whether self-esteem exists or even if it is important in people?s lives - it is according to the research a salient characteristic of happy people. It is whether it is something which can be artificially boosted and the techniques we might employ to do this. It is also about how relevant self-esteem issues are across different domains such as education and work. A further issue concerns whether by focussing on self-esteem, and how people feel about themselves, we are simply creating a generation who are obsessed by themselves and their own lives. These questions are explored in later sections.

Copyright: Carol Craig, Centre for Confidence and Well-Being, 2006