On being confident – Eric Barker’s research on self-esteem

| April 20, 2016 | Reply

Eric Barker has summarized research on many self-improvement topics, and peppered his summaries with links to the actual research. I’ve taken much of his work to heart and felt like I have become a better person because of it.

His latest post is on self-esteem/confidence, an counter-intuitive topic. In the following excerpt, he points out the danger of artificially boosting self-esteem:

But you’ve read plenty of stuff on these here interwebz about raising self-esteem, right? And that must work. And that must be good. Right? Wrong.

California set up a task force and gave it $250,000 a year to raise children’s self-esteem. They expected this to boost grades and reduce bullying, crime, teen pregnancy and drug abuse. Guess what?
It was a total failure in almost every category.

Reports on the efficacy of California’s self-esteem initiative, for instance, suggest that it was a total failure. Hardly any of the program’s hoped-for outcomes were achieved. Research shows self-esteem doesn’t cause all those good things. It’s just a side effect of success. So artificially boosting it doesn’t work.

In one influential review of the self-esteem literature, it was concluded that high self-esteem actually did not improve academic achievement or job performance or leadership skills or prevent children from smoking, drinking, taking drugs, and engaging in early sex. If anything, high self-esteem appears to be the consequence rather than the cause of healthy behaviors.

Actually, let me amend that. It is good at raising something: narcissism. So trying to increase self-esteem doesn’t help people succeed but it can turn them into jerks.

Barker also offers suggestions of what we need instead of artificially boosted self-esteem:

Instead, focus on forgiving yourself when you’re not. [cites to the work of Kristin Neff is a professor at the University of Texas at Austin]:

Self-compassion is not about a judgment or evaluation of self-worth; it’s not about deciding whether or not we’re a good or bad person; it’s just about treating oneself kindly. Treating oneself like one would treat a good friend, with warmth and care and understanding. When self-esteem deserts us, which is when we fail and we make a mistake, self-compassion steps in. Self-compassion recognizes that it’s natural and normal to fail and to make mistakes, and that we’re worthy of kindness even though we’ve done something we regret or didn’t perform as well as we wanted to.

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Category: Psychology Cognition, Self Improvement

About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.

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