Monday, January 17, 2011

I Fear for the Future

Via big boy blogger Andrew Sullivan, this post referencing this NYT article about self-esteem.  The article cites a study that
a group of 152 University of Michigan students were asked about their favorite activity, but were given an expanded list to choose from that included receiving a paycheck, seeing a best friend and drinking alcohol, in addition to eating a favorite food, engaging in a favorite sexual activity and having a self-esteem-building experience. Again, self-esteem trumped all other rewards. This study also ascertained how recently participants had experienced or engaged in their favorite activities. It appeared to make no difference how long it had been since they had last received the rewards, the researchers said.
On the bright side, one could argue that prioritizing self esteem over food lowers obesity, and prioritizing self-esteem over sex lowers promiscuity and it's attendant ills.  That being said, however, self-esteem doesn't pay the rent while a paycheck does.

The article points out a more frightening part of the study.
The participants were also asked to do a timed test of intellectual ability, and then were told they had the option of waiting for an extra 10 minutes to have the test re-evaluated using a different algorithm that produces higher scores. This essentially gave them an opportunity to get a self-esteem boost right there in the lab. Not surprisingly, students who highly valued self-esteem were more likely to be willing to stick around to get the new scores.

Note that the participants weren't doing a new test that demonstrated improved intellectual ability.  They were going to get a higher score simply because people were going to figure the scores differently.

The findings show that the younguns haven't figured that everything they've heard about self-esteem is really backwards. 
“The idea has been that if we build their self-esteem, then they’ll do better in school and in relationships,” said Dr. Twenge, the “Narcissism Epidemic” author. “Well, that puts the cart before the horse. When you break down the research you see that kids who behave well and get high grades develop high self-esteem — not the other way around.”
The results scare me not just because kids seem to have it backwards.  I'm scared because necessary activities don't really build self-esteem.  They are just a series of tasks that need to get done because they need to get done and no one else will do them.

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