JR'S Free Thought Pages
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                                                  SELF-ESTEEM  - An Analysis       

The following analysis is a response to the article "Our Urgent Need for Self-Esteem" by Nathanial Branden in Executive Excellence (May, 1994, pp. 14-15)

Teachers, in an effort to strengthen self esteem, often praise a student for work that is substandard at best. In a situation such as this, should we not be fostering in our students an ability to accept criticism and be self-critical? The most common misconception about self-esteem is that it is built through the language of praise and the granting of rewards; but surely self-esteem cannot be granted like a pay-raise, prize or trophy.[1] Certainly occasional praise, and even reward, has its place. Praise can help a student feel better for a short time, but it also tends to make the student's self-esteem dependent on the teacher. What students need from teachers is encouragement, not praise. They need to recognize improvement, progress and growth on their own so that their feelings of self-worth are self-authenticating and generated from the inside out. Rather than telling a math student that her work is excellent or great, the teacher should comment on her work ethic and perseverance and how these factors have contributed to her progression toward greater skill and understanding. In other words, the student, not the teacher, must draw the inference about a student’s worth.

Studies have show that rewards, as well as stress; punishments and strong emotions often lead to reduced flexibility in thinking and lead to irrational behaviour. For example, when students are granted rewards for work they are more inclined to concentrate on quantity at the expense of quality. It may have the effect of making students pick easy problems, in addition to preventing them from reflecting on the general principles involved rather than merely providing routine solutions. This may apply even if the reward is merely in the form of praise from the teacher. Praise should be given not for just solving problems, but for the ability to demonstrate conceptual clarity and understanding, to draw valid inferences and for understanding general principles. Encouraging such creativity may be too little regarded today, perhaps as the result of the mistaken identification of creativity with the ability to produce unusual but meaningless or irrelevant material, as fostered by writers like Edward de Bono. True creativity can only be measured by the product and does not mean thinking up a thousand uses for a ball-peen hammer: it is the ability to solve new problems, to induce general principles, to construct sound explanatory theories and to produce useful and novel technologies. Nor is creativity randomly tossing volumes of paint at a canvas - it is the ability to paint a picture that in some way or other moves the beholder.

It seems to me that self-esteem is a natural upshot of the realization that you have worked and thought extremely hard on an activity, problem or assignment and have done the best you can. However, students should be mindful of their fallibility, which is aptly expressed in the dictum “to err is human”, and the old paradoxical adage that "success is 99% failure". We all must eventually become aware of our limitations and be cognizant of the truism that one can put in an enormous amount of time and effort on a project and still fail! Our propensity to make mistakes is a basic human characteristic that we should accept without reacting with a self-attribution of incompetence or flawed character. Errors and setbacks (and yes, even failure) are situations from which we should respond positively and translate them into learning experiences. In the quest for knowledge, understanding and wisdom, humility is clearly a virtue. But the equivocation of self-esteem with the self-satisfying belief that failure is "almost successful" or "in progress", and the perception that whatever we do is awesome and excellent, is a blatant misuse of language as well as an exercise in sophistry and self-deception. The "Doctor Feel-goods" and "self-help gurus" who pervade many business and education seminars these days are some of the worst proponents of this nonsense.                  

I believe it was John Searle, the eminent philosopher of language from the University of California at Berkeley, who said that "complacency is the very opposite of the intellectual life." The well-kept secret of the intellectual life is that quality first-rate work requires an enormous amount of effort, anguish and even desperation. The quest for knowledge and truth, as well as depth, insight, and originality is not some effortless "Sesame Street" exercise.[2] Only an immature naivety adopts such simplistic images of the intellectual life. Besides, is it not better to be "a Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied", as John Stuart Mill has so vividly stated? Our resolve to understand both the world and ourselves should not be purchased at the price of maintaining our precious consolatory beliefs and self-esteem. What we need is a sense of humility in the face of the unknown and recognition of the fallibility of much of what we claim to know. This is the essence of the scientific outlook. Only in this way can we maintain our intellectual integrity and avoid slipping into pretentious dogmatism. Furthermore, without uncertainty there would be no hope, no free will and no ethics. An essential part of wisdom is the ability to determine what is uncertain or implausible; that is, to appreciate the limits of knowledge and to understand its probabilistic nature in many contexts. Paradoxically, however, while we all strive to reduce the uncertainties and contingencies of our lives and of the environment, ultimate success in this endeavour; that is, total success, would be horrific. If there were no uncertainties about the consequences of behaviour, for example, ethics and morality would become redundant because uncertainty is a necessary precondition not only for the existence of ethical choice, but for the notion of free will. This is because the ethics of a decision is not judged post hoc on the basis of the consequences that happen to follow. But nor can ethics be reduced to an appeal to authority or the mindless adherence to rules or absolute imperatives.              

As I see it, Nathanial Branden in his paper displays a serious lack of attention to conceptual clarity and a misunderstanding of some of the most basic principles of probability theory and rules of statistical inference. Let me first deal with the latter problem. Branden, a long time disciple of Ayn Rand, is a clinical psychologist and hence sees only those people who already have problems such as anxiety and depression. He sees only those people who are in therapy. They have all engaged in negative social behaviours and they all have a negative self-image. He concludes that this self-image problem is at the basis of the behaviour - i.e., he concludes that all or most of these clients have low self-esteem. In other words, given that one has psychological problems, the probability of low self-esteem is high (i.e., P(L|S) is high where S = having problems and L = low self-esteem - the conditional probability of low self-esteem, given that one has problems). Branden's experience is with people who already have problems and want help - that is, his experience is conditional on S. To state that these problems are traceable to poor self-esteem, however, is to assert that P(S|L) (the inverse conditional probability) is high, which we do not know - because clients come to Branden because they have problems. Branden's experience is with people who want help with their problems - that is, his experience is conditional on S. Even if we found a high P(S|L), we could still not make a causal inference: people's self-esteem may be poor because they have such problems. Branden's observations are in fact consistent with the conclusion that having low self-esteem is good for people who have problems because otherwise they would not be motivated to seek help and change their behaviours. Branden would have been much better off acknowledging the dubious nature of his claims rather than irrationally accepting a causal hypothesis. For example, self-esteem and academic achievement are quite obviously correlated. But self-esteem and academic achievement are probably not causally related in either direction. Self-esteem and academic achievement are very likely linked to variables such as intelligence and family social status. If you subtract these last two variables from the equation, the causal relationship between self-esteem and academic achievement disappears in a whiff of smoke.

Self-esteem as a target for empirical research is clearly problematic because of its vagueness. Exactly what is it about which a person is self-esteeming? Is it simply a generalized self-confidence? I will more fully deal with this conceptual difficulty shortly, but one thing is certain: precious little evidence suggests that self-esteem leads to higher achievement. A person might cherish family, God and Country; she might hold herself in high regard both athletically and intellectually, but these sentiments may not necessarily translate into becoming a superior student, athlete or citizen. In fact, the relationship between self-esteem and achievement might be an inverse one ("almost" because any serious lack of self-esteem would surely lead one nowhere). Insecurity, humility and self-doubt also advance hard work and achievement; and they place self-esteem on a realistic foundation. The relationship between self-esteem and achievement may, at the very least, be reciprocal. The way to achieve self-esteem is through hard work, skills and accomplishments, not through self-aggrandizement, self-esteem workshops or self-help gurus.

Those who are self-satisfied and pleased with themselves and their accomplishments may do little else than flaunt themselves - this notion of self-esteem ("never say die", "every person is special", "always feel powerful", "every Man a King") is the hallmark of the North American psyche. Unfortunately it may have very little to do with reality. The relatively poor showing of North American students in standardized tests compared with students from other cultures has become commonplace. Less familiar (and fewer) are observations gleaned from studies correlating self-esteem and educational performance. Those who perceive themselves winners are bottom feeders and those who think themselves losers are the winners. International studies of science and mathematics skills clearly show that North Americans are the most self-assured and self-confident - yet demonstrate the lowest achievement. Asian students, however, are the most insecure, humble and self-doubting - but finish at the top. In recent studies (International Assessment of Mathematics and Science, Princeton, ETS, 1989 and Learning Mathematics, Princeton, ETS, 1992) North American high school students were near the bottom whereas Koreans were the highest achievers. When these students were asked whether they "are good at mathematics", the results were, to me at least, not surprising. The North American students believed they were the best, while Koreans, who far out-performed the Americans, thought they were not particularly good at Math. Despite their poor overall performance (second from the bottom) about two-thirds of Americans felt they "are good at Mathematics". Only 23% of their Korean counterparts, the highest achievers, shared this same conviction.

Returning to Branden, his lack of intellectual responsibility is not limited to his abuse of causation and ignorance of probability theory and statistical inference. It also spills over into his use of language and subsequent lack of conceptual clarity. He does not define his terms, employs vague language and has a propensity to make categorical statements without supporting evidence. For example, Branden makes no effort to inform us as to the meaning of "self-esteem"; nor does he list any criteria for judging someone as having low or high self-esteem? What could he possibly mean by the nebulous claim "lacking positive self-esteem, psychological growth is stunted"? Branden makes all sorts of wild assertions about the virtues of self-esteem. He declares that self-esteem makes us "more ambitious, more communicative, more flexible, more expressive and outgoing, more honest and open, more loving" and "resides in the core of one's being". Is this not demanding a lot of an abstraction? And what could he possibly mean by the opaque expression "the core of one's being"? Finally, Branden claims that self-esteem is an important ingredient for those competitive members of a free market capitalistic system. (A system that often crushes those who cannot or choose not to be "competitive"!)

What, then, could Branden possibly mean by self-esteem? John Rawls (1971), in his major work A Theory of Justice, argues a case for individuals choosing their own way and framing their own conception of the good life. At the same time he maintains that there are goods, so-called primary goods, that anyone will need whatever his or her conception of the good life. These include the social goods, rights and liberties, power and opportunities, income and security, and, most important of all, self-esteem. The primary position of self-esteem in a democratic society is obvious when we realize that, for Rawls, to enjoy self-esteem is to feel secure that one's conception of the good life is worth carrying out and to be confident of one's abilities to do so. It is interesting that Rawls, in his discussion of self-esteem, uses the terms self-esteem and self-respect interchangeably. This, I think, entails some minor conceptual confusion. Self-respect, it would seem, is to have a sense of one's dignity as a person. It is adversely affected when one's moral or political rights are impugned - if people treat one as a means to their own ends, for instance, wilfully break their promises to one, subject one to degradation, humiliate one, patronize one. People can have a lively sense of self-respect, their antennae quivering at any possible infringement of their rights or moral imperatives, yet suffer low self-esteem, believing, for instance, that nothing that they set out to accomplish could ever turn out well owing to their own inadequacies. Conversely, I may be bursting with self-esteem but have little self-respect. Think of Charlotte Lucas, who marries Mr. Collins in Pride and Prejudice. Or, if I may digress for a moment, consider a person who acquires his self-esteem from his position in a bureaucratic authority structure but yet compromises his principles by turning a blind eye to an injustice inflicted upon one of his subordinates or who uses such a position for his own glory or may even adopt a overly submissive attitude toward others in the organization to earn their approval. The strategies of many modern managers are often undemocratic and morally dubious by their manipulation and coercion of individuals within the organization, using them as mere instrumentalities, often with the crudest utilitarian justification underlying those strategies. Writers about management conceive of themselves as morally neutral entities whose skills enable them to devise the most efficient means of achieving whatever end is proposed. But the manipulation of human beings into compliant patterns of behaviour is not only antithetical to the democratic spirit, but diminishes the self-esteem and self-respect of those who are the victims of such strategies. Democratic communities, including our public schools, if they expect to survive and function as such, surely expect that their citizens will stand up for their principles and challenge any incipient injustice or undue authoritarianism. Submissiveness, subservience, passive acquiescence, conformity and credulity must all be labelled political vices in a democratic community whatever their value in authoritarian and hierarchical organizations. We know from bitter experience (Germany in the 1930's, for example) and from research findings, that organizations and institutions may well diminish those positive qualities of confidence, independence of thought, and the like which are the hallmarks of self-esteem, and induce in their members feelings of inadequacy, dependence and "learned helplessness". It seems to me that if all members of an institution participate in its policy and decision making process, then they can directly bear the moral responsibility for those decisions and, yes, enhance their self-esteem.                                                     

In light of the above, it would seem that one should examine the sources of one's self-esteem and, via a process of reflection and self-assessment, evaluate the authenticity of such sources - could not this reflective self-examination be a source of self-esteem? This will often be a painful process, requiring honesty and intellectual integrity in facing up to a possible self-deception or self-serving bias. Is there any reason why a person should not take pride in honestly examining his or her way of life, trying to root out false beliefs and self-deception and trying to face unsavoury truths about the self? For one to have reasonable self-confidence and self-acceptance one does not have to do well in some things, only to believe that one does. And there are many ways by which people can be brought to hold false beliefs. If a student, for example, is brought to develop a self-image that is far from reality, this might ultimately result in lower self-esteem when the distortion comes crashing down on him ("excessive pride cometh before a fall"). Those people who continually hold themselves in high self-esteem and who always appear to be "happy" risk living in a dangerously rose-tinted universe in which they have difficulties in remembering past failings and overestimate their own competence and self-efficacy. In addition, they frequently overestimate their control over events often to the point of perceiving completely random events as subject to their will, give unrealistic positive evaluations of their achievements and believe others share their embellished opinions of themselves.     

Simply put then, people with positive self-esteem have a favourable opinion of themselves. They see themselves, for instance, as having worthwhile ends in view and the necessary dispositions and capacities to pursue them; or as having achieved something worthwhile; or as the possessors of some desirable attribute, like good looks, intelligence, athletic ability, or as coming from a "good family" or the belief that one is divinely created in the image of their God.[3] Those who have low self-esteem may see their ends as unworthy, or valueless, or they may be totally bewildered because there is no order to their life. They may, on the other hand, see themselves as, for example, overly emotional, or too lacking in rational self-control to carry through a project, however worthy its conception might be. They may have a poor opinion of themselves because they feel they have accomplished little or nothing of any worth, or because they see themselves as personally unattractive or lacking social status. Whether people are right in these positive and negative judgments is another matter. Someone who thinks she is unintelligent may be mistaken; and the individuals are not perhaps the final authorities on the worthiness or unworthiness of their own ends. What matters for self-esteem - however high or low - is that one should believe that one is such and such. However, as I have already mentioned, this is not to suggest that it is all right for one's self-esteem to be based on any beliefs whatsoever, particularly false ones. 


Also, consider the following points along a similar thread:

(1) "Groupthink" (remember Orwell's 1984): Irving Janis (1972), in his book Victims of Groupthink, used the word groupthink to describe the deterioration of a groups' cognitive efficiency, attention, critical acumen and judgment that results from implicit constraints and pressures.[4] People tend to gravitate to groups whose attitudes and beliefs are similar to their own thus diminishing anxiety about possible inconsistencies and contradictions concerning those beliefs. Group attitudes are more prone to engaging in risky activities and more willing to take extreme measure than those of individuals to meet their ends and, as many psychological studies have shown, membership in a group severely reduces individual responsibility. Many others have also commented on the irrationality of group behaviour. Charles Mackay's classic Extraordinary Delusions and the Madness of Crowds, Gustav Le Bon's The Crowd, Elias Canetti's Crowds and Power and Friedrich Nietzsche’s writings come to mind. Madness, said Nietzsche, is the exception in individuals, but the rule in groups. Freud wrote that groups are impulsive, changeable, irritable and extraordinarily credulous. Groupthink is the false illusion of invulnerability - the reluctance of members of a group to challenge the status quo, the opinions of the leader or to play the devil's advocate when it is so often justified. People would rather conform than dissent. For example, the lack of preparedness of the Americans at Pearl Harbour (12/7/44) was the result of a refusal by the commander's subordinates to disagree with his complacency in the face of evidence of an impending attack. In Arthur Schlesinger's account of the Bay of Pigs fiasco in the early 1960s he later expressed regret with his decision not to speak out in spite of the fact in private he vehemently disagreed with the group during the crucial discussions in the Cabinet Room over strategy.

The impetus behind groupthink is the effort to minimize anxiety and preserve self-esteem. The various devices employed to enhance self-esteem play the same role in groups as they do in individuals; that is, the distortion of reality in order to preserve heightened self-esteem and reduced anxiety. They facilitate an escape into the self-satisfying, consolatory refuge of consensus and the status quo. By cramping its attention and hobbling its information-seeking, the group preserves its cosy unanimity. Loyalty to the group requires that members not raise embarrassing or sensitive questions, attack weak arguments, or raise issues about conceptual clarity and tenuous evidence. Most people are extremely reluctant to challenge another person's beliefs primarily because they quite naturally try to avoid potential conflict with others and to do so is to risk being disliked. 

How often have you noticed that leaders of groups or committees prefer to surround themselves with "team players" - people who are conformists, true believers (have you read Eric Hoffer's great little book, The True Believer ?) and who suppress their skepticism. Consider, for example, the political games one must play in order to secure an administrative position - tell them what they want to hear! Bertrand Russell once stated that critical thinkers are never popular, particularly in bureaucracies, because, as he put it, they cause "administrative difficulties".

Janis' solution to groupthink is the designation of at least one member of a group as a deviant - an outsider - a critical, impartial observer of what goes on in the group, raising objections, looking for hidden premises and biases, clarifying issues, pointing out conceptual confusion and analyzing weak or fallacious arguments. In short, one who is willing to "rock the boat". The devil's advocate can save the group from itself, making sure it faces uncomfortable facts and considers unpopular views, thus maintaining some sense of the group's intellectual integrity. Any worthy scientific community operates in this fashion - always probing, looking for objections and possible refutations or falsifications of a hypothesis or theory. Intellectual virtues such as these are what made Darwin, for example, such an admired scientist.  

(2) "Self-serving biases": Self-esteem often collapses into what psychologists refer to as self-serving biases. A self-serving bias is the propensity to perceive oneself favourably. These biases arise from many different sources and situations and are often exercises in wishful thinking and self-deception. You have surely noticed the tendency of many people to always attribute their successes to their own personal characteristics but blame the system, society, a teacher, fate or bad luck when they fail (for example, Adam's excuse in the Garden of Eden: "The woman whom thou gave to be with me, she gave me fruit of the tree, and I ate", I failed that test because Mr. Smuck sucks as a math teacher, the insurance claimant who testifies "A pedestrian hit me and went under my car" or the classic "it was the will of God"). Athletes are notorious for using this mechanism when they attribute their victories to skill and their losses to fate, chance, or some other bogus external factor or paranormal phenomenon. (I lost the match because my racket was defective and my biorhythm was in a weak phase). Free will and determinism become convenient interchangeable philosophical positions that can be mobilized to justify or explain the situation in which one finds oneself.

(3) Belief: Beliefs can often be reduced to a self-serving bias in the sense that many people evince a "cognitive conceit" by overestimating the accuracy of their beliefs and judgments. People rarely change their beliefs, including those concerning their own abilities because they hate to admit they are wrong. People tend to believe exactly what they want to believe! (you may have read C.S. Peirce's essay "The Fixation of Belief") People strive to maintain their beliefs at the expense of the truth. They will go to great lengths to avoid evidence that will refute their arguments or falsify their beliefs, looking only for evidence (which is often distorted) to confirm what they already believe to be true. People would rather cling to their treasured, often false, beliefs rather than admit that they might be wrong and (gulp!) lower their self-esteem. Every known logical fallacy is employed to prop up dubious, implausible beliefs and hence avoid the loss of prestige and self-esteem.

Psychological studies have confirmed that even when people are confronted with overwhelming counter-evidence and counter-arguments to their beliefs, they not only ignore or refuse to believe the recalcitrant counter-arguments and counter-evidence, but they dig in their heels and become more steadfast in their prior beliefs (the "boomerang effect"). The need for some people to continually prop up their self-esteem and protect the emotional investment that they have in their beliefs - particularly those of the "transcendent" or "metaphysical" variety - often override any concrete evidence which might possibly falsify those same beliefs.

People's opinions about others, as well as about themselves, are extremely resistant to change. Moreover, they often distort new evidence in order to avoid an incongruence, incoherence or inconsistency with the beliefs they presently hold - often all in the name of nurturing their precious self-esteem. People also excel at inventing explanations for events, actions or phenomena so that they are in line with their pre-existing beliefs. These explanations are often facile, simplistic efforts to "explain away" any attempts to question their beliefs (e.g.,"it's the work of the Devil" or "it was inevitable"). These efforts often employ fallacious devices such as non pro causa (or post hoc fallacy) - the fallacy of false cause. This device is often exploited in order to avoid having to accept personal responsibility for some action or occurrence.  Also, contrary to popular opinion, the willingness to change one's mind or alter or modify a belief is a sign of rationality - not weakness!! In summary, beliefs are remarkably resistant to change because (i) People consistently avoid exposing themselves to evidence that might disprove their beliefs, (ii) On receiving evidence against their beliefs, they often refuse to believe it, regardless of the strength of the counter-evidence, (iii) the existence of a belief distorts people’s interpretation of new evidence in such a way as to make it consistent with the belief, (iv) people selectively remember items that are in line with their beliefs, (v) people excel at inventing facile explanations to account for their irrational beliefs and (vi) they have a desire to protect their self-esteem at any cost.

(4) The psychological literature, as previously related, shows that the use of awards, prizes, and other material inducements, particularly once accepted, tend to devalue any activity or project which is worth doing in its own right or which has intrinsic value for the person involved in the activity or project.

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     [1] Studies have shown that rewards tend to devalue particularly those activities deemed worth doing in their own right. Even though rewards seem to facilitate performance on very easy tasks, they impair it on more difficult and challenging ones. These studies have further shown that the higher the incentive, the worse people perform.

     [2] The Sesame Street Syndrome in education tends to be consistent with the thinking of some behaviorists. In general, it teaches students that there are facile, correct answers to most questions, that facts themselves have intrinsic value, that student's enduring questions are gratuitous - since grownups are willing to do all the asking and answering, that critical thinking is an inconvenience, because there's no time for it, that making mistakes is bad and failure should be avoided at all costs. It seems to me that life suggests the very opposite of these conclusions. Facts without purpose or thought are trivial; the assumption that there is a right answer in every intellectual pursuit is misleading at best, even in the pure sciences; critical thinking and free inquiry are necessary components in any democratic community and the ability to tolerate setbacks and failure is essential to all progress. The complex problems we face today cannot be answered by appeals to absolutes and dogmatism - what we need is rational, critical inquiry augmented by thoughtful, creative and imaginative approaches to the solution of our many complex social and environmental problems. With the present state of education, as I see it, and what is now being proposed for the immediate future, these serious global problems are likely to remain unsolved.                   

     [3] According to Robert Nozick (1974) in Anarchy, State and Utopia, self-esteem is essentially a comparative notion; that is to say, "we evaluate how well we do something by comparing our performance to others, to what others can do." (p. 240) Hence, common features such as the ability to speak some common language, or the ability to walk cannot serve as a basis for self-esteem, since "self-esteem is based on differentiating characteristics; that's why it's self-esteem."(p. 243) So the putative fact held by Christians, for example, that all humans have been created by God, or have the feature of being Kantian bearers of the moral law, cannot establish the alleged necessary inappropriateness of human low self-esteem, and hence cannot serve as a basis for enhancing one's self-esteem.

     [4] According to Janis, the members of a group may develop an illusion of invulnerability coupled with extreme optimism; they ignore inconvenient facts; their belief in their own morality may lead them to commit immoral acts as a means to an end; they hold stereotyped views of rival or enemy groups whom they regard as evil or weak; individual members attempt to silence dissent from others in the group; each member suppresses his own doubts in order to conform; there is an illusion of unanimity resulting from this suppression; and finally, they protect other members by concealing information not in line with the group’s views. Moreover, when a leader of a group chooses an advisory committee, he is unlikely to select people who have divergent views from his own or people who are more intelligent or more powerful in argument than him. To protect their self-esteem leaders are likely to surround themselves with acolytes, thus exacerbating the tendencies already mentioned. In addition, when a committee has a leader, the members will want to please him, particularly if he can influence their careers. This can be particularly pernicious, for the more the disciples agree with the leader, the more extreme and dogmatic his own views are likely to become and hence the other members make even more extreme statements, thus resulting in a vicious circle.



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