The Fallible Mind

Emotion, perception, and other tricks of the brain

The Key to Self-Esteem? Accomplishment.

A fisherman wants to catch his own fish, not be handed one.

Everybody is a winner.
For decades now it has been the custom for educators to make kids feel good about themselves for no particular reason. This practice, which is not backed by any evidence, is based on the premise that high self-esteem leads to high achievement. Accordingly participants in spelling bees and sporting events all come away with trophies so that no one feels bad about not measuring up. In the classroom students read titles such as Everyone is Special and complete All About Me projects that catalog their fine qualities. Teachers refrain from criticism and take care not to tie praise to performance. The problem with gold stars, prizes for everyone and other bribes, however, is that they don't work. Rather than bolster achievement the practice simply motivates individuals to accrue more rewards and instills a sense of entitlement.

I deserve to be rewarded even though I didn't do anything.
Former DC School Superintendent Michelle Rhee, Tiger Mom, recently commented on the everyone-is-a-winner trend by noting that her daughters' rooms are covered with ribbons, medals, and trophies, "Yet I routinely tell my kids that their soccer skills suck. If they want to be better they have to practice hard, [but that] still won't guarantee they'll ever be great at soccer. It's tough to square this with the trophies."

Though well intended, research shows that the self-esteem movement has hobbled the millennial generation. The habit of unearned praise interferes with learning, and giving an "A for effort" only succeeds in giving students an inflated sense of their abilities. A 2007 Los Angeles Times report on international student assessments across 30 countries, titled "F in Science, A in Self-Esteem,"showed thatAmerican students ranked 21st in science and 25th in math, prompting experts to declare that "Americans are unprepared to compete in the global economy." Despite their dismal performance, American youths aren't bothered by their ignorance. In fact, they don't recognize their mistakes or get that they don't know nearly as much as their peers in Finland, Canada, New Zealand, or Great Britain even though they think they do. They are hooked on praise instead. According to a recent paper in the Journal of Personality, young adults "prefer a boost to self-esteem over sex, food, drinking, and pretty much any other pleasurable outlet." Should they need a pat on the back there is a smartphone app called iFlatter that will "brighten your day, make you laugh, and boost your confidence" regardless of your actual knowledge and skill set.

Tell me I'm the greatest

Competition is a fact of life, and yet the fear of making anyone feel bad has crept up the ladder to adult concerns. It is seen for instance in the Academy Awards in which the timeworn phrase, "And the winner is!" has given way to the bland but political correct, "And the Award goes to." The zero-sum premise is that every winner demands a loser and that personal accomplishment only comes at the expense of someone else. This is rubbish. But the thinking persists and would be merely annoying if its effects weren't so corrosive.

Recently reviewer Kay Hymowitz wrote in the Wall Street Journal about the 15,000 studies that the movement has generated. "And what do they show?" she asks. "That high self-esteem doesn't improve grades, reduce antisocial behavior, deter alcohol drinking, or do much of anything good for kids. In fact, telling kids how smart they are can be counterproductive. Many children who are convinced that they are little geniuses tend not to put much effort into their work. Others are troubled by the latent anxiety of adults who feel it necessary to praise them constantly."

The solution to this muddle is actually simple: If you want self-esteem, then do estimable things. Accomplishments and know-how can't be handed out or downloaded into someone's brain like they are for the characters in The Matrix. They must be earned through individual effort. It is the endeavor that generates a sense of pride and inward esteem. Imagine handing a fisherman a prize catch. You may think you're doing him a favor and saving him the trouble, but you are robbing him of the pleasure instead. A fisherman wants to catch his own fish, not be given one.

I caught it myself!
Numerous psychological studies have confirmed that satisfaction is an inside game. While it feels nice to be rewarded, the glow of the dopamine rush is short lived and doesn't produce lasting change in mood or behavior. After the thrill of winning, for example, lottery winners and Nobel laureates revert to their previous temperaments. A look at accomplished individuals who regularly win awards and medals shows that they are driven by the effort rather than the result. It is the striving rather than the reward that is long-lived. Furthermore, the knowledge of one's capability is continually satisfying throughout one's life.

Self-esteem feels good because it calls on the emotion of pride. Pride in turn arises from one's sense of confidence and capability. Esteem and related emotions instill a sense of success and the confidence that you can accomplish whatever you set out to do. In addition the feeling is fun. "She always seems to enjoy whatever she's doing," people say. Achieving such a state, however, is not possible without discipline.

My own effort.
Like capitalism whose riches cannot exist without the threat of bankruptcy, or heaven without the possibility of hell, self-effort must be willing to risk failure. Failure when it happens is never the end of the world, and building up a tolerance for rejection builds up the courage to put many irons in the fire knowing that only some will come to fruition. The advantage of such a strategy is that it assures a continual string of positive results. When set back, as everyone is from time to time, you will be able to pick yourself up and try again or else move on to something new. Repeated achievement reinforces itself. It cultivates a mindset that anticipates success. To observers it might look like you have amazing luck, but they'd be wrong. The circumstantial luck of fortune is passive and uncaused. What flows from effort, acting on opportunity, and following through is resultant luck. As Thomas Jefferson said, "I'm a great believer in luck, and find that the harder I work the more I have of it."

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Richard E. Cytowic, M.D., is a neurologist best known for bringing synesthesia back to mainstream science. His latest book is Wednesday Is Indigo Blue.

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