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Self-Esteem vs. Esteemable Selves

Filling up the esteem tank with the right fuel.

The self-esteem generation

Every fall I teach a survey course on social psychology to 350 undergraduates. I have taught this class more than a dozen times and without fail, a week after the class ends, a trickle of students start showing up at my door hoping to get a higher grade than they ultimately received for the class. The prototypical grade request comes from premed students who fear that their B+ will sink their chances of getting into med school. Although this has remained constant over the years, the nature of their request has changed of late. A decade ago, students came in wanting to look at their exams to see if any of the questions they got wrong came from stray marks or if they could argue that their incorrect answers warranted partial credit. They wanted to check that I had received all the correct information about their section participation and their extra credit activity. These are all fair and reasonable things to check if you think you are close to getting a higher grade.

I still get those kinds of students, but over the last five years I’ve had a different kind of student walk through my door. To my amazement, students now sit on my couch and say something along the lines of “I’m premed and I’d really prefer to have an A- over a B+. That would be way better for getting into med school. So can you change my grade to an A-?” I’ve learned not to reveal my real reaction because it might just get me into trouble. Instead, I conceal my laughter as best I can and ask why they think they deserve a better grade. Typically their answer is little more than “because I want one”. Somewhere along the way, these very bright 20-year-olds seem to have learned that there is a dissociation between their performance and their evaluation. If they don’t move in lock step, why not ask for ask for a better evaluation regardless of the performance. I guess I’m finally old enough to begin saying “kids today…” so here it goes.

These kids are a product of the self-esteem generation. Ever since they were little, their parents and teachers have been telling them how well they are doing at everything. Every team they are on gets a trophy no matter how poorly they do. Every child gets a gold star whether deserved or not. This probably came about for multiple reasons, but one reason was the finding that teenagers with higher self-esteem have higher grades, lower rates of pregnancy, and are less likely to take drugs or get into trouble with the law. This led to funded government programs in the 1980s focused on increasing children’s self-esteem. These campaigns were inspired by the deeply flawed assumptions that if self-esteem and good outcomes are correlated it must be because self-esteem causes those outcomes. In fact, the lionshare of the data suggests just the opposite. Getting good grades and producing more at work increase self-esteem, not the other way around (Baumeister et al. 2003).

Messing with the gauge

Self-esteem is meant to measure how likable and valuable we are. Our popular belief is that in assessing our self-esteem, we are figuring out how much we like ourselves, but there is little adaptive value in that as an end in itself. One influential theory of self-esteem (“sociometer theory” here and here) suggests that assessing how much we like and respect ourselves is really just a proxy for figuring out how much others will like and respect us.

When I teach my students about self-esteem (long before they show up to my class requesting a higher grade), I use an analogy of a gas tank and a gas gauge. Some people are more esteemable than others. Nelson Mandela spent decades in prison to prove a point about human freedom and race relations in South Africa. Mandela is more esteemable than I am. You can think of this in terms of who has more esteemability in their gas tank. Perhaps my esteemability tank is half full, but Mandela’s is as full as full can be.

When we stop and think about our own self-esteem, that’s our own estimate of how much esteemability we have in the tank. If esteemability is like the gas tank, self-esteem is like the gas gauge, telling us roughly how esteemable we are. From an evolutionary standpoint, knowing how esteemable you are in the eyes of the rest of the group is extremely important.

If your car is running out of gas, what should you do? Here’s what you shouldn’t do. Break the glass on your dashboard and manually move the needle on your gas gauge from empty to full. That won’t put any more gas in your tank and it might leave the next person thinking they have gas in the tank when there is almost none. The right thing to do is to fill up the gas tank itself. Its essential that the gas gauge is calibrated to the actual amount of gas in the tank, otherwise its pretty useless.

All of this is true for self-esteem as well. As a society, for the past 25 years we as a society have exerted tremendous effort to move the needle on the self-esteem gauge without necessarily putting more gas in the esteemability tank. Self-esteem without esteemability represents a dangerous miscalibration in which people think they can master hard things with ease (because everyone has told them that their middling performances are exceptional) and it deprives those individuals of the chance to know that they are not yet exceptional but perhaps could be with hard work.

Moving the needle on our children’s self-esteem may be the easy thing to do, but it does them no favor in the long run. Letting our children learn that is takes truly esteemable behavior to warrant high self-esteem is much harder to do, but it will lead to a happier more productive society overtime. Its time for the self-esteem movement to end and the esteemable selves movement to begin. If nothing else, at least my premeds would go back to making up better reasons for why they deserve that A-.

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