How that generation went on to perceive itself

Jesse Singal suggests that the self-esteem craze that seized so many American brains during the 80s and 90s was just a little bit over the top.

During this span, just about everyone, from CEOs to welfare recipients, was told — often by psychologists with serious credentials — that improving their self-esteem could, as The Lovables put it, unlock the gates to more happiness, better performance, and every kind of success imaginable. This was both a personal argument and a political one: The movement, which had its epicenter in California, argued that increasing people’s self-esteem could reduce crime, teen pregnancy, and a host of other social ills — even pollution.

It would be hard to overstate the long-term impact of these claims. The self-esteem craze changed how countless organizations were run, how an entire generation — millenials — was educated, and how that generation went on to perceive itself (quite favorably). As it turned out, the central claim underlying the trend, that there’s a causal relationship between self-esteem and various positive outcomes, was almost certainly inaccurate. But that didn’t matter: For millions of people, this was just too good and satisfying a story to check, and that’s part of the reason the national focus on self-esteem never fully abated. Many people still believe that fostering a sense of self-esteem is just about the most important thing one can do, mental health–wise.

Whereas I have always thought that was a completely ridiculous idea, for the simple reason that so many people have way too much self-esteem. I remember conversations in the 90s that went like this:

Me: God X is an obnoxious self-centered asshole.

B: Oh, he has low self-esteem.

Me: What? How do you know? He’s brimming with self-esteem.

B: No, he’s not, that’s a mask over his low self-esteem.

There were no conceited overbearing people any more, there were only people with low self-esteem, masking it by acting like conceited overbearing people. I never believed that for a second, but I gave up arguing about it because it was hopeless. The dogma was well entrenched.

As it turned out, there was very little validity to the causal claims everyone was making about self-esteem in the 1980s and ’90s. We know that because around the turn of the century, long after self-esteem programs had blossomed all over North America, the psychological Establishment decided to take a more critical look at the dogma surrounding the subject. Baumeister and three other researchers were invited by the American Psychological Society to conduct a comprehensive review of the literature to find out whether self-esteem really “works” as advertised. In a 2005 article in Scientific American and a more technical paper published in Psychological Science and the Public Interest, they delivered the bad news: There was little published evidence supporting Vasconcellos’s ideas. In some areas, high self-esteem actually correlated with worse behavior — some criminals, it turns out, actually view themselves quite favorably.

In other areas, it turned out that correlation did not imply causation, just as Baumeister suspected. Take a 1986 study his team reviewed which found that “self-esteem in 10th grade is only weakly predictive of academic achievement in 12th grade,” for example. Academic achievement, on the other hand, did predict higher self-esteem. It’s more likely that successful people with high self-esteem have high self-esteem because they’re successful than vice versa.

I wonder why I never bought it when so many people did. Subjectively, I think the main reason is because I loathe self-absorption. But objectively, that doesn’t help, because don’t most people loathe self-absorption? Surely they must, for reasons to do with reciprocity if nothing else.

Now, the self-esteem movement may not have fulfilled its goal of helping ameliorate every social problem under the sun, but that doesn’t mean it didn’t have an effect. Not surprisingly, the clearest evidence comes from the most malleable Americans who were exposed to self-esteem: kids. While the heightened focus on self-esteem may not have made the children of the 1980s and 1990s smarter or more successful or better students, it did likely have a long-term impact on them, according to Jean Twenge, a psychologist at San Diego State University and the author of Generation Me: Why Today’s Young Americans Are More Confident, Assertive, Entitled — and More Miserable Than Ever Before. “The self-esteem movement is at least one factor in explaining why millennials have higher self-esteem, are more likely to see themselves as above average, and in general have more positive self-views than previous generations did at the same age,” she said. “I also think it may explain why they score higher in measures of narcissistic personality traits.”

Exactly so, and that’s why their version of progressive politics is so fucked up.

One interesting way of tracking the growth of the self-esteem craze is by examining the language that blossomed around it. Take, for example, research Twenge and others have conducted on the frequency of certain feel-good sentences phrases in English-language literature — sentences like Believe in yourself and anything is possible, and You have to love yourself first before you can love someone else. “Those phrases are taken for granted as advice we give teens and adults,” explained Twenge, “but they’re very modern. At least in written language, they were very uncommon before about 1980, and then became much more popular. They’re all very individualistic, they’re all very self-focused, they’re also all delusional. ‘Believe in yourself and anything is possible’? Nope, it’s just not true.”

And the second one is equally delusional and it’s repulsive. Apart from clinically depressed people, we can all be trusted to love ourselves first, because that’s natural; what needs emphasizing and repeating is that we need to look past our precious selves.

12 Responses to “How that generation went on to perceive itself”