Economics and the mid-life crisis have much in common: Both dwell on foregone opportunities

C'est la vie; c'est la guerre; c'est la pomme de terre . . . . . . . . . . . . . email: jpalmer at uwo dot ca

. . . . . . . . . . .Richard Posner should be awarded the next Nobel Prize in Economics . . . . . . . . . . . .

Wednesday, December 22, 2004

The Myth of Self-Esteem

I always wondered how it would be possible to raise the self esteem of people who are, let's face it, losers. It bothered me that social workers and counselors too often spent time working with these folks on their self-esteem. I recall one such client saying, "I know I need to finish school to get a job, but first I need to work on developing my self-esteem."

There's some pretty interesting and compelling research summarized in the Scientific American which refutes this nonsense. And both Ben Muse and King Banaian have posts on this topic.

Here's what Sparky says:

An insert shows a study by Doneslon Forsyth and Natalie Kerr of Virginia Commonwealth. Two sets of students in a college psychology class who are earning D's and F's at midterm are created with equal GPAs. Once per week, one group gets a set of positive messages about "what causes good and bad
grades" like:
Students who improved with each test were thinking:

  • I can be proud of myself.
  • I can do this.
  • I am better than most of the other people in this school.
  • I am satisfied with myself.

This group is told the "bottom line" is to "hold your head -- and your self-esteem -- up."
The other group of students received a set of messages that said ...
Students who improved with each test were thinking:

  • I need to work harder .
  • I can learn this material if I apply myself.
  • I can control what hapens to me in this class.
  • I have what it takes to do this.

Its bottom line?
"Take personal control of your performance."

The first group had its average grade in the psych class drop to below 50%, while the other group improved to 62% (which still stinks, but at least passed that course.)

[Note to my Canadian readers: It takes a 60% to pass in most U.S. university courses.]

These results remind of some of the Carl Rogers-type material that I was taught in a Chicago Theological Seminary course, "Ministry to the Small Child and His Family" (i.e. child development). One thing that stuck with me was the importance of children's having "success experiences". This point seems consistent with the idea that it's pretty hard to develop high self-esteem if you aren't successful at much.
Is it conceivable the opportunity costs of having social workers devote their time to improving clients' self-esteem are zero?

UPDATE: JC just posted this link in the comments section, but it's easier for you to get to if I repost it here. It's a gif and may not be all that easy to read, depending on the resolution of your screen.
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