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Unjustified feelings of self-worth cause aggression

by Sharon Begley -Newsweek

Say this for the self-esteem movement: despite taking hits from critics as varied as "Doonesbury" and the president of the American Psychological Association, it is still going strong 21 years after a psychologist first argued that instilling self-esteem should be a paramount goal of child rearing and education. If students work in classrooms where posters proclaim we applaud ourselves! and complete sentences like "I am special because... " they will be inoculated against drug use, teen pregnancy, bad grades and just about everything else short of the common cold. Or so the story goes. Parents, like educators, have soaked up the message, trying to make their child feel good about himself no matter how many courses he fails or fly balls he drops.

At worst, all this has seemed silly (as when California established a task force on self-esteem). But now there is evidence that it might be dangerous. A new study examined inflated self-esteem, the kind that can come not from actual achievement but from teachers and parents drumming into kids how great they are. The researchers find that this sort of unjustified self-esteem can trigger hostility and aggression, and may even underlie violence like the recent school shootings. "If kids develop unrealistic opinions of themselves and those views are rejected by others," warns psychologist Brad Bushman of Iowa State University, the kids are "potentially dangerous."

It is too simplistic to blame any one cause for the horrific shootings from West Paducah, Ky., to Springfield, Ore. Some of the accused killers were abused, all grew up in a violent culture, some had psychiatric problems. But at least one, Luke Woodham, fits the profile Bushman worries about. Woodham was recently convicted of murdering his mother and two students in Pearl, Miss., last October. In a court-ordered evaluation, all three psychologists agreed that Woodham had "narcissistic" traits. Although psychologists have long believed that low self-esteem causes aggression and other pathologies, it's not that simple. High self-esteem that is unjustified and unstable--Bushman's definition of narcissism--also puts a kid at risk of turning violent, he says. In this view, narcissists are supersensitive to criticism or slights, because deep down they suspect that their feeling of superiority is built on quicksand. Even though they say "the world would be a better place if I ruled it," if that grandiosity is challenged they may lash out.

The new study is the first-ever experimental test of this idea. Bushman and Roy Baumeister of Case Western Reserve University, writing in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, used questionnaires to assess who, among 540 undergraduate volunteers, had well-founded self-esteem and who was narcissistic. Then each of the volunteers got two minutes to write an essay. The paragraph was returned with either praise ("No suggestions, great essay!") or criticism ("This is one of the worst essays I have read!"). The writers then got to play a game, trying to press a button faster than an opponent who, they were told, had rated the essay. If the opponent lost, the writer could assault him or her with noise of any decibel level and for any duration he chose. In other words, the writer could decide to blast the other guy's eardrum. The result: the most narcissistic people were the most "exceptionally aggressive" in the wake of criticism. They went in for auditory torture three times more than people with normal self-esteem.

Based on comparisons with earlier studies, this one found that inflated self-esteem had as powerful an effect on aggression as does being male, drinking and soaking up media violence. What seems to happen, says Baumeister, is that unjustified self-esteem needs constant propping up. When the real world fails to deliver--when the narcissist gets rejected by a girlfriend or made fun of in gym class--he may explode.

Schools often contribute to the problem, says Martin Seligman, president of the American Psychological Association, by viewing self-esteem as a cause of success, rather than the result of achievement. They ladle on the praise indiscriminately, rather than focusing on helping the child achieve something to deserve it. Using this approach, worries psychiatrist James Gilligan of Harvard Medical School, a leading violence researcher, schools and parents could be building up the wrong kind of self esteem, the kind likely to deflate. At best you get a disillusioned kid; at worst you get a shooting spree. Clinical psychologist Robert Brooks of Harvard seconds that view: "There are well-meaning parents who have seen self-esteem as 'every little thing your kid does, praise them to the sky.' [But] if [teaching self-esteem] is done wrong, you can raise a generation of kids who cannot tolerate frustration." Even proponents of teaching self-esteem worry that it has gone astray. "There are many curricula that just emphasize the feeling-good portion" of self-esteem, says Michele Borba, who wrote the widely used curriculum "Esteem Builders." And there are educators and parents who misapply even the best curricula. "The idea that you can solve problems simply by telling kids they're great is so seductive," says Baumeister. "No one wants to admit it doesn't do any good." Giving kids something they can truly feel proud of is hard work for everyone.

With Adam Rogers

Newsweek 7/13/98 Society/Science: You're OK, I'm Terrific: 'Self-Esteem' Backfires

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