Self-Esteem: too much of a Good Thing?

The idea that low self-esteem is the cause of violent behaviour has been current for some time. Many years ago I attended numerous education meetings where I heard that certain (male) individuals “lacked self-esteem” when it seemed patently obvious that this was not true. I argued that these individuals greatly esteemed many of their own behaviours – it was just that these behaviours were those the counsellors thought should be deplored.

The result was that schools developed programmes to encourage pupils to make lists of their wonderful features and to compose poems of self-celebration. Parents and teachers were afraid to criticise children, or to let them take part in exams and competitions as this could turn them into violent thugs. It became important above all that children never experienced failure.

Scientific American (April 2001) had an article entitled Violent Pride: Do people turn violent because of self-hate or self-love? by Roy F Baumeister. This dealt with the problem of violent young men and characterised them as being usually egoists with a grandiose sense of personal superiority and entitlement; yet counselling textbooks say such people really suffer from low self-esteem.

Although it was a “well-known fact” that low self-esteem causes violence, Baumeister was unable to find a formal statement of the theory, let alone any evidence to support it. According to Baumeister: “…we found no indicators that aggressive male bullies are anxious and insecure under a tough surface.”

Self-esteem can be measured using a questionnaire with such examples as:

  • How well do you get along with other people?
  • Are you generally successful in your work or studies?

Baumeister et al also tested for narcissistic tendencies in a similar manner. People with high self-esteem were not necessarily narcissistic – most could recognise that they genuinely were good at some things but not all.

A study on men imprisoned for violent crimes showed these had the highest mean score for narcissism (among prisoners), though their score for self-esteem was about in the middle. Narcissism correlated very strongly with violent behaviour.

The idea that low self-esteem is the underlying cause of “just about every psychological problem” originates with Nathaniel Branden (originally Nathan Blumenthal), psychotherapist and author of several books on the subject. According to Branden: “faulty self-esteem [is] a flawed self-concept, intellectual self-doubt, a sense of unworthiness or guilt, an experience or inadequacy, a feeling that ‘something is wrong with me’ or that ‘I am not enough.’ ” But of course if the concept is made as broad as this everybody must experience low self-esteem at times.

Nash published Branden’s first book on the topic, The Psychology of Self-Esteem, late in 1969, but it was taken up by Bantam and over a million paperback copies were sold worldwide. In 1977 Branden started a series of intensive “workshop” courses to teach his ideas. The course was called Self-Esteem and the Art of Being. Originally the attendees were psychotherapy students. These people spread the gospel and the idea really took off.

Branden had been a member of the Ayn Rand inner circle and, although 20-odd years younger, was her lover for a considerable period. This grand idea, of the importance of low self-esteem, was formulated by or with Rand sometime in 1955, certainly before the spring of 1956. But we have only Branden’s word that he had any involvement then – about 14 years before he published anything on the subject. Rand would later claim that Branden had stolen her idea; after Branden rejected her sexually she became extremely bitter. However when Atlas Shrugged (which seems to have introduced the idea) was published, it was dedicated to both her husband and her lover!

Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged contains a speech by John Galt, Rand’s superman hero that sets out three principles as the supreme and ruling values of human life:

  1. Reason
  2. Purpose
  3. Self-esteem

I regret that I was unaware of the Ayn Rand connection around 25 years ago, when I was involved in education and attacking the idea that low self-esteem was the problem with difficult boys. Rand’s anti-communism of course made her “Right Wing”. The “Left Wing” trendy types that were pushing faulty self-esteem as the cause of problems with difficult adolescents would have been horrified at the connection. I had found Atlas Shrugged and other Rand books unreadable; recently I had to read some Rand to write this essay but did not enjoy the experience. I still have not finished any of her books.

Rand frequently used archaic meanings for common English words. Few skeptics would quibble about basing their ideas on reason, but today this means that we organise our ideas to avoid contradictions. Rand’s philosophy involved a resurrection of the mediaeval idea of Rationalism, which meant something quite different – that one can acquire true knowledge of the world simply through thought. Modern science has rejected this idea – and Rand largely rejected science.

The Baumeister studies are very relevant to New Zealand today, but I suspect that few teachers or social workers involved with difficult and violent young males have even heard of them. Jim Ring is a Nelson Skeptic.