Here’s a simple cause-and-effect question. Does an increase in self-esteem lead to greater success in life? Or is it the other way round: an increase in success leads to greater self-esteem? It’s one of those tricky questions that can guide – or misguide – our public policy.
Nathaniel Branden did more than anyone else to popularize the idea that improving one’s self-esteem can lead to greater success. Pump up the self-esteem and everything else works better. Branden launched the idea when he published his book, The Psychology of Self-Esteem in 1969. (Branden had been Ayn Rand’s acolyte and lover; he broke with Rand in 1968 and published his new thinking a year later).
Branden’s work seemed to explain a lot and the self-esteem movement grew quickly. Educators – especially at the primary and secondary levels – adopted it enthusiastically. Unfortunately, it didn’t work.
In 2005, Roy Baumeister and his co-authors published a paper titled, “Exploding the Self-Esteem Myth”. The authors studied over 200 research papers and concluded “… self-esteem belongs on the same shelf as miracle diet pills.”
In 2009, Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman published Nurture Shock – New Thinking About Children, which – among many other things – assessed 15,000 studies on self-esteem. They concluded that, “… high self-esteem doesn’t improve grades, reduce anti-social behavior, deter alcohol drinking or do much of anything good for kids. In fact, telling kids how smart they are can be counterproductive.”
Self-esteem seems to be yet another thing that we’ve gotten backwards. We’ve confused cause with effect.
So, what’s replacing self-esteem? The emerging consensus focuses on self-control. And one of the authors leading the way is Roy Baumeister. In a recent article in Scientific American, Baumeister writes that, “People with good control over their thought processes, emotions and behaviors not only flourish in school and in their jobs but are also healthier, wealthier and more popular.”
Similarly, David Brooks recently wrote about “The Moral Bucket List” in the New York Times. He notes that there are resumé virtues and eulogy virtues. We all know that eulogy virtues are more important than resumé virtues, but we spend our time developing the latter rather than the former.
Baumeister refers to self-control and willpower. Brooks uses a more traditional moral language and focuses on character. But the concepts overlap extensively. So, how does one build self-control, willpower, and character?
To begin with, Baumeister argues, we need to recognize that willpower is analogous, in many ways, to muscle power. Just as a muscle tires after exertion, so willpower can tire after we exercise it. Baumeister calls it ego depletion – if you use your willpower to resist Temptation X, you’ll have less left over to resist Temptation Y.
We’ve all experienced muscle fatigue from time to time and we can probably grasp the concept of willpower fatigue. But we also know that we can build our muscle strength through exercise. Does the same hold true for willpower? Apparently so.
Baumeister reports on a study that asked students to clean up their language (no cursing) and/or straighten up their posture for a period of two weeks. At the end of the period, researchers tested the students’ self-control ability. They “performed significantly better than a control group.”
Moving into Brooks’ territory, Baumeister goes on to say, “It has occurred to us from these studies that the Victorian notion of “building character” seems to have some scientific validity.”
So how does one build character and improve willpower? More on that in upcoming articles.
We went to the airport the other day and realized that we were out of cash. I stopped at an ATM, pulled out a credit card, and froze. I rarely use that particular card at ATMs and I had completely forgotten the personal identification number. I stared blankly at the ATM screen for a few minutes and then slowly started to walk away.
A few seconds later, the number popped into my head: 2061. I’m used to having things pop into my head as I “give up” on a problem. When I focus on a problem, I block out information. As I start to unfocus, useful information pops back into my head. I find that I’m much less creative when I’m intently focused. (Recently, for instance, Steven Wright popped into my head.)
Pleased that my mind was working so effectively, I returned to the ATM, inserted my card and the digits 2061. Wrong. Hmmm … perhaps I transposed some digits. I tried various combinations: 2601, 2106, 1206, and so on. Nothing worked.
So again, I walked slowly away from the terminal. As I did, I noticed that I was standing next to an airport conference room. The number on the door: 2061. My System 1 had picked up the number subconsciously. It wasn’t a useful data point so System 1 didn’t register it with System 2. Then my System 2 broadcast a message: “We’re looking for a four digit number.” At that point, System 1 produced the most recent four-digit number it was aware of: 2061.
Unfortunately, it was the wrong number. But I was convinced it was the right number. It popped into my head just the way I expected it to.
Was my mind playing tricks on me? Not really. In David Brooks’ phrase, my “millions of little scouts” were out surveying my environment. One scout sent back some information that might be useful, the number 2061. The little scout was trying to help. Unfortunately, he led me astray. System 1 is usually right. But when it’s wrong, it can get you into big trouble. Like getting your credit card cancelled