Education and Self-Esteem

Before I discuss a paper I recently read, let me give you some background on how professors generate articles. In theory, academics are in the business of creating knowledge. Rightly or wrongly, most professors at "research" (i.e., better funded) schools see research as their primary focus. Teaching and other service obligations are important, but take a back seat to creating knowledge. I always thought it would make an interesting study to see if taxpayers, students, and politicians shared the same priorities, but such is the current state of higher education in America.

Given this focus, professors at research institutions must publish to obtain tenure. Even after obtaining tenure, associate professors must continue to publish to become full professors and all must continue to publish to receive raises. The intent of this requirement was to increase the amount of knowledge created by professors. In practice, it buries good research under piles and piles of poor research done by professors who would prefer to concentrate on teaching or service, but are obligated to publish to succeed. So when a good paper is found, it well worth reading. I define a good paper as a well-written paper that clearly communicates a finding. A well-written paper based upon empirical (observed) data and with minimal scientific flaws is a jewel.

Professors Baumeister, Campbell, Krueger, and Vohs have published such a jewel in the May 2003 edition of Psychological Science in the Public Interest. They wrote a review on what is known about high self-esteem. A well written review is a great contribution because the authors sift through literally thousands of scientific reports on a subject, weed out those with major flaws, and summarize the findings of the good studies. This review on self-esteem clearly and objectively laid out the scientific findings on self-esteem that have been published since the seventies. I was most interested in their findings on self-esteem and academic performance.

We have not found evidence that boosting self-esteem (by therapeutic interventions or school programs) causes benefits. Our findings do not support continued widespread efforts to boost self-esteem in the hope that it will by itself foster improved outcomes. In view of the heterogeneity of self-esteem, indiscriminate praise might just as easily promote narcissism, with its less desirable consequences. [such as an increased tendency to bully others, to commit violence, and to cheat] Instead we recommend using praise to boost self-esteem as a reward for socially desirable behavior and self-improvement.

This conclusion was based upon many studies that were referenced in the article. I found two findings very interesting. If anything, self-esteem in America is high. The average person regards himself or herself as above average. Just like Lake Woebegone, everyone is better than average.

The article summarized the work of Professors Korsyth and Kerr (1999) who did an experiment with college students. Students who received poor grades on their first examination were randomly assigned to a research group (without their knowledge). The control group received an email from the professor each week with information about their next assignment. The experimental group also received this information, but the professor also included a personal message aimed at boosting their own self-esteem. The students who received the boost to self-esteem performed significantly worse than those in the control group on the next exams.

So by eliminating the common-sense connection between performance and praise (by praising poor performance), the students were less motivated to perform and did poorly. There is a lesson here for all of us no matter what role we play - teacher, parent, friend, co-worker. Indiscriminate praise is less than worthless, it is harmful. Hopefully, school programs that promote indiscriminate self-esteem will pay attention to these findings.

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