The problem of self-esteem

Guest blogger, Belinda Drummond, continues her posts on Glynn Harrison’s critique of the culture of self-esteem in his book, The Big Ego Trip, which is available here from and thinkivp.

Harrison’s exploration of the world of self-esteem is comprehensive and helpful, and also alarming. He describes how, in fact there are many fundamental flaws in the concept of self-esteem and in the findings of research in its subject areas.

One of the most basic problems, Harrison describes, is that there is no single definition for self-esteem. Having a single definition for a research topic is a basic requirement in any scientific discipline. However, definitions of self-esteem have included several not necessarily compatible ideas, such as: how much an individual likes him or herself, how significant an individual feels, and how much an individual believes in him or herself. These ideas have all been placed under the umbrella of self-esteem. But they aren’t centred around any one idea as to what self-esteem actually is. ‘Millions of research dollars have been spent, thousands upon thousands of academic papers litter our libraries, the “compelling discoveries of modern psychology” have been rolled out in school-based self-esteem programmes across the US and Europe … and we still don’t have an agreed upon definition?!’ (pp. 117-118)

Harrison points out that the research sounds incredibly convincing and impressive, but the movement has made the classic mistake: correlation does not equal causation (p. 43). That two facts are linked does not mean there is any causal connection between them. Having low self-esteem does not cause an individual to be anxious or commit a crime or any number of other negative outcomes. There may be a statistical pattern between the two, but that is the only conclusion that can be made. The real cause of the link could be some other factor all together as yet undiscovered. Psychology’s fascination with self-esteem over the past fifty years is not in fact supported by any experimentally proved causation (p. 47).

Reviews looking at the outcomes of intervention programmes designed to boost self-esteem have found little evidence that they have done anything to help people. There are no positive findings in the field of education and in mental health interventions the results are actually negative (p. 19). Interventions designed to improve social adjustment and healthy relationships found no improvement from trying to boost individuals’ self-esteem. ‘There is no hard evidence that self-esteem is a major cause of the list of social and psychological problems as has been claimed, and no proof that boosting self-esteem has any benefit in addressing these issues.’ (p. 83).

More recently psychologists in the field have begun to lay the blame for many negative social trends ‘at the door of the self-esteem movement’ (p. 19). Beth Twenge, in a piece of work discussed by Harrison, suggests that ‘today’s young Americans are more confident, assertive, entitled – and more miserable than ever before’. She places the blame for this squarely at the door of the self-esteem movement (p. 61). Twenge argues that not only are Americans not better off following the unrolling of projects across society to improve self-esteem, ‘but in fact in mental health terms, they are actually worse off’ (p. 61). Twenge argues that instead of improving society, the movement has ‘built a generation of narcissists’ (p. 93) who feel superior to others, who court attention, and who ‘lack empathy to such a degree that they are genuinely shocked and dismayed when the admiration and praise they expect is not forthcoming’ (p. 92).

Harrison describes a piece of research carried out by the Prince’s Trust in 2008 that gave an insight into a generation of 16-25 year olds in the UK. ‘More than 1 in 10 (12%) said that life was meaningless; more than a quarter (27%) admitted they were “often” or “always” down or depressed … 1 in 5 felt like crying “often” or “always”’ (pp. 94-95). Harrison argues that individuals born since 1970 are raised to think they can have it all because they are worth it due to self-esteem interventions. Unfortunately this understanding of the world is not realistic, and routinely results in misery and disappointment as individuals fail to realise their dream. Harrison points out that William James himself would be alarmed by this outcome from his early ideas of self-esteem. James made the point that in fact our expectations must be brought in line with reality if they do not match up with our situation. He saw self-esteem as a true measurement, rather than something that can be inflated without substance.

All of these criticisms are alarming. But possibly the most alarming point that Harrison makes is that, even though the self-esteem movement reflected on these issues themselves as early as the mid 1980s, it didn’t seem to care that there was no real evidence for the concept or the interventions making any difference at all (p. 83). Harrison argues that this attempt to hush up problems and criticisms continues as the concept of self-esteem remains influential in psychology even though there is no research supporting the existence of causal links. So not only does Harrison question the validity of the concept of self-esteem, he also questions the value of the research programmes and their conclusions. In light of this, he questions the impact that self-esteem has had on society which recent research suggests has been not merely equivocal but actually damaging.

In the next blog post we will explore the dangers posed by self-esteem for the church.

The Big Ego Trip is available here from and thinkivp.

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