Self-Esteem: Empty Promises

The educational community latched onto the self-esteem myth with a vengeance. Unfortunately, the education establishment's mythology surrounding the benefits of enhanced self-esteem is not grounded in the research on appraisal and self-efficacy. In fact the education establishment's self-esteem myth runs counter to the base literature. Roy Baumesiter, and colleagues, published an article in Scientific American that exposes the self-esteem myth:
Boosting people's sense of self-worth has become a national preoccupation. Yet surprisingly, research shows that such efforts are of little value in fostering academic progress or preventing undesirable behavior. (read the entire article or pretty version)
Will the education establish respond? Doubtful.

The self-esteem myth makes so much "common sense," why doesn't self-esteem work? My take is that it ignores the mechanism that gives rise to self-esteem. Self-esteem is a global construct; it is one' s overall opinion of oneself. Just as a nation's average income can mask enormous poverty or wealth, self-esteem can cloud significant personal deficiencies. More useful, given my understanding of the mechanism, is to cultivate esteem at the identity level. An identities are the pieces that -- when combined -- comprise the self.

Esteem at the identity level results from efficacy in that area. Let me reiterate that: esteem is a consequence of domain-specific efficacy. This suggests that to build esteem requires building domain specific efficacy or competencies. Help kids excel at a sport, music, an academic subject and their esteem in that area will build. The connection between local and global esteem is complex, and not well understood. Yet, building esteem a piece at a time holds promise, and unlike the esteem-myth, has support in the literature.

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