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Opinion & Essays - Jun, 1997 Issue #46

The Pitfalls of Inflated Self-Esteem
excerpts from: Eagle Hill Quarterly, Fall/Winter, 1966
Peter S. Dobrowolski, Editor
Eagle Hill School
Hardwick, MA.

The concept of self-esteem and interventions to address low self-esteem among school-aged children have been much discussed and written about, particularly during the last three decades. Low self-esteem has been blamed as the cause of nearly everything from poor achievement in school to violent social behavior.... 

Throughout the relevant literature, high self-esteem and academic achievement have been positively correlated, though the level of association between the two constructs has often been of relatively low magnitude.... 

Recently, some researchers have taken a more critical look at the benefits and possible detriments of self-esteem development programs within the schools. Roy Baumeister suggests that the low self-esteem model, which explains violent behavior as caused in part by low self-esteem, is untenable and that “[o]n both empirical and theoretical grounds...we must reject the view” (Baumeister, Roy F., et al. Relation of Threatened Egotism to Violence and Aggression: The Dark Side of Self- Esteem. Psychological Review, 92 (1), p.28). Elsewhere, and of particular interest educationally, Baumeister suggests that “the benefits and positive consequences [of self-esteem development programs] are likely to be minor...[while] inflated self-esteem caries (sic) an assortment of risks and dangers” (Baumeister, Roy F., et al. Should Schools Try to Boost Self- Esteem? American Educator, 20 (2) ). Ultimately, Baumeister, among others, suggests that “[t]he time, effort, and resources that schools put into self-esteem will not be justified by any palpable improvements in school performance, citizenship, or other outcomes” (p.43). 

Based on the findings of Baumeister and others, it seems prudent to favor what Barbara Lerner calls “earned self-esteem” in favor of “feel good now self-esteem” (Lerner, Barbara. 1996. Self-Esteem and Excellence: The Choice and the Paradox. American Educator, 20 (2) p.12). That is, Lerner submits that so-called “old theories” of self-esteem that view self-esteem as the result of achievement rather than as the prerequisite for achievement are more likely to provide a productive perspective for the educational environment. Similarly, it seems reasonable to suggest that earned self-esteem would be less vulnerable to ego-threats than possibly inflated “feel good self-esteem.” If this is true, perhaps some of the negative consequences of high self-esteem that Baumeister reports might be lessened or avoided. 

Eagle Hill School has long subscribed to the view that educators do not teach students to feel good but teach students something about which they can feel good.... 

Copyright © 1997, Woodbury Reports, Inc. (This article may be reproduced without prior approval if the copyright notice and proper publication and author attribution accompanies the copy.)

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