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Is There Too Much Emphasis On Self-esteem?

Self-esteem has become the most popular aspect of personality studied, and a major emphasis of various family and individual therapy programs. The popularity of self-esteem is due largely to its perceived salutary consequences for individual functioning, and to the perceived strength and pervasiveness of the self-esteem motive. In the minds of many (scholars as well as the general public), high self-esteem has come to be associated with numerous "good" outcomes for individuals (e.g., academic achievement, popularity, personal success, health and happiness), whereas low self-esteem is associated with various "bad" outcomes (e.g., delinquency, academic failure, and depression). For example, the California Task Force to Promote Self-Esteem and Personal and Social Responsibility (1990, p. 4) concludes: "Self-esteem is the likeliest candidate for a social vaccine, something that empowers us to live responsibly and that inoculates us against the lures of crime, violence, substance abuse, teen pregnancy, child abuse, chronic welfare dependency, and educational failure. The lack of self-esteem is central to most personal and social ills plaguing our state and nation."

Scholarly research on self-esteem gives a much more qualified and equivocal picture. Although there is a tendency for high self-esteem to be associated with some positive outcomes, and low self-esteem with negative outcomes, the relationships tend to be modest, often mixed or non-significant, and specific to certain conditions (see Mecca, Smelser, and Vasconcellos 1989). Reasons for the low associations and mixed results are common to much of the research in the social sciences: problems of measurement (validity and reliability); problems of conceptualization (relating a global variable to a specific behavioral outcome); failure to control for other confounding variables; and reliance on cross-sectional research designs.

Nevertheless, self-esteem has come to be perceived, particularly by family practitioners, as the key solution of most personal and interpersonal problems. Programs to "raise self-esteem" are common in our society—in classrooms, rehabilitation centers, workplaces, and, of course, families (Hewitt 1998). The research evidence by itself does not seem to warrant this kind of advocacy in the applied sphere. This emphasis on self-esteem with family therapy is probably less a consequence of persuasive scientific research than an expression of some of our central cultural values, such as individualism. Some scholars have expressed concern about this over-emphasis on self-esteem (Baumeister 2001; Hewitt 1998), viewing it as detrimental to the maintenance of interpersonal and family bonds. Wesley Burr and Clark Christensen (1992) argue that the emphasis on self-esteem in the helping professions may contribute to selfishness, self-centeredness, and excessive individualism, which undermines commitment to families and the health of family processes.

Self-esteem is an important aspect of individual experience and it does have consequences for individual and family functioning. But it is no panacea for personal or social ills. No variable is. It should be viewed in the proper scientific perspective—an important social psychological variable that, like a number of others (e.g., commitment, altruism, gender identity), has been found to affect individual functioning and family relations.


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Additional topics

Marriage and Family EncyclopediaPregnancy & ParenthoodSelf-Esteem - Development Of Self-esteem, Family Interaction And Self-esteem, Culture: Ethnicity And Self-esteem