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Science vs the Self-Esteem Myth
High self-esteem is proving not to be an all-encompassing solution to youth social problems. Not surprisingly, it also appears to be an attitude completely contrary to Scripture.


We've all heard that the answer to many youth social problems, from drug abuse to bullying to teen pregnancy, is self-esteem. Put simply, youth with high self-esteem are less likely to do things that cause problems to themselves and others.

… we have no way of knowing whether researchers who study "self-esteem" are even measuring the same thing …

A great idea, and I'd be all for it, except for one thing. The evidence suggests that it isn't true. Earlier this year, a research group published a study in Scientific American that demonstrated that most of the promotion of self-esteem is just plain hype.

First, the researchers (Baumeister et al.) whittled down about 15 000 studies to 200 that used sound methodology (high research standards). That's because so many studies relied on questionable methods such as self-report. People can claim that they are stars, beauties, musclebound heroes … or that they are failures, ugly stepsisters, wimps. But what if relevant facts do not confirm their views and no one who knows them would agree with them? We all know from experience that people can have views of themselves that most others would question, so it should be no surprise that the researchers avoided studies that depended on self-reports.

So what did they find? I am not going to report the whole, sobering study, which you can read for yourself, but here are a few interesting points:

  • It wasn't true that people had higher self-esteem if they were more attractive or more popular. People who had high self-esteem simply assumed they were attractive and popular. Impartial judges and peers didn't agree. But the person with high self-esteem probably wouldn't notice anyway.

  • Teens were not more likely to engage in sex, alcohol, tobacco or drugs because they had low self-esteem. In fact, " … those with high self-esteem are less inhibited, more willing to disregard risks and more prone to engage in sex." And there was no clear correlation between substance abuse and self-esteem.

  • Self-esteem correlated mainly with happiness, not achievement. People with high self-esteem were happier, but not necessarily holier, healthier, wealthier, wiser, or better liked.

  • Other research has shown that many criminals have high self-esteem.

There is actually a National Association for Self-Esteem. The Association admits that "Definitive research on self-esteem has been difficult due to the variety of definitions and the many self-esteem measures being used, and the multiple factors which influence it."

That is indeed huge problem. If we have no way of knowing whether researchers who study "self-esteem" are even measuring the same thing, there is no clear way of interpreting their results. That indirectly validates some of the criticisms offered in Scientific American.

What should a Christian think?

As a Christian, I am uneasy about self-esteem, but that's mainly because the Bible takes a completely different view of it.

For example, it is not hard to see why successful criminals have high self-esteem. When they are in jail, they're kingpins. When they're out of jail, they're free to live without normal social restraints.

But … when they get converted to Christ, what happens? They feel rotten about themselves, because they see their lifestyle as Jesus sees it—a demonstration of the need to repent. Now, which is better for them, from a Christian perspective, to feel good about themselves or bad? Clearly, it would be better to feel bad and do good than to feel good and do bad.

Actually, another Christian answer to the problem is that we should stop thinking so much about ourselves at all. People whose thoughts are focused on themselves might think themselves good or bad, but how can they know? They have no standard to judge by.

If our Father in heaven accepts us, we should try to please him without judging ourselves. We can't really know anyway. The greatest saints of our faith often felt that they were wretched sinners. Were they suffering from low self-esteem? Delusion? False humility? No! They felt wretched because they saw the distance between God and themselves, between their aspirations and their present reality.

The great saints, seeing how low and little they are in God's sight, nonetheless experience joy because they realize the amazing fact that the Son of God loves us anyway, and died that we might live with Him forever. Self-esteem is not worthy to be compared with such a destiny.

Denyse O'Leary is a Canadian science writer/journalist living in Toronto. She can be reached at oleary@sympatico.ca.

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