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Studies Show That College Students Are More Vain and Self-Obsessed Than Ever

So why the hell are we so worried about their self-esteem? They’re not! They think they’re SO special! But it might be worse if they followed the advice of the neo-Darwinians and neuroscientists and didn’t think of themselves as special at all.

Discussions - 10 Comments

Peter, I was thinking of you today as my students discussed the behaviorist notion of environmental selection of behaviors, as opposed to the more common notion that we "choose" our behaviors.

As for self-esteem, this report suggests that our concerns about self-esteem (a silly concern in retrospect) is perhaps responsible for the observed increase in narcissism. In other words, the authors want to attribute the bump to parental concerns with self-esteem deficits, and practices that reverse those deficits.

So, instead of your question: "Why are we so concerned about their self-esteem?" We might rather ask, "When whould we have stopped trying to raise their self-esteem?"

We should remember that college students are themselves a select group, and are likely to have more narcissistic tendencies than other sectors of their cohort: High-School dropouts, service-men and women fighting for their lives and their country, kids who cannot afford college, and so on. We might well find that they are less narcissistic than the average college student.

Basically, self-esteem is a by-product, an outcome variable. Trying to increase it in order to accomplish subsequent results is a bit like trying to increase contentment, or a sense of accomplishment in order to achieve productivity.

Fung, thanks, all that seems mostly right to me

Fung/Peter: I always thought that this focus on "self-esteem" had less impact than either its advocates or its conservative critics gave it credit. Focusing on self esteem is detrimental, mainly, because it is a waste of time. Time that could be spent on giving people a reason to feel good about themselves: i.e., actually knowing something. But I agree that just as it probably does not do anything significant to make people feel better about themselves, it probably doesn’t do any serious harm in terms of making people more self-centered. I lived through all of this stuff when I was in school and if I speak from my own experience and memory, I can say that most of us knew exactly what was going on when a teacher got into that "self-esteem" mode and we mocked it. Those of us who were inclined to feel insecure (and, at that age, it was most of us) still felt insecure. Those of us who were inclined to feel self-assured--still did. Those of us who were inclined to think we were the center of the universe (again, at that age, it was most of us) were not made worse for the attempt to reinforce it. All of these theories assume that the kids are taking this claptrap seriously. I don’t think they are. I think kids today are more or less the same as kids from yesterday. It’s amazing how much effort goes in to trying to change them and how little good any of it does. Kids are selfish? Shocking!!!! I would be more interested in a follow up study that got to these same respondents when they are past 30.

Julie, it seems to me that people -- especially very young people -- do tend to absorb consistent propaganda, whether they consciously take it seriously or not. In addition, while the self-esteem propaganda may not make insecure kids feel secure, unwarranted (or warranted) feelings of security are not what self-esteem’s critics are worried about. The issue is actually, as has been said, narcissism. You say that the narcissists were not made worse by the propaganda. I wonder. I suspect it gives the narcissists a pass, which traditional morality wouldn’t, and therefore removes possible guilt feelings or fear of social ostracism. And self-esteem can also make normal kids more narcissistic, a point you don’t seem to address. The question isn’t the predominance of selfishness among kids, but how predominant it is, and whether compensating feelings (of responsibility to moral codes and higher authorities) are sufficiently instilled. The abuses of the self-esteem movement and the resultant unbridled narcissism are huge issues, IMHO.

The self-esteem nonsense is important. Kids (and their parents, esp their parents) believe their kids are perfect and therefore deserve the very best grades, and are incapable of performing any bad actions.

When teachers try to correct through grades or punishment, he or she can expect shock, and then anger, from both parent and student. Surely you have read about how college undergrad profs are now being hassled by irrate parents, upset their child got a B for the first time in his or her life.

Furthermore, this carries over to work. The manager who dares to correct the employee will be hated and despised. You have to gently correct people and beg them to be good and do their job. It is a huge waste of time.

Up to a point, I find myself in the awkward position of agreeing with David Frisk.

first of all, as I stated earlier, self-esteem is an effect, and not a cause. But, it is a bit different from the concept of self-worth. As humanistic psychology will tell us, self-regard has two dimensions: (1) hi vs low, and (2) contingent vs non-contingent.

Humanistic psych suggests that we introject our self-concept from our parents’ messages regarding our worth. This is true of both dimensions. In the best of all worlds, we get unconditional positive regard from our parents, and then we introject it, so that we can carry around unconditional positive self-regard.

This is NOT the same as unjustified high self-esteem, however, as some of you are describing it.

With Unconditional Positive Self-regard, I can lose a game without "being" a loser. I can do a stupid thing without "being" a stupid person. My parents will have shown me that their love for me is not contingent on my performance, my outcomes, my looks, my class rank. I deserve love whether I am first chair, or asked to leave the orchestra altogether.

(This issue, by the way, is cited by Lakoff as a central distinction between conservatives and liberals. According to Lakoff, you righties are ready to kick the young out of the family when they fail. We lefties love them and cherish them even when they fail.)

But, whatever your stand on conditional vs unconditional positive regard, it is NOT the same as uncritical praise. Neither humanists nor behaviorists would advise parents to tell their kid that a given product was wonderful when it is in fact, crap. That is the problem with both narcissism and also with the parents and students that Steve describes. "How dare you suggest that my kid (or my paper) is not wonderful!"

Everyone (perhaps) has heard about Seligman’s research on learned helplessness. We learn that there IS no behavior that relieves us from an aversive condition, and that leads to depression. Well, as it turns out, the key to learned helplessness is not really the aversiveness of the condition, as much as it is the perceived link between our behavior and a predictable outcome. This is important, because kids who learn that ALL behavior leads to praise tend to grow up maladjusted and more prone to depression. so, maladjustment comes when we learn either(a) nothing I do can help my condition, or (b) nothing I do can hurt my condition.

But, again, this is a different dynamic than a self-esteem, or self-regard dyamic.

I can confirm that Steve is correct about students and parents (!) hassling unsuspecting profs and teachers who happen to have made the grave error of not giving Johnny a good grade. But I’m not sure how much of this comes from narcissism. I always rather thought it came from too great an emphasis on grades and other "little" achievements in school (these awards we give for each little milestone, etc.). Perhaps that emphasis is, in itself, a kind of narcissism. It could be if carried to an extreme. But it also could reflect a kind of insecurity--as I think it did in some students I knew both as a fellow student and a teacher. As a teacher I used to be willing to give people the benefit of the doubt and just consider that they may be misguided if they focused too much on grades--as I used to do once upon a time. I remember thinking grades were very important until I finally realized that they didn’t really measure what I had learned. Once learning and not "getting the A" became my goal, my grades--perhaps not surprisingly--went up. I used to tell students (and parents) that story and was (usually) pleasantly surprised to see their faces soften. But I also used to give a little speech at the beginning of the school year about the "meaning of grades" and this kept the complaints to a minimum.

As for David Frisk’s point--I am so tempted to agree with him except that I think it is too easy to blame this "self-esteem" garbage for any number of our social ills. Again, I think this stuff is garbage and, if not simply bad, then certainly useless. It deserves criticism for all kinds of reasons. But my experience does not confirm the idea that it makes people more narcissistic or that it makes more people narcissistic. And my problem with this critique is that it assumes that the kids who are getting this stuff are really stupid. I would really be curious to know how old you are, David. Because if you are close to my age, you should think back to when you were in school and this stuff started coming out in the classroom. Almost NO student took it seriously. I remember our class mercilessly tormenting teachers who went down this path. No teacher who regularly talks like this is respected by the students. I think that if there is a trend toward more narcissism among young people today, we should look at their parents. See how much they were coddled and shielded from adversity of any kind. Then you may have a point. But this "self-esteem" stuff just isn’t serious enough to be taken seriously.

I’ve been thinking more about this David and, in fairness, maybe that’s your real point. When adults show themselves to be unworthy of serious consideration, what are children (who are--for reasons of self-preservation, probably--born narcissistic) supposed to do? How do they learn to be anything other than what they are by nature (i.e., become civilized) when they cannot and probably should not (in many cases) respect the authority that is placed over them? I guess I buy that up to a point and can see why it could be argued that this silliness of "self-esteem" focus can make people more narcissistic. But I still don’t think it is any different from any other kind of child neglect. Whenever adults (teachers and parents) don’t do their job and raise kids properly with a view to civilizing them as opposed to letting their passions run free, you get self-centered kids who become narcissistic adults. That’s fair. But that doesn’t make any unique or distinguishing point about the self-esteem culture. It just lumps it in with all other forms of negligence on the part of adults.

In all, however, I think stupidity coming from teachers and schools is more benign than stupidity coming from parents. You can always get another teacher but you’re generally stuck with your parents.

As for Fung’s point, I don’t see much in there with which I disagree--but for this:

With Unconditional Positive Self-regard, I can lose a game without "being" a loser. I can do a stupid thing without "being" a stupid person. My parents will have shown me that their love for me is not contingent on my performance, my outcomes, my looks, my class rank. I deserve love whether I am first chair, or asked to leave the orchestra altogether.

(This issue, by the way, is cited by Lakoff as a central distinction between conservatives and liberals. According to Lakoff, you righties are ready to kick the young out of the family when they fail. We lefties love them and cherish them even when they fail.)

Nice try, Fung.

But this does remind me of a test that Dennis Prager suggested you give your kids (from 5 up) to see how they perceive the lessons you’re teaching them. Ask them to rank in order of importance the following list of good things you (i.e., the parent) want for them in life: to be happy, to be successful, to be smart, or to be good. Here’s my counter to Fung: I’d be willing to bet that most Lefties would put happy over good (and thereby show that they have no clue what happiness is). Both of my kids knew that my order of preference is: good, happy, smart, successful.


I will try this, just for grins. But first, I want to be sure what I am asking them. Are they to rank these four in importance according to them, or according to what they think I want for them? Either way, I predict that you are right: good will rank quite low, but that SHOULD be because I have taught them (or tried to) to be skeptical of others’ criteria for their own goodness. Neither one spends much effort worrying about how well or badly he conforms to anyone’s idea of goodness.

They are equally individualistic, and equally anti authoritarian, but they are not equally narcissistic.

Let me know how to phrase the question, and I’ll give you an honest result.

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