When it comes to education, which comes first, the chicken or the egg? As this ScienCentral News video reports, education researchers are questioning whether high self-esteem brings academic success or the other way around.
I'm OK, You're OK
Since the 1970s, many teachers, therapists and parents have focused on building self-esteem in children, implementing programs in schools that they believed would help kids get better grades. Some self-esteem programs involve exercises that include going around the classroom and having everybody say what is special about him or herself.
"I think that self-esteem is critical to improving student performance," says Marie Doyle, principal of Bigelow Middle School in Newton, Massachusetts. "The two are definitely interwoven. Students that get good grades feel better about themselves. Yet you also have to feel good about yourself in order to get good grades."
But Roy Baumeister, a psychologist at Florida State University, says it may not be that simple. He and his colleagues thoroughly reviewed all of the major studies on self-esteem. "We tried with a totally open mind to wade through literally thousands of studies about self-esteem and figure out what the big conclusions were," he says.
Baumeister looked at studies linking self-esteem to performance at school and at work, interpersonal relations, happiness, aggression, and health issues such as drinking, seating, smoking, and sex. He found that "the benefits of self-esteem are much more limited than most of us hoped when we got into the business of studying it in the 1970s. Most of the promised advantages have not panned out." Specifically, when it comes to education, "it looks like doing well in school makes people have higher self-esteem—not that high self-esteem makes them do better in school," he says. "The effects are weak…boosting self-esteem won't cause people to be better students, I'm sorry to say." He found similar results when looking at job performance. Baumeister also found that high self-esteem doesn't prevent kids from experimenting with smoking and drinking; in fact, it may foster experimentation. But it does tend to reduce the chance of girls and women developing bulimia. And self-esteem does improve people's lives in other ways. "Back in the 1970s we had high hopes that self-esteem would produce a broad range of benefits," explains Baumeister. "After reviewing thousands of studies there seem to be two benefits that converge: High self-esteem supports initiatives, so people are more willing to act on their own decisions and thoughts. [And] high self-esteem feels good. It creates a stock of good feelings and so people are happier, they're more able to bounce back when bad things happen. Those are the two benefits. The rest that we've hoped for—that they'd be better people, that they'd treat others better, have better relationships, do better in school, do better in work—those have not really panned out."
But Robert Reasoner, the president of the International Council for Self-Esteem, says he saw the effects of boosting self-esteem during the twelve years he was a school superintendent in San Jose, California. "It began as a principle and [we] found that it made a difference in kids, that we were developing leadership qualities, we were developing motivation, kids were setting goals for themselves," says Reasoner. "We reduced the drop-out rate from 18% down to 4.5%. We had the highest attendance rate of any school district of the 29 school districts, because kids wanted to be in school. Our attendance rate was 99.7% for three years. We found it did increase academic achievement."
Reasoner believes that while boosting self-esteem may not always make a significant difference of an entire school's average, it can help individual students. And Baumeister believes that educators should take a different approach. "Forget about self-esteem," he suggests. "Concentrate on self-control or something else that does seem to have more promise for contributing to success in life."
This research was presented at the American Academy for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) Convention in February, 2004, and was funded by the American Psychological Society.