Roy F. Baumeister

Roy F. Baumeister

It’s the big questions that interest Dr. Roy F. Baumeister, a Francis Eppes Professor at Florida State University. In his recently published book, “The Cultural Animal: Human Nature, Meaning, and Social Life,” Baumeister takes on the questions of what makes us human, and why we think, feel and act as we do. As a social psychologist, Baumeister has sometimes found himself contesting common, but flawed, beliefs.

“After all these years,” Baumeister recently commented, “my recommendation is this: Forget about self-esteem and concentrate more on self-control and self-discipline. Recent work suggests this would be good for the individual and good for society—and might even be able to fill some of those promises that self-esteem once made but could not keep.”

His interest in self-esteem began while he was an undergrad at Princeton. At the time, the term self-esteem had barely entered public consciousness. Baumeister was casting around for a topic for his undergraduate thesis, and when a favorite professor suggested he give self-esteem a whirl, he jumped at it. The year was 1973.

Baumeister pursued self-esteem research straight into Princeton’s doctorate program. By the late 1970s, people were pretty much convinced that self-esteem had great potential, that many personal and social problems had self-esteem at their core.

“We figured that if we could boost self-esteem, we not only could learn about ourselves but maybe do some good in society,” he recalled. “We thought it would advance the cutting edge of social psychology. And it was easy to get good data. So, all this made me think I was onto something good.”

But this rosy outlook took a turn in the early ’80s, when Baumeister learned that not all scholars held his line of research in such high esteem.

At a scientific meeting he attended in 1984, a sociologist turned to him and asked: “What’s wrong with self-esteem? How come it never does any good, never predicts anything?”

Baumeister was incredulous. “What do you mean self-esteem doesn’t do any good?”

But as the ’80s wore on, Baumeister paid closer attention to the larger and rapidly growing body of research on self-esteem. From a number of perspectives, he began to re-examine what the phenomenon really is, and isn’t.

“I started to realize that it doesn’t do much at all,” he said. “At least not much of what had been promised for it.”

Then he heard about a California task force search for scientific evidence of self-esteem’s efficacy in people’s lives, and how the search came up empty.

“To me, this was quite a black eye for the self-esteem movement.”

After nearly two decades of teachers, parents and therapists focusing their efforts on boosting children’s self-esteem, Baumeister and a team of psychologists he’s led have found no evidence that boosting self-esteem through school programs or therapeutic interventions leads to any positive outcomes. It’s become obvious that there is little in the new findings that the potentates of the self-esteem movement can use to bolster their claims.

So how might we use self-esteem to improve the academic performance and health behaviors of our children?

A better approach, Baumeister and his team have concluded, would be to boost self-esteem as a reward for ethical behavior and worthy achievements.