What are the pros and cons of having high self-esteem?
As part of its “Real Beauty Sketches” campaign, the Dove soap company released a video designed to boost women’s self-esteem. In the video, a sketch artist draws two pictures of the same woman without seeing her—based on the woman’s descrip- tions of herself and the other based on a friend’s description of her. Invariably, to the women’s surprise, the portrait based on her friend’s description is more attractive than the portrait based on her own description, leading to the tagline “You are more beautiful than you think.” This prompted an Internet spoof about what would happen if men were the participants. In this video, the drawings based on men’s descriptions of themselves looked like George Clooney or Brad Pitt, whereas the drawings based on their friends’ descriptions looked like deformed creatures from a Disney movie— leading to the tagline “You might not be as good looking as you think” (www.snotr .com/video/10987/Dove_Commercial_Parody__Guy_Version).
The Dove company says it made its video because it is committed to “building positive self-esteem and inspiring all women and girls to reach their full potential” (http://realbeautysketches.dove.us). But is it true that women need such a boost in self-esteem, defined as people’s evaluation of their own self-worth—that is, the extent to which they view themselves as good, competent, and decent? Probably not because when it comes to feeling good about ourselves, most of us are doing just fine. True, a recent meta-analysis did find that men have more positive views of their physical appearance than women do, but this same study found that women have higher self-esteem in some areas (e.g., their perception of their moral and ethical qual- ities) and that women and men have equally high self-esteem in other areas, such as academics and social acceptance (Gentile et al., 2009).
Putting gender differences aside, we might ask a more basic question: Should everyone strive to achieve as much self-esteem as possible, showering themselves with praise as much as they can? Well, it is certainly true that we should try to avoid low self-esteem, which is a very unpleasant state that is associated with depression and the feelings that we are ineffective and not in control of our lives (Baumeister, Campbell, Krueger, & Vohs, 2003). What’s more, high self-esteem protects us against thoughts about our own mortality. This is the basic tenet of terror management theory, which holds that self-esteem serves as a buffer, protecting people from terrifying thoughts about death (Greenberg, Solomon, & Pyszczynski, 1997; Pyszczynski, Greenberg, Solomon, Arndt, & Schimel, 2004; Schimel & Greenberg, 2013). That is, in order to protect themselves from the anxiety caused by thoughts of their own deaths, people embrace cultural worldviews that make them feel like they are effective actors in a meaningful, purposeful world. People with high self-esteem are thus less troubled by thoughts about their own mortality than people with low self-esteem are (Schmeichel et al., 2009).
Another advantage of evaluating ourselves positively is that it motivates us to persevere when the going gets rough. In fact, it may even make us exaggerate how good we are at things and be overly optimistic about our futures, motivating us to try harder when we encounter obstacles in our path (Taylor & Brown, 1988). To illus- trate this, consider two students who are thinking about their postgraduation job prospects. “I don’t know,” the first one thinks. “The economy isn’t doing so well, and I don’t think I have what it takes to compete with all those talented young people entering the job market. I’d say that there is only a 20% chance that I’ll get my dream job right out of school.” The second student thinks, “Yes, it’s a tough market, but I think my prospects are great if I work hard and do well in school. I’m good enough
Terror Management Theory The theory that holds that self-esteem serves as a buffer, protecting people from terrifying thoughts about their own mortality
Self-Esteem Peoples evaluations of their own self-worth—that is, the extent to which they view themselves as good, competent, and decent
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to get my dream job.” Now, for the sake of the argument, let’s suppose that Student 1 is more correct than Student 2; it is a tough economy, after all, and few students land their first choice of job right away. But which student will work harder to achieve that goal? And which one is more likely to achieve it? Research shows that people who are optimistic—even unreasonably so—try harder, persevere more in the face of failure, and set higher goals than do people who are not (Nes & Segerstrom, 2006; Scheier, Carver, & Bridges, 2001; Shepperd, Klein, Waters, & Weinstein, 2013). Obviously, Student 2 shouldn’t exaggerate his or her prospects too much; people who believe that they will be the next winner of The Voice when they can’t carry a tune are destined for failure and heartbreak. But a dose of optimism and confidence is a good thing to the extent that it makes people work harder to achieve their goals.
What happens when that dose is too large? There is a form of high self-esteem that is unhealthy, namely, narcissism, which is the combination of excessive self-love and a lack of empathy toward others (Furnham, Richards, & Paulhus, 2013; Schriber & Robins, 2012; Twenge & Campbell, 2009). Narcissists are extremely self-centered, concerned much more with themselves than with other people. On the Narcissistic Personality Inventory, a commonly used questionnaire measure, narcissists endorse such items as “I wish somebody would someday write my biography” and “I find it easy to manipulate people” (Raskin & Terry, 1988). That is, narcissists go far beyond optimists in their high opinions of themselves.
If you were born after 1980, you might want not want to hear this, but narcis- sism has been increasing among college students in recent years. Jean Twenge and her colleagues (Twenge, Konrath, Foster, Campbell, & Bushman, 2008; Twenge & Foster, 2010) tracked down studies that administered the Narcissistic Personality Inventory to college students in the United States between the years 1982 and 2008. As seen in Figure 5.8, there has been a steady increase in scores on this test since the mid-1980s. And there is some evidence that narcissism is more prevalent in America than in other cultures (Campbell, Miller, & Buffardi, 2010; Foster, Campbell, & Twenge, 2003).
Why the increase in narcissism? Nobody knows, though Twenge and colleagues (2008) speculate that American culture at large has become increasingly self-focused. To illustrate this, researchers coded the lyrics of the 10 most popular songs of the year between 1980 and 2007. They counted the number of first-person singular pronouns in the lyrics (e.g., “I,” “me”) and found a steady increase over time (see Figure 5.8; DeWall, Pond, Campbell, & Twenge, 2011). True, the Beatles released a song called “I, Me, Mine”
Narcissism The combination of excessive self- love and a lack of empathy toward others
In Greek mythology, Narcissus fell in love with his own reflection in a pool of water and was so fond of his own image that he couldn’t leave and eventually died. Today, narcissism refers to the combination of excessive self-love and a lack of empathy toward others.
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in 1970, but such self-references have become even more common, such as John Legend’s “All of Me” or Avicii’s “Wake Me Up.” This trend has spawned many spoofs, such as the song “Selfie” by the Chainsmokers, in which the singer keeps interrupting her mono- logue to take another picture of herself, and MadTV’s parody of a Coldplay music video called The Narcissist. This pattern toward self-reference is also true in books. Using the Google Books ngram database, researchers searched books published between the years 1960 and 2008 and found that first-person singular pronouns (“I,” “me”) increased by 42% over that time period (Twenge, Campbell, & Gentile, 2013). Although the reasons are not entirely clear, Americans seem to become more focused on themselves. (Perhaps we should pause for a moment here so that we can all take selfies.)
Well, you might ask, why is it a problem to be so self-focused? Won’t that increase the chances of getting what we want in life? Actually, no. Narcissists do less well academically than others, are less successful in business, are more violent and aggres- sive, and are disliked by others, especially once people get to know them (Bushman & Baumeister, 2002; Twenge & Campbell, 2009).
Many young people are not so self-focused, of course, and devote countless hours to helping others through volunteer work. Ironically, in so doing they may have hit upon a way to become happier than by taking the narcissistic route. Imagine that you were in a study conducted by Dunn, Aknin, and Norton (2008). You are walking across campus one morning when a researcher approaches you and gives you an envelope with $20 in it. She asks you to spend it on yourself by 5:00 p.m. that day, such as by buying yourself a gift or paying off a bill. Sounds pretty nice, doesn’t it? Now imagine that you were randomly assigned to another condition. Here you also get $20, but the researcher asks you to spend it on someone else by 5:00 p.m., such as by taking a friend out for lunch or donating it to a charity. How would that make you feel? It turns out that when the researchers contacted people that evening and asked how
Figure 5.8 Are People Becoming More Narcissistic? The top (red) line shows average scores for college students on the Narcissistic Personality Inventory (NPI), a common measure of narcissism, from the years 1980 to 2008. The bottom (blue) line shows the percentage of first-person pronouns (e.g., I, me, mine) in the lyrics of the 10 most popular songs of the year from 1980 to 2007. As you can see there has been a steady increase on both measures over time, suggesting that narcissism may be increasing.
(Based on Twenge & Foster, 2010)
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happy they were, those assigned to the “spend it on others” condition were happier than those asked to spend the money on themselves. A little less self-focus and a little more concern with others can actually make us happier.
To recap, having high self-esteem is generally a good thing to the extent that it makes people optimistic about their futures and work harder for what they want in life. There is a form of high self-esteem, however, that is quite problematic—namely, narcissism—which, as we have seen, is extreme high self-regard combined with a lack of empathy toward others. The best combination is to feel good about ourselves but also to look out for and care about others.