Source:  Newsweek, July 13, 1998 v132 n2 p69(1).
    Title:  You're OK, I'm Terrific. 'Self-Esteem' Backfires.(research
            indicates inflated self-esteem can cause aggression)(Brief
   Author:  Sharon Begley
 Subjects:  Self-esteem - Research
            Violence in children - Research
            Aggressiveness (Psychology) in children - Research
  Business Collection:  110N3380
Electronic Collection:  A20890121
                   RN:   A20890121

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Unjustified feelings of self-worth cause aggression

SAY THIS FOR THE SELF-ESTEEM movement: despite taking hits from critics as
varied as "Doonesbury" and the president of the American Psychological
Association, it is still going strong 21 years after a psychologist first
argued that instilling self-esteem should be a paramount goal of child rearing
and education. If students work in classrooms where posters proclaim WE
APPLAUD OURSELVES! and complete sentences like "I am special because ... "they
will be inoculated against drug use, teen pregnancy, bad grades and just about
everything else short of the common cold. Or so the story goes. Parents, like
educators, have soaked up the message, trying to make their child feel good
about himself no matter how many courses he fails or fly balls he drops.

At worst, all this has seemed silly (as when California established a task
force on self-esteem). But now there is evidence that it might be dangerous. A
new study examined inflated self-esteem, the kind that can come not from
actual achievement but from teachers and parents drumming into kids how great
they are. The researchers find that this sort of unjustified self-esteem can
trigger hostility and aggression, and may even underlie violence like the
recent school shootings. "If kids develop unrealistic opinions of themselves
and those views are rejected by others," warns psychologist Brad Bushman of
Iowa State University, the kids are "potentially dangerous."

It is too simplistic to blame any one cause for the horrific shootings from
West Paducah, Ky., to Springfield, Ore. Some of the accused killers were
abused, all grew up in a violent culture, some had psychiatric problems. But
at least one, Luke Woodham, fits the profile Bushman worries about. Woodham
was recently convicted of murdering his mother and two students in Pearl,
Miss., last October. In a court-ordered evaluation, all three psychologists
agreed that Woodham had "narcissistic" traits. Although psychologists have
long believed that low self-esteem causes aggression and other pathologies,
it's not that simple. High self-esteem that is unjustified and
unstable-Bushman's definition of narcissism-also puts a kid at risk of turning
violent, he says. In this view, narcissists are supersensitive to criticism or
slights, because deep down they suspect that their feeling of superiority is
built on quicksand. Even though they say "the world would he a better place if
I ruled it," if that grandiosity is challen ged they may lash out.

The new study is the first-ever experimental test of this idea. Bushman and
Roy Baumeister of Case Western Reserve University, writing in the Journal of
Personality and Social Psychology, used questionnaires to assess who, among
540 undergraduate volunteers, had well-founded self-esteem and who was
narcissistic. Then each of the volunteers got two minutes to write an essay.
The paragraph was returned with either praise ("No suggestions, great essay!")
or criticism ("This is one of the worst essays I have read!"). The writers
then got to play a game, trying to press a button faster than an opponent who,
they were told, had rated the essay. If the opponent lost, the writer could
assault him or her with noise of any decibel level and for any duration he
chose. In other words, the writer could decide to blast the other guy's
eardrum. The result: the most narcissistic people were the most "exceptionally
aggressive" in the wake of criticism. They went in for auditory torture three
times more than people with norma l self-esteem.

Based on comparisons with earlier studies, this one found that inflated
self-esteem had as powerful an effect on aggression as does being male,
drinking and soaking up media violence. What seems to happen, says Baumeister,
is that unjustified self-esteem needs constant propping up. When the real
world fails to deliver-when the narcissist gets rejected by a girlfriend or
made fun of in gym class -he may explode.

Schools often contribute to the problem, says Martin Seligman, president of
the American Psychological Association, by viewing self-esteem as a cause of
success, rather than the result of achievement. They ladle on the praise
indiscriminately, rather than focusing on helping the child achieve something
to deserve it. Using this approach, worries psychiatrist James Gilligan of
Harvard Medical School, a leading violence researcher, schools and parents
could be building up the wrong kind of self esteem, the kind likely to
deflate. At best you get a disillusioned kid; at worst you get a shooting
spree. Clinical psychologist Robert Brooks of Harvard seconds that view:
"There are well-meaning parents who have seen self-esteem as 'every little
thing your kid does, praise them to the sky.' [But] if [teaching self-esteem]
is done wrong, you can raise a generation of kids who cannot tolerate
frustration." Even proponents of teaching self-esteem worry that it has gone
astray. "There are many curricula that just emphasi ze the feeling-good
portion" of self-esteem, says Michele Borba, who wrote the widely used
curriculum "Esteem Builders." And there are educators and parents who misapply
even the best curricula. "The idea that you can solve problems simply by
telling kids they're great is so seductive." says Baumeister. "No one wants to
admit it doesn't do any good." Giving kids something they can truly feel proud
of is hard work for everyone.