- WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A seemingly benign attempt by schools and parents
to raise the self-esteem of children may backfire, creating a violent society,
psychologists warn. Out-of-control self-esteem in the form of a personality
order known as narcissism could even be responsible for a recent spate
of school shootings, they say, although they are quick to add they have
no proof of this. Psychologists Brad Bushman of Iowa State University and
Roy Baumeister of Case Western Reserve University in Ohio say that when
narcissistic people are criticized they are likely to react in a violent
and unpredictable manner. Laboratory tests support this theory, they write
in the July issue of the American Psychological Association's Journal of
Personality and Social Psychology. They conducted two studies of 540 college
students and found those who tended to have unrealistically high levels
of self-esteem also became aggressive when they were insulted or criticized.
When parents and educators try too hard to raise the self-esteem of children,
they may be inadvertently causing narcissism, the psychologists say. ``If
kids begin to develop unrealistically optimistic opinions of themselves
and those beliefs are constantly rejected by others, their feelings of
self-love could make these kids potentially dangerous to those around them,''
Bushman said in a statement.
- Schools And Parents May Have
- Baumeister, author of a book on violent
behavior, ``Evil -- Inside Human Violence and Cruelty,'' said he had no
evidence of any link between recent school shootings and a trend in recent
decades in the United States to build the self-esteem of children. But
he worries they may have the balance wrong. ``The schools are trying to
do it, and if they succeed it could backfire,'' Baumeister said in a telephone
interview. He said parents are also trying to build the self-esteem of
their children and it is not always a good thing, ``especially exaggerated
or unfounded self-esteem or the desire to think you're better than others,
this thing of telling kids that they are doing great no matter how well
they do, giving trophies to everybody, having children write stories or
lists of all the great things about themselves.'' Baumeister's advice to
educators: ``Forget about self-esteem and concentrate on self-control.''
In other words, old-fashioned moral discipline is not always a bad thing,
even if it sometimes makes some children feel bad, he said. ``Some people
should feel bad about themselves when they do something bad,'' he added.
He said surveys have shown the U.S. population in general already has an
inflated view of itself. ``The average person thinks that he's above average
at present. If we had a population of people who had distorted self-esteem,
that would be different. I think inflating it is dangerous.'' Other researchers
are also warning schools and parents to be careful about just how they
go about praising children.
- Wrong Kind Of Praise May Create
- Writing in the same journal this month,
Claudia Mueller and Carol Dweck of Columbia University said praising a
child for his or her brains may make the youngster anxious and ill-equipped
to deal with failure. Their study of more than 400 fifth-graders found
that those who were told they did well on a task because they were smart
became timid about failure later and eventually chose to do mainly tasks
they knew they would do well at. Children praised for trying hard, on the
other hand, tended to welcome opportunities to learn something new even
if they might not perform as well. Bushman said the study he and Baumeister
did conflicts with assertions by some educators and criminal justice experts
who say that aggression is caused by low self-esteem. ``We found that low
self-esteem definitely does not cause aggression,'' he said in a telephone
interview. He said it is good to give children a feeling of self-worth,
but he just does not think people should be praised for no good reason.
``I think people's opinions of themselves should be based on achievement
rather than hollow praise. If people are honestly achieving in a valid
way they deserve some recognition for that. But praising people regardless
of how they behave, if their performance is mediocre, you create this sense
of entitlement,'' he said. When these people get out into the real world
and find thatnot everyone thinks they are great, they may become angry.
``Reality doesn't cooperate with you if you have a distorted impression
of it. If you think you are better than you are then you are more likely
to get negative feedback, and if you are in emotionally invested in this
then you could get violent,'' Baumeister said.
- Conceit A Cause Of Violence
Around The World
- Conceit as a cause of violence is seen
in societies around the world, he said. ``It's everything from a man beats
his wife because he thinks he should be king and she's not giving him his
due, to the gang member who beats someone up because he is not getting
respect, to the Ku Klux Klan member who thinks white superiority is not
getting its due recognition.'' To prove their theory, Baumeister and Bushman
gave 540 undergraduate psychology students personality tests. Then they
had each write an essay, which was evaluated by a neutral third party who
made comments ranging from strong praise to insults such as ``This is one
of the worst essays I have read!'' ``Narcissists became exceptionally aggressive
toward a person who had given them a negative, insulting evaluation,''
Bushman and Baumeister wrote. Narcissists are ``emotionally vested in establishing
their superiority, yet while they care passionately about being superior
to others, they are not convinced that they have achieved this superiority,''
they added. ``People who are preoccupied with validating a grandiose self-image
apparently find criticism highly upsetting and lash out against the source
of it,'' Bushman said. Baumeister said it is hard to tell how many people
have distorted self-esteem. ``It's a continuum. It's like asking how many
people are tall. It depends on where you set the bar.'' But he said narcissistic
people tended to agree strongly with statements such as: ``If I ruled the
world it would be a better place'' or ``I am going to be a great person.''