Soundings

Matthew Robinson
Criminal Conceit
Summer 1996

For many psychologists, educators, and activists, self-esteem is the Holy Grail, the key to success. What's more, they believe that its absence is the root of many of our gravest problems. As the California Task Force on Self-Esteem put it in 1987, self-esteem “inoculates against the lures of crime, violence, substance abuse, teen pregnancy, child abuse, chronic welfare dependency, and educational failure.”

Three psychologists—Roy F. Baumeister of Case Western University and Joseph M. Boden and Laura Smart of the University of Virginia—have recently challenged this feel-good mentality. After analyzing dozens of studies on the relationship between violent behavior and self-esteem, they published their results in Psychological Review, the journal of the American Psychological Association. Their conclusion: violence is more often associated with high self-esteem.

“People turn aggressive when they receive feedback that contradicts their favorable views [of themselves],” Baumeister, Boden, and Smart write. “More to the point, it is mainly the people who refuse to lower their self-appraisals who become violent.” The authors cite chilling data on rapists, who exemplify the psychological dangers of unrestrained egotism. One study of more than 100 rapists found that their choice of victim often grew out of a desire to “disabuse her of her sense of superiority.”

Baumeister and his co-authors warn that the “societal pursuit of high self-esteem for everyone may literally end up doing considerable harm.” Self-esteem is, of course, desirable—provided that it arises from hard work and achievement. But those who are short on character and long on ego may just lash out when they discover that they are not as good as they think.

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