Q: Educators for some time now have put a premium on self-esteem. Schools strive to help kids develop self-esteem on the theory that other good things such as achievement will flow from increased self-esteem. Which is more important, self-discipline or self-esteem, for being successful as a student?
DUCKWORTH: Ah, how great to be asked this question! We did a study in which we followed kids for four years. We took their self-control ratings from parents and teachers and the kids themselves. We tracked them every year, and we kept their grades from school records, not from their own reports on their grades. We pitted self-control and self-esteem — we also took measures for both — against each other. Here’s what we found: When kids increase in self-control, their grades go up later. But when kids increase their self-esteem, there is no effect on their grades. The bottom line is that our research shows that self-control is more important than self-esteem in determining achievement. People have been studying self-esteem for a long time, and this allows you to compare the self-esteem of kids who grew up in the nineties with, say, those who grew up in the seventies or eighties with regard to self-esteem. Self-esteem has gone up in the United States; achievement has not. If anything, compared with other countries, we have done worse, but our kids feel really good about themselves on average. What seems particularly interesting, and there is an article by J. P. Tangney on this, is that there is an uncoupling between your perception of your own competence and how much you like yourself. Many American kids, particularly in the last couple of decades, can feel really good about themselves without actually being good at anything. This is the problem with the “self-esteem at all costs” message. Self-esteem should be earned. I find that parents today, at least those in a high socioeconomic bracket, never want to say anything critical of their children. Everybody has to be a winner. You take your children to a soccer game, and they don’t keep score anymore. They don’t want anybody to lose. Well, it’s a good thing for kids to lose sometimes. They see what it’s like to get up again. They realize it’s not the end of the world.
If you’re looking for a comprehensive summary of why self-esteem doesn’t predict success, check out this review article by Baumeister, et. al. Here’s the takeaway:
Overall, the benefits of high self-esteem fall into two categories: enhanced initiative and pleasant feelings. We have not found evidence that boosting self-esteem (by therapeutic interventions or school programs) causes benefits. Our findings do not support continued widespread efforts to boost self-esteem in the hope that it will by itself foster improved outcomes. In view of the heterogeneity of high self-esteem, indiscriminate praise might just as easily promote narcissism, with its less desirable consequences.