Self-esteem Trumps Other Favorite Experiences
Do Today’s Students Suffer From Self-esteem Addiction?
BY NANCY GRUND
From the time many of today’s college students could walk and talk, they have been showered with praise from parents, grandparents, coaches, and teachers. Books like The Dumbest Generation (Tarcher, 2008), Generation Me (Free Press, 2007), and The Narcissism Epidemic (Free Press, 2010) document how today’s students are entitled, coddled, disre- spectful, narcissistic, and impatient. Now, a new study suggests they would prefer a boost to their egos more than most other pleasant activities, including sex, favorite foods, drinking alochol, seeing a best friend, or receiving a paycheck.
“It is somewhat surprising how this desire to feel worthy and
valuable trumps almost any other pleasant activity you can
imagine,” said Brad Bushman, lead author of the paper titled,
“Sweets, Sex, or Self-Esteem? Comparing the Value of Self-Esteem
Boosts with Other Pleasant Rewards,” with co-authors Scott J.
Moeller, and Jennifer Crocker. The paper, set to be published in
the Journal of Personality, describes two different studies.
One study included 130 University of Michigan students
who were asked to think about their favorite food, their favorite
sexual activity, and their favorite self-esteem-building experience, like getting a compliment or a good grade on a paper.
They were then asked to rate, on a 1-to- 5 scale, how much
pleasure the experience brought them and how much they
“wanted” it (right now, in general, in good times, and in bad).
Overall, the students valued the self-esteem increase more
than good food or sex. The ratio of “wanting” to “liking” was
used to gauge the addictive qualities of each pleasure: While
students said that they liked all of these things more than they
wanted them, the gap was narrowest in the case of self-esteem,
which hints at the intoxicating effects of ego, the authors said.
The distinction is important, according to Bushman,
because research on addiction suggests that one indication of
habituation is that people tend to want or need something
more than they actually like or enjoy it. “The liking-wanting
distinction has occupied an important place in addiction
research for nearly two decades, but we believe it has great
potential to inform other areas of psychology as well.” In this
study, participants liked all the pleasant activities more than
they wanted them, which is healthy, according to Bushman.
The difference between wanting and liking was smallest when
it came to self-esteem, making the participants closest to being
addicted to self-esteem than any other activity.
In the second study, a group of 152 Michigan students was
asked about their favorite activity, but were given an expanded
list to choose from that included receiving a paycheck, seeing
a best friend, and drinking alcohol, in addition to eating a
favorite food and engaging in a favorite sexual activity. Again,
self-esteem trumped all other rewards.
Bushman said he sees danger in this obsession with self-
esteem. “American society seems to believe that self-esteem is
the cure all for every social ill from bad grades to teen preg-
nancies to violence,” he said. “But there has been no evidence
that boosting self-esteem actually helps with these problems.”
Study co-author Crocker added, “The problem isn’t with
having high self-esteem; it’s how much people are driven to
boost their self-esteem. When people highly value self-esteem,
they may avoid doing things, such as acknowledging a wrong
they did. Admitting you were wrong may be uncomfortable for
self-esteem at the moment, but ultimately it could lead to bet-
ter learning, relationships, growth, and even future self-esteem.”
On the same topic, a study on self-esteem released in March
showed that low self-esteem is associated with a greater risk of
mental health problems, such as eating disorders and depression.
Playing to Students’ Self-esteem
What does this self-esteem surge mean for senior student
affairs officers (SSAOs)? From a mental health perspective,
it is important for staff in various health-related positions to
understand the significance of self-esteem to young adults and
its effect on their behavior.
From a programmatic perspective, SSAOs may want to
appeal to students’ need to boost self-esteem when seeking
to engage them in programs and services. Career programs
on “Self-Esteem in the Workplace” or programs that address
everyday concerns, but acknowledge student strengths may
be more likely to spark interest among students. At the same
time, students must be better prepared for lives of meaning.
Throughout the college years and after, students must find
serious pursuits that allow them to truly make contributions
to society. Student affairs programming may want to include
sessions that force students to look beyond themselves and
their needs to pursue lives of consequence. LE
Nancy Grund is managing editor of Leadership Exchange. Information
for this article was provided by The Ohio State University Research News