Thursday, February 03, 2005


Excerpts from an article by Roy F. Baumeister, a professor in the department of psychology at Florida State University

Does low self-esteem lie at the root of all human suffering, failure and evil? When I ran my first research study on self-esteem in 1973, that certainly seemed to be the case. Psychologists everywhere were persuaded that if only we could help people to accept and love themselves more, their problems would gradually vanish and their lives would flourish. They would even treat each other better.

Not surprisingly, California led the way, establishing a task force for exploring ways to boost healthy self-esteem to solve personal and social problems. The task force members - like many of us - were undeterred by the weakness and ambiguity of the evidence suggesting a benefit in boosting self-esteem; we all believed the data would come along in good time. Then-Assemblyman John Vasconcellos (and many other experts) predicted that self- esteem could solve, or at least help solve, such problems as crime, teen pregnancy, pollution, school failure and underachievement, drug abuse and domestic violence. (Vasconcellos even expressed the hope that higher self-esteem would one day help balance the state budget - a prospect predicated on the observation that people with high self-regard earn more than others and therefore pay more in taxes.)

A generation - and many millions of dollars - later, it turns out we may have been mistaken. Five years ago, the American Psychological Society commissioned me and several other experts to wade with an open mind through the enormous amount of published research on the subject and to assess the benefits of high self-esteem. Here are some of our disappointing findings. High self- esteem in schoolchildren does not produce better grades. (Actually, kids with high self-esteem do have slightly better grades in most studies, but that's because getting good grades leads to higher self-esteem, not the other way around.) In fact, according to a study by Donald Forsyth at Virginia Commonwealth University, college students with mediocre grades who got regular self-esteem strokes from their professors ended up doing worse on final exams than students who were told to suck it up and try harder.

Self-esteem doesn't make adults perform better at their jobs either. Sure, people with high self-esteem rate their own performance better - even declaring themselves smarter and more attractive than their low self-esteem peers - but neither objective tests nor impartial raters can detect any difference in the quality of work.

Likewise, people with high self-esteem think they make better impressions, have stronger friendships and have better romantic lives than other people, but the data don't support their self-flattering views. If anything, people who love themselves too much sometimes annoy other people by their defensive or know-it-all attitudes. Self-esteem doesn't predict who will make a good leader, and some work (including that of psychologist Robert Hogan writing in the Harvard Business Review) has found humility rather than self-esteem to be a key trait of successful leaders.

It was widely believed that low self-esteem could be a cause of violence, but in reality violent individuals, groups and nations think very well of themselves. They turn violent toward others who fail to give them the inflated respect they think they deserve. Nor does high self-esteem deter people from becoming bullies, according to most of the studies that have been done; it is simply untrue that beneath the surface of every obnoxious bully is an unhappy, self-hating child in need of sympathy and praise. High self-esteem doesn't prevent youngsters from cheating or stealing or experimenting with drugs and sex. (If anything, kids with high self-esteem may be more willing to try these things at a young age.)

In short, despite the enthusiastic embrace of self-esteem, we found that it conferred only two benefits. It feels good and it supports initiative. Those are nice, but they are far less than we had once hoped for, and it is very questionable whether they justify the effort and expense that schools, parents and therapists have put into raising self-esteem. After all these years, I'm sorry to say, my recommendation is this: Forget about self-esteem and concentrate more on self-control and self-discipline. Recent work suggests this would be good for the individual and good for society - and might even be able to fill some of those promises that self-esteem once made but could not keep.


Householders can attack and even kill intruders in defence of their home, new guidelines make clear. People risk prosecution only if they step over the line to retribution or revenge or set a trap to hurt or kill an intruder. The "licence to kill" guidelines, where people do what they "honestly and instinctively believe is necessary", have been drawn up to reassure the public over the force they can use when facing intruders.

People can use objects as weapons, such as a bat, knife or gun, and almost any level of violence against a burglar could be acceptable in the right situation, Ken Macdonald, QC, the Director of Public Prosecutions, said. The Government has ruled out a change in the law despite calls to do so, including one from the Tories - who want the concept of "reasonable force" replaced by "grossly disproportionate" - after consultation with the Director of Public Prosecutions and the Association of Chief Police Officers (Acpo).

Ministers have decided, after concerns triggered by the case of Tony Martin, the Norfolk farmer jailed for killing a burglar, that the law is not properly understood. The guidelines leaflet from the Crown Prosecution Service and Acpo aims to end confusion over the point at which defending one's family and property becomes a crime. Even using items as weapons would not lead to prosecution if householders were doing what they "honestly and instinctively" believed was necessary "in the heat of the moment", it says.

The leaflet, to go to Citizens Advice Bureaux and police forces in England and Wales, adds: "You are not expected to make fine judgments over the level of force you use in the heat of the moment. So long as you only do what you honestly and instinctively believe is necessary in the heat of the moment, that would be the strongest evidence of you acting lawfully and in self-defence. "This is still the case if you use something to hand as a weapon." Fear is a factor, the leaflet says. The "more extreme the circumstances and fear felt, the more force you can lawfully use in self-defence".

The leaflet also points out that householders do not have to wait to be attacked before they use violence themselves. "If you have acted in reasonable self defence . . . and the intruder dies, you will still have acted lawfully."

But they are warned that if they cross the line into revenge, retribution or setting a deliberate trap, they can still face the courts. Chris Fox, the Acpo president, said officers would have to be satisfied that "reasonable force" had not been overstepped. "There has to be a line, otherwise we develop into anarchy," he said. "However, that line is quite a long way towards the householder. People will be questioned about what happened. There is going to be statement-taking and interviewing."

Mr Macdonald said: "The law is on the side of householders. Even where householders have badly injured or even killed burglars, the CPS has declined to prosecute unless they have used wholly excessive force." He added: "My impression is that people were beginning to believe that we routinely prosecute householders who have protected themselves against burglars. That is completely untrue."

Almost any level of violence against a burglar could be acceptable in the right situation, he said. "The key thing to bear in mind is that, as long as someone hasn't stepped over that line into retribution or revenge, it is quite difficult to perceive of a level of violence that would not be regarded as reasonable by a prosecutor. "This is something the intruder brings on him or herself. I don't think we need to be too squeamish about the situation."

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