Is Self-Esteem Addictive?

The Wall Street Journal reports that:  “College students would rather have their self-esteem stroked than eat their favorite food, have sex or drink beer.”  In one scenario, 130 subjects were asked to think of something they knew boosted self-esteem, such as getting a compliment or a good grade.  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). In the same way, they rated the experience of having sex and eating their favorite food.  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: Addicts can want a fix more than they like it.  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.”  Self esteem is important.  It build’s confidence.  But the only problem with teaching self-esteem?  It doesn’t work.

Writing recently in the Wall Street Journal about the 15,000 studies the movement generated, reviewer Kay Hymowitz concludes:  “And what do they show? That high self-esteem doesn’t improve grades, reduce ­anti-social behavior, deter alcohol drinking or do much of anything good for kids.  In fact, telling kids how smart they are can be  counterproductive.  Many children who are convinced that they are little geniuses tend not to put much effort into their work.  Others are troubled by the latent anxiety of adults who feel it necessary to praise them constantly.”

And now, the results indicate that while their favorite foods, drinks, or even sex is a powerful desire, self-esteem seems to lean more toward addictive behavior.

No comment here – I’d love to hear your conclusions….

“Sweets, Sex, or Self-Esteem? Comparing the Value of Self-Esteem Boosts with Other Pleasant Rewards,” Brad J. Bushman, Scott J. Moeller, and Jennifer Crocker, Journal of Personality (forthcoming)

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Phil Cooke is the founder and CEO of Cooke Media Group in Los Angeles ( where his team helps church, ministry, and nonprofit organizations engage the culture more effectively through media. He's a filmmaker, media consultant, and author of "Unique: Telling Your Story in the Age of Brands and Social Media."