Carol Craig is the Centre's Chief Executive. She is author of The Scots' Crisis of Confidence, Creating Confidence: A Handbook for Professionals Working with Young People, The Tears that Made the Clyde: Well-being in Glasgow and The Great Takeover: How materialism, the media and markets now dominate our lives. She is Commissioning editor for the Postcards from Scotland series. Carol blogs on confidence, well-being, inequality, every day life and some of the great challenges of our time. The views she expresses are her own unless she specifically states that they reflect the Centre's thinking.
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The roots of self-esteem
Those of you who didn’t get a chance to come to the morning event on education we held at the Hub recently really missed yourselves. The combination of Martin Seligman and Nicholas Emler made for a really interesting morning. You can, however, judge this for yourselves as we now have put most of Nick Emler’s presentation on the website.
Emler wrote a book a few years ago called "The Costs and Causes of Self-Worth". He was commissioned to write it by the Rowntree Foundation who were about to invest money on projects to increase young people’s self-esteem. They decided to draft in Emler just to check that the evidence supported the approach they planned to take. Emler sifted through thousands of research projects and, like Roy Baumeister in the United States, concluded that those who saw low self-esteem as the root of many social problems did not have the evidence to support these views. For example, low self-esteem is not a barrier to academic achievement. Many of those who do well at school – girls and Asian pupils – score lower on self-esteem than black boys, for example who often score high on self-esteem but do badly at school. Racists are more likely to have high, not low self-esteem and this is often true of folk who are violent, or gang leaders. Low self-esteem is, however, a risk factor for eating disorders, teenage pregnancy and suicide.
For me the most interesting aspect of Emler’s work is when he accounts for variations in self-esteem. As he points out, it is commonly assumed that an individual’s self-esteem will be affected by ethnicity or race. For example, it is often argued that black people, or those from ethnic minorities, will have lower self-esteem than white people given the supremacy of the latter in western culture. However, the evidence does not support this view. In the United States, black people consistently report higher self-esteem than white people. A variety of reasons have been advanced for this finding including the idea that most people care about the approval of friends and family more than the views of others in the wider society. Social class is also commonly thought to be closely correlated to self-esteem but it is only ‘modestly’ so according to Professor Emler.
Professor Nicholas Emler is unequivocal in his view about the source of an individual’s self-esteem. 'To the question ‘what are the most important influences on self-esteem?’ the simple answer is parents', he writes. Emler agrees with Stanley Coopersmith, one of the early thinkers on self-esteem, on the reasons for this parental influence. Summarising Coopersmith Emler argues that parents’ behaviour is of crucial significance in the development of children’s self-esteem. The behaviour which is of most significance is:
* The amount of acceptance, approval and affection parents show their children
* The degree to which parents make clear expected standards of behavior
* The degree to which the discipline parents give to children is based on explanation rather than punishment or coercion
* The extent to which parents involve children in family decisions and value their contributions.
Coopersmith’s pioneering work on self-esteem has subsequently been supported by research. Approval and acceptance seem to be particularly important in the development of self-esteem. What is also surprising is that research suggests that the importance of parents to a person’s self-esteem does not end with childhood but continues not just into adolescence but into adulthood.
Emler also argues that parents make another substantial contribution to children’s self-esteem through their genetic inheritance. Quoting the famous 1998 study into almost 4,000 twin pairs, Emler argues that 'about a third of the variation in self-esteem scores could be attributed to inherited differences in the sample'.
Some psychologists have argued that a person’s self-esteem will in part be a reflection of how they are seen by others. But Emler disputes this. He writes:
It seems that the actual reactions of others may have little influence on what we think of ourselves. It is almost as if, after our parents have had their say – and their genetic influence – we become increasingly deaf to other, especially dissenting voices.
PS You can read more about self-esteem and Emler's work in the Confidence section of Positive Psychology Resources. Access it from the Home page.
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