Called ‘Creating Confidence’, the morning session offered an opportunity for teachers and others working with young people to hear from experts such as Professor Martin Seligman and Professor Nicholas Emler, a social psychologist from the University of Surrey. Nick Emler is author of a book called “The Costs and Causes of Low Self-worth” and is the UK’s leading authority on self-esteem.
Based on his research for the Joseph Rowntree Trust, Professor Emler argued that many commonly-held beliefs about self-esteem are not supported by any reliable evidence. Nonetheless it is common for politicians to see high self-esteem as a form of inoculation against the risks of:
- drug abuse
- alcohol abuse
- partner abuse
- child abuse
- racial intolerance
- educational failure
- teenage pregnancy
However, his research reveals that people who have an unjustifiably high opinion of themselves can, in many cases, pose a far greater threat to those around them than people whose sense of self-worth is unusually low. For example, urban gang-leaders frequently have high self-esteem.
Although self-esteem can be reliably measured, much of the published research is inadequate for deciding whether low self-esteem is a causal influence on behaviour. The most reliable evidence, which includes longitudinal studies following the fortunes of children and young people over time, shows that low self-esteem is not a risk factor for:
- delinquency or violent crime
- physical risk taking
- racial intolerance
- teenage smoking
- child maltreatment
“But high self-esteem might be…” he told the audience.
However, relatively low self-esteem is a risk factor for suicide, suicide attempts, depression, teenage pregnancy and victimisation by bullies. However, in each case it is only one among several related risk factors.
“Young people who have, or admit to, negative feelings about themselves also treat themselves badly and may be inviting others to treat them badly. They do not tend to treat others badly,” Emler said.
One of the participants at the event told us:
“The message I took from Nicholas Emler’s very powerful presentation was that overly high levels of self-esteem can be a problem for society, while low self-esteem is much more a problem for individuals. While a healthy level of self-esteem is very important, it looks as if it has received too much emphasis and is not a panacea for the problems of young people.”
Emler’s research also indicates that factors such as social class, ethnicity and gender have very little effect on an individual’s level of self-esteem. The two factors that have the largest impact are: parents and the genes inherited by individuals.
He argues that it is very important that parents show their children acceptance, approval and affection, while encouraging clear standards of behaviour. Discipline should be based on explanation rather than force or coercion and children should be invited to express their views about family decisions, thus showing that their contribution is valued.
“Once parents have had their effect, self-esteem seems to become well-defended against anything that might challenge it,” said Emler.
Many of those present were surprised to hear that the most important influences on young people’s levels of self-esteem are their parents. Given the fact that the new Curriculum for Excellence is now focusing on creating ‘confident individuals’ it is important for us to ensure that teachers are not held wholly accountable for something which is partly outwith their control and influence.
In Scotland, we tend to focus on social class being the key determinant in many areas of success and failure. But Emler’s work shows us that parents, no matter what their social background, can support and encourage healthy levels of self-worth in their children.
Following Nicholas Emler’s presentation, Professor Martin Seligman added his criticisms of the emphasis on self-esteem. Seligman’s argument is that high self-esteem may be a great feeling but by itself it does not produce, or ‘cause’ anything. Feeling good about yourself is a by-product of ‘doing well’. It is, he says, about ‘good commerce’ with the world. This is similar, he argues, to what Aristotle says about happiness. It is not a feeling which can be separated from what we do. Just as happiness arises from ‘right action’, self-esteem rises because of the way we engage productively with the world. This is why Seligman argued at the Hub: “What we need is not children who are encouraged to feel good, but children who are taught the skills of doing well – how to study, how to avoid pregnancy, drugs, and gangs, and how to get off welfare.”
Seligman’s sharp critique of self-esteem came about as a result of visits to schools when he was piloting his optimism and resilience programme for young people. His critique was also informed by 25 years research into child and adult depression. To get someone out of depression, Seligman claims, you need to get them active and hopeful again and you don’t do this with empty praise or other techniques promoted by the self-esteem movement.
So we can see why Seligman believes that self-esteem boosting will do nothing to stop the epidemic of depression. But why does he believe that it might actually cause it? At the Hub Seligman outlined specific reasons why changes in culture are making people, particularly the young, vulnerable to depression. First on his list is individualism and an obsessive focus on the self. This means that the set-backs, failures and problems which are an inevitable part of life can become overwhelming and so people often feel unable to cope. Previous generations were consoled during difficult times by patriotism, the belief in the importance of the family or the wider community and their faith in God. This not only provided solace and consolation, it also buffered people from depression.
Seligman argued convincingly in his presentation that a much better way forward is to abandon the ‘feeling good’ injunctions of the self-esteem movement and to concentrate instead on ‘explanatory style, and teaching children the skills involved in optimism and enhancing resilience’. He also argued that schools should actively try to identify and build on children’s strengths, rather than constantly attempt to remedy weaknesses.
The afternoon event at the Hub was designed to allow those who had attended the big Vanguard Programme 2005 , or one of the one-day events held in Inverness, Glasgow or Dundee, to come together and hear from Professor Martin Seligman about the latest developments in Positive Psychology. The session mainly took the form of a master-class from Professor Seligman. After focusing on how Positive Psychology is becoming increasing cross-cultural, he outlined his latest thoughts on ‘the full life versus the empty life’. He also discussed research on interventions that work, with the ‘three blessings’ exercise scoring highly in terms of making people feel happier.
Then, pushing aside his prepared notes, he talked for some time about his current interests, his current research focus and his predictions for the science.
Following this session Professor Phil Hanlon engaged participants in a discussion on how they are using the insights from Positive Psychology in their work. Finally, participants had the opportunity to view the Centre’s new resource – a DVD called Celebrate What’s Right with the World which has been made by National Geographic photographer Dewitt Jones. For a preview of this video, click here.