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Crocker's critique of self-esteem

The person who is not concerned with feeling worthy, and valuable, or with avoiding feelings of worthlessness, is a rarity in American culture.
Jennifer Crocker and Lora E Park, 2004

Jennifer Crocker is a professor of pyschology at the University of Michigan and she has conducted extensive empirical research into self-esteem. 

Crocker's argument is that those studying self-esteem are usually only interested in the level of an individual's self-esteem and whether it correlates with certain outcomes such as academic performance or aggression. Since recent studies suggest that self-esteem is not as important as previously thought the whole topic of self-esteem is now being dismissed as irrelevant by many psychologists. But Crocker's argument is that self-esteem does play an important part in people's lives in a way that often goes unrecognised. She argues that, in American culture, individuals take steps to prove their worth and that this 'pursuit of self-esteem' has high costs as it can undermine individuals' well-being and their relationships. 

The pursuit of self-esteem 
Crocker argues that individuals have two different levels of self-esteem. The first is 'trait' self-esteem which includes the general sense of self-worth which an individual has about him/herself and which seems to be determined, in part, genetically. This means that some individuals are born with high, or low, self-esteem. However, individuals? self-esteem also varies on a day-by-day basis depending on external circumstances such as successes, failures, mistakes etc. This means that individuals who have high trait self-esteem will still suffer from fluctuations in their self-esteem as will people who have low self-esteem. She argues that these variations can feel unpleasant and motivate the individual to avoid situations where their self-esteem might be compromised. She writes:

People are not merely passive victims, their self-esteem tossed around by events over which they have no control. Instead, they actively pursue self-esteem by attempting to validate or prove their abilities or qualities in the domains in which their self-worth is invested.

In a paper co-authored with Lora Park, Crocker argues that the pursuit of self-esteem goals is widespread in the USA because of deeply held-beliefs within the culture. She particularly cites 'the Protestant ethic' which links a person's worth with their accomplishments. This is further heightened, she argues, with the American emphasis on 'self-reliance' and individualism. Finally, the Protestant ethic and self-reliance have led to the 'belief in a meritocracy' and this too has fuelled the idea that some individuals are 'worthier' than others. Crocker and Park write: 

Taken together these ideas lead Americans to conclude that their worth or value as individuals is not a given, but must be demonstrated, proven, or earned; consequently they pursue self-esteem. The goal is to be superior to other people -  and the corresponding fear is to be worthless - to fail as an individual, lacking personal qualities that make one worthy and valuable. 

This belief system is also prevalent in parts of Europe, particularly Scotland which has also been greatly influenced by Calvinism and the Protestant ethic. Crocker and Park are, however, at pains to point out that such a belief system is alien to eastern cultures, such as Japan where ideas of interdependence and belonging are strong. 

Like Seligman, Crocker admits that boosts to self-esteem which arise from success or praise, for example, can feel fantastic. However, she also argues that while these may temporarily feel good, unless an individual can guarantee that they only succeed and don't fail, this boosted self-esteem level will inevitably drop. Even if it only drops back to its normal level, the individual often experiences a feeling of deflation and the desire for another additional boost of feeling good from success. Indeed Crocker maintains that the pursuit of self-esteem can become 'addictive' but ultimately counterproductive since it undermines rather than contributes to individuals' long-term well-being. Why?

The 'costs' of pursuing self-esteem
Like many psychologists, Crocker subscribes to the self-determination theory of Deci and Ryan. (See section on motivation for a fuller explanation of this theory.) This theory, which is supported by international empirical research, asserts that for individuals to thrive and experience well-being they need the opportunity for 'competence', 'relatedness' and 'autonomy'. Crocker argues that the pursuit of self-esteem can distract individuals from fulfilling these basic needs and may actually conflict with them. 

Costs to autonomy
The idea of autonomy is not about being an independent individual but about feeling that we can choose our own actions and that we are motivated by intrinsic goals. When an individual pursues self-esteem this is about being 'worthy' in the eyes of others and so autonomy is compromised. For example, this pursuit could mean studying certain subjects to get good grades or impress others rather than being motivated by interest and personal satisfaction. 

Costs to learning and competence
The basic need of competence is about being able to learn and grow as an individual. Crocker argues that when individuals are driven by self-esteem, learning and growth take a back-seat and it is egotistical goals which are in control. Thus failure which may hold much learning and growth for an individual may not be faced up to by an individual intent on building, or protecting self-esteem, and he or she is much more likely to find excuses for the failure. Crocker writes: 

When people discount, dismiss, or excuse their mistakes and failures, they are unable to appraise their flaws and shortcomings realistically to identify what the need to learn. Even if the test is unfair, the evaluation is biased, or there is a good excuse for failure, there is often some important information or lesson to be learned from these negative experiences. Yet, when people have the goal of validating their worth, they do not seem open to these lessons. 

There is an expression which sums up some of Crocker and Park's reservations about the pursuit of self-esteem - 'anything that is worth doing is worth doing badly'. There are all sorts of activities such as dancing, music, singing, art which hold huge growth potential and fulfilment for individuals but they are often avoided because people fear they will not prove their worth through participation in such activities. 

Costs to relationships
For Crocker the biggest downside of the pursuit of self-esteem is relatedness. She maintains that by focussing on one's own needs (eg. to win or appear worthy) an individual ignores others' needs and feelings and this undermines relationships. Quoting her own empirical research, Crocker argues that when people pursue their own ego needs they are not 'present' to support others. The fact that everyone can't be winners and that competition is a zero sum game compounds this problem.  The temptation to blame others also injures relationships with other people. 

The pursuit of self-esteem affects relationships irrespective of whether the individual has high or low trait self-esteem. Crocker claims that research shows that people with high self-esteem often sacrifice their relationships (eg other's needs and feelings) for their achievements. Those with low self-esteem often indulge in reassurance seeking from others which can alienate them. Those with low self-esteem can also be overly sensitive to rejection. Research shows that 'rejection sensitivity' can lead to hostility and jealousy both of which undermines relationships. 

Health costs
Crocker argues that as well as undermining the fulfilment of our need for autonomy, competence and relatedness, pursuing egotistical goals undermines an individual's health. Although she argues that research is needed to substantiate this claim, she asserts it is reasonable to conclude that the anxiety individuals have about failures and mistakes leads to stress and therefore undermines their physical health. She also argues that when self-esteem plummets as a result of failure it is not uncommon for individuals to drink alcohol or go on eating binges which further compromise their health. 

Finally Crocker argues that there are mental health costs to pursuing self-esteem. She acknowledges that some research shows that those who are low in self-esteem are more vulnerable to depression but still maintains that the pursuit of self-esteem goals can lead to depression no matter what the level. The longitudinal research carried out by Twenge, and summarised in the previous section, certainly supports Crocker's conclusion since Twenge shows that while self-esteem has risen in the USA over the past few decades (as a result mainly of the self-esteem movement) so has narcissism, depression and anxiety. 

Criticism of Crocker's work 
Followers of Ayn Rand and Nathaniel Branden are critical of Crocker's work. They are inclined to point out that she is a social psychologist and so sees self-esteem as contingent on others' opinions. As extreme individualists they believe that humans are able to base self-esteem on their own, rather than others', judgements. Crocker accepts that if it were possible to have self-esteem which was not dependent on others' views then some of the costs she identifies would disappear. However, she argues that research indicates that, in the USA at least, people with 'non-contingent' self-esteem are a 'rarity'. At the Centre we believe that the self is more of a social being, than a separate, rational individual, and so we are inclined to Crocker's view that non-contingent self-esteem is very difficult to achieve. We believe that it is possible to train yourself to stop evaluating yourself using others' views but the thinking and methodology we would accept  is much in tune with the ideas and practices promoted by Albert Ellis, whose work is examined in the next section, than by self-esteem theorists such as Nathianel Branden. 

Egosystem v. ecosystem goals
Crocker and colleagues have spent time considering the alternatives to the pursuit of self-esteem. In a lecture given to the Centre, and available in the confidence audio section of this site, she sets out their new thinking. She explains how the work of neuroscientists like James P. Henry and Sheila Wang helps explain that human beings have two different motivational systems. The first system is called the 'self-preservation' motivation system. In essence, this is about our finely tuned flight-fight response which kicks in whenever we are in danger. This motivational system is supported by the operation of hormones such as cortisol. This is a very powerful motivation system but it cannot exist on its own as it would undermine human beings' ability to nurture and raise offspring. So alongside self-preservation is the 'species preservation' motivation system which allows humans to act out of love, kindness and generosity to others. This motivational system is also supported by hormones. In this instance, oxytocin and progesterone. 

Crocker argues that the self-preservation system has evolved and is now linked not just to the physical survival of the self but also to the preservation of 'self-image'. As this motivational system is linked to maintaining and enhancing the ego, Crocker refers to it as the 'egosystem'. When we act out of this motivational system we are concerned about status, superiority, admiration and so forth and we get our needs met at the expense of others. In fact, pursuing egosystem goals is a 'zero sum game' in that there is usually a winner and loser. Crocker also asserts that when we act from egosystem goals we sacrifice more important human needs (eg, for love and emotional security) for the kind of short-lived positive feelings we can get from admiration or achievement. 

The species preservation system operates differently as the welfare of the self and the other are not in conflict. The focus here is not only on myself but on a wider goal. However, in achieving this goal I too would benefit. This is why Crocker refers to this motivational system as the 'ecosystem', echoing the idea of mutual interdependence. 

Crocker and colleagues undertook empirical research with students in 2005 on egosystem and ecosystem goals and the impact they have on well-being. (You can access more information in the audio section.) This research shows that the more students focussed on egotistical goals the more they experienced anxiety, confusion, depression and a feeling of disconnect from others. They were also more likely to experience negative feelings such as shame and powerlessness. In short, these goals were more likely to undermine students' well-being. In contrast, the students who concentrated more on ecosystem goals felt 'clear and connected, humble and compassionate' as well as 'realistic and determined'. They were much less likely to experience negative emotions which undermine well-being.  

Enhancing our well-being with ecosystem goals
Crocker is at pains to point out that everyone has access to both the ego and eco motivational systems and that the difference between people is how much they concentrate on one rather than the other. She says this is a 'moment by moment choice' we make. Clearly she believes that the culture of the USA, and western societies in general, encourage people to focus on egosystem goals and that this undermines well-being. Her research shows there is no difference in gender. While it may appear that women's emphasis on relationships stems more from ecosystem than egosystem this is not always the case as women often pursue egotistical goals in relationships (eg through their children's or partners' achievements) and men often pursue the common good in their activities. 

Crocker's advice on how to focus more on ecosytem goals can be found in tools, tips and techniques in this section.

Copyright: Carol Craig, Centre for Confidence and Well-Being, 2006


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