The evidence why inflated self-esteem is a growing problem

This is how it used to work: John would do something well, and as a consequence his self-esteem would build. His parents loved him (to them he was “special”)  and supported him, but didn’t see the need to keep telling him that “ he could do anything”. He was good at some things, excellent at a few, and more or less average at others.  He also knew that there were limits to his options and got some help in to choose directions for his life and career.  Oh, and he was called John (or Andrew or David) not Zed or Xendu!

The podcast  explores issues affecting the “Millennial generation”, basically today’s young adults, and how the all-pervasive, narcissistic culture of the “Me Me Me “ generation affects their lives and society.

It all starts at birth with making sure that the newborn has a unique name. It is special and must stand out from the crowd. Forget Margaret, or Jane, it has to be Shaya, Zenobia or Zahara, preferably with an extra “y”.  From then on, the task of building up self-esteem starts. Zahara gets to believe that she is “special”. Research shows that she will believe she is “ better than average” at everything. She is told that young people can do anything and be anything and if there are problems, its not their fault. And of course the emphasis is on “girls” can do anything. Now add a mix of Social Media like Facebook where the image a person portrays is one of success AND HAPPINESS WITH LOTS OF FRIENDS AND A MUTUAL ADMIRATION SOCIETY.

Then reality hits, as it will do at some time in their lives: maybe at college or work or even at school.  Their self esteem is high but has no foundation in reality.  It is an error to assume that that because successful people often have high self esteem, the reverse is true. High self esteem does not make people successful, and low self esteem does not necessarily prevent success. There is evidence for this and examples in the podcast.

What happens next is evident all round us: blaming, victimhood, depression, aggression and even self Harm.  Blame the supervisor, she is bullying me. The system is unfair to me because of my gender, age or ethnic group.  I am “special” so it can’t be me, and especially if I am female, I can do anything, no reality check needed. So it must be the paternalistic, misogynistic men to blame.

Now read the summary of the podcast below and click the link above to hear it for yourself

Kanyes, Kims, and Donalds—oh my! Narcissism is all around us, and research shows it’s on the rise. Millennials are more likely than their parents to claim they’re above average in just about every way, from their leadership skills to their academic achievements to their drive to succeed. And while more millennials are getting straight A’s and making plans for graduate school than previous generations, there’s no evidence that they’re actually any more productive or educated than their elders. This week, Shankar talks with psychologist Jean Twenge, author of Generation Me and The Narcissism Epidemic, about the rise of “me” and what it means for society

If you judged her books by their covers, it may seem that she’s criticizing millennials, but Twenge is more focused on observation than evaluation. She’s trying to get a sense of how American culture is changing over time and how school, work, and just about everything else may have to change with it.

Here’s a list of some of what she’s observed:

  • On the whole, millennials are simply more narcissistic than previous generations. That is, they score higher on the Narcissistic Personality Inventory. This survey asks people if they relate to statements like “I have a natural talent for influencing people” and “I like to look at myself in the mirror.”
  • More parents are giving their children unique names. Back in the 50s, a third of boys and a quarter of girls were named one of the 10 most popular names of the time. Today, fewer than one in ten are given a popular name.
  • Pop songs are more focused on the selfSo are books, which use phrases like “I am special” and “all about me” more frequently now.
  • Using social media may lead people to view themselves more positively. And we know how much millennials love social media.

What’s caused all this focus on the self? Well, Twenge points to some cultural shifts including our increasing concern for children’s self-esteem. It’s widely assumed children need to have high self esteem in order to be successful (e.g. pervasive phrases like, “You can do anything you set your mind to” and “You’re special”). But how great you think you are doesn’t correlate with how great you actually are. Take Asian Americans as an example. Research studies,show Asian Americans generally have lower self esteem than other ethnic groups, but they do significantly better than others across a host of metrics including education and income.

But all this self love hasn’t led to greater happiness. Yes adolescents are happier but Twenge has also found millennials (many now in their twenties) report being more depressed and anxious than previous generations. One thing that could play a role is the rude awakening many millennials face in their twenties when their high expectations don’t match reality—they don’t turn out to be as successful and important as their parents promised they would be. Another concern is how workplaces may need to adapt to serve a generation who are more interested creative freedom and work-life balance than previous generations.

The Hidden Brain Podcast is hosted by Shankar Vedantam and produced by Kara McGuirk-Alison, Jennifer Schmidt, Maggie Penman, Max Nesterak and Chris Benderev.

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