How the Self-Esteem Myth Has Damaged Society and Us, from an interview by Clay Routledge of Will Storr.
CR: What is the self-esteem movement and how did it come about?
WS: Its proponents believed self-esteem was a “social vaccine” that could cure us of a vast array of problems, and to make us more successful and competitive in our working lives. At its simplest, it said that in order to become amazing we must believe we’re amazing. It helped change the way we raised and taught our children.
At the heart of Selfie is a deep investigation into one of its main proponents, a politician named John Vasconcellos, and his government mandated task force to look into self-esteem. He told the world that the scientific part of his investigation confirmed that high self-esteem was, indeed, a social vaccine. I tracked down former members and spent weeks pouring through their archives and found that he’d deliberately lied and attempted to cover up about what the science really showed — which was no causative link between self-esteem and good outcomes.
Unfortunately, Vasconcellos’s lie went around the world. Journalists bought it, powerful influencers such as Oprah Winfrey embraced it and the idea took over. It was hugely consequential. It was in this era of self-esteem parenting and teaching that we began to see the rise of narcissism in young people, that leads right into this “selfie” era.
I’m wearing my shocked face! But there’s more:
CR: The blank slate view that people can craft any self they want is common but at odds with research on the stability of personality and other traits. In the book, you grapple with this issue. Is there a way to balance self-improvement and self-acceptance?
WS: The blank slate view is instinctively, addictively attractive to people because we want to believe that anyone can achieve anything. It’s a lovely story, and it’s one our culture tells us repeatedly. But it’s not true. I’m a left-wing person, and we especially seem to confuse the pursuit of equal rights with the idea that all individuals are the same. I’m in despair at how the people around me are currently treating even the discussion of the science of gender difference, for example, as taboo, “alt-right” or somehow evil. It’s disorientating and quite scary. You see how ideology trumps reason in even the most intelligent of people.
My shocked face just got worse!