Thursday, 23 December 2010

Better than sex! US college students value self-esteem boosts more than bodily pleasures

'Because you're worth it!' L'Oreal's catchphrase taps into the narcissistic zeitgeist. But it also begs the question: Are we at risk of becoming obsessed with feeling good about ourselves? According to new research by Brad Bushman and his co-workers, not only do US college students have higher self-esteem than previous generations, they now value self-esteem boosts more than sex, food, receiving a salary payment, seeing a friend or having an alcoholic drink.

Bushman's team made their finding by asking dozens of US college students to imagine their favourite food, sexual activity, self-esteem boosting activity (e.g. receiving a compliment, getting a good grade) etc, and in each case to say how much they wanted it and how much they liked it. The key finding was that self-esteem boosting activities came out on top.

Some validity was lent to these thought-experiments by offering the students a real chance to boost their self-esteem. For example, in the first study, as well as answering questions about food, sex and so on, the students were scored on a simple verbal intelligence test. They were then given the opportunity to wait around for an extra ten minutes to receive a score based on a different algorithm that usually produces higher scores. The students who said earlier that they wanted self-esteem more than they liked it (taken as a sign of being addicted to self-esteem) tended to be the ones who stayed behind for the chance to receive a higher intelligence score.

Other personality factors that the researchers looked at were 'entitlement', and trying to get other people to recognise how good you are, otherwise known as 'pursuing self-image goals'. Higher scores on entitlement, as measured by agreement with statements like 'If I ruled the world it would be a much better place,' tended to correlate with wanting the rewards - that's the imagined self-esteem boosts, sex, food etc - but not the liking of them. Predictably enough, pursuing self-image goals tended to correlate with placing a high value on self-esteem boosts.

What does all this mean? Bushman's team think the new results confirm that self-esteem is an essential human need, as claimed by humanistic psychology pioneer Abraham Maslow and others. 'Overall, our findings shed new and interesting light on just how important it is for people to feel worthy and valuable,' the researchers said. But their write-up is tinged with anxiety. Valuing self-esteem can encourage the pursuit of self-image goals, which they warned can lead to conflict with others. 'Of course we should enjoy the good things in life, but not so much that we want them more than we like them,' Bushman's team concluded. 'We do not want to become addicted to self-esteem or other rewards, or we will become "slaves" to them, to borrow the words of Fritz Perls [the founder of Gestalt therapy].'

ResearchBlogging.orgBushman, B., Moeller, S., and Crocker, J. (2010). Sweets, Sex, or Self-Esteem? Comparing the Value of Self-Esteem Boosts with Other Pleasant Rewards. Journal of Personality DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-6494.2010.00712.x

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.


Red. x said...

In a society where a main component of depression/eating disorders is a lack of self esteem and feelings of incompetence and undervalued self-worth, where the media flaunt unachievable ideals of perfection in image and career, too much self esteem is the least of the worries.

Christian Jarrett said...

Hi Red. x, just to be clear, I don't think the researchers are saying too much self esteem is a problem, but rather that an overly intense desire to boost one's self esteem could be.

Anonymous said...

Being a natural depressive I have always seen the weaknesses of the concept of self esteem. In all my face to face work with patients I have used the concept of self acceptance, which allows failure and bad behaviour with the ability to address it in more pragmatic ways. Jayjo

multimediaculture said...

It seems to me that self-esteem is not the matter at hand. Self-esteem stands by itself without needing to wait around for reinforcement. It seems the word is being confused with ego or narcissism. And, yes, the newer generation of college kids are increasingly more narcissistic. It's the cultural path we've taken.

mspape said...

I've yet to see such a serious category error published as okay. Journal of Personality? Hmm, next time I'll ask my subjects to just draw their EEG on a piece of paper (after all, why measure if you can just ask people to imagine?) and ask them to rate their brain activity. Then I ask them how much they value chocolate, liberty, cigarettes, world domination, &c. I'll write a nice paper saying "People value their own thoughts less than world power!", or whatever. Quatsch!

Anonymous said...

I think self esteem is a misnomer which blurs the real problem, if you call it "social acceptance" (or recognition) it is much clearer why one have to compete for some kind of status.
I don't believe you can boost your "self-esteem" on your own.

Anonymous said...

Hmm ... I am 55 so this age group is younger even than my children (except one). But with age comes some wisdom: what could be a bigger boost to your self esteem than someone agreeing to give you sex? I've been happily married 30+ years, and it still makes me feel better about myself!

However, in my work I do supervise persons not much above college age and it is true that as a group they think they should be praised a lot, definitely much more than the 35 and older folks.

Maybe the young men and women will grow out of it, I don't know. But I do know that when I was growing up, if I, my brothers or my friends wanted praise or an award, we damn well had to earn it by effort. Nobody got a ribbon or small trophy on a sports teams just for showing up all season.

Justpeace said...

It is between higher long-term values in life versus base short-term gratification. Practically, in a given situation, humans tend usually to self-gratification, even though, they have in their minds something more better, higher, longer lasting, nobler ideals and values.

sara said...

humans are self gratifying beasts, however in a more chaotic world there are some, few, but fine examples of human spirit at its best

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