Psychology has identified two different prescriptions for how to solve the personal problems that people face today: self-esteem and selfcontrol. Both have been touted as ways to reduce crime, obesity, school underachievement, drug abuse and domestic violence.
After conducting dozens of studies and reading hundreds of others, I have concluded that one prescription is snake oil while the other is as close to penicillin as psychology is going to get. Here’s my takeaway: Forget bolstering self-esteem. Concentrate on building self-control. Self-control is good for the person who has it, for the people around him or her and, in fact, for society as a whole.
The evidence astonishes. Compared to others, children with good selfcontrol do better in school. They are more popular with their peers. They grow up to earn higher salaries. They are less likely to be arrested. Adults with high self-control have better relationships and fewer psychological problems. And their own children are more likely to have the benefit of being raised by two parents instead of one.
The evidence is pervasive. People with high self-control live longer than other people. Bosses with high self-control are rated as more fair. Prisoners with high self-control have fewer disciplinary incidents and are less likely to be arrested again after release.
In contrast, self-esteem has been a profound disappointment. Sure, self-esteem feels good and fosters confidence, initiative and perseverance.
But that’s about it.
Even those scant blessings are mixed. Confidence and initiative sometimes translate into ignoring sound advice and acting in destructive ways. Bullies have plenty of confidence, but their self-esteem is hardly worth celebrating.
Perseverance, meanwhile, can mean stubbornly sticking with a doomed plan. Feeling good can produce complacency: Although American students are confident in their math abilities, they rank only 32nd in the world. As David Brooks has noted in the New York Times, “Students in Japan, South Korea, Hong Kong and Taiwan have much less self-confidence, though they actually do better on the tests.”
Self-control is the best gift you can give to your child. Children who show good self-control at age 4 (based on the famous “marshmallow test”) grow up to be more successful in school, to earn more money and to be liked more by peers and teachers.
Self-control resembles intelligence: It is a powerful benefit across a wide range of circumstances. Whatever you do, you’re likely to do it better if you’re smart and have good self-control.
There is one crucial difference, though. Nobody has found reliable ways of increasing intelligence. But self-control can be improved, which makes it the best way that psychology can contribute to society.
We all thought self-esteem was going to play that role. It was an honest mistake. Early evidence showed that high self-esteem was linked to plenty of good things. Over time, however, it emerged that high self-esteem is the result of success, not the cause. Students with high self-esteem get better grades, but that’s because doing well in school boosts your self-esteem. Bolstering self-esteem doesn’t make you do better; being better gives you better self-esteem.
In one of the most rigorous studies on self-esteem, some students in a class who got a C or worse on the midterm were randomly assigned to get a weekly self-esteem boost for the rest of the semester. Their grades on the final went down, since feeling good about themselves led the experiment’s subjects to erroneously conclude that they didn’t need to study as hard.
Results like those persuaded me to get off the self-esteem bandwagon. We have something far better in self-control.
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According to the article, people make a mistake when
- they think that success is based on high self-esteem.
- they think that high self-esteem is the result of success.
- they play roles.
- they make self-control similar to self-esteem.
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