Linking low self-esteem to social problems was a fraud of state task force

C C Offline

EXCERPT: . . . In 1986, John Vasconcellos [...] persuaded Gov. George Deukmejian to fund a “task force to promote self-esteem and personal and social responsibility.” Professors from the University of California were to study the links between self-esteem and healthy personal development. And California — nay, the world — could then design programs to nip homelessness, drug abuse and crime in the bud, by teaching people to value themselves and achieve their potential. At first, the task force was ridiculed. [...]

All this bad publicity turned out to be useful, though. Everyone got to hear about the task force, so when the first findings of the California professors were announced in January 1989, it was big news. Newswires carried the story that impeccable academic research had found the correlations that the task force wanted: Low self-esteem was linked to social problems. Word got around that the data was in, and that those flaky Californians had been proved right.

The task force’s final report in 1990 was endorsed by Oprah Winfrey and Bill Clinton, among many others. In 1992, a Gallup Poll found that 89 percent of Americans regarded self-esteem as “very important” for success in life, and schools in America and Britain were soon busy trying to instill it.

But actually the flaky Californians had not been proved right. The academic research found some correlations, but no solid evidence of causes: Alcohol abuse, for example, might cause low self-esteem rather than the other way around. Because Vasconcellos was chairman of the State Assembly’s Ways and Means Committee, he was in a position to make life difficult for the University of California. It seems that the professors responsible for the research did not want to make trouble by pointing out that their work was being misrepresented by the task force’s publicists. Perhaps those involved in the deception had too much self-esteem to be ashamed of what they had done.

There was always a dark side to the Human Potential Movement. If a positive attitude and a sense of self-worth are what matters for success, then failure is always your own fault. Storr argues that this uncompassionate edge of self-esteemery dovetails with the economic ideas of Ayn Rand and the competitive individualism of her followers in neoliberal politics. Rand’s acolyte and onetime lover, Nathaniel Branden, worked closely with the task force, and was the author of the best-selling “The Psychology of Self-Esteem.” As Storr colorfully puts it, the self-esteem craze was “a rapturous copulation of the ideas of Ayn Rand, Esalen and the neoliberals.”

Syne Offline
Yeah, self-esteem is not on the list of things for a successful life, those being graduate high school, get a job, and get married before having children.
But I don't remember Ayn Rand being a big self-esteem proponent, nor how that movement promoted personal responsibility. After all, those wacky Californians largely believe in genetics and social constructs over free will.

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