‘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].’