So what is with Psychological 'Science'?
Early on, we already published an extensive investigation about President Trump's admitted influence by Vincent Peale and the history of ideas that grew into the self-esteem movement. In fact, a similar influence was being detected when President Trump said, “Don’t be afraid of COVID,” and Trump’s unwillingness to concede defeat in the election that led to the storming of the Capitol in Washington, D.C..
During the mid-1960s, the self-esteem aspect gained respectability when Morris Rosenberg developed the Rosenberg self-esteem scale, which was translated into 28 languages in 53 countries and confirmed that it could be universally used in multiple cultures despite differences in cultural characteristics. This was followed some years later by the 1969 book titled The Psychology of Self-Esteem by Nathaniel Branden, which has been translated into 18 languages, with more than 4 million copies in print.
Branden could not have been clearer or more forceful in his assessment of self-esteem's importance. "There is no value-judgment more important to man no factor more decisive in his psychological development and motivation, than the estimate he passes on himself," he wrote,' He later asserted that he could not‘"think of a single psychological problem, from anxiety and depression, to tear of intimacy or success, to alcohol or drug abuse, to spouse battering or child molestation, to suicide and crimes of violence, that is not traceable to the problem of a poor self-concept."
The idea of self-esteem as a panacea caught on not only because it promises and the alleged scientific evidence that seemed to support them but also because it tapped into what was. By then, we detailed a long-standing American belief that is simply adopting the right mindset can positively (and in some tellings, miraculous) results. In the US, other countries have seen their own cultic beliefs like, for example, around 1920 there was (the still popular today, for example, if you type in his name in the amazon book search) Rudolf Steiner cult, which today is best known via its Rudolf Steiner 'scholen' in the Netherlands and elsewhere is known by the name Waldorf schools.
From New Taught to Positive Psychology
While the leading light of Positive Psychology is semi-respectable, Perhaps the most interesting strain of these said beliefs arose in the late nineteenth century, in the form of the so-called New Thought minister Norman Vincent Peale. While Peale toned down some of New Thought's wilder flights, the general message remained intact. His famous 1952 bestseller, The Power of Positive Thinking, promises in its first sentence that "you do not need to be defeated by anything, that you can have peace of mind, improved health, and a never-ceasing flow of energy.'' All by adopting the right outlook.
Peale's book offers anecdote after anecdote supporting his central claim. Skeptics are easily swept away by the power of his ideas. “1 suggested these principles some months ago to an old friend of mine, a man who perpetually expects the worst," writes Peale at the end of a chapter titled "Expect the Best and Get It" “He expressed vigorous disbelief in the principles outlined in this chapter and offered to take a test to prove that 1 am wrong in my conclusions." But after he followed Peale s suggestions, which centered on "one of the most powerful laws in the world .. . change your mental habits to belief instead of disbelief," he realized he was mistaken. “I am now convinced," he later told Peale (or according to Peale he did. at least), "although I wouldn't have believed it possible, it is evidently a fact, that if you expect the best, you are given some strange kind of power to create conditions that produce the desired results."'
Peale's descendants are everywhere; in the first decade of the twenty-first century, Oprah Winfrey came under fire by some for promoting The Secret, the popular book by Rhonda Byrne that was premised on the "law of attraction" or the idea that "what you think about, you bring about." It can’t be overemphasized how literally Byrne, who has made many millions of dollars off The Secret, intends this point to be taken by her audience: one of the testimonials on her website is written by a woman who visualized her dream car and. not long after, got that very car (with the help of a zero-down payment loan).” The website also helpfully explains that The Secret is a scientifically backed idea. "Under laboratory conditions," after all, "cutting edge science has confirmed that every thought is made up of energy and has its own unique frequency."'
Other earlier, bestselling looks like I'm OK. You're OK (which has been criticized as a quasi-religious soteriology 2) focused on the principle that people have deep psychic wounds that need to be addressed before they can fully actualize themselves. By the time the self-esteem hype started to build, likely, many readers of this literature had deeply internalized the belief that their self-conception problems were holding them back but could be fixed. The self-esteem craze, then, can be seen as the confluence of two powerful currents in American cultural life: the long-standing belief in the power of positive thinking and the more recent belief that people needed to address their deep psychic wounds. In short, Yes, you are broken, but if you start to feel better and more positively about yourself, you can be fixed.
There were also complicated institutional reasons why Martin Seligman, the promoter of Positive Psychology, and the self-esteem craze caught on and had such a long run. We know the details thanks to the British writer Will Storr, who spent a year digging through archives in California and interviewing many of the key players in Selfie: Haw We Became So Self-Obsessed and What It's Doing to Us.
As it turned out, and as the mostly forgotten Social Importance of Self-Esteem suggested, there was very little validity to the causal claims everyone was making about self-esteem in the 1980s and 1990s. We know this with a fair degree of certainty because around the turn of the century, long after self-esteem programs had blossomed all over North America, the psychological establishment decided to take a more critical, in-depth look at the extant research on this subject- Roy Baumeister and three other researchers were invited by the American Psychological Society to conduct a comprehensive review of the literature to find out whether self-esteem really “works" as advertised.
The distinction between objective and subjective measures of performance
Like so many others, Baumeister was initially a believer in the straightforward importance of improving self-esteem and had published some studies of his own in the field. But Baumeister teamed up with fellow psychologists Jennifer Campbell, Joachim Krueger, and Kathleen Vohs. The fruit of their efforts was a critical 2003 article in Psychological Science in the Public Interest titled Does High Self-Esteem Cause Better Performance, Interpersonal Success, Happiness, or Healthier Lifestyles?" It was paired with a general-interest article in Scientific American two years later and it convincingly debunked most of the claims about self-esteem that had fueled the craze.
Perhaps their most important finding was that relatively minor- seeming differences in how self-esteem was studied appeared to yield massive differences in what was subsequently discovered, particularly when it comes to the distinction between objective and subjective measures of performance. In attempting to correlate self-esteem with school performance, do you ask students how they do in school or evaluate their actual grades? While the answer might seem obvious, of course, it's better to look at someone's actual grades than what they say their grades are; that isn't always practical for a given researcher. What if you can't find a big group of students who will hand over evidence of their grades? It's much easier to ask them to rate their own performance, it cuts out an entire annoying step in the research process, which is the sort of shortcut some researchers had taken over the years, To Plainly put. This is the difference between self-esteem mattering and not really mattering much at all. And "over and over during our survey of the literature," wrote Baumeister and his colleagues, "we found that researchers obtained more impressive evidence of the benefits of self-esteem when they relied on self-reported outcomes than when they relied on objective outcomes."
Baumeister and his colleagues’ meticulous tour of the literature strongly suggested that good grades might (rather weakly) cause higher self-esteem, not the reverse, perhaps because getting A after A causes a student to begin to have more and more faith in her abilities. In one study, for example, a pair of Norwegian researchers "found evidence that doing well in school one year led to higher self-esteem the next year, whereas high self-esteem did not lead to performing well in school."3 Even here, though, the evidence was mixed; other carefully conducted studies hadn't found much of a correlation at all.
In other instances, 'some other variable causes both X and Y to move in unison. When researchers fail to identify this variable, instead assuming X causes Y, this is known as "omitted variable bias,” or “third variable bias." Let’s say that I discover that in the town where I grew up, there is a statistically significant correlation, in the winter, between the weather being cloudy on a given day. The public schools being closed that day. From this, I conclude that cloudiness sometimes causes schools to close. This is an incorrect causal claim because I'm omitting the third variable that actually causes the closures: snow. Clouds cause snow (so they're correlated), and snow causes school closures (ditto), but clouds don't directly cause school closures, so those two variables end up being correlated despite the absence of a causal link.
Baumeister and his colleagues found evidence that omitted variable bias accounted for certain self-esteem findings; as it turned out, the few researchers who had carefully controlled for these so-called confounds had been finding this all along. In one study from 1977, for example, researchers had concluded that 'shared prior causes, including family background, ability, and early school performance, affect self-esteem and later educational attainment and were responsible for the correlation between the two.”4 Of course, if you don’t measure these other variables and carefully account for them in your statistical analysis, you might "discover" a straightforward-seeming causal relationship between self-esteem and school performance, in much the same way if you failed to account for snow, you might decide that clouds cause school closings.
Baumeister and his colleagues also found that along the way, some self-esteem researchers had used "path analysis," "a statistical technique for testing theories about complex chains of causes." Path analysis is designed to shed more light on the likelihood of causal influence than the discovery of mere correlations between variables can. In theory, it allows researchers to more confidently advance claims of the sort “A and B are correlated with each other, and they each cause C to go up or down, which in turn causes D to go up or down."
When researchers brought this tool to bear on the self-esteem question, they tended to come up empty-handed. In one study, "there was no direct causal path from self-esteem to achievement." In another, "the direct link[s] from high school self-esteem to later educational attainment. . . indicates that the relationship [was] extremely weak, if it exists at all."5
On the whole, "Does High Self Esteem Cause Better Performance, Interpersonal Success, Happiness, or Healthier Lifestyles?" is a wonderfully detailed forensic analysis of why so many people had been fooled into believing certain claims about self-esteem. It Is genuinely useful for anyone hoping to understand not only the self-esteem controversy but the issue of half-baked scientific findings more broadly. Baumeister and his colleagues' literature review shows that there were many warning signs, often in the form of published papers from decades prior, that certain causal and correlational claims for self-esteem were likely being overstated.
In one sense, though, all of this was moot. Despite the explosion of self-esteem programs, Baumeister and his colleagues "found relatively little evidence on how- self-esteem programs or other interventions affect self-esteem" in the first place. Decades after the craze started, there was simply a dearth of solid research on this fundamental question. Because many of the programs in existence "target[ed] not only self-esteem but also study skills, citizenship, conflict reduction. and other variables," it was difficult to interpret the results in a way that isolated the role of self-esteem.6 So even if there had been a dear causal relationship in which self-esteem caused (say) school performance, there weren't any proven interventions to boost the former.
Baumeister and his colleagues were forgiving of the psychologists and others who had contributed to the self-esteem craze. "Was it reasonable to start boosting self-esteem before all the data were in?" they wrote. "Perhaps. We recognize that many practitioners and applied psychologists must deal with problems before all the relevant research can be conducted,"7 This is, in fact, a common occurrence in psychological science: You have a handful of papers pointing to a correlation that could have important real-world ramifications, assuming certain other things are also true. But it takes a while to determine whether those certain other things are true. In the meantime, other people, people who might not be as committed to scientific rigor as the best social scientists are, or who are trying to solve urgent real-world problems and don't have the luxury of waiting for more peer-reviewed evidence to come in, might decide to run with the idea before a genuinely trustworthy verdict arrives.
That seems to be what happened here. Despite the absence of a truly robust base of causal evidence linking self-esteem to positive outcomes, it was an irresistible story. From the point of view of excitable politicians, either the idea was self-evidently true, and there was little need for hard evidence anyway, or there was enough evidence to go ahead and run with it for influential would-be brake appliers like Smelser. There were incentives not to be the sole naysayer in the room. And while there were other skeptics, including the conservative social commentators Charles Krauthammer and Dr. Laura Schlessinger, who saw the self-esteem movement as yet another manifestation of the saccharine, mushy self-help drivel that was, in their view, undermining American toughness, they were easily drowned out by all the enthusiasm.
That's why a simple, highly viral message, raising self-esteem can greatly improve people's lives and productivity, was able to catch on, offering a straightforward solution to a constellation of problems that are not, in fact, straightforward to solve.
In his very insightful book, The Ideas Industry: How Pessimists, Partisans and Plutocrats Are Transforming the Marketplace of Ideas, the Tufts University international politics professor Daniel Drezner posits two general modes in which academics and others present ideas to the public "Thought leaders" are very confident, not particularly analytical or critical, and tend to focus on their "one big idea" that they are convinced can change the world. "Public intellectuals," on the other hand, see things in a somewhat more nuanced, complex light; they're more likely to critique ideas they see as lacking and are generally skeptical of the framework of "This one idea can explain the world."
Though it is, by design, a simplified account that leaves out a certain middle ground, Drezner's model is illuminating. And it can be usefully extended co situations in which someone engages in code-switching between the thought leader and the public intellectual modes of discourse.
Why half-baked ideas tend to prevail
The simplest reason half-baked ideas tend to prevail is that all else being equal, the human brain has an easier time latching onto simple and monocausal accounts than to complicated and multicausal ones. Such accounts are more likely to be accepted as true and to spread. Our brains are built to be drawn to quick, elegant-seeming answers.
The sociologist Charles Tilly nicely explains this in his account of human storytelling, Why? What Happens When People Give Reasons … and Why. He writes, "Stories provide simplified cause-effect accounts of puzzling, unexpected, dramatic, problematic, or exemplary events. Relying on widely available knowledge rather than technical expertise, they help make the world intelligible," Tilly calls storytelling "one of [the] great social interventions" of the human species, precisely because of its ability to simplify and boil down. Bur this is the same reason stories can lead us astray. "In our complex world, causes and effects always join in complicated ways," he writes. "Simultaneous causation, incremental effects, environmental effects, mistakes, unintended consequences, and feedback make physical, biological, and social processes the devil’s own work, or the Lord's, to explain in detail. Stories exclude these inconvenient complications."9
Think of all the stories that have fueled half-baked psychology: "Soldiers can resist PTSD if their resilience is boosted"; "Women can close the workplace gender gap if they feel an enhanced sense of power"; "Poor kids can catch up to their richer peers if they develop more grit." In emphasizing one particular causal claim about deeply complicated systems and outcomes, these and the other blockbuster hits of contemporary psychology elide tremendous amounts of important detail.
It’s likely that just as our brains prefer simple stories, within psychology. Too, the professional incentives point toward the development of simpler rather than more complex theories. People who study human nature aren't immune to the siren call of simplicity. In reply to one of her papers, the psychologist Nina Slrohminger criticizes this tendency rather eloquently: "The fetishization of parsimony means that unwieldy theories are often dismissed on these grounds alone ... No doubt there is something less satisfying about settling for inelegance. But the best theories won’t always feel right. Elegance is not a suitable heuristic for veracity,"10 Scientists often have good reason to prefer parsimony, Occam's razor has its uses, but still: simple-seeming explanations of complex phenomena warrant skepticism.
In an insightful chapter in the 2017 book The Politics of Social Psychology, the social psychologist Hart Blanton and Elif Ikizer posit the existence of "bullet-point bias." They define this bias simply as "the tendency [on the part of researchers] to advance diluted but provocative scientific conclusions in the media." As they explain, “By learning to communicate effectively to science reporters, through the editorial pages of national news sources and on the stages at TED, scientists might be able to charge higher speaking fees, pursue lucrative consulting jobs, secure book deals, and enjoy the perks of minor celebrity."11
The influence of a certain social class helps propel these ideas as well. This is captured elegantly in the journalist Anand Giridharadas's 2018 book. Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World. Giridharadass basic thesis is that a burgeoning, youngish, tech-savvy overclass has revolutionized philanthropy for the worse, focusing on forms of charity that don't lead to meaningful change. He describes "an ascendant power elite" defined by the concurrent drives to do well and do good, to change the world while also profiting from the status quo. It consists of enlightened businesspeople and their collaborators in the worlds of charity, academia, media, government, and think tanks.12
But some psychologists see the present limitations of their field clearly. In April 2020, a group did something that would have been unthinkable not long ago: they publicly argued that people should not be listening to psychologists at that tumultuous moment because the field was not ready for prime time.
This statement was made in a paper titled "Is Social and Behavioural Science Evidence Ready for Application and Dissemination?" published online as a preprint, meaning it was posted online before it went through the full peer review and editing process. In it, a team led by Hans IJzerman. Andrew Przybylski, and Neil Lewis Jr., which also included other highly respected social psychologists like Simine Vazire (herself an outspoken open-science advocate), Patrick Forscher, and Stuart Ritchie, pointed out the temptation for behavioral scientists to apply their findings, in confident ways, to major issues of real-world importance like the pandemic.
But it was a mistake for psychology to be offering these services at that moment, they argued. While the field had made progress and was in the process of reforming itself, there was reason to be skeptical that "psychology is mature enough to provide" useful insights on "life and death issues like a pandemic." After making some suggestions about how to communicate uncertainty in psychological evidence more effectively, they struck a humble final note: We believe that, rather than appealing to policy-makers to recognize our value, we should focus on earning the credibility that legitimates a seat at the policy table."13
Think about how many incentives point against publishing a paper-like "Is Social and Behavioural Science Evidence Ready for Application and Dissemination?" Think how many professional opportunities a psychologist is giving up by acknowledging that their field is in no condition to sell its wares to a public with an insatiable appetite for behavioral science answers.
Of course, this paper doesn’t necessarily represent the majority opinion of psychologists. As we've seen, there is still some reluctance to acknowledge the full scale of the field's problems. So it would be wrong to depict psychology's progress toward reform with a straight line, to pretend away the ongoing existence of myriad incentives nudging scientists to overclaim, university press offices to overhype, and exhausted journalists to accept and communicate clickbait-level "findings" at face value. These problems remain real and, in some cases, could be exacerbated as the pandemic delivers harsh financial blows to already-struggling research institutions and journalism outlets alike.
But a paper like the one IJzerman and his colleagues published is a sure sign that things are changing that some psychologists, at least, are exhibiting a level of humility and realism about the complexity of their work that they have all too often lacked in recent years. It's a sign that an article like this one will no longer be necessary for twenty or thirty years if all goes well.
1. Nathaniel Branden from The Six Pillars of Self-Esteem.
2. Hemminger, Hansjörg. Grundwissen Religionspsychologie. Ein Handbuch für Studium und Praxis. Herder 2003, pp. 59f.
3. Baumeister et al., Docs High Self-Esteem Cause Better Performance?,' 12; E. M. Skaalvik And K. A. Hagtvet, Academic Achievement and Self Concept: An Analysis of Causal Predominance in a Developmental Perspective,' Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 58, no. 2 (February 1990): 292-307, https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1111/1529-1006.01431.
4. Baumeister et al., Does High Self-Esteem Cause Better Performance?=https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/26151640/#:~:text=The%20modest%20correlations%20between%20self,esteem%20leads%20to%20good%20performance.&text=Laboratory%20studies%20have%20generally%20failed,esteem%20facilitates%20persistence%20after%20failure.
5. Baumeister et al., “Does High Self-Esteem Cause Better Performance? 11.
6. Baumeister et al., “Does High Self-Esteem Cause Better Performance? 13.
7. Baumeister et al., “Does High Self-Esteem Cause Better Performance? 14.
9. Daniel Kahneman, Thinking, Fast and Stow (New York: Farrar. Straus and Giroux, 2011), 12.
10. The phrase "unskilled intuition was attributed! in a 2019 edited volume to Daniel Kahneman and Gary Klein in a 2009 paper. ‘Conditions for Intuitive Expertise: A Failure to Disagree,’ American Psychologist 64, no. 6 (September 2009): 515-26. however, they don't know appear to have actually used it there. See Matthew J. Grawitch and David W. Ballard, "Pseudoscience Won't Create a Psychologically Healthy Workplace.’ in Creating Psychologically Healthy Workplaces, ed. Ronald J. Burke and Ascrid M. Richardsen (Cheltenham, UK: Edward Elgar, 2019), 44.
11. Gregor Mitchell, "Jumping to Conclusions: Advocacy and Application of Psychological Research," Virginia Public Law and Legal Theory Research Paper, no. 2017-31 (May 2017): 139, ssm.com/abstract =2973892.
12. Rob Hirtz, Martin Sdigman’s Journey from Learned Helplessness to Learned Happiness,' Pennsylvania Gazette 97, no. 3 (January/February 1999). upcnn.edu/gazette/0199/hirtz.html.
13. Hans IJzerman Neil Lewis Netta Weinstein Lisa DeBruine Stuart Ritchie Simine Vazire Patrick Forscher Richard Morey James Ivory Farid Anvari Andrew Przybylski. Is Social and Behavioural Science Evidence Ready for Application and Dissemination? https://psyarxiv.com/whds4.