Singal is making an even more important point though - how often we subscribe to sociological fads because they appeal to us rather than because there is a robust evidentiary base for the fad. Self-esteem, follow your passion, small class sizes, self-learning, group learning, affirmative action, busing, low-fat diets, etc. All ideas meant to serve a good purpose but all without any evidence and all of them either counter-productive or destructive once they were implemented.
It wasn’t just schoolkids. During this span, just about everyone, from CEOs to welfare recipients, was told — often by psychologists with serious credentials — that improving their self-esteem could, as The Lovables put it, unlock the gates to more happiness, better performance, and every kind of success imaginable. This was both a personal argument and a political one: The movement, which had its epicenter in California, argued that increasing people’s self-esteem could reduce crime, teen pregnancy, and a host of other social ills — even pollution.This is one of the epistemic challenges of our time - the ratcheting of erroneous ideas. You see it most transparently on social media such as Twitter. Someone will tweet an outrageous storyline that becomes viral, being retweeted 20,000 times. A couple of hours later, a correction is issued, essentially retracting the original story. The correction gets retweeted 6 times. In an environment where the dollars all rest in views, likes, and retweets, the incentive structure is heavily weighted towards inaccurate fake news over accurate news.
It would be hard to overstate the long-term impact of these claims. The self-esteem craze changed how countless organizations were run, how an entire generation — millenials — was educated, and how that generation went on to perceive itself (quite favorably). As it turned out, the central claim underlying the trend, that there’s a causal relationship between self-esteem and various positive outcomes, was almost certainly inaccurate. But that didn’t matter: For millions of people, this was just too good and satisfying a story to check, and that’s part of the reason the national focus on self-esteem never fully abated. Many people still believe that fostering a sense of self-esteem is just about the most important thing one can do, mental health–wise.
The excitement was fueled by a steady drumbeat of “research,” purporting to confirm Vasconcellos’s theory that self-esteem lay at the heart of many personal and societal difficulties, much of which was fairly anecdotal or otherwise low quality. Vasconcellos’s task force also held a series of events around California in which police officers, social workers, ex-cons, and others testified to the importance of self-esteem. Yes, there were embarrassing hiccups — like when a photographer caught the commission’s members holding hands in a circle after their lunch break — but overall, the group was surprisingly successful at quickly carving itself out a place in the national conversation about drugs, crime, and other social ills.Poor research, misunderstanding the causal direction, mistaking correlation for causation, confusion about terms and definitions - all elements of poor decision-making which no-one was willing to reign in.
Baumeister observed all this with increasingly arched eyebrows. “Starting in ’84 and ’85,” he said, “I started to watch for contrary evidence and began to notice that things aren’t as rosy as I had assumed.” As an author of some of the research which likely convinced Vasconcellos to make self-esteem his major policy project in the first place, Baumeister was worried the self-esteemers in California had neglected a fairly straightforward possibility: Maybe it isn’t that high self-esteem causes high performance, but rather the reverse, that people who are more talented or smart or successful have higher self-esteem because of their positive attributes and accomplishments. This is the sort of thing that can be checked empirically, but while the task force produced a healthy quantity of research, its quality was lacking. “I read the publications that they produced and they were not strong,” Baumeister explained.
As it turned out, there was very little validity to the causal claims everyone was making about self-esteem in the 1980s and ’90s. We know that 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 look at the dogma surrounding the subject. 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. In a 2005 article in Scientific American and a more technical paper published in Psychological Science and the Public Interest, they delivered the bad news: There was little published evidence supporting Vasconcellos’s ideas. In some areas, high self-esteem actually correlated with worse behavior — some criminals, it turns out, actually view themselves quite favorably.Singal begins to pivot from self-esteem to the larger issue. People are always hungry for silver bullet solutions to complex problems and will gladly convince themselves without ever skeptically examining the evidence for a policy.
In other areas, it turned out that correlation did not imply causation, just as Baumeister suspected. Take a 1986 study his team reviewed which found that “self-esteem in 10th grade is only weakly predictive of academic achievement in 12th grade,” for example. Academic achievement, on the other hand, did predict higher self-esteem. It’s more likely that successful people with high self-esteem have high self-esteem because they’re successful than vice versa.
So many of the features that defined the self-esteem craze — the simple, inspiring message, the large quantity of less-than-rigorous research, the prevalence of confirmation bias, the cottage-industry opportunities for profit — have popped up again and again in the years since, in the many other forms of half-baked psychological science that have garnered mainstream attention and vacuumed up resources (think blockbuster research ideas like power posing and the implicit association test). But none of these ideas have quite changed our culture the way the self-esteem craze did. Today, it is simple, ingrained common sense for millions of Americans that of course increasing people’s self-esteem works. Countless books will tell you as such.Power posing, implicit association tests, girl power, grit, open work spaces and learning environments, vouchers, carbon-trading, dress for success, seven habits, listicles, trigger warnings. Self-esteem is simply a poster child for a long litany of outbreaks of social hysteria.
There is a flip side to this silver bullet hysteria. All the above are believed to be silver bullets to perceived problems. We also have a long litany of fearful hysteria; the imagining of problems that either aren't real or are vestigial: reds under the bed, gender wage gaps, college rape culture, fluoridation of water, gateway drugs, micro-aggressions, refrigerator mothers.
There are real problems to be solved and there are real solutions. They are rarely simple or easy. The burden of real problem solving is probably what creates such an incentive for hysterical approaches.
UPDATE: I did a google trends to explore the relative frequency of self-esteem, self-discipline, self-control, self confidence and girl power. The old fashioned virtues of self-esteem, self-discipline, self-control are steady but unpopular. Self-esteem has declined since 2004 and was overtaken by the more specialized but just as undermining "girl power" around 2007