Too Much (Unfounded) Self-Esteem is Bad for You


Self-esteem is extremely important to emotional well-being.  Without esteem, one may low self-worth and unhappy with life.  But there is a right amount self-esteem one should have.  A problem arises when one has too much unfounded self-esteem.  Basically, unfounded self-esteem is when one’s self-esteem is artificially boosted beyond one’s normal level without basis.

Although self-confidence and self-esteem are sometimes used interchangeably, they do not mean the same thing.  Self-confidence is concerned with how we feel about our abilities. Self-esteem is subtly different: it reflects the degree to which we value yourselves.

The biggest drawback with unwarranted self-esteem is when it comes to performance (and effort) in difficult situations.  This is because people seek to protect their fragile self-esteem instead of going forward and actually performing their best.  Self-esteem is more important than the actual accomplishment itself.  This comes out from research from the University of Wisconsin, courtesy of Max Ostinelli, David Luna, and Torsten Ringberg.  In this experiment, they told some (but not other) people to imagine elevating in some way—either going up an elevator or on a plane ascending.  After, they gave the study subjects a test, a series of questions from the GMAT or SAT.

They found that the people who had their self-esteem artificially boosted do worse on the test questions and give up earlier.  What happens is that the people who already had their self-esteem artificially boosted try to protect this good feeling by not even trying and risking failure.  The people who did not have their self-esteem artificially boosted did better because they do not have this artificial esteem to protect.  The people who had their self-esteem boosted did not have as much perseverance and felt that protecting their self-esteem was more important than completing the task.

Now on the flip side the researchers also asked different subjects to imagine descending, like an elevator going down or a plane descending.  When the subjects imagined something descending, the opposite happened.  People felt their self-esteem artificially decline and actually worked harder.

The gap between the people who had their self-esteem boosted and diminished was drastic.  The people who had their self-esteem diminished did 20 to 30 percent better.  The researchers found that those who had the self-esteem diminished are motivated to work harder to get back their baseline self-esteem and had to work harder to prove themselves.


So what does this research imply and what does it say about people in general?  Essentially, people who have their self-esteem artificially boosted do not perform as well because they do not try as hard.  This is because they already feel great about themselves, well above their baseline self-esteem level.  And once this artificial inflation becomes habitual, not trying hard also becomes habitual.  Thus, according to this research, managers who offer unfounded praise to employees may be doing the employee a disservice.  Additionally, I would surmise (although the research doesn’t say so) that parents who offer their children unfounded praise also do their children a disservice.  I also believe that giving everyone trophies for participation is also a disservice for people.

Essentially, if you want people to work harder, do not offer unfounded praise.  Offer praise when the job is done and when it is truly called for.  Empty praise does a disservice and probably won’t help.

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