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Culture & Religion

Why Disproportionately High Self-Esteem Still Isn’t A Good Thing

Data gathered from American students over almost 50 years shows increased levels of self-esteem coupled with increasingly unrealistic expectations about their future success.

What’s the Latest Development?

Psychologist Jean Twenge and colleagues examined the data collected from the American Freshman Survey over the almost-50 years since it was first given to students as a way for them to measure their abilities and skills against their peers. They found that self-appraisals of individualistic traits commonly seen as positives — high intellectual confidence and work drive among them — increased dramatically, while those of more community-minded traits stayed the same or decreased. In addition, high self-appraisals didn’t bear out against actual achievement measures: For example, the number of students who said they studied six or more hours a week dropped over time, despite the rise in claims of a strong work drive.

What’s the Big Idea?

In a separate study using 30 years’ worth of data from the Narcissistic Personality Inventory, Twenge found that the number of surveyed students who exhibited narcissistic traits rose by almost a third. In her opinion, the line between high self-esteem and narcissism has gotten increasingly thin, which bodes poorly for long-term success. Years of additional research from others demonstrating the lack of connection between high self-esteem and measurable positive life outcomes continues to be ignored: “[T]hat belief…it’s widely held, it’s very deeply held, and it’s also untrue.”

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