The Corner

When Everybody’s Special, Nobody Is

New York Magazine has a pretty good feature on the growing body of research that supports what a lot of conservatives have been saying all along: that the self-esteem movement that got so much play in the 80s and 90s is a bunch of malarkey.  The gist:

[Researchers] Dweck and Blackwell’s work is part of a larger academic challenge to one of the self-esteem movement’s key tenets: that praise, self-esteem, and performance rise and fall together. From 1970 to 2000, there were over 15,000 scholarly articles written on self-esteem and its relationship to everything—from sex to career advancement. But results were often contradictory or inconclusive. So in 2003 the Association for Psychological Science asked Dr. Roy Baumeister, then a leading proponent of self-esteem, to review this literature. His team concluded that self-esteem was polluted with flawed science. Only 200 of those 15,000 studies met their rigorous standards.

Interestingly, the article reports that, surprise surprise, even young kids are pretty adept at spotting false praise, and that power-blasting fake praise at kids actually ends up reversing the incentive structure:

According to Meyer’s findings, by the age of 12, children believe that earning praise from a teacher is not a sign you did well—it’s actually a sign you lack ability and the teacher thinks you need extra encouragement. And teens, Meyer found, discounted praise to such an extent that they believed it’s a teacher’s criticism—not praise at all—that really conveys a positive belief in a student’s aptitude.

In the opinion of cognitive scientist Daniel T. Willingham, a teacher who praises a child may be unwittingly sending the message that the student reached the limit of his innate ability, while a teacher who criticizes a pupil conveys the message that he can improve his performance even further.

In other words, giving kids easy ego boosts can be detrimental and—gasp!—they actually benefit from correction and criticism. 

For the record, I sat through hours of an all purpose feel-good/social messages course called “Me-Ology” (no kidding) in 5th grade.  It came complete with a color-in workbook that you could personalize and which had no wrong answers, and was exactly as loopy and gravy-brained as you’d expect from a course called “Me-Ology.”

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