Interview, Social Science

How the Self-Esteem Myth Has Damaged Society and Us—An Interview with Will Storr

Will Storr is an award-winning journalist and novelist. His work has appeared in outlets such as the Guardian, the Sunday Times, the New Yorker, and Esquire. His latest book is Selfie: How We Became so Self-Obsessed and What it’s Doing to Us. As a psychologist who studies the self and related topics, I was excited to read the book and was not disappointed. I highly recommend it. Below is an interview I conducted with Mr. Storr about Selfie. 

Clay Routledge: What made you interested in researching and writing a book focused on the self?

Will Storr: My previous book, The Unpersaudables, was an investigation into how intelligent people come to believe crazy things. It focused on the ways we become intellectually stuck. I concluded that we don’t really choose the things we believe—at least not those things that are core to our worldview. What we believe is just part of the accident of who we are. In an important way, our core beliefs and our self are indivisible.

But this was also a slightly unsatisfying answer, because clearly people do change. I became curious about how this happens and began focusing, in my journalism, on people who’d changed their minds. One of these people was the eminent psychologist Professor Roy Baumeister who used to be a believer in the self-esteem myth. Not only did he change his mind, he was an important figure in proving to the world that the idea, which was dominant at the time, was wrong. 

CR: What is the self-esteem movement and how did it come about?

WS: Its proponents believed self-esteem was a “social vaccine” that could cure us of a vast array of problems, and to make us more successful and competitive in our working lives. At its simplest, it said that in order to become amazing we must believe we’re amazing. It helped change the way we raised and taught our children.

At the heart of Selfie is a deep investigation into one of its main proponents, a politician named John Vasconcellos, and his government mandated task force to look into self-esteem. He told the world that the scientific part of his investigation confirmed that high self-esteem was, indeed, a social vaccine. I tracked down former members and spent weeks pouring through their archives and found that he’d deliberately lied and attempted to cover up about what the science really showed—which was no causative link between self-esteem and good outcomes.

Unfortunately, Vasconcellos’s lie went around the world. Journalists bought it, powerful influencers such as Oprah Winfrey embraced it and the idea took over. It was hugely consequential. It was in this era of self-esteem parenting and teaching that we began to see the rise of narcissism in young people, that leads right into this “selfie” era. I believe that Vasconcellos and his task force played a part in that story.

CR: There has been a lot of attention on rising rates of narcissism. What is the current thinking on the causes of this increase? And how worried should we be?

WS: The data behind the narcissism rise has been controversial and I take a careful look at the arguments on both sides. I think it’s real (even if calling it an “epidemic,” as some have, is probably an overstatement, in my view). As for the reasons behind it, I think self-esteem parenting played a part—it’s since been found that “parental overpraise” raises narcissism in children and this was, indeed, the era of parental overpraise!

But another huge part of the story is the economy. If there’s one single idea that underpins Selfie, it’s that a huge part of who we are, as a people, emerges from our environment. 2,500 years ago, in ancient Greece, where the Western personality came into being, it was the ecology of the place that was of critical importance. The rocky coasts and poor soil forced us into becoming individualistic hustlers, because that’s who we needed to be in order to survive. Today, when we’re not so tied to the land, it’s the economy.

In the 1980s our economy went through a massive change. It was the era of neoliberalism, which saw an end to the relatively collective world we’d been immersed in for decades. Reagan and Thatcher wanted to save us from the economic mess of the 1970s by increasing competition wherever they could. So we became more competitive. Think about who we were, in the West, in 1965 versus who we were in 1985. We’d changed from hippies to yuppies—an absolute revolution in self. What happened right in the middle of those dates? Our economy transformed.

Self-esteem was a kind of neoliberal remix of the “Human Potential” ideas around self that emerged in the 1960s. It was the right idea for its time, which was why it caught on.

As for how worried we ought to be, the latest data suggests the narcissism rise topped out in around 2008. There’s an idea that the financial crisis played a part in this change, and that we’re seeing a transition from higher grandiose narcissism to higher vulnerable narcissism. This is all still paying out, though, so it’s not yet fully clear.

CR: There are also concerns about rising rates of psychological problems such as depression and anxiety. How do these problems connect to the self and perhaps the self-esteem movement?

WS: We can’t oversimplify this complex and serious problems, but one part of the story is that we tend to become stressed and depressed when we set overly high expectations for ourselves and repeatedly fail to meet them. When we tell ourselves we can be anything we want to be, which is the myth that emerges from Human Potential and self-esteem ideas, we’re setting ourselves up for unhappiness, because it’s simply not true.

CR: It is easy to focus on the negative features of the modern individualistic self, but there are also positive aspects of individualism. Do you have thoughts on this tension between positive and negative dimensions of individualism?

WS: I’m not, by any means, anti-individualistic. You’ve only got to look at what we’ve achieved in the West since the days of Aristotle to know that this idea has helped drive us to do incredible things. Neoliberalism, too, has been amazing for a great number of us. Globalization, which is a neoliberal project, has lifted millions out of poverty in the third world. You’d be a fool to underestimate these things. But I also believe that individualism should be treated, not as a religion, but as a system. Like any system it has good outcomes and bad outcomes. I don’t think we should ever stop stress-testing it and trying to make it work in a way that’s better for all.

CR: The blank slate view that people can craft any self they want is common but at odds with research on the stability of personality and other traits. In the book, you grapple with this issue. Is there a way to balance self-improvement and self-acceptance?

WS: The blank slate view is instinctively, addictively attractive to people because we want to believe that anyone can achieve anything. It’s a lovely story, and it’s one our culture tells us repeatedly. But it’s not true. I’m a left-wing person, and we especially seem to confuse the pursuit of equal rights with the idea that all individuals are the same. I’m in despair at how the people around me are currently treating even the discussion of the science of gender difference, for example, as taboo, “alt-right” or somehow evil. It’s disorientating and quite scary. You see how ideology trumps reason in even the most intelligent of people.

I’d love for our children to be taught more precisely what a human being actually is. We’re not gods, we’re animals, and we’re all different. We have different personalities, for example, which are relatively stable and built mainly from biological differences and early life experiences over which we have no control. These differences don’t make us “better” or “worse” than anyone else—but they do mean we can’t be anything we want. Knowing ourselves properly gives us valuable intelligence. It means we can pursue lives that are more likely to make us happy.


Clay Routledge is a Quillette columnist and professor of psychology at North Dakota State University. You can follow him on Twitter
@clayroutledge.

Will Storr is a journalist, novelist and photographer.  He is the author of Selfie: How We Became So Self-Obsessed and What It’s Doing to Us.

71 Comments

  1. Leap says

    *** “We’d changed from hippies to yuppies—an absolute revolution in self” ***

    Not really. The hippies like the hipsters before them were a highly individualistic and narcissist clique – hence “do YOUR OWN thing”. It’s just that their narcissism became mainstream in the Thatcher and Reagan era, and stopped hiding behind flowers.

    There’s certainly an epidemic of narcissism today (epidemic is not too strong a word in a generation of selfies, like-farming, youtube, ‘talent’ shows, and gossip rags) and it can be traced back through Thatcher and Reagan to the 60s and 50s counterculture and the rise of the (financially independent) teenager.

    • Everyone prefers themselves over others, well, most everyone.
      If you think “declared esteem” is bad, perhaps it’s time to consider the idea that “pursuing happiness” is of interest, but happiness itself is elusive and not a real end. That is, we cannot be happy all the time; happy people are less likely to invent something because everything they have is fine already.

  2. Mr. Storr says: “The blank slate view is instinctively, addictively attractive to people because we want to believe that anyone can achieve anything. It’s a lovely story, and it’s one our culture tells us repeatedly. But it’s not true. I’m a left-wing person, and we especially seem to confuse the pursuit of equal rights with the idea that all individuals are the same… You see how ideology trumps reason in even the most intelligent of people.”

    Where are all the other left-wing people like you (and Steven Pinker) who recognize that the blank slate is a myth? Where are they all hiding? When will they stop being afraid to challenge this insidious dogma?

    We need their help.

    • jakesbrain says

      Like and equalare two entirely different things.”

      Madeleine L’Engle, A Wrinkle In Time, 1962

    • “…pursuit of equal rights with the idea that all individuals are the same…” we are all equal means we are all born human – no one is born not human…a spastic with no sight or hearing who is severely challenged physically and cognitively is as much a human as anyone…

      • Frank says

        Do you mean “human” in some biological sense? But, can we logically equate that biological sense of “human” with, say a “political” sense which may well require the dispositions to be able TO DO certain things and not simply TO BE in a certain way. Perhaps it would be best to define “human” before using it in a discussion.

  3. antimule says

    How does that all mesh with ideas of Pinker and Judith Harris who think parenting doesn’t really matter all that much?

    • @antimule

      There’s a growing body of scientific literature that supports the idea that the impact of parenting style on the intelligence and personality traits of offspring is very small, even in the childhood years. Certain shared environmental forces which decades ago were thought to possibly play a measurably significant role in a child’s cognitive development appear to actually have little or no impact. Increasingly, behavioral scientists and geneticists are pointing to the role of genes and non-shared environment as the predominant mechanisms for a child’s psychological and cognitive development — in other words, forces more or less outside the scope of parenting.

      • Friends play a huge part as you stop being a child limited to parental/adult care. The same kid can turn out quite different based on who his friends are. Conformity is a strong sense.

      • D-Rex says

        While I concede that parenting may have little impact on intelligence, my experience as a teacher leads to the belief that parenting has a major influence on a child’s learning. We have some very smart kids at our school who are out of control and refuse to engage in their education. This has to have an impact on their future prospects. There are a number of intelligent children who are becoming unemployable.

      • Jyn Ranlom says

        There are also about 2 billion people worldwide (very roughly speaking) who take it as a matter of course that the personality, the essence, the soul – call it what you will – the tendencies, in fact, and the Kamma (by name) coalesce into the person (or the animal, for that matter) sometime between the moment of conception, and the moment of birth. With at least some Indian schools holding that “the soul” enters in stages. Ancient egyptians had similar ideas. References to reincarnation and past lives can be found in English translations of ancient Greek literature, and and the American Rabbi Friedman (can’t pull his full name up atm) explained pretty cogently how parts of the soul, or the self separate from the body after “death” and tend to return to a human body under certain conditions.

        Western science has atoms parsed down to quarks and quons and blips that the materialists will say shift in a slight, small way, affect the atom which affects the molecule which determines consciousness: or one’s personality.

        Sir Rupert Sheldrake recently lectured about how apparent consciousness and the ability to perform relatively complex tasks in the context of a variable environment is maintained in animals when increasingly large parts of their brains are surgically removed. At a certain point, of course the nervous system and the autonomic systems will shut down, but he highlighted this to air what I find to be a highly likely hypothesis: the mind – or significant parts of it – or consciousness (if qualifying “it” that way helps) exists, to a large, but almost certainly not total extent outside, of the body.

        I hope, out of compassion for the parents really, that more of them would open themselves to gravitas, veracity and possibility of the notion that consciousness is handed down. Then, when their child or young adult performs a stupefying u-turn (be it good or bad) at some point out of the blue, they might save themselves the grief of over-obsessing about the noise they made when they closed the bathroom door too hard one afternoon when their child of two years was in the next room.

        • Craigers says

          Yeah, Materialist science will never find the source of thought, consciousness or memory in the brain, they need to start looking at the brain, indeed all cells in the body, as antennas, bidirectionally communicating thought and physical experience. Consciousness and memory are indeed aspects of the fabric of the universe. You just have to witness a 4 year old child having a conversation with an elderly man about events and conversations that happened to and between them decades before the child existed.

  4. Stewart Ware says

    I’m not persauded:

    “Will Storr: My previous book, The Unpersaudables, was an investigation …”

  5. AC Harper says

    “I am what I am and that’s all that I am.”
    ~ Popeye

  6. mikeb says

    Interesting, but place far too much emphasis on nurture, I think.

    Then there’s this probably false correlation:

    “Think about who we were, in the West, in 1965 versus who we were in 1985. We’d changed from hippies to yuppies—an absolute revolution in self. What happened right in the middle of those dates? Our economy transformed.”

    Putting aside that irritating “we,” what happened between 1965 and 1985 was that the teenage hippies grew up, and only a small segment of them became adult yuppies.

    This is called confirmation bias. Worse, a selfie on a tortilla.

  7. E. Olson says

    Interesting interview – thank you. One issue not discussed is the role of technology and wealth in creating narcissists. Selfie’s are much easier and cheaper to create because of digital cameras that everyone can afford to carry with them everywhere in their phones, and also much easier and cheaper to share widely with the creation of social media platforms. Most people – especially teens and young adults have more free time than ever as they are supported by their wealthier than ever parents and generous social-welfare programs, so rather than working 60 hour weeks in the mill or field and starting families at 15-18 years, more people can afford to delay adulthood and “pursue their dreams” or “find themselves” which is inherently narcissistic. I suspect our grandparents and great-great grandparents would have been just as narcissistic as today’s generations if they had had cheap iPhones, Facebook, 20 hour part-time non-physical jobs, and free room and board in their parent’s McMansions, but they were too poor, too busy trying to survive, and without the narcissist enabling technology of today.

    • As long as they don’t demand I pay for their life choices, being free to choose is the best, without regard to your opinion whether they are good or bad.

  8. dirk says

    For some reason not yet clear to me, small children on a terrace always run to me to show me something, e.g. the drawing they just made there. I’m an old man, so my judgment style is different. -My God, this can’t be!!, the flower even bigger than the nearby house- my reaction then is, or similar critical remark. The children look at me with amazement and disbelief, as if I’m an alien, because, are used that grown ups only admire and praise them into heaven. Nevertheless, they do not seem to really get upset or taken back much, and even half heartedly seem to agree. I wonder really how parents these days raise their smart and wonderful kids, and what kind of pedagocial books they read. This Dr. Spock, of once, is he still in esteem? I was raised in my time by Drs Unspock!.

  9. David of Kirkland says

    “because clearly people do change. I became curious about how this happens”
    Hmm? Let’s see, people grow, get older, learn, forget, love, hate, meet new people, lose old friends, move/visit other places, coupled with entire societies around us changing as those people change in similar ways.
    And if failure and perseverance leads to success, and necessity is the mother of invention, it seems we already know implicitly that anything false is unlikely to lead to something better. It is reality and dealing with it despite nature’s uncaring brutality, despite laws, despite religious edicts, despite current scientific thought, that real gain arises.

  10. Debbie says

    If we are to believe that nature plays a role in defining who we are and that nature’s role is dominant over others, then there is no basis to believe we are substantially different than we have ever been, since there are no selective forces pushing our polpulation towards narcissism or anything else.

    Instead, we should be investigating why we measure these traits more now than we used to. It could be that increases in leisure time or access to different technologies unleashes our natural selves in ways that were impossible in the past.

    But it is far more likely that what we look for is what we find, and what we look for is, itself, more a product of contemporary culture than are the products of contemporary culture we think we are observing.

    • I agree. It’s only because of wealth and liberty that narcissism is consider so widespread, as there are ancients stories about this (Narcissus anyone?). Maybe people just need to let it be, live and let live, accept the freedom to choose. How many people put others’ interests ahead of their own (without them express faith in God or Country or Family, which suggests even these selfless activities are thought to be good for the doer).

    • Ray Andrews says

      @Debbie

      “no basis to believe we are substantially different than we have ever been, since there are no selective forces pushing our polpulation towards narcissism”

      “It could be that increases in leisure time or access to different technologies unleashes our natural selves in ways that were impossible in the past”

      You contradict yourself ma’am.

      • Debbie says

        No I don’t. For future reference, you should understand that a selective force is something that selects for specific genes by conferring a reproductive advantage on organisms that express those genes. For instance, if a gene caused persons to have six fingers on their left hands, and for some reason (i.e., the selective force) person’s with six fingers on their left hands were better at making babies, then having six fingers would become more common in the population through selection.

        That’s not to say leisure time isn’t a selective force, of course: it could be that there is a genetic link that causes persons to have more leisure time, perhaps by being unemployed or so over-the-top successful that work is a third-tier option. And if having more leisure time makes persons better at making and raising babies to reproductive age, for instance by having more time to lay around and screw, then leisure time could be considered a selective force. But I am unaware that leisure time has ever been genetically-linked, or that it otherwise it has ever been considered a selective force.

        • Ray Andrews says

          @Debbie

          But we can be substantially different for reasons other than genetic evolution. I would say that our cultures make us profoundly different than we would be in a state of nature, and that changes in culture can therefore make us change profoundly. As you say, advances in technology are a big part of this. Disagree?

          • Debbie says

            Yes, I disagree. As I pointed out in my original post, humans in 2019 may behave differently than humans in 1800 because of contemporary conditions (technology, leisure, knowledge, etc.), but humans are no different as a species than they were in 1800. In other words, take an average pioneer baby and hand it to millennial parents, and the baby will not be at any disadvantage to the average child of millennial parents.

            Humans may know more now than humans knew in 1800, but humans are no more intelligent now than they were then. They can’t be — there has been no selective pressures that make smart babies survive, grow up and reproduce at greater rates than stupid babies. Likewise, there are no known selective factors causing humans to evolve to be more genetically narcissistic.

            Factor-in the science concerning IQ, personality, mental health, and the like — widely discussed here on Quillette — that strongly suggest heritability — found in the genetic code — is far more important than any other single factor shaping these traits, including environment (i.e., the things that may make humans behave differently in 2019 than humans behaved in 1800). So if the human genome is not making humans more narcissistic, and other factors — like the environment — are even less effective than genes are in influencing mental make-up, then my conclusion — the point of my post — is that there’s something else in play.

      • WildCard says

        She’s saying our nature hasn’t changed, but that our tools have. This isn’t contradictory.

        • Ray Andrews says

          @WildCard

          No point in quibbling. When we agree that people have indeed changed, and very much so, I do not dispute that this isn’t genetic but cultural, but the question of the increase in our self-esteem and narcissism is not based on claims of genetic change but cultural change anyway. In short an argument that looks like: ‘we have not changed genetically therefore we have not changed.’ is not a good argument since we know we have changed culturally, and it is just such a change that is discussed in this article. Debbie seems to me to make the mistake of confusing our deeper intrinsic abilities with the quickly changing effects of culture. In particular if you bring up a kid to be a spoiled, entitled narcissist, that’s what they will be, genes notwithstanding.

          • WildCard says

            You seem to be confusing “we have not changed *substantially*” and “we have absolutely not changed at all in any way.”

            No point in quibbling when you’re unwilling to consider that your interpretation of what they meant could be wrong.

    • Nature, nurture-the endless debate. While it’s obvious nature shapes us, we need an athletes body if we are to become successful athletically so on and so forth. It’s also clear that people can be born into the wrong body psychologically(gender) – we’ve all seen it. But nurture is huge when it comes to our personality and behavior – and it comes from parents primarily.

      I’ve seen it in my own family growing up in the 70’s. Tendencies, attitudes and behaviors fostered in childhood can follow people throughout their lives – based on birth order, treatment by parents/guardians and siblings etc etc. Some people never adjust and let the past dictate their whole lives. I have no doubt that narcissism is both nature and nurture-more nature than nurture-but if someone had tempered a budding narcissist early on with a stern but loving hand things may have turned out differently.

  11. Nakatomi Plaza says

    Yikes. This is really bad. Sweeping generalizations and a barely-concealed political and social agenda do not make for compelling social science. Hippies and yuppies as models for an entire generation? Are you kidding? I think we’re all adults here; we can handle more serious material than this.

    • R Henry says

      @Nakatomi Plaza

      The social sciences have some serious issues of their own, such as the inability to replicate study results, and the creepy infiltration of Progressive political thought into all levels of the Profession. When social “scientists” and radical Leftist political agitators reliably think and vote identically, uhm, we have a problem.

  12. Cornfed says

    I’m surprised the author is still a Leftist. The Right explicitly accepts the reality of individual and gender differences, while the “blank slate” concept is insinuating itself into every aspect of Leftism. The resulting policies of the Left are as insane as the underlying belief.

    • Stephanie says

      It seems a good chunk of people who’s ideas are featured on Quillette are self-identified lefties who’s fundamentally disagree with the left, but haven’t fully accepted it yet. Come to the dark side…

      • Sandra says

        @Stephanie
        They cannot switch sides because they abhor the right*. They abhor the right because they never fully understood it.

        *read: conservatism

        • Ray Andrews says

          @Sandra

          Yes, we abhor the Right, but I suspect that most of us understand it to be exactly what it demonstrates itself to be. The Left are nothing like what socialism should be, nor are the Right real conservatives.

    • “…is insinuating itself into every aspect of Leftism”? The blank slate concept of human nature has been fundamental to leftism from the days when the Left got that name from the seating arrangement in the French National Assembly. I’m not sure which is more fundamental to Leftism, the blank slate concept of human nature or hatred of the Gospel, but it’s a near run thing.

    • Sandra says

      @Cornfed
      I had the same thought. Most of the contributors to his magazine and many others I follow are still Leftist, and yet they all lament the loss of rational grip on events, the suppression of free speech, the denial of scientific evidence regarding fundamental biology and sex differences, the destructiveness of radical feminism on both women and men, the death of comedy, etc.
      And then Will Storr says this:
      ” You see how ideology trumps reason in even the most intelligent of people.”
      This is a contradiction that I’ve been trying very hard to wrap my head around. In the really intelligent, nothing trumps reason, at least not so assiduously.

      • Ray Andrews says

        @Sandra

        ” In the really intelligent, nothing trumps reason, at least not so assiduously.”

        You combine a normative idea with an imprecise definition. We agree that it would be nice if really intelligent people were not so easily enslaved to bad ideas, but alas, really intelligent people, as we use the word, *are* easily enslaved. Perhaps at IQs of 200+ then nothing would trump reason, but people with IQs in the top 1% — who we call really intelligent people — are demonstrated to be susceptible.

      • Doug Deeper says

        Sandra, it seems to me that what most people mean by “intelligent” people are well-educated people, preferably at a brand name university. Having come from a manufacturing background, and having spent some time in academia, I have to conclude that academic intelligence is very limited indeed. I much prefer to talk to people who have experienced a great deal of the world outside of academia, and have street smarts and common sense. Few street smart people would ever fall for the blank slate idea of human nature, or any of the other leftist nonsense. Universities simply indoctrinate, the more time one spends in one, the less “intelligent” in a practical sense one becomes.

        • Sandra says

          @Ray Andrews
          @Doug Deeper

          By “really intelligent”, I don’t mean IQ only. And I agree that academic intelligence can be very limited.
          My point is there is a palpable lack of wisdom among those we regard as highly intelligent, in that they demonstrably lack the intellectual flexibility to abandon cherished and comfortable ideas even when confronted with evidence to the contrary. It’s almost as if they lack the moral courage to go back to the drawing board.
          Here’s one definition of intelligence that I prefer to all others. It’s by Alfred North Whitehead:
          “Intelligence is quickness to apprehend as distinct from ability, which is capacity to act wisely on the thing apprehended.”

          • Ray Andrews says

            @Sandra

            Yeah, it comes back to definitions. Sadly intelligence is often no measure of wisdom or ability. Thanks for ANW quote.

  13. Jezza says

    ” Vasconcellos . . . . deliberately lied…”
    Of all the deliberate lies ever told, distortion of scientific data is the worst, especially when it is used to skew public policy. One blazing instance is the global warming scam giving rise to the fear that the Great Barrier Reef is about to die. It isn’t. A close second to scientific lies is political lies, and then comes advertising lies. When you discover you’ve been lied to, when you realize you’ve been had, when it becomes obvious your substance has been drained never to be replaced, that’s when misery inevitably follows. Lying in and of itself should be a crime attracting severe penalties. Was Vasconcellos ever punished or did he just waltz on until he drew his pension?

  14. Trilby says

    My theory on self-esteem is not scientifically proven, but I’ll state it anyway: Self-esteem is increased when people do and accomplish things. Just showing up may get you a trophy but it doesn’t build self-esteem. In my humble opinion.

    • Greg says

      @Trilby I like that definition. You want to feel better about yourself? Then believe that you can improve yourself, and do it.

  15. If recent research really does show that parental practices have no impact, was that always the case? My parents had a huge impact on how I developed in both obvious and subtle ways, but I can’t imagine how a research project could have measured that.

    I had to laugh reading the reference to the “iconic climate skeptic” in the blurb of his Unpersuadables book. Would he be persuaded by me pointing out that the evaluation of the magnitude of the greenhouse effect has always been based on an assumption? Now it’s a busted assumption.

  16. Stephanie says

    I feel personally attacked.

    Kidding, but not really. I resisted the selfie craze of my generation for many years, finding it narcissistic. I eventually came to think my insistence on separating myself from my generation, and looking down on the things they like, was itself a form of narcissism. In fact, I think this is the most popular form of narcissism: in a global community, people have to take ever more extreme measures to feel “special.” That’s how you end up with 86 different genders.

    There are some good reasons to take selfies: when traveling, there’s little sense in taking photos available on a post card or Google. Getting yourself in the photo makes the photo worth taking. I live close to a major tourist attraction, and often offer people taking selfies to take their photo for them. Most people are visibly overjoyed. People taking selfies in public are acting more out of a (I think legitimate) desire to preserve the moment. Same when visiting with friends, ect.

    Of course the woman who takes a dozen selfies a day in her washroom, cutting off the top of her head so the image includes more of her breasts, or the guy taking a “progress” selfie or five at the gym every day, is acting out of narcissism. But no one thinks those people are cool anymore, so that fad is on the decline, with the exception of Instagram models who make their money off of it.

    I don’t want to criticise too heavily without having read the book, because I enjoyed the interview and this is important food for thought, but I’d say selfies are more a reflection of the lack of social cohesion than they are of narcissism. If people were more comfortable asking to take each other’s photos, we’d have much less selfies.

    • Re your last point, my wife and I, in our mid-60’s, have taken a fair number of pictures with our phones the last few months on our travels (3,000 or so miles between NC and Texas – far more than usual for us over a whole year), but very few with us in them as we are not that much into selfies.

      In fact, when a similarly aged couple we encountered during a rest stop in Vicksburg, Mississippi asked us to take some pictures of them with their phone with the mighty river behind them, and we asked them to reciprocate with one of our phones, it struck me how unusual that mutual favor had become as compared to previous decades when we more often carried a dedicated camera for such trips, and routinely traded the camera-shooting “service” with other travelers we encountered.

      Technology has changed social interactions noticeably in other ways, even to the extent of reducing them substantially. See, for instance, Sherry Turkle’s “Alone Together” in which her introduction sums up 30 years (circa 2010 as social media and AI online and robotic “entities” were really cranking up) of human and computer interactions thus:
      ” I leave my story at a point of disturbing symmetry : we seem determined to give human qualities to objects and content to treat each other as things.”

      On the original topic, see https://www.rosemond.com for the views of a “traditionalist” psychologist, John Rosemond, who is constantly dealing with questions from modernist parents on how to undo the self-esteem damage to their children. He minces no words, as typified in his signature book: “Because I Said So!”


      Pax

    • Greenergrass says

      If you were actively resisting the urge to take selfies then I’d say you were being narcissistic or masochistic or both. It would be different if you weren’t taking selfies because you felt no urge to take them. Authenticity and the knowledge of oneself required to be authentic are what’s important. Not whether one behaves as statistically expected.

  17. The actually baleful character of self-esteem has long been know. It is listed by St. John Cassian as one of the eight grievous vices in a tract of that name. Oddly St. John Cassian’s works, though familiar to Orthodox Christians due to their inclusion in The Philokalia are largely forgotten in the West, even though most of his life was spent in Gaul.

  18. Rich Keal says

    Self image psychology is real and powerful. You act in accordance to subconscious beliefs from a very young age. Prison recidivism is all the the proof you need. Thinking you can hack self image to be more than you’re geared for is a set up for failure that can reinforce a vicious downward spiral. Behavioral shifts can happen overnight but are rare. The movie Yes Man with Jim Carey.

  19. @Rich Keal
    I’m sure self image and self esteem are intertwined but they are not interchangeable. My self esteem is fine as a man in my 50’s, but oh boy my self image is way out of whack. When I see myself in a mirror unintentionally or in a photograph I wonder who the hell that slightly overweight, gray haired old fart is??? Am I NOT that young stud that the ladies admire as I walk by? The are some incongruities here!

  20. TheSnark says

    A couple of random responses:

    Regarding nature vs nurture, my personal family-raising experience, and comparing that to my friend’s experiences, lead me to believe that good parenting can have a small-to-moderate positive effect on children, but it cannot overcome the child’s in-born traits and personalities. On the other hand, bad parenting can really mess up an otherwise decent kid.

    As for smart people holding wrong ideas, I would say that the biggest problem with smart people is they are smart enough to come up with good rationalizations for whatever they already wanted to believe in. Humility/modest — the ability to admit that you might be wrong — is important. Maybe narcissism really is just an overcompensation for the feeling that you might be wrong or imperfect.

    • R Henry says

      @TheSnark

      The curious thing about “humility/modest” is that while most of us agree that such traits are in high demand, humble and modest people are constitutionally unable to rise to positions of leadership. Leadership requires confidence and willingness to assert correctness of one’s views and objectives.

  21. R Henry says

    Selfies can be a window into the soul.

    I don’t take selfies, telling my Gen-X self that such silliness should be left to the self-reverential millennials. That said, the fact remains that I don’t like the way I look in pictures, I look like fat oaf. I don’t want to be reminded of it! As such, I can be considered “narcissistic” regardless of whether I appear in selfies–or not. We ALL swim in this pond!

    • Indie Wifey says

      My impression is that those chronic billboarders of self are more in need of the praise they seek than those who are affirmed via deed or accomplishment. And it’s mosly looks – a frail and desperate hold, and vastly cosmetically/materialistically reliant

  22. Morgan Foster says

    “… Think about who we were, in the West, in 1965 versus who we were in 1985. We’d changed from hippies to yuppies …”

    I don’t think the author really knows what a 60’s hippie is (was).

    There were never very many of them. The media greatly exaggerated their numbers at the time.

    College kids wearing long hair, beads and hippie clothes, attending weekend rock concerts, were not hippies.

    Most young people in the 60’s were nothing remotely like a hippie.

    Yuppies in the 80’s were not, for the most part, former hippies.

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  24. with my psychoanalytic background I see a misunderstanding. Within the self-esteem movement but also in this article. The is this state in which a person deeply feels at peace with him/herself. A state of wanting to aim as high as possible but feeling good about yourself even if you don’t end up at the top because you are still worthy. I’m pretty certain that that was the idea behind the self-esteem movement. But that state is not accomplished by telling a child that it is simply perfect and that it can become and have everything it wants. The simple reason for this is because a child is not stupid. Pretty soon it will find out that this message is not true. And because a child usually won’t realize their parents told a lie, they’ll assume that being perfect was something that could actually be accomplished, but not by him/herself and therefor he/she was obviously trash and not worth anything. And that’s where narcissism kicks in. The deep feelings of not being worth anything and having to overcompensate to hide this from the world and from yourself. So the problem isn’t self-esteem, the problem is the false belief of how to raise children in way that gives them a stable feeling of self-worth and true self-esteem.

    • I hear ya, but if you break it down, self-esteem is the positive view of self (accurate or not) and then the feeling of peace you describe (equanimity of mind and/or contentment and/or acceptance and/or something of that nature) would be in the background. I agree with your sentiment but I think you’re unnecessarily backing ill-worded terminology…why not just abandon “self-esteem” and focus on that feeling of peace? Isn’t that a functionally distinct skill? And furthermore, wouldn’t it provide fertile soil to build “true” self-esteem? (which should perhaps more accurately be called “self-confidence”)

  25. Fickle Pickle says

    But have not all of our child-rearing methods failed?
    Especially in the USA where the process of cultural disintegration is at its most “advanced”.

    Why not for instance focus on the pernicious theories of James Dobson.
    It could be said that many of the dreadfully sane evangelical Christians that voted for the Orange Haired Monster are products of his pernicious theories.

    Everybody presumes that winner-take-all competition is good for both the individual and the society at large, but is it?
    Check out the book by Alfie Kohn titled No Contest for a thorough deconstruction of the competition-is-good-for-you paradigm

    Very few people actually win anything in their entire life. In one way or another they thus become or feel themselves to be losers. They are also in one way another treated by the society at large to be losers – especially in the USA.
    It could be said that in a society wherein the principal (anti)-ethic of winner-take-all competition rules, everybody becomes a loser, including the presumed winners.
    A huge reservoir of seething resentment thus builds up at both the individual and collective level looking for the necessary someone-to-blame scapegoat(s) Some people, mostly white males, inevitably SNAP and shoot up their school, college or workplace. Others join the Proud BOYS (emphasis on boys), Stormfront etc etc.

    For a completely different understanding of how to raise children prior to conception, during pregnancy, the birthing process and the critical mother-dependent first 3-4 years check out this website:
    http://ttfuture.org
    Among others it features the research of Joseph Chilton Pearce, James Prescott, Allan Schore, and Michael Odent.

    Schore’s massive 12 year study found that on the average every toddler is given the often emotionally charged command NO every NINE minutes. With the threat of Or Else lurking in the background

  26. Magnus Palsson says

    The “issue” is not whether there are limits to “the self” (in itself an unstable construct), but what kind of limits some categories of ideologues, scientists, pundits etc are postulating in advance.

    The “limits” are there to be explored and experimented with, and only afterwords can we know how “real” they were.

    And, most importantly, the “limits” are not inherent in and dependent on the individual only.

  27. Charlie says

    I think we are ignoring how soft life has become. A hundred years ago most westerners undertook manual labour, lived in houses without central heating and walked for miles. In 1800, 80% of the British population lived in the countryside and by 1900 it was 20%. Britain was the first country to become dominantly urban. Rural life was one of continuous work. To work as a sailor on a sail ship was tough and challenging. C Northcote Parkinson said it was the use of the sea for transport which moulded the Greek character; one has to be skilled, courageous and adaptable and leaders, the captains of ships were chosen for their ability.

    Even in the 1920s and 1930s life was tough . If one compared the rigours of a British Public School in the 1920s and 1930s- cold baths, little heating , rugby, boxing, cross country runs and hockey and lacrosse for ladies with an emphasis on stoicism . In two world wars, officers as young as seventeen or eighteen led men into combat.

    The massive increase in affluence since the 1960scombied with a replacement of dangerous work ( few work in logging, mines, trawling, etc, etc) what challenges can people undertake to obtain self esteem? Speaking to those who experienced combat in the early part of WW2, say up to 1942, when victory for the Allies was in doubt, they have the self esteem of knowing that Christian Civilisation depended on their actions. As one pilot said to me ” At the age of 19 years he was flying a bomber and on the return journey, half the crew were dead or injured, one engine was not working properly, the controls were shot up, there was hardly any fuel, the only horizontal he could see were the waves, there branches in the plane and he had been told he could not bale out as the engines were important than his life and he had to crash land the plane. Also he had to and where took off, as they could not afford to transport damaged aircraft.”

    There were squadron leaders at the age of 21 years. G Wellum’s ” First Light ” is a good book to read.

    It is not just combat. Until recently boys went work at 14 years of age, by the age of 21 years they were fully trained. Now we have males who are in the late 20s or early 30s and the are still boys: no wonder they lack self esteem.

    Ibn Khaldun said, civilisation decline with vitality, Toynbee when the creative minority lose their spark.

    Humans feel self esteem when they achieve something- reef a sail in storm, overcome an obstacle , solve a problem, climb a mountain, create something- a chair or a piece of sculpture, develop a new piece of technology, conquer their fear, etc, etc. What can many boys do to achieve self respect compared to a 100 years ago? I would suggest the decline in practical classes and a lack of physical sports prevents many boys acquiring self esteem.

    • Indie Wifey says

      Add to that the gaming lifestyle, which provides (addictive) sense of accomplishment via complex and lengthy engagement of being glued to a screen, controller in hand, alone

      • Charlie says

        Agreed. The disconnect between fantasy and reality has never been so great. Also add in pornography. The Buddhist believe people should live in the present and avoid day dreaming and is why so many countries have martial arts as part of the training. If one has conquered fear and anger, take a blow and see how one reacts!.

        The Buddhists say where expectation exceeds reality there is unhappiness. The greater the expectation due to exaggerated sense of ability, entitlement and self worth, the greater the pain when reality is encountered. The Daoists say those who want more will never be satisfied . In 1918 and 1945, many people were grateful they were alive and felt a debt of obligation to produce a better World to those who had died. The late 1960s, saw the children of those who had saved Christian civilisation, who had never had it so good, have temper tantrums because they could not have all they desired.

        As peoples pain threshold declines, so life becomes more difficult.

  28. Indie Wifey says

    Look how narcissism plays into the obsessive marriage Industry and the offspring produced: self obsessed brides and their quick-pic grooms both there (yes manipulated dupes) to fulfill the one-sided princess dreams.
    kids produced of these poor pairings are appeased at all costs just to keep them out of the way aka “happy.” They become the lil human buffers of bad marriages and ended marriages, which send parents back into identic praise pursuits.
    I’ve always called it easy appeasement parenting. kids (always geniuses and future stars) rule the roost as parents 1) delude selves that being best friend trumps teaching right/wrong and as 2) moms esp compete with daughters in narcissistic agist contests, rather than consider kids can as ones to go a step farther on life’s path as parental legacy. Feminism’s “you can have it all (and now)” insidiously foments this entitlement attitude of women, who chuck families aside to compete – and play.
    Illustrative nutshell of disconnect, thanks in large part to parental spoilage, the Millennials et al, the consumption defined demographic (and now jobsters redefining employment: what can my job do for me/give to me?), who yet believe themselves to be/vote as socialists. This is also due to fact that pre tech history/reality is effectively being erased (SJ inversion of collective past) – I actually think tech vs pre-tech is becoming an unbridgeable stop gap in time. One could point to narcissism here, as it’s being denied simply for having been not in ez grasp of the post tech consumption Gen.

  29. RuthHenriquez says

    I’m 62. I remember when I was a child being told more than once, “You’re not so special.” It wasn’t said in a mean way, but rather just as a matter of fact. And guess what — I survived that feeling of not being special! And although I may not be special, I’ve had a life that seems to me especially good in terms of relationships and creative pursuits. I wonder if feeling special and having that sort of high self esteem might be a burden rather than a blessing.

    I think Emily Dickinson said it all when she wrote “I’m Nobody! Who are you?/Are you — Nobody — too?. . .How dreary — to be — Somebody!/ How public — like a Frog — /To tell one’s name — the livelong June/ To an admiring bog!” (Facebook and Twitter are that admiring bog.)

  30. Warwick Grigor says

    In pursuit of the flawed notion that equality means sameness, our modern society where the mother going back to work as soon as possible to pursue her career is a major contributor to the misconception. Kids go off into day care, at great expense the the parents, where they begin socially conditioned well before going into school. Little kids are being homogenised at a very early age, making them even more compliant when they get to school. They miss out on the intimacy and individuality of the relationship with the mother, who foolishly believes that pursing a career is more important than nurturing a child. Consumerism and income maximisation has replaced dedication to the family and the ethics of the next generation. Morals and values become institutionalised at a very early age. We are breeding generations of compliant zombies.

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