Sunday, May 15, 2005

Steve Salerno on the Self-Help Dangers on National Review Online

Steve Salerno on the Self-Help Dangers on National Review Online

Overdosing on Oprah
The side effects of empowerment.

By Steve Salerno

. . . No matter. America keeps filling its children with this faux self-esteem, passing them on to the next set of empowering standards, and the next after that. If you teach college, as I do, you are certain at some point to be confronted by a student who's upset over the grade you gave him and seeks redress because, he will say, as though his point were self-evident, "I'm pre-med!" Only if and when that student actually reaches med school does he encounter less elastic standards: a comeuppance for him, but a reprieve for the rest of us, who otherwise might find ourselves anesthetized beneath his second-rate scalpel.

The larger point is that, with the gods of empowerment cheering in the background, society has embraced concepts like confidence and self-esteem despite scant evidence that they're reliably correlated with positive outcomes. The work of legitimate psychology notables Roy Baumeister and Martin Seligman indicates that often, high self-worth is a marker for negative behavior, as diagnosed in sociopaths and drug kingpins. Furthermore, self-esteem may be expressed in the kind of braggadocio — "I'm fine just the way I am, thank you" — that actually inhibits personal growth.

Unfazed by pesky questions about whether happy thoughts can even guarantee results for any one individual, today's champions of positive thought unflinchingly portray their quest as the folkloric rising tide that lifts all boats, supposedly enabling America en masse to reach new levels of happiness and prosperity. A nice thought — but impossible barring a wholesale change in the way the free market operates. . . .


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