The Man Who Destroyed America’s Ego
FOR MUCH OF HUMAN HISTORY, our beliefs have been based on the assumption that people are fundamentally bad. Strip away a person’s smile and you’ll find a grotesque, writhing animal-thing. Human instincts have to be controlled, and religions have often been guides for containing the demons. Sigmund Freud held a similar view: Psychotherapy was his method of making the unconscious conscious, helping people restrain their bestial desires and accord with the moral laws of civilization.
In the middle of the 20th century, an alternative school of thought appeared. It was popularized by Carl Rogers, an influential psychotherapist at the University of Chicago, and it reversed the presumption of original sin. Rogers argued that people are innately decent. Children, he believed, should be raised in an environment of “unconditional positive regard”. They should be liberated from the inhibitions and restraints that prevented them from attaining their full potential.
It was a characteristically American idea—perhaps even the American idea. Underneath it all, people are good, and to get the best out of themselves, they just need to be free.
Economic change gave Rogers’s theory traction. It was the 1950s, and a nation of workmen was turning into a nation of salesmen. To make good in life, interpersonal sunniness was becoming essential. Meanwhile, rising divorce rates and the surge of women into the workplace were triggering anxieties about the lives of children born into the baby boom. Parents wanted to counteract the stresses of modern family life, and boosting their children’s self-esteem seemed like the solution.
By the early 1960s, wild thinkers in California were pushing Rogers’s idea even further. The “human potential movement” argued that most people were using just 10 percent of their intellectual capacity. It leaned on the work of Abraham Maslow, who studied exceptional people such as Albert Einstein and Eleanor Roosevelt and said there were five human needs, the most important of which was self-actualization—the realization of one’s maximum potential. Number two on the list was esteem.
At the close of the decade, the idea that self-esteem was the key to psychological riches finally exploded. The trigger was Nathaniel Branden, a handsome Canadian psychotherapist who had moved to Los Angeles as a disciple of the philosopher Ayn Rand. One of Rand’s big ideas was that moral good would arise when humans ruthlessly pursued their own self-interest. She and Branden began a tortuous love affair, and her theories had an intense impact on the young psychotherapist. In The Psychology of Self-Esteem, published in 1969, Branden argued that self-esteem “has profound effects on a man’s thinking processes, emotions, desires, values and goals. It is the single most significant key to his behavior.” It was an international bestseller, and it propelled the self-esteem movement out of the counterculture and into the mainstream.
The year that Branden published his book, a sixteen-year-old in Euclid, Ohio named Roy Baumeister was grappling with his own self-esteem problem: his Dad.
Roy’s father, Rudy, was a middle manager at Standard Oil. He’d emigrated from Germany a few years earlier, after serving with Hitler’s army on the eastern front, where he’d spent several months in a Russian POW camp. Rudy dressed plainly: colored button-down shirts, khaki trousers, and a military-style buzz cut. He was quick to anger, and strict on discipline with his two children.
“He was very right-wing,” says his daughter, Susan. “He was a control freak. It was always his way, always needing to be the leader and call all the shots. He had a very big ego. From an early age, he was raised to be looked up to. He was the firstborn, he was the son, he was the one. He always had to be the one.”
Hiding from all this in an upstairs room at the back of the house was Roy: fair-haired, blue-eyed, well-mannered. He was often frightened by his father, but he was smart as well. He would become a distinguished psychologist, and a broad, controversial thinker. In the process, Roy would challenge his father. He would also, perhaps unknowingly, adopt his father’s contrary nature, his instinct for an outsider position. That’s one explanation, at least, for how Roy helped bring the self-esteem movement crashing down.
IN THE YEARS AFTER BRANDEN’S BOOK, the importance of boosting self-esteem became increasingly entrenched in American life. One of the high points occurred in 1986, when Californian legislators created the State Task Force to Promote Self-Esteem and Personal and Social Responsibility. This was a project born perfectly into its time and place. Its purpose was to discover how self-esteem is “nurtured, harmed, rehabilitated” and to understand its relationship to social problems. After three years of review, the task force’s final report became one of the foundational works of the self-esteem movement. It concluded that:
“Self-esteem is the likeliest candidate for a social vaccine, something that empowers us to live responsibly and that inoculates us against the lures of crime, violence, substance abuse, teen pregnancy, child abuse, chronic welfare dependency and educational failure. The lack of self-esteem is central to most personal and social ills plaguing our state and nation as we approach the end of the 20th century.”
The task force’s conclusion followed a review of the scientific literature that looked at real-world outcomes of high self-esteem. The evidence was limited, but the task force would not contemplate criticism. Leader John Vasconcellos, a California assemblyman, dismissed doubters as people who “only live in their heads,” insisting that “we all know in our gut that it’s true.”
He was right. Thousands and thousands of Americans just knew it in their guts. The idea of self-esteem as a social panacea was too good to question. It spread through the country and much of the Western world. Heads big and small were systematically stuffed full of their own wondrousness. As the 1980s became the 1990s, schools and kindergartens began boosting self-esteem in classes, encouraging children to write letters to themselves, telling themselves how special they are. Five-year-olds in a Texas nursery were made to wear T-shirts that said ‘I’m loveable and capable’ and to recite the mantra daily. High school awards were dropped by the thousands, and grades were inflated to protect the esteem of low achievers. (One teacher argued, “I don’t think it’s grade inflation. It’s grade encouragement.”)….Read More>>>>