Posted by: CJ | October 24, 2010

Self-esteem, Elections, and Money Money Money!

One of my on-and-off-again close friends (it’s complicated), a physicist by training, has spent the past 5 years that I’ve known her yammering on about self-esteem. She generally views all bad behavior quirks as somehow caused by self-esteem. I’ve spent just as long saying that I don’t know what the hell she’s talking about, that self-esteem is impossible to use as a causal reason because you can’t quantify it, or even really define it, and that saying it’s self-esteem doesn’t help diagnose the particulars of why and how to fix it. I’ve never understood how self-esteem could be a satisfactory reason for her.

But I think I’m starting to get a handle on what she’s thinking, in a round-about way. Political scientists and economists are quite aware that a lot of election success or failure can be predicted by fundamental economic indicators. Essentially, if the economy sucks then incumbents get voted out. With this in mind, I’ve been reading all sorts of stories leading up to this election thinking, “Meh, whatever pundit dude. It’s not that the incumbent is a fool and the challenger teh awesome. It’s that the economy sucks. Wise up before you start pontificating.”

Of course, that throws away a lot of information on what’s going on in a particular race. And it gives no advice at all on how the incumbent should reformulate their campaign to win. Or at least not lose so badly that their attire becomes restricted to re-used burlap sacks. Just like that self-esteem crap.

So I think I’m starting to understand what my physicist friend means by self-esteem. It’s similar to the way I (currently) view economic indicators in elections. Self-esteem is this underlying cause which is hard to say how to fix or change, but which effects all sorts of outcomes.

Thinking about this more, it became even more clear to me how this viewpoint could make sense to her. She’s a physicist by disposition more than by training–she just thinks about things with that mindset. And a physicist focuses on underlying causes, the general principles, instead of the immediate cause and effect. A good example is potential energy. In classical mechanics a state will always move towards a configuration with lower potential energy. (I.e. a ball in mid-air with nothing under it will drop to the ground.) How it moves, which particular forces are causing the energy differential, and how to change anything is, again, just not a concern for the theory.

Anyways, this argument between her and myself has been ongoing for half a decade, at least. So new insight into it is exciting for me…



  1. I love how you cut through the BS and reduce the hot air of the punditry to a single Newtonian law — one which anyone observing things with a lick of common sense can see. (Obviously it’s not so clear in the rarified air of the Washington salons.)

    As to your friend’s thoughts about self-esteem — how can I put this politely? As Col. Potter might say: Horsehockey! I get what you’re trying to say, but not to put too fine a point on it… she’s full of shit. This is the same sort of hooey that misapplied has led to all sorts of horrors in primary education… Johnny will read, write, and do arithmetic better if he just feels good about himself and his place in the world. In fact, I would argue that if anything, the true relationship is precisely the reverse — lack of self-esteem is more often than not the product of an unsuccessful existence… when we behave poorly and have problems we (naturally) don’t feel good about ourselves and about things in general. Self-esteem is not an a priori for achievement and social acclimation — it’s the result of same.

  2. Anyone with a lick of common sense could see it, but for me it took reading blog posts by Andrew Gelman. Not only is it possible in theory to statistically predict election results based on economic data way in advance, it’s actually done.

    Self-esteem has been misapplied in all sorts of settings. And my friend certainly has misapplied it as well. But–and I wasn’t clear on this in my initial post–she tends to use self-esteem as an explanation for people’s actions but not their performance. She can be quite, uh, to the point in evaluating others’ abilities. (She thinks being very blunt is ok because she’s blunt about her own abilities as well. I’ve yet to ask her if she feels knifing people is ok as long as she cuts herself in the bathroom beforehand.)

    So a typical example of how she talks about self-esteem is someone makes a stupid choice, like choosing to date a certain person, or dump a certain person, or avoid studying, or taking too heavy a course load, or ditch their friends, or whatever. And she views their choice as motivated by self-esteem problems. If you talk to her long enough, it tends to become clear that she has a pretty good idea of what’s going on, why the person chose what they did specifically, etc.. But her short summary of those reasons always boils down to self-esteem. And her idea of how to get the person to make better, or at least different, decisions was to improve their self-esteem.

    I definitely think her views are, um, misguided. But it’s important to me to understand why they make sense to her. Especially since she’s not stupid or clueless, so it must make sense to her somehow. And those 5 years when I didn’t understand it were also 5 years when she usually understood people at least as well as I did.

    I’m also debating if the causal relationship does go the other way or if there just isn’t much of one. You’re right that if a person’s performance starts to improve they’ll feel better about themselves, and that seems like it should be true in basically all cases. But I think it can also just depend on environment or choices of what one is applying oneself to.

    And though I’m generally opposed to human-rights violations, the “self-esteem leads to better educational outcome” people sorely tempt me.

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