TUESDAY, Jan. 11 (HealthDay News) -- After a lifetime of being
told that they're "winners" who are "special," today's young people
crave these boosts to their self-esteem more than sex, drinking,
money or food, new research suggests.
The self-esteem movement of recent decades may have backfired by
creating individuals who expect success and praise in a world that
won't necessarily cooperate long-term, said study co-author Brad
Bushman, a professor of communication and psychology at Ohio State
Bushman and his colleagues conducted two experiments on 282
college students, asking them to rate how much they wanted and
liked various pleasurable activities such as receiving a paycheck,
seeing a best friend, eating a favorite food or engaging in a
The list of items to choose from included receiving a compliment
or getting a good grade.
The students valued boosts to their self-esteem such as
receiving good grades or compliments more than any of the other
"We were shocked because we tried to think of everything college students love," Bushman said. "We were really surprised college students would rather be praised. I don't think it should trump those and I don't think it's such a basic need. Social stimulation is important . . . but I think that's very different from the need to be praised."
In a laboratory setting, students took a test that supposedly
measured their intellectual ability and were told afterward that if
they waited another 10 minutes they could have their test re-scored
using a new scoring algorithm that usually produces higher
The study, reported online in advance of publication in an
upcoming print issue of the
Journal of Personality, said those who highly valued
self-esteem were more likely to take the time to wait for the new
Participants, who also completed a Narcissistic Personality
Inventory, were asked to rank both how much they liked and wanted a
certain pleasant activity, because addiction research suggests that
addicts tend to report that they want the object of their addiction
more than they actually like it, according to Bushman.
While it would be incorrect to say the students were addicted to
self-esteem, Bushman said, they were closer to being addicted to
self-esteem than they were to being addicted to any other activity
in the study.
Participants with a strong sense of entitlement -- indicated by
being more likely to agree with statements such as "If I ruled the
world, it would be a better place" rather than "The thought of
ruling the world frightens the hell out of me" -- were most likely
to "want" self-esteem boosts than to actually "like" them.
"It's a big problem and I think that [a] sense of entitlement is damaging to society," Bushman said. "When you believe you're more deserving than others, that you're better than they are, and you don't get what you think you deserve, you become angry."
Jean Twenge, who authored a book on young people's self-views
Generation Me, said the study shows the downsides of self-esteem, which until recently was widely believed to be only positive. Research has shown that levels of self-esteem have been increasing, particularly among college students, since the mid-1960s.
"It's pretty scary that it's now to the point where these American students feel their self-esteem is more important than those other rewards," said Twenge, also a professor of psychology at San Diego State University.
"What you really see is . . . it's this kind of empty self-esteem where you're supposed to feel special just for being you, that everyone's a winner and we should all feel good about ourselves all the time," she said. "Which kind of ignores that self-esteem is usually based on something."
Bushman related the story of his son's first day of kindergarten
when the then 5-year-old came home wearing a sticker that said,
"I'm a winner!" and said that his teacher had given one to all of
his classmates. A little later he told his parents, "I know what
happened -- every kid got a sticker, but mine was the only one that
said 'I'm a winner!' All the other ones said, 'I'm a loser!'"
"Even this 5-year-old boy knew everyone can't be the best. He knew there was a discrepancy," Bushman said. "I think we need to wait until they behave well before we pat them on the back."
For more information on college students and self-esteem, visit
the archives of the
American Psychological Association.