Self-control, not self-esteem, leads to success

Does confidence really breed success?  “What’s really become prevalent over the last two decades is the idea that being highly self-confident – loving yourself, believing in yourself – is the key to success,” says psychologist Jean Twenge. “Now the interesting thing about that belief is it’s widely held, it’s very deeply held, and it’s also untrue.”

About nine million young people have filled out the American Freshman Survey, since it began in 1966.

It asks students to rate how they measure up to their peers in a number of basic skills areas – and over the past four decades, there has been a dramatic rise in the number of students who describe themselves as being “above average” for academic ability, drive to achieve, mathematical ability and self-confidence.

More students say they’re gifted in writing ability, yet test scores show writing ability has gone down since the 1960s, says Twenge.

And while in the late 1980s, almost half of students said they studied for six or more hours a week, the figure was little over a third by 2009 – a fact that sits rather oddly, given there has been a rise in students’ self-proclaimed drive to succeed during the same period.

Self-esteem doesn’t lead to success, says Roy Baumeister, a Florida State professor who’s studied the topic for years. “Self-control is much more powerful and well-supported as a cause of personal success,” he says.

In one study, university students who’d earned C, D and F grades “received encouragement aimed at boosting their self-worth.” They did worse than students with similar grades whose self-esteem had been left alone. “An intervention that encourages [students] to feel good about themselves, regardless of work, may remove the reason to work hard,” writes Baumeister.

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  1. Stacy in NJ says:

    All modern social theory and/or policy is based upon the Field of Dreams analogy – a variation of Cargo Cult. The self-esteem movement is just another variation of the same.

    If we pretend something is what we want it to be and put in place the exterior or institutional super structure then it will become what we want it to be. The Europeans are finding how disastrous this activity can prove to be. Create a currency based upon an integrated fiscal and monetary union then get an integrated fiscal and monetary union. But, don’t bother yourself too much with the messy details or insist upon the actual hard WORK of creating the foundation for the structure. That’s way to bothersome and may interfere with the outcome you’re dreaming of.

  2. Sister Eugene taught us in 5th grade that self discipline was the key. Or at least one of the keys.

  3. Richard Aubrey says:

    As a parent or a teacher, is it easier to teach self-restraint or self-esteem?

  4. Isn’t this “news” patently obvious to all who have any common sense whatsoever?

  5. Back when the dinosaurs roamed, self-control was enforced by the application of ruler to hand or posterior, by various public shaming schemes (we actually had a dunce stool in the corner, but no cap) and by extra copywork (of the “I will not talk in class” variety). Spitball throwers might be required to hold an extra-large model in their mouths for the rest of the class. Most of us learned to follow the rules pretty quickly. By 7th grade, serious, repeated misconduct (inevitably a 15 yo male) would result in an “attitude adjustment” session with the male math teacher (also HS coach) in the coatroom – within earshot of both 7th and 8th-grade classes. That only had to happen once every 3-4 years.

    • Richard Aubrey says:

      Back in the day…. If some punk groped a girl, he’d get his butt whipped by a gym teacher and then be expelled. Now, because of “due process” and litigious parents, he can hang around laughing at the girl.
      On the other hand, should he have a plastic butterknife in his lunch…no mercy.