CLEVELAND, Feb. 9 -- In findings sure to startle those who consider the inflation of self-esteem as a cure for many of society's problems, scientists reported Friday it is not low but high appraisal of oneself that underlies violent behavior. 'In principle, it might become possible to inflate everyone's self- esteem,' the study authors reported in the lead article in the American Psychological Association journal Psychological Review, but 'the societal pursuit of high self-esteem for everyone may literally end up doing considerable harm.' Their review of cases of aggression, crime and violence led them to the conclusion that, contrary to conventional wisdom, high -- not low -- self-esteem underlies violent behavior. The authors stressed that, obviously, not everyone with high self- esteem -- defined as 'a favorable global evaluation of oneself' -- is prone to violence. They defined the particularly troublesome types of self-esteem as 'favorable self-appraisals that may be inflated or ill- founded and that are confronted with an external evaluation that disputes them.' Poring over the scientific evidence, the researchers said, they found little, if any, to support the theory that the perpetrators of violence -- whether they be schoolyard bullies, street gangs, terrorists or tyrants -- suffer from low self-esteem. 'To the contrary, there are strong and consistent indications in the psychological, sociological and historical literature that such people have opinions of themselves that are unrealistically high and that they use violence to maintain those high self-evaluations when they are challenged by others,' said psychologist Roy Baumeister of Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland.
The researchers analyzed data on people with hostile tendencies, group differences in self-esteem and violence, assault, homicide, rape, domestic violence, violent youth gangs, juvenile delinquency, political terrorism, prejudice, oppression and genocide. In some studies, self-esteem was specifically measured; in others, it was inferred. 'We found aggressive, violent and hostile people consistently express favorable views of themselves, and there is scant evidence to suggest that, despite outward appearances, such people really suffer from low self-esteem,' said co-author Joseph Boden of Case Western. Even if that were the case, 'it would still be necessary to regard the surface egotism rather than the hidden self-doubts as causally crucial,' said co-author Laura Smart of the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. 'If low self-esteem were really the cause of violence,' the authors wrote, 'then it would be therapeutically prudent to make every effort to convince rapists, murderers, wife beaters, professional hit men, tyrants, torturers and others that they are superior beings, something such people already believe.' 'If any modifications to self-appraisals were to be attempted,' the authors concluded, 'then perhaps it would be better to try instilling modesty and humility.' (Written by UPI Science Writer Lidia Wasowicz in San Francisco)