Self-Esteem & Violence

Self-Esteem & Violence

In 2005 researchers Roy Baumeister, Jennifer Campbell, Joachim Krueger, and Kathleen Vohs wrote an article titled, Exploding the Self-Esteem Myth. The article pushes back against many assumptions that society holds regarding people with low self-esteem. It instead suggests that many problems often blamed on low self-esteem can be attributed to unreasonably high self-esteem. This is an idea that Steven Pinker thinks about in his book The Better Angels of Our Nature.
“Violence is a problem not of too little self-esteem,” Pinker writes in reference to Baumeister’s research in particular, “but of too much, particularly when it is unearned.”
We fear that people with low self-esteem will abuse drugs, seek out shortcuts, and take advantage of people. Violence is a manifestation of each of these negative qualities that we associate with people of low self-esteem. However, these qualities don’t actually seem to be associated with people of low self-esteem and actually tend to be found more frequently in people with high self-esteem.
People with unreasonably high self-esteem, especially when that self-esteem is unwarranted, are more likely to bully others, are more likely to think they are entitled to preferential treatment, and to discount others. The former President Donald Trump is a great example of this reality. His wealth largely seems to be unearned and as a presidential candidate, and as president, he was more likely than anyone else to bully others and to disregard other people. He certainly believed that he deserved preferential treatment compared to everyone else and made statements that encouraged violence when he didn’t get the outcomes he wanted.
To continue to reduce violence today, we should focus on people who have unreasonably high self-esteem. We should develop more meritocratic institutions which provide better feedback to those who would otherwise have unreasonably high self-esteem to reduce their overconfidence in themselves. We should work to discourage those like President Trump who turn to violence to rebuff threats to their unwarranted self-esteem. Continuing the global reduction of violence should be a goal, and addressing unreasonable self-esteem is an important component of achieving that goal.
Missing Feedback

Missing Feedback

I generally think we are overconfident in our opinions. We should all be more skeptical that we are right, that we have made the best possible decisions, and that we truly understand how the world operates. Our worldviews can only be informed by our experiences and by the information we take in about events, phenomena, and stories in the world. We will always be limited because we can’t take in all the information the world has to offer. Additionally, beyond simply not being able to hold all the information possible, we are unable to get the appropriate feedback we need in all situations for comprehensive learning. Some feedback is hazy and some feedback is impossible to receive at all. This means that we cannot be sure that we have made the best choices in our lives, even if things are going well and we are making our best efforts to study the world.


In Nudge, Cass Sunstein and Richard Thaler write, “When feedback does not work, we may benefit from a nudge.” When we can’t get immediate feedback on our choices and decisions, or when we get feedback that is unclear, we can’t adjust appropriately for future decisions. We can’t learn, we can’t improve, and we can’t make the best choices when we return to a decision-situation. However, we can observe where situations of poor feedback exist, and we can help design those decision-spaces to provide subtle nudges to help people make better decisions in the absence of feedback. Visual aids showing how much money people need for retirement and how much they can expect to have based on current savings rates is a helpful nudge in a situation where we don’t get feedback for how well we are saving money. There are devices that glow red or green based on your home’s current energy usage and efficiency, providing a subtle nudge to remind people not to use appliances at peak demand times and giving people feedback on energy usage that they normally wouldn’t receive. Nudges such as these can provide feedback, or can provide helpful information in the absence of feedback.


Sunstein and Thaler also write, “many of life’s choices are like practicing putting without being able to see where the balls end up, and for one simple reason: the situation is not structured to provide good feedback. For example, we usually get feedback only on the options we select, not the ones we reject.” Missing feedback is an important consideration because the lack of feedback influences how we understand the world and how we make decisions. The fact that we cannot get feedback on options we never chose should be nearly paralyzing. We can’t say how the world works if we never experiment and try something different. We can settle into a decent rhythm and routine, but we may be missing out on better lifestyles, happier lives, or better societies if we made different choices. However, we can never receive feedback on these non-choices. I don’t know that this means we should necessarily try to constantly experiment at the cost of settling in with the feedback we can receive, but I do think it means we should discount our own confidence and accept that we don’t know all there is. I also think it means we should look to increase nudges, use more visual aids, and structure our choices and decisions in ways that help maximize useful feedback to improve learning for future decision-making.

Criticism and Ego

“The art of taking feedback is such a crucial skill in life,” Ryan holiday writes in his book Ego is the Enemy. If we are honest with ourselves, which is hard and uncomfortable, we see that we are not quite as great as we like to believe and we don’t exist in the center of an important world as we also like to believe. Critical feedback, not just flattery but true critiques of our work, effort, and actions is important if we actually want to be effective and make a positive impact on the planet.


“The ego avoids such feedback at all costs, however,” Continues Holiday. “Who wants to remand themselves to remedial training? It thinks it already knows how and who we are — That is, it thinks we are spectacular, perfect, genius, truly innovative. It dislikes reality and prefers its own assessment.”


Hearing feedback and truly accepting feedback are two different things. Many of us, I know me in particular, will hear positive feedback and flattery and feel great about ourselves. We will walk around with our head held up and begin to see the world in terms of all things we deserve and have earned. Negative feedback (again if you are anything like me) puts us on the defensive. Our brain starts to work double time to disprove the negative feedback. Our excuse generator kicks into gear and the negative feedback we received is discredited by a host of factors that are outside of our control and contributed to the the negative outcome, performance, situation, or behavior. In this typical model of taking (or not taking) feedback, we adjust the world to be what we want it to be. We take credit for the good things that happen around us while discounting our contributions to the negative. We enjoy the positive feedback and praise of others while deflecting the negative feedback and criticism about ourselves.


If our goal is simply to enjoy life and reduce friction for ourselves as we move through the years this this strategy is fine. Life is a challenge and living in a comfortable reality (or at least desiring such an existence) is fine. If however, we want to contribute to the world in a meaningful way, we need to live outside the comfortable false existence that our brains seem to crave. If we want to participate in politics, if we want to create a company, if we want to be civically focused in our community, we have to see the world clearly, and that means that we have to see our place in the world clearly. Getting beyond our ego and accepting critical feedback is a key piece of seeing the world clearly and understanding the world as it is and not as our brain wants it to be. We will not grow if we only receive positive feedback, and studies of children praised for good performance show that kids are less daring and less likely to work hard and perform well when praised for a good performance. Receiving feedback about working hard and being able to learn from areas where the outcome was not as great as it could be is what helps us develop and grow. Being comfortable with criticism and being able to accept that we have shortcomings is crucial for being engaged in the world and taking steps to improve the world we live in.