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.