Subject: Re: [evol-psych] The Trouble With Self-Esteem
Date: Sat, 16 Feb 2002 20:26:01 -0800
From: "Ian Montgomerie" 

On 16 Feb 2002, at 17:17, Phil Roberts, Jr. wrote:

> Ian Montgomerie wrote:
> > 
> > On 6 Feb 2002, at 15:40, wrote:
> > 
> > > In a message dated 2/6/02 12:04:11 AM,
> > > writes:
> > >
> > > << Throughout the evolutionary
> > > history of man and primate, social status was a reproductive
> > > advantage to males, but often required risky aggressive behavior
> > > and violent retaliation to maintain it - the social status
> > > competition is not a positive-sum game, so maintaining status
> > > means being able to defeat or deter challenges to it.  "High
> > > self-esteem" is a high opinion of oneself, leading to risk-taking
> > > and aggressive behavior because of confidence in one's abilities
> > > to succeed in the face of adversity.  >>
> I know that it is not particularly fashionable to assume that a 
> scientist of the mind should actually spend a bit of time observing
> one, but I respectfully disagree with the last sentence based on
> personal experiences with self-esteem.  When my self-esteem has been
> at its peak, and I remember one particular epoch where it was very
> high indeed, I was most at peace with myself. Indeed, I distinctly
> remember that I was thinking about getting a job as s dish washer,
> since for the first time in my life my social status had become
> totally irrelevant.

My own anecdotal observations are that high self-esteem is in 
most people not at all associated with thinking that social status 
has become irrelevant.  (Remember, the issue is averages, not any 
one person).

>  As such, it seems unlikely to me that the self-worth
> complex can be lightheartedly dismissed as little more than a fitness
> maximizing instinct for social status, particularly given the
> likelihood that dominance hierarchies can be maintained by other more
> biologically expedient means (e.g., animal appetites counter valenced
> by fear) with far less deleterious consequences (depression, suicide,
> addiction, etc.).

I think your "likelihood" is nonexistant.  It would in fact be quite 
counter-adaptive for hierarchies to be maintained by "animal 
appetites counter valenced by fear".  Fear is a _very_ costly state 
to be in for any length of time.  It is basically an adaptation to deal 
with immediate emergencies.  It mobilizes the resources of the 
body and the mind to deal with immediate threats.  It is 
physiologically costly.  It is not a continuous strategy for deciding 
social actions.  "Animal appetites" aren't useful either.  In a highly 
social species (such as humans or other primates), social 
interactions are a realm for complex alliances, keeping track of 
friends, kin, and enemies, the past and expected future behavior of 
others, and generally knowing how to most effectively manipulate 
the behavior of others for (genetic) advantage.  Nothing I've ever 
heard referred to as an "animal appetite" is particularly well-suited 
for dealing with social interactions.

States such as self-confidence versus depression, on the other 
hand, are highly social states.  They are persistent, they have a 
substantial influence on social decision-making, they correlate 
heavily with social success, and there are strong adaptive 
arguments for their existence in social beings.  For example, it has 
been found that while most people are moderately optimistic, 
depressives usually aren't pessimistic when it comes to predictions 
of the future and evaluations of their own prospects for success - 
they tend towards the neutral point, more objective than normal.  
There are good arguments that depression is an adaptation to loss 
or social success, designed to make a person call a halt to risk-
taking, aggression, and high social activity and be in a state of 
mind to re-evaluate their affairs.  The sort of thing that would make 
them more likely to discard whatever they were doing, and engage 
in new activities only when the prospects for success looked good. 
 Just the sort of thing that would be adaptive following a loss of 
status, resources, etc (which may have been caused by a 
mistaken strategy, or by a change in situation which makes the old 
strategy less worthwhile).

Self-esteem, because it is in fact correlated with success 
(including social success), is also something one would expect to 
correlate with behaviors that are more worthwhile for the successful 
than the unsuccessful.  In males (more so than females due to 
reproductive strategy differences), risky interpersonal competition 
in general (including aggression, and including high willingness to 
retaliate against aggression), are a much better bet for those likely 
to come out on top.  Those likely to come out on top are those who 
have come out on top in the past (and who thus likely have high 

> > The most violent people are those whose high self-esteem
> > is not matched by a similarly high social status.  They are
> > predisposed to using a "dominant" strategy, being willing to
> > retaliate and escalate in the face of perceived slights - and they
> > will perceive that people often slight them by treating them with
> > less respect than they "deserve" (since they have a high opinion of
> > their own worth and deservingness, but in other peoples' eyes they
> > do not have a high status and so are not deferred to in the way that
> > someone with high social status would be).
> I would like to suggest an alternative interpretation here:
> Self-esteem is central to our will to survive,

Not according to the research I'm aware of.  People who are not 
clinically depressed, but nonetheless have low to moderate self-
esteem, display plenty of "will to survive".  In fact in a lot of 
respects they are as successful in modern life as people with high 
self-esteem.  Having high self-esteem may be incredibly popular 
with late 20th century Western culture (and psychologists), but in 
concrete terms it is _not_ that beneficial.  It is probably a 
reproductively beneficial trait for successful men, more so in the 
ancestral environment than now, but the conclusion of some 
leading self-esteem researchers (including Baumeister) is that as 
far as general life success goes, it's quite overrated.

> and in order
> to help us maintain it, mother nature in her infinite wisdom (NOT) has
> managed to gerrymander a number of animal impulses to assist in the
> shepherding of self-worth (e.g., fear of giving a speech or asking for
> a date, anger over an insult, sex as a basis for endearment).

I think this is completely contrary to what self-esteem looks like 
from an evolutionary standpoint.  The behavioral correlate of high 
self-esteem is _optimism_.  Not rationality, not a somehow 
"appropriate" view of oneself, but an overestimation of one's 
capabilities and prospects of success.  This is normally a recipe 
for risk-taking.  This _wouldn't_ be beneficial for all people, only for 
those whose risk-taking is disproportionately likely to pay off.

If self-esteem was a benefit for pretty much everybody pretty much 
all of the time, quite simply we'd all have high self esteem all the 
time.  The fact that depression and low self-esteem exist is hardly 
an evolutionary "oversight".