Subject: Re: [evol-psych] The Trouble With Self-Esteem
Date: Tue Feb 19, 2002 2:34pm 
From: "Phil Roberts, Jr." 

Ian Montgomerie wrote:
> On 16 Feb 2002, at 17:17, Phil Roberts, Jr. wrote:
> >
> > 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).

That's because, for most people, social status is the primary VEHICLE 
to self-esteem and it rarely reaches a point where it becomes possible
to leave the vehicle behind.  But, as I say, based on my own "anecdotal" 
experiences, I would say that it is status that is the vehicle to 
esteem, not esteem that is the vehicle to status, although I can 
certainly appreciate how someone who is a died-in-the-wool panadaptionist
might have a little difficulty understanding how this might fit into the
evolutionary scheme of things.  But somehow feelings of worthlessness 
just don't look all that adaptive, if you don't mind my saying so.

Also, there is more to my anecdote than meets the eye.  I was assuming, 
in offering it, that I was offering intersubjectively reproducible 
data, that my own mind is not atypical, and therefore that you yourself 
might have had some experience in your life where esteem was at a maximum, 
perhaps not to the extraordinary degree of my own experience, but enough 
to have noticed that peace and contentment ensued along with a certain 
temporary inocculation to insult.  

There is other anecdotal evidence as well.  The reason I assume that 
status is a vehicle to esteem, and not the other way around, is because 
there have been times in my life where I seriously comprimised my status 
merely to 'do the right thing'.  This suggests to me that its not what 
others think of me that is the bottom line for my emotional well-being, 
but rather what I think of myself, and it seems to me that this little 
fact is a bit awkward for the particular evolutionary explanation you 
are currently favoring.

Then too, there was the assumption on my part that the hypervigalence
to insult you were talking about fits nicely with the analogy of a 
physical wound, that indeed, it is precisely this sort of hypervigilance
to insult which is probably our most reliable indicator of low self-
esteem.  Is there any reason why we should assume Baumeister's means of
assessing esteem to be infallible?  Oh! Oh!  I feel another anecdote 
coming on:

  Several years ago, Merv Griffin interviewed James Watson on television 
  and asked him the question, 'Is it true that you only have an I.Q. in 
  the nineties.  Watson answered in the affirmative, but was completely 
  unmiffed by the information.  But then, why should he be?  Given  
  between choosing between 
      1. One of the two guys most responsible for figuring out the 
         structure of DNA is operating with a rather dim bulb.

      2. We don't really know what intelligence is, let alone how to
         measure it.

  I suspect James Watson simply dumped 1 as any truly intelligent person 
  should have.  Similarly, choosing between
      1.  Hypervigilence to insult is a function of high self-esteem 

      2. We don't really know how to measure self-esteem.

   I currently favor 2 unless, of course, you can convince me that 
   Baumeister really does have his ducks in a row when it comes to
   making self-esteem estimates.  But if the list of questions 
   Ian Pitchford posted at the beginning of this thread was his 
   primary tool, I think dumping 1 is a bit of a no brainer.

> >  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.  

Have you had a look at nature lately?

> "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.

So suppressed animal appetites are an impossibility as an impetus for
social interaction from your perspective.  Far more expedient to have 
organisms climbing Mt. Everest and riding in little rubber rafts 
between the whales and a pissed off whaler with his finger on the 
trigger of a two ton harpoon, eh?  What's your definition of efficiency 
here?  We are talking about perpetuating DNA aren't we?

> > to help us maintain it [self-esteem], 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).
> 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.

I assume you are referring to the work of Taylor and Brown:

[Quotes from Taylor and Brown, Psychological Bulletin, 1988,
 Vol. 103, No. 2, 193-210]

Many prominent theorists have argued that accurate perceptions
of the self, the world, and the future are essential for mental
health.  Yet considerable research evidence suggests that 
overly positive self evaluations, exaggerated perceptions of 
control or mastery, and unrealistic optimism are characteristic
of normal human thought.....

D. Summary

To summarize, traditional conceptions of mental health assert that 
well-adjusted individuals possess relatively accurate perceptions 
of themselves, their capacity to control important events in their
lives, and their future.  In contrast to this portrayal, a great 
deal of research in social, personality, clinical and developmental
psychology documents that normal individuals possess unrealistically 
positive views of themselves, an exaggerated belief in their ability 
to control their environment, and a view of the future that maintains
that their future will be far better than the average person's.  
Furthermore, individuals who are moderately depressed or low in 
self-esteem consistently display an absence of such enhancing 
illusions.  Together, these findings appear inconsistent with the 
notion that accurate self-knowledge is the hallmark of mental 

[end Taylor & Brown quotes]

> 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).

But the Taylor and Brown data could also constitute an even better
support for the thesis that feelings of worthlessness are actually
a maladaptive by-product of the evolution of rationality.  In which
case, status as a vehicle to esteem rather than the converse would
make all kinds of sense, wouldn't it?


> > 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.

No.  Extremely low self-esteem is perhaps one of the most
reliable clinical indicators that an individual should be closely
monitored for thoughts of suicide.  Any clinical psychologist 
worth his salt can tell you this:

  There is no value-judgment more important to man -- no factor 
  more decisive in his psychological development and motivation -- 
  than the estimate he passes on himself.  This estimate is 
  ordinarily experienced by him, not in the form of a conscious, 
  verbalized judgment, but in the form of a feeling, a feeling 
  that can be hard to isolate and identify because he experiences 
  it constantly: it is part of every other feeling, it is involved 
  in his every emotional response.  ... it is the single most 
  significant key to his behavior. (Nathaniel Branden)

> 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".

Now we're getting somewhere.  I think its because volatility in 
self-esteem is the maladaptive price mother nature has been willing
to pay in order to have a rational species to do her bidding.  We 
no longer surivive as automatrons, but require REASONS for doing 
so (needs for love, attention, purpose, moral integrity, meaning,
etc.).  Its just that we do it so well that mamma has been willing
to put up with a valuative profile that is, shall we say, something
less than optimal.


Phil Roberts, Jr.

                 Feelings of Worthlessness
  An Annotated Outline of a Theory of Emotional Instability