Self-efficacy, not self-esteem

Chicago Boyz had an interesting thread comparing the self-esteem movement to China’s focus on engineering education.

It is worth while, but it’s important to note two things that I have observed teaching 400-level classes in educational psychology

1) no serious researcher takes self-esteem seriously
2) nearly every pre-service teacher takes self-esteem seriously

I suspect this is becasue of the influence of the regular education faculty, who have limited training in the theory and methods of psychology, but a lot of exposure to educational fads like emotional intelligence.

To complicated matters, there is a predctively valid concept caled “sellf-efficacy,” which unfortunately shares the same initials as self-efficayc.

Here are examples of self-esteem questions

  • I feel good about myself (True / False)
  • I am a good person (True / False)
  • I am happy with who I am (True False)
  • I am good at math (True False)

Here are examples of self efficacy questions

On a scale of 0 to 100, how confident are you that you can perform the following tasks?

  • Correctly add these two numbers: 5 and 3
  • Correctly add these two numbers: 5353 less 3349
  • Correctly subtract these two numbers: 5 less 3
  • Correctly subtractthese two numbers: 5353 and 3349
  • Correctly multiple these two numbers: 5 and 3
  • Correctly multiplethese two numbers: 5353 and 3349
  • Correctly divide these two numbers: 5 into 3
  • Correctly divide these two numbers: 5353 into 3349

No one takes self-esteem seriously. Criticizing it is like criticizing holocaust denial: an excersize in frustration.

Self-efficacy is one of the best motivational constructs we have.

Update: Using the terms ‘entitlement’ (think: ‘self esteem’) and ‘locus of control’ (think: ‘self efficacy’) the New York Times covers similar ground.

9 thoughts on “Self-efficacy, not self-esteem”

  1. Another way of looking at it would be to think of real self-esteem vs false self-esteem. Knowing that you are worth something and that you can handle future challenges is a good thing. But it has to come from real learning and real accomplishment or it will vanish the instant you discover the reality of your abilities.

  2. That’s a fair way to think about it…

    The self-esteem movement had its foundation among Ayn Rand’s followers [1,2], and so has a lot of philosophical baggage.

    The answer to the question “Am I a good person?” requires all sorts of philosophical work before it can be answered.

    As an educator, I don’t particularly care if my students go through that work, or what conclusions they reach.

    Getting them to give their darn presentations well, however, does matter. 🙂

    [1] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nathaniel_Branden
    [2] http://www.nathanielbranden.com/ess/ess12.html

  3. So the concept of self esteem is not seen as legitimate in your field? It seems as if something exists relating to people’s confidence and self image? There are some people who lack confidence in many aspects of life (e.g., getting a date, being good at their job). There is also a lot of insecurity about appearance. I though all of this related to self esteem? Isn’t low self esteem just lack of confidence?

  4. The technical answer is that self-esteem is a ‘global’ concept while self-efficacy is a ‘domain-specific’ concept.

    Self-esteem relates to self-image, to a global or overall evaluation of one’s self. ‘Am I a good person?’ And so on.

    Self-esteem relates to a person’s self-rated ability to perform specific tasks in order to achieve specific goals. ‘How confident am I that I can begin a conversation with a girl in my class.’ And so on.

    An early application of self efficacy was combating snake phobia. Participants completed a survey, along the lines of

    Please rate your confidence in in your ability to perform these tasks from 0 to 100, with 0 meaning “Not at all confident and 100 meaning “Completely confident.”
    ___ I can stay calm around a snake for 1 second.
    ___ I can stay calm around a snake for 2 seconds.
    ___ I can stay calm around a snake for 5 seconds.
    ___ I can stay calm around a snake for 10 seconds.

    etc.

    Participants were then places in a room with a snake. In general, people with snake phobias would at first overestimate their ability to stay calm with a snake, and what we may call their snake-tolerating self efficacy plummeted.

    Then, they were shown a video, of someone else with a similar level of beginning self-efficacy, similarly freak out on being with a snake. The person on the television had a conversation with another person, who told them specific ways to regulate breathing to stay calm, for, say, 5 seconds. The person on the TV then tolerated the snake for 5 seconds. The real-life patient then had higher self-efficacy, stayed calm for 5 seconds, and so on. The process was repeated until both snake-tolerating self-efficacy, and actual snake-tolerating ability, were quite high.

    The traditional way of combating snake phobias involved a reward schedule, along the lines of B.F. Skinner’s operant conditioning [1]. Both work. I think the self-efficacy approach typically is more efficient.

    By contrast, self-esteem would focus on changing someone’s identity as a snake-tolerating person, or convincing the person that (a) they are brave and (b) brave people tolerate snakes, or something else.

    Self-esteem seems to be an epiphenomenon… it can be affected by other things, but doesn’t seem to predict anything itself (except in a circular way; ie., self-esteem is defined in relation to self-image, so if you know someone’s self-esteem, you know their self-image, etc.)

    [1] http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=I_ctJqjlrHA

  5. Heh. While i agree with you on self-efficacy vs. self-esteem, Dr. Nathaniel Branden, Ayn Rand’s former close associate and psychologist who originated the self-esteem school of thought after his split with Objectivism, most likely regrets how his original arguments mutated in the world of public ed.

  6. The use of Branden’s “self esteem” by the leftist educational establishment reminds me of the use of Marx’s “theory of surplus value” by cultural leftists… Just as Branden didn’t want to foster ‘egalitarian’ classrooms, I’m pretty sure Marx’s sympathy were with blue-collar workers, and not the latte-drinking discourse-theorists!

  7. Interesting article!

    As I understand it, self-esteem means the extent that you deem yourself worthy and self-efficacy means the extent that you believe you can perform a certain task.

    Low self-esteem (believing that you’re worthless) does cause clinical depression. But psychotherapists prefer to use the term “irrational beliefs” rather than the “self-esteem” term.

    Nevertheless, if you have a high self-efficacy (believing that you can do things excellently), you will automatically have a high self-esteem (believing that you’re worthwhile).

    So I think teachers should encourage students to perform well rather than feel good.

  8. Al,

    Thanks for the comment!

    As I understand it, self-esteem means the extent that you deem yourself worthy and self-efficacy means the extent that you believe you can perform a certain task.

    Exactly right!

    Nevertheless, if you have a high self-efficacy (believing that you can do things excellently), you will automatically have a high self-esteem (believing that you’re worthwhile).

    Here I disagree.

    Imagine a child from a broken and abusive home. He may have low self-esteem, and be miserable. Nonetheless, he may work hard at math problems if he has high self-efficacy in mathematics.

    Of course, someone who does well is more likely to be able to work hard to get into situations that are pleasant, and may generate feelings of happiness.

    So I think teachers should encourage students to perform well rather than feel good.

    I agree!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *