How the Self-Esteem Craze Took Over America

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In 1991, a children’s book called The Lovables in the Kingdom of Self-Esteem was published. Written by Diane Loomans and illustrated by Kim Howard, The Lovables imparts a simple, nurturing message: You, the tiny child reading this book or having this book read to you, are very special.

The inside copy reads as follows:

I AM LOVABLE!

I AM LOVABLE!

I AM LOVABLE!

By using these magical words, the gates to the Kingdom of Self-Esteem swing open for readers of all ages. Inside the Kingdom live twenty-four animals — the Lovables — each one with a special gift to contribute. Mona Monkey is lovable. Owen Owl is capable. Buddy Beaver takes care of the world around him. Greta Goat trusts herself.

It seems mawkish now, even by the standards of children’s books, but The Lovables was published as a runaway cultural trend was cresting across North America: the self-esteem craze. If you grew up, or raised a child, during the 1980s or 1990s, you almost certainly remember this sort of material, as well as goofy classroom exercises focusing on how special each individual child was. A certain ethos took hold during this time: It was the job of schools to educate, yes, but also to instill in children a sense of their own specialness and potential.

It wasn’t just schoolkids. During this span, just about everyone, from CEOs to welfare recipients, was told — often by psychologists with serious credentials — that improving their self-esteem could, as The Lovables put it, unlock the gates to more happiness, better performance, and every kind of success imaginable. This was both a personal argument and a political one: The movement, which had its epicenter in California, argued that increasing people’s self-esteem could reduce crime, teen pregnancy, and a host of other social ills — even pollution.

It would be hard to overstate the long-term impact of these claims. The self-esteem craze changed how countless organizations were run, how an entire generation — millenials — was educated, and how that generation went on to perceive itself (quite favorably). As it turned out, the central claim underlying the trend, that there’s a causal relationship between self-esteem and various positive outcomes, was almost certainly inaccurate. But that didn’t matter: For millions of people, this was just too good and satisfying a story to check, and that’s part of the reason the national focus on self-esteem never fully abated. Many people still believe that fostering a sense of self-esteem is just about the most important thing one can do, mental health–wise.

At root, this national obsession was mostly the work of a very eccentric politician: John Vasconcellos. Vasconcellos, who died in 2014, was a California state legislator for 38 years. In his obituary, the San Jose Mercury News described him as a “famously rumpled bear-of-a-man” who was “colorful, witty, brilliant, angry, intellectual and elegantly foul of mouth.” Most of all, though, he was a nonconformist — during one three-year stretch, he decided to just let his hair grow and grow and grow — and his nonconformity frequently took on a decidedly Californian hue. Vasconcellos was an idealist who was convinced that humans had untold, untapped greatness, but it was an idealism driven in part by a bevy of personal demons and a long-running battle to control his anger problems. He was quite public about his varied attempts at self-improvement, which ranged from obscure forms of therapy to the teachings of the New Age Esalen Institute in Big Sur.

Somewhere along the way, Vasconcellos discovered what was by then a good-size body of psychological research on self-esteem. It showed that people with high versus low self-esteem reacted in different ways to various challenges and instances of adversity — as the social psychologist Roy Baumeister, who has studied self-esteem (among many other subjects), explained to Science of Us, in experiments self-esteem was correlated with how favorably experimental subjects presented themselves to others, and “how favorably do they react when we tell them they failed on the first trial of a [multi-trial] task?”

This was a career-defining find for Vasconcellos. The logic was simple: If low self-esteem is tied to so many maladaptive responses, to so many forms of underachievement and bad behavior, then surely raising kids’ (and other’s) self-esteem could bring with it untold benefits. Soon, Vasconcellos was lobbying Sacramento to launch a statewide self-esteem commission to study the public-policy implications of self-esteem. And after a number of false starts and near misses, he got his commission: In 1986, California passed, and then-governor George Deukmejian signed, legislation creating the California Task Force to Promote Self-Esteem and Personal and Social Responsibility. The Task Force’s goals were to explore how to apply self-esteem to a range of social problems, and the state budgeted the group $245,000 per year. Naturally, it was headed by Vasconcellos.

Much of the nation laughed in response — Garry Trudeau famously pilloried the concept for three straight weeks in “Doonesbury” (his ditzy character Boopsie was named to a fictionalized version of the task force) — but for the task force’s members, it was time to get to work, to make good on all of Vasconcellos’s wide-eyed promises. And once his task force was staffed up, it wasn’t just the organic-granola set — it consisted of “a mix of fundamentalist Christians, gay activists, law enforcement officers, educators, counselors and New Age believers,” according to one article, and its members were confident about their new project. In fact, as the Washington Post paraphrased it, they predicted “that many other states will follow once they see that the idea can save the state money spent on truant officers and prison cells.”

The task force didn’t get off to a particularly quick or efficient start. It took its members more than a year to come up with a practical definition of self-esteem in the first place, with “[a]ppreciating my own worth and importance, and having the character to be accountable for myself and to act responsibly toward others” winning out. But once the task force had picked up a little, some momentum kicked in, and the underlying idea became more and more seductive: What if all sorts of bad social outcomes really were caused directly by low self-esteem? That would suggest a very easy vector for fixing them — one that could appeal not only to New Agey liberals but to budget-conscious conservatives, too. This bipartisanship was key to the idea’s success and widespread adoption. In one Associated Press interview, for example, a Republican member of the task force framed self-esteem initiatives as an alternative to “pouring money down the so-called rat holes” of traditional approaches to fighting social problems. “We keep spending money on crime and violence,” he said. “We keep spending money on drug abuse.” If government could find cheap ways to instill higher self-esteem, the thinking went, much of that spending might not be necessary.

The excitement was fueled by a steady drumbeat of “research,” purporting to confirm Vasconcellos’s theory that self-esteem lay at the heart of many personal and societal difficulties, much of which was fairly anecdotal or otherwise low quality. Vasconcellos’s task force also held a series of events around California in which police officers, social workers, ex-cons, and others testified to the importance of self-esteem. Yes, there were embarrassing hiccups — like when a photographer caught the commission’s members holding hands in a circle after their lunch break — but overall, the group was surprisingly successful at quickly carving itself out a place in the national conversation about drugs, crime, and other social ills.

Baumeister observed all this with increasingly arched eyebrows. “Starting in ’84 and ’85,” he said, “I started to watch for contrary evidence and began to notice that things aren’t as rosy as I had assumed.” As an author of some of the research which likely convinced Vasconcellos to make self-esteem his major policy project in the first place, Baumeister was worried the self-esteemers in California had neglected a fairly straightforward possibility: Maybe it isn’t that high self-esteem causes high performance, but rather the reverse, that people who are more talented or smart or successful have higher self-esteem because of their positive attributes and accomplishments. This is the sort of thing that can be checked empirically, but while the task force produced a healthy quantity of research, its quality was lacking. “I read the publications that they produced and they were not strong,” Baumeister explained.

In 1989, the task force released its flagship publication, the book The Social Importance of Self-Esteem. This, too, was underwhelming, according to Baumeister. “Boy, they did not find very much,” he said. He also simply couldn’t find any research supporting some of Vasconcellos’s most exciting promises about the power of self-esteem, such as its ostensible potential for reducing violence. “It seemed that this idea had gotten somehow started by accident,” he said. “I could never track down any original statement or source or data suggesting low self-esteem caused aggression.”

The media saw things differently. While the initial wave of skepticism did receive plenty of media coverage — the “Doonesbury” strips were mentioned endlessly — subsequent reporting on the self-esteem movement tended to take on a fairly credulous tone. Rarely was there much pushback to the glowing anecdotes and the endless unchallenged quotes from confident but confused experts about the importance of self-esteem. “I’ve read hundreds of files on criminals,” Deputy Attorney General Brian Taugher told a United Press International journalist. “Some people end up in a life of serious crime simply because they dislike themselves.” Here and elsewhere, correlation and causation were endlessly confused. That is: Of course it shouldn’t be surprising if many criminals have low self-esteem. That’s because people who are criminals tend to have a lot of bad stuff going on in their lives. It doesn’t prove self-esteem caused their criminality, or that had someone had bolstered their self-esteem at a young age, they wouldn’t have ended up committing crimes anyway.

Contemporaneous media coverage also fell for a common flaw in the thinking of the self-esteemers: They would conflate self-esteem with, well, a lot of other stuff. For example, a 1989 Baltimore Sun article described a San Jose “curriculum based on principles of self-esteem” thusly: “The framework, which applies to teachers as well as students, is based on developing a sense of security, identity, belonging, purpose and personal competence. A student who is doing poorly in geography, for instance, has the opportunity to take a learning partner in class, to work with an older student or a teacher, or to take an after-school study hall.” But giving a student extra academic help isn’t boosting their self-esteem, exactly, at least not directly — it’s giving them extra academic help. Vasconcellos and his colleagues had a tendency to describe all sorts of social programs as falling under the rubric of “self-esteem,” even rather traditional examples of social and academic support services that didn’t target self-esteem directly. There was some mission creep here, and it confounded matters — maybe some of these programs did improve outcomes, but that wasn’t necessarily due to their self-esteem components. And amid all of this excitement, the skeptics’ voices were mostly drowned out.

***

The end result of all this was an increasingly massive cottage industry devoted to self-esteem. It’s actually hard to find concrete dollar amounts about the true size of this industry — the broader self-help industry, of which self-esteem is a part, brought in a cool $10 billion a year by 2015 — but a New York Times article from 1990 nicely captures its scope: “Hundreds of school districts have added self-esteem motivational materials to their curriculums,” wrote reporter Lena Williams. “American employers have turned increasingly to consultants who say they can raise employees’ morale and work performance through self-esteem techniques. New companies have formed, devoted to teaching on self-esteem themes, and hundreds of books on self-esteem and self-enhancement have been published.” Naturally, the most successful self-esteem entrepreneurs made a lot of money peddling their wares. Jack Canfield, the founder of the L.A.-based Self-Esteem Seminars, offered seven-hour self-esteem seminars involving videos, audiotapes, and kinesthetics (he would later co-author the mega-best-selling Chicken Soup for the Soul, which launched a veritable empire of sequels and offshoots). In some states, welfare recipients were given workbooks designed to help them boost their self-esteem, and of course some companies had to provide those materials, too. Overall, the cottage-industrialization of self-esteem further disincentivized many people — not just the peddlers of self-esteem materials, but the school-district and corporate decision-makers who had already shelled out a lot of money for them — from viewing the concept with too skeptical an eye.

Nowhere did the craze hit harder than in American schools. And once it did, it produced an endless assortment of colorful classroom interventions. One common exercise for elementary-schoolers involved a Koosh ball. A kid tosses the ball to another kid and compliments them — I like your shirt. Then they toss the ball to someone else and compliment them — You’re good at soccer. The good feelings travel with the Koosh ball across the room, back and forth and back and forth. This is somewhat similar to the “Magic Circle” exercise described in a 1990 Toronto Globe and Mail account of a Toronto classroom:

It’s 9:30 a.m., Magic Circle time in Room Six at Winchester Public School.

A dozen third-graders and their teacher, Oksaha Hohol, sit cross-legged on an old rug. Ms Hohol welcomes each child. Today’s topic, she says, is “something nice I have done for a friend.”

They think for a few minutes. Lydia puts her hands together, signalling that she wishes to speak. “Some kids were picking on one of my friends, so I gave her a big hug” she says.

Other children describe similar good deeds. They praise each other. Oksana, as the children call her, thanks each student by name and later asks what they like about “Circle.”

“I feel good when I share my feelings,” one child says.

Other schools stopped using red pens, the theory being that seeing a lot of red on a spelling test could harm a child’s self-esteem. Some installed mirrors with text like “You are now looking at one of the most special people in the whole wide world!” engraved on them. My own most vivid memory of self-esteem probably comes from sometime in elementary school, during an exercise in which self-esteem was described as a balloon that inflates and deflates throughout the day based on what happens to you. When it’s full, meaning you have high self-esteem, good stuff happens — higher grades and more friends and smarter decisions. When it’s empty, man, are you vulnerable. Your grades will suffer and you’ll find it way harder to Just Say No when you’re offered drugs. The image and underlying idea stuck with me, in part because it reduced so much complexity and so many outcomes to one simple balloon.

According to Steve Salerno, the author of Sham: How the Self-Help Movement Made America Helpless (as the title of his book suggests, he is not a fan of the self-help movement), the self-esteem movement was built on ideas that had actually been percolating since the 1960s and 1970s. “Self-esteem-based education comes straight out of the theory of victimization, which was advanced in such early books as I’m OK – You’re OK, and despite the titular message, the real point of the message was you’re not okay, you’re all broken inside and need to be fixed,” he explained.

There was a great deal of overlap between the people who gobbled up titles like I’m OK — You’re OK and those who hopped on the self-esteem bandwagon, and by the time the self-esteem hype started to build, many readers had deeply internalized the notion that individuals’ self-conception problems were holding them back — but could be fixed. The promotion of self-esteem in schools, then, “was a response to this notion that kids who arrived in school carried this original sin with them — they’re all victims,” said Salerno. “And the reason kids perform poorly in school,” in this view, “is they don’t have the confidence to do better.”

Salerno said that these ideas totally transformed education in many parts of the country. It wasn’t just Koosh balls and cheesy mirror exercises — in many schools, prevailing assumptions about academic rigor and feedback changed too. The thinking went, “Don’t make kids feel bad about everything, because if they feel bad they’ll perform poorly,” as Salerno put it. Self-esteem also became centered in the long-running national conversation about societal inequality. “There was this sense of the inner city falling behind — specifically black kids in the inner city are not performing as well as other kids,” said Salerno. “And there was this assumption that it was because they lacked self-esteem.” If you can boost your self-esteem, you can close the achievement gap. The nice thing about this theory, Salerno noted, is it doesn’t require much of a fundamental reworking of the educational system — it’s something of an easy way out. In many cases, advocates focused on self-esteem “rather than hiring better teachers, spending more money on actual schools and instruction. It became a surrogate for the stuff that might actually have done some good.”

***

As it turned out, there was very little validity to the causal claims everyone was making about self-esteem in the 1980s and ’90s. We know that because around the turn of the century, long after self-esteem programs had blossomed all over North America, the psychological Establishment decided to take a more critical look at the dogma surrounding the subject. Baumeister and three other researchers were invited by the American Psychological Society to conduct a comprehensive review of the literature to find out whether self-esteem really “works” as advertised. In a 2005 article in Scientific American and a more technical paper published in Psychological Science and the Public Interest, they delivered the bad news: There was little published evidence supporting Vasconcellos’s ideas. In some areas, high self-esteem actually correlated with worse behavior — some criminals, it turns out, actually view themselves quite favorably.

In other areas, it turned out that correlation did not imply causation, just as Baumeister suspected. Take a 1986 study his team reviewed which found that “self-esteem in 10th grade is only weakly predictive of academic achievement in 12th grade,” for example. Academic achievement, on the other hand, did predict higher self-esteem. It’s more likely that successful people with high self-esteem have high self-esteem because they’re successful than vice versa.

Baumeister and his colleagues didn’t come down particularly hard on the psychologists and others who had contributed to the self-esteem craze. “Was it reasonable to start boosting self-esteem before all the data were in?” they wrote in one of the papers. “Perhaps. We recognize that many practitioners and applied psychologists must deal with problems before all the relevant research can be conducted.” This is, in fact, a common occurrence in social science: You have a handful of papers pointing to a correlation that could have important real-world ramifications, assuming certain things are true. But it takes a while to determine whether those certain other things are true, and in the meantime other people — people who might not be as committed to scientific rigor as the best social scientists are, or who are trying to solve urgent real-world problems and don’t have the luxury of waiting for more peer-reviewed evidence to come in — might decide to run with the idea before the evidence is in.

That seems to be what happened here. Despite the absence of causal evidence linking self-esteem to positive outcomes, it was such an irresistible story that, from the point of view of excitable politicians like Vasconcellos, there was enough evidence to go ahead and run with it. And thus a simple, highly viral message — raising self-esteem can greatly improve people’s lives and productivity — was able to catch on because it offered a straightforward solution to a constellation of problems that are not, in fact, straightforward to solve. It felt like an easy fix because none of the nuance that should go into rigorous social science filtered down to policy makers themselves — many of those policy makers developed misconceptions about what, exactly, bona fide experts had and hadn’t discovered. “Social researchers have long told us that a lack of self-esteem underlies society’s most pressing problems,” wrote a Maryland House delegate in a 1989 letter to the editor which ran in the Washington Post, “the ones government shells out big dollars to alleviate.” She was wrong, of course, but it’s not hard to understand where she might have gotten the idea. The fact that self-esteem was such a bipartisan hit, with liberals and conservatives both supporting it in fairly high numbers (albeit couched in slightly different reasoning), also made it tougher for any unified opposition to the concept to develop — though there were certainly some (again, mostly ignored) skeptics along the way, among them conservative social commentators like Charles Krauthammer and “Dr. Laura” Schlessinger who saw the self-esteem movement as yet another manifestation of the saccharine mushy self-help drivel that was, in their view, undermining America.

Now, the self-esteem movement may not have fulfilled its goal of helping ameliorate every social problem under the sun, but that doesn’t mean it didn’t have an effect. Not surprisingly, the clearest evidence comes from the most malleable Americans who were exposed to self-esteem: kids. While the heightened focus on self-esteem may not have made the children of the 1980s and 1990s smarter or more successful or better students, it did likely have a long-term impact on them, according to Jean Twenge, a psychologist at San Diego State University and the author of Generation Me: Why Today’s Young Americans Are More Confident, Assertive, Entitled — and More Miserable Than Ever Before. “The self-esteem movement is at least one factor in explaining why millennials have higher self-esteem, are more likely to see themselves as above average, and in general have more positive self-views than previous generations did at the same age,” she said. “I also think it may explain why they score higher in measures of narcissistic personality traits.” Twenge emphasized that it’s important not to tell an overly simplistic story here. “I’ve occasionally been misread,” she explained, with people accusing her of overemphasizing the role of the self-esteem movement in causing generational personality differences. Still, she said the available evidence suggests the self-esteem movement had a measurable impact. “Certainly millennials were the generation most exposed to the idea that self-esteem is the key to success,” she said. “They were also the generation most exposed to the idea that we should boost children’s self-esteem either at home or in school through various methods.”

One interesting way of tracking the growth of the self-esteem craze is by examining the language that blossomed around it. Take, for example, research Twenge and others have conducted on the frequency of certain feel-good sentences phrases in English-language literature — sentences like Believe in yourself and anything is possible, and You have to love yourself first before you can love someone else. “Those phrases are taken for granted as advice we give teens and adults,” explained Twenge, “but they’re very modern. At least in written language, they were very uncommon before about 1980, and then became much more popular. They’re all very individualistic, they’re all very self-focused, they’re also all delusional. ‘Believe in yourself and anything is possible’? Nope, it’s just not true.”

***

So many of the features that defined the self-esteem craze — the simple, inspiring message, the large quantity of less-than-rigorous research, the prevalence of confirmation bias, the cottage-industry opportunities for profit — have popped up again and again in the years since, in the many other forms of half-baked psychological science that have garnered mainstream attention and vacuumed up resources (think blockbuster research ideas like power posing and the implicit association test). But none of these ideas have quite changed our culture the way the self-esteem craze did. Today, it is simple, ingrained common sense for millions of Americans that of course increasing people’s self-esteem works. Countless books will tell you as such.

There is, if you squint, a glimmer of truth to the idea. The so-called mind-set research spearheaded by Stanford University psychologist Carol Dweck suggests that one way to improve educational attainment is to instill in children a “growth” rather than a “fixed” mind-set — that is, the idea that they have the capacity to learn and improve, rather than that their intelligence is fixed at a certain level. It’s not shocking that one route to higher achievement is to believe you can attain higher achievement.

But isn’t that how it always works? There are also nuggets of truth embedded in power posing and the IAT — it’s almost certainly the case that your posture affects how other people view you, and it’s almost certainly the case that implicit bias affects many important real-world outcomes. The problems arise when certain basically true claims take on lives of their own, getting blown up as Innovative New Ideas that can subsequently be marketed as important new approaches to solving major problems. Self-esteem might be the single best example of this, because it shows just how viral this brand of quick-fix psychology can go. At its most successful, these ideas really can reshape society and culture. And it feels like self-esteem presaged many of these other simple, straightforward stories; it feels like today, it’s increasingly common for academics to sell — often onstage at a TED Talk — simple, one- or two-sentence accounts of human nature that supposedly are the key to solving problems that have been around for decades or centuries or millennia. Most of these ideas don’t catch on the way self-esteem did, but many are quite successful, and it feels like there are more of them — and that mainstream researchers have, if anything, gotten less skeptical and humble in their claims.

In much the same way it’s hard to put a specific dollar amount on the self-esteem movement, it’s also hard to track its decline with all that much precision. It does seem, anecdotally, like many of the most out-there classroom exercises have been retired, and that corporate go-getters have turned away from self-esteem and toward other interventions — power posing! — to maximize their earning potential. Overall, though, the movement was so successful that it has become embedded in the national conversation as truth — it’s never going to fully recede into the past: Of course it’s important for kids to have self-esteem. Of course you can’t really love someone else unless you love yourself.

Or: Of course oversimplified stories about human nature are irresistible.

***

Today, of course, social science is viewed a little bit differently — a little bit more rigorously — by the public than it was during Peak Self-Esteem. TED Talks aside, there’s more understanding of the ways in which the scientific method can lead us astray, can prop up misleading notions about human nature and behavior. So it would be nice to think that these days, something like the self-esteem craze couldn’t happen, that we wouldn’t fall for it.

But if you listen to what’s been going on with the hype over “grit,” you will hear some unfortunate echoes.

In recent years, a group of researchers led by the University of Pennsylvania’s Angela Duckworth have claimed that this personality characteristic, which is defined as “perseverance and passion for long-term goals,” predicts academic — and therefore career and life — success better than just about anything else we can measure. “My lab has found that this measure beats the pants off IQ, SAT scores, physical fitness and a bazillion other measures to help us know in advance which individuals will be successful in some situations,” Duckworth told the New York Times last year. And during the portion of her 10-million-views TED Talk in which she discussed rookie teachers working in challenging schools, Duckworth claimed that “one characteristic emerged as a significant predictor of success. And it wasn’t social intelligence. It wasn’t good looks, physical health, and it wasn’t IQ. It was grit.”

It would be hard to overstate the hype that has ensued as a result of these claims — grit has been described by many of its proponents and disciples as the secret to success, a story line Duckworth helped promote in her best-selling book Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance. She also won a MacArthur “genius” grant for her work on the subject. The Department of Education has recommended grit interventions in K–12 education, while the Knowledge Is Power Program (KIPP), a network of 200 charter schools around the country, has adopted grit as one of the seven foundational “character strengths” it seeks to foster in its students. And because grit satisfies a “recent update to federal education law [that] requires states to include at least one nonacademic measure in judging school performance,” as the Times put it, many more schools nationwide are exploring how to integrate the measurement and fostering of grit into their classrooms and curricula.

So it’s surprising that there’s so little evidence to buttress Duckworth’s claims that grit is a uniquely powerful predictor of academic success — let alone that interventions can meaningfully increase it. The best research available suggests that, predictionwise, grit is in practice almost completely identical to the well-known Big Five personality trait known as conscientiousness, and that it performs significantly worse, as a predictor of academic achievement, than much less sexy measures like students’ study skills.

A meta-analysis (PDF) published last year by the researchers Marcus Credé, Michael Tynan, and Peter Harms suggests that “interventions designed to enhance grit may only have weak effects on performance and success,” and that the “construct validity” of grit — meaning, the extent to which it’s a psychologically useful concept that is meaningfully correlated with real-world outcomes — “is in question.” Moreover, Credé and his colleagues have discovered that Duckworth made some very basic, as-yet-uncorrected statistical errors in her early grit research – “elementary” ones, as he put it in an email – leading to what he and his colleagues say is an overinflated estimate of grit’s importance. The errors are still sitting there in the original work, uncorrected, though Duckworth has said she is going to look into them.

Duckworth, to her credit, has criticized people who, in her view, have touted the concept’s real-world applications prematurely, and in an email she sent a link to a document she is working on to respond to Credé’s meta-analysis and other critiques of her work (she said she plans on publishing it but it isn’t ready for public consumption yet). She also denied having overhyped grit — “To be honest,” she wrote in her email, “I don’t know where in my book, or my published articles, or even in talks, where I’ve asserted that grit is the only, or even the best predictor, of *all* success outcomes.”

But whether or not one thinks that jibes with her Times or TED Talk claims, or that the statistical errors are as big a deal as Credé believes, the fact is that plenty of people are overhyping the importance of grit, or at the very least running significantly ahead of the published evidence.

While grit has not had the runaway success of self-esteem, in part because it’s so new, there are some other striking parallels here as well. Grit, like self-esteem, boils down to a message that deeply resonates within the society in which the concept was birthed. That is, if self-actualization was all the rage for middle-class consumers of pop psychology during the more touchy-feely ’60s and ’70s in which Vasconcellos’s worldview developed, today things are a little, well, grittier. Society has grown more individualistic, more unequal, and more bootstraps-focused.

So while the oversimplified message of If we can just improve self-esteem, it will solve lots of problems “fit” the 1980s, in 2017 a message like If we can just teach kids to try harder and exhibit more perseverance, they can succeed is much more likely to spread far and wide. It’s the same general structure, though: Like self-esteem, grit scrubs away so much of the complexity and inequality that determines who gets what, and who succeeds and who fails, replacing all that messiness with a clean and memorable story line that can be summed up in a sentence or two. And yes, proponents of grit might insist, when challenged, that of course there are other factors at work here — factors that need to be recognized — but that doesn’t render moot the extent to which the concept has become overinflated.

Maybe the biggest problem here, whether one is discussing the waning self-esteem craze or the possibly burgeoning grit one, is the basic idea that some behavioral-science eureka moment will, on its own, do all or much of the work of solving big problems in education or the justice system or any other area rife with inequities. No problem important enough to attract the attention of social scientists is simple enough to be solved by the latest idea to spring forth from their labs. Things are always more complicated than “If only we could get people to be more X, then surely we’d see improvements in social problem Y.” Social science, in short, should be seen as just one part of the very complicated process of solving big societal problems – not as a fountain of revolutionary One Simple Tricks.

How the Self-Esteem Craze Took Over America