Geometry for Jockeys, Foreign Affairs in Fantasyland, The Case Against Self-Esteem, and Other Matters. Pride and Prejudice

(FORTUNE Magazine) – The American Psychological Association (APA) was conventioneering in the Big Apple recently, so naturally we Gothamites had to sit there and absorb still more lectures on the transcendent importance of self-esteem, and before the folks were through, we were looking for some psychologists willing to testify that self-esteem can be bad for you. Ultimately we found a couple, but by that time the APA had left town, so we had nobody to share this nugget with except maybe our pen pals at the California Task Force to Promote Self-Esteem and Personal and Social Responsibility, assuming that they are still talking to us after repeated hints in this department that the task force is au fond another Big Government boondoggle. Last week's lectures proved unsurprising. The two that got the most ink were in the doll-selection vein, meaning that once again the experiments involved little kids being asked to select a doll that they particularly liked or disliked, a recurrent theme being that if a black kid likes a white doll this shows low self-esteem and vice versa. Psychologists have been doing doll tests for 40 years or so, and many of them have reported that black kids do in fact tend to opt for white dolls. The explanation usually offered is institutional racism: Whites in our society are favored by ''prevailing social attitudes and values attached to race and skin color.'' That particular phrase is lifted from the APA paper presented by Sharon-ann Gopaul-McNichol, who had, we felt, a peculiarly difficult job of interpretation. Her problem was that, in addition to doll studies involving American black kids, she had studied ; their counterparts in Trinidad. The kids in Trinidad live in a black culture, under a nonwhite government (freely elected), and see black businessmen everywhere -- and yet they too turned out to prefer white dolls. How could this be? Unpersuasive answer: Even in Trinidad you can't get away from racism. Not adequately addressed was the possibility that the doll studies are flawed and have little to tell us about self-esteem or racism. In any case it is far from settled that blacks do in fact have low self- esteem. Not all doll studies reach that judgment, and studies of black adults point clearly to an opposite judgment. Viktor Gecas, a sociologist at Washington State University, surveyed the field in a panoramic 1982 study (title: ''The Self-Concept'') published in the Annual Review of Sociology and concluded: ''With regard to race, current research has found either no difference between the self-esteem levels of blacks and whites, or that blacks have slightly higher self-esteem than whites.'' Gecas's paper is not easy going for nonspecialists, and his exploration of the different schools now out there studying the self -- you get to meet the symbolic interactionists, the processual interactionists, and the structural interactionists -- is eye-glazing at times. But we definitely perked up at this arresting sentence: ''High self-esteem is generally viewed as having favorable consequences, but the research literature is by no means clear on this point.'' Oh? High self-esteem may be bad? Yes, friends, some scholars cited by Gecas believe that too much SE can cause you to be dogmatic and ''less open to new experiences.'' Will California eventually need a Task Force on Humility? Don't laugh.