TUESDAY, Jan. 11, 2011 (HealthDay News) -- After a lifetime of being told that they're "winners" who are "special," today's young people crave these boosts to their self-esteem more than sex, drinking, money or food, new research suggests.
The self-esteem movement of recent decades may have backfired by creating individuals who expect success and praise in a world that won't necessarily cooperate long-term, said study co-author Brad Bushman, a professor of communication and psychology at Ohio State University.
Bushman and his colleagues conducted two experiments on 282 college students, asking them to rate how much they wanted and liked various pleasurable activities such as receiving a paycheck, seeing a best friend, eating a favorite food or engaging in a sexual activity.
The list of items to choose from included receiving a compliment or getting a good grade.
The students valued boosts to their self-esteem such as receiving good grades or compliments more than any of the other experiences.
"We were shocked because we tried to think of everything college students love," Bushman said. "We were really surprised college students would rather be praised. I don't think it should trump those and I don't think it's such a basic need. Social stimulation is important . . . but I think that's very different from the need to be praised."
In a laboratory setting, students took a test that supposedly measured their intellectual ability and were told afterward that if they waited another 10 minutes they could have their test re-scored using a new scoring algorithm that usually produces higher results.
The study, reported online in advance of publication in an upcoming print issue of the Journal of Personality, said those who highly valued self-esteem were more likely to take the time to wait for the new scores.
Participants, who also completed a Narcissistic Personality Inventory, were asked to rank both how much they liked and wanted a certain pleasant activity, because addiction research suggests that addicts tend to report that they want the object of their addiction more than they actually like it, according to Bushman.
While it would be incorrect to say the students were addicted to self-esteem, Bushman said, they were closer to being addicted to self-esteem than they were to being addicted to any other activity in the study.
Participants with a strong sense of entitlement -- indicated by being more likely to agree with statements such as "If I ruled the world, it would be a better place" rather than "The thought of ruling the world frightens the hell out of me" -- were most likely to "want" self-esteem boosts than to actually "like" them.
"It's a big problem and I think that [a] sense of entitlement is damaging to society," Bushman said. "When you believe you're more deserving than others, that you're better than they are, and you don't get what you think you deserve, you become angry."
Jean Twenge, who authored a book on young people's self-views called Generation Me, said the study shows the downsides of self-esteem, which until recently was widely believed to be only positive. Research has shown that levels of self-esteem have been increasing, particularly among college students, since the mid-1960s.
"It's pretty scary that it's now to the point where these American students feel their self-esteem is more important than those other rewards," said Twenge, also a professor of psychology at San Diego State University.
"What you really see is . . . it's this kind of empty self-esteem where you're supposed to feel special just for being you, that everyone's a winner and we should all feel good about ourselves all the time," she said. "Which kind of ignores that self-esteem is usually based on something."
Bushman related the story of his son's first day of kindergarten when the then 5-year-old came home wearing a sticker that said, "I'm a winner!" and said that his teacher had given one to all of his classmates. A little later he told his parents, "I know what happened -- every kid got a sticker, but mine was the only one that said 'I'm a winner!' All the other ones said, 'I'm a loser!'"
"Even this 5-year-old boy knew everyone can't be the best. He knew there was a discrepancy," Bushman said. "I think we need to wait until they behave well before we pat them on the back."
For more information on college students and self-esteem, visit the archives of the American Psychological Association.