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Sex and Money Are Okay, But Young People Want Self-Esteem


Self-esteem is generally viewed as a positive trait, but findings of a new study suggest that young people may want it too much. Researchers from Ohio State University found that college students desired self-esteem over sex, money, alcohol, and a best friend.

An obsession with self-esteem can be harmful

Brad Bushman, lead author of the research and professor of communication and psychology at The Ohio State University, and his colleagues Jennifer Crocker, professor of psychology at Ohio State, and Scott Moeller of Brookhaven National Laboratory, conducted two separate studies in college students. Participants were questioned about how much they wanted and liked different pleasant activities and to rate how much they wanted and liked each activity on a scale of 1 (not at all) to 5 (extremely).

The students ranked receiving praise, good grades, and other self-esteem builders above sex, getting a paycheck, and seeing friends, as well as other pleasant activities. In one of the studies, students who highly valued self-esteem were more likely to spend additional time to get an extra boost to their self-esteem, according to Bushman.

The importance of knowing how much people “want” something versus how much they “like” something is associated with addiction research, which suggests addicts are more likely to say they “want” the drug, gambling, or other object of their addiction than they actually “like” the object.

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In this study, the students liked all the pleasant activities more than they wanted them, which Bushman noted is a healthy response. However, he also pointed out that “It wouldn’t be correct to say that the study participants were addicted to self-esteem. But they were closer to being addicted to self-esteem than they were to being addicted to any other activity we studied.”

An aspect of “wanting” things is entitlement. Bushman noted that “Entitled people want all the good things in life, even if they don’t particularly like them.” Bushman expressed concern about this obsession with self-esteem, a trait that has been increasing among college students in the United States since the mid-1960s.

Self-esteem has even garnered its own association. The National Association for Self-Esteem notes that its purpose is to “fully integrate self-esteem into the fabric of American Society so that every individual, no matter what their age or background, experiences personal worth and happiness.” The Association also emphasizes that it believes in personal responsibility and accountability.

While young people may highly value and want self-esteem, Crocker noted that “when people highly value self-esteem, they may avoid doing things such as acknowledging a wrong they did.” And while it can be a blow to people’s self-esteem to admit they are wrong, “ultimately it could lead to better learning, relationships, growth, and even future self-esteem,” said Crocker.

National Association for Self-Esteem
The Ohio State University