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April 18, 2014
CONTACT: K.E. Schwab

SRU faculty student researchers find no link between self-esteem, good works

SLIPPERY ROCK, Pa. - While many believe having high self-esteem will lead children to do good things, a study by Elizabeth Boerger, Slippery Rock University assistant professor of psychology, and her two student researchers, has found "it ain't necessarily so."

Their project "Does Feeling Good About Yourself Lead to Doing Good?" examined previously gathered and original research data to find that "feeling good about yourself does not predict doing good."

Sarah Falkowitz, a psychology major from Fairport, N.Y., and Karisa Mauthe, a psychology major from Hooker, undertook the research. They recently presented their work at SRU's annual Symposium for Student Research, Scholarship and Creative Achievement. They also presented their finding at the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education STEM Conference last November.

"These results contribute a new piece to an ongoing debate about the implications of high and low self-esteem," Boerger said.

The SRU researchers undertook the work in light of recent programs, especially those aimed at school-age children to increase their self-esteem, with the secondary hope that the resultant increase would translate into positive actions on the part of the child.

"There are questions in psychology on whether positive self-esteem leads to positive outcomes," Boerger said.

A recent review of self-esteem literature showed when people are rating their own attributes; self-esteem ratings are closely related to positive characteristics. However, when other people are rating them there is no correlation between self-esteem and the same positive attributes, she said.

The SRU researchers raised the question about whether having a positive self-view leads to positive behavior toward other people.

As part of that research the SRU team studied nearly 200 third- through seventh-graders, asking them to complete the "Self Perception Profile for Children," which measures children's beliefs about their own scholastic competence, social acceptance, athletic competence, physical appearance, behavioral conduct, as well as global self-worth.

"Four months later each child was given five, $1 bills and the opportunity to donate some or all of it to a local food pantry. The majority of the children did donate some money, but the amount varied by grade and across individual children. Partial correlations, controlling for the effect of grade, showed no significant relations between any aspect of self-concept or self-esteem and the amount donated," the study reports.

"These results indicate that feeling good about yourself does not predict doing good," Boerger said.

She said the researchers tackled the issue, in part, "because there had been previous findings that indicated self-esteem doesn't predict a number of positive things that had been thought of as positive effects of high self-esteem For many years, a number of programs in schools emphasized building children's self-esteem. The idea was to encourage school children to have a good sense of self and to feel good regardless of performance in any task. The thinking was it would make children more confident and open to learning. This is an idea that has not been supported by research. Several major reviews of research have found that really, self-esteem by itself is not a causal agent - it does not bring about other positive things. This study extends the previous findings by showing that whether children have high or low self-esteem is not related to how willing they are to help others."

The question of what factors do increase pro-social behavior, actively doing something to help other people, such as donating money to a charity, is an area for further research," Boerger said.

"I think that issue is worth looking at, and it is currently a growing focus of research in developmental psychology. For example, there is research on how attempting to promote empathy in children or in adults can affect altruism and pro-social behavior," she said. "Another factor that appears to be important is choice, whether children, when asked to donate, feel that they have a choice to give away the money or keep it for themselves."

Falkowitz said her interest in the research project began when she "was taking an experimental psychology course. I thought it would be fun to get involved in research, and I thought I would gain some really great experience. I was surprised by the results. We initially thought that if someone had high self-esteem, they would be more likely to donate money to a food bank. However, that was not the case, we found there was no correlation between high self-esteem and the amount of money donated."

Looking ahead, Falkowitz, said, "I think there are some possibilities for follow-up research, especially in looking at accurate self-esteem. A lot of times, people have an inflated sense of self-esteem, instead of an accurate sense of self-esteem, which could be one reason why we didn't see the results that we expected. I may want to look further into that issue."

"I really had a lot of fun doing this project. I loved sitting down with the students to get their responses for the study. I also really liked taking the data we had and actually getting answers to our question. I think doing research now helps me by giving me experience and connections with faculty members. We are actually in the beginnings of a new study. It will be looking at bullying and the transition into college. I also think these research projects will help in the future when I apply to graduate schools, because I will have all of this experience, and that may give me that boost I need to get into the program I want to get into."

"I would definitely do it again. I had so much fun gathering the data and then running the analysis and finding answers. I also really enjoyed going to the conferences I went to. It's a lot of fun to take what you find and tell people about it," she said.

"I always wanted to work with children and since this research was child based, I felt compelled to assist," Mauthe said. "The results did surprise me a little bit: You would think that feeling good does lead to doing good, yet our study did not support that notion."

"Working with children was eye opening. They are prepared to learn and show what they can do and they made it enjoyable. Learning how to read SPSS and understanding the findings was fun. I would do research again, in fact, we are in the midst of starting another project, and I cannot wait to see where it leads," she said.

Slippery Rock University is Pennsylvania's premier public residential university. Slippery Rock University provides students with a comprehensive learning experience that intentionally combines academic instruction with enhanced educational and learning opportunities that make a positive difference in their lives.