Monday, March 28, 2005

Simon Cowell is good for Self-Esteem

Accompanied by a rather frightening illustration of Paula Abdul, Bret Stephens' WSJ editorial last Friday focuses on "American Idol," and suggests that the real star of the show is Simon Cowell, not because he's a particularly pleasant individual, but because he's "judgmental."

Of the three judges, Stephens has this to say about Randy Jackson:

He is strictly about performance. If a singer does poorly, he'll complain she was "pitchy"; if she does well, then she's Mr. Jackson's Dawg: "You were hot, man: I give you props for that." In the Jackson world view, either you succeeded or you didn't, but no performer's feelings will ever be hurt by a word he says because it's all about the singing, never about the singer.

I'd also like to add this: Randy Jackson needs to build a bigger vocabulary. A'ight, dawg?

Of Paula Abdul, Stephens says:

Although she is the only performer among the judges, she never seems to care about the performances themselves. What she cares about is each contestant's "potential": She wants them to feel proud no matter what. If she were a pedagogue, she'd be into social promotion; her fundamental belief is self-belief. It certainly took her far.

And Paula Adbul certainly seems to enjoy her role. Watch closely and you will often see her leaping to her feet and groovin' along with the contestants. She'll also swoon dramatically if some crooner makes her weak in the knees. And she also seems to be the most emotionally invested in the contestants, and perhaps it's because as a performer herself she remembers all too well the cold hand of judgment.

But the cold hand of judgment is what's needed sometimes, and that's where Cowell comes in:

And then there is Mr. Cowell, the daddy who is not afraid to spank the children. . . . The greater part of Mr. Cowell's appeal, however, is his honesty. . . . of sparing people from the worst of themselves. "I met someone the other night who's 28 years old," Mr. Cowell said once, "and he hasn't worked a day since he left college because he's pursuing a dream he'll never, ever realize: He thinks he's a great singer. Actually, he's crap. But nobody has said to him, 'Why have you been wasting your time for eight years?'"

Sure, Simon's harsh judgments garner him lots of boos from the audience, but aren't his judgments exactly what some people need to hear?

Back in February, USA Today had this interesting article on how the seeds sown by the "Self-Esteem Movement" back in the 70s have now grown:

Kids born in the '70s and '80s are now coming of age. The colorful ribbons and shiny trophies they earned just for participating made them feel special. But now, in college and the workplace, observers are watching them crumble a bit at the first blush of criticism.

"I often get students in graduate school doing doctorates who made straight A's all their lives, and the first time they get tough feedback, the kind you need to develop skills," says Deborah Stipek, dean of education at Stanford University. "I have a box of Kleenex in my office because they haven't dealt with it before."

. . .

Roy Baumeister, a psychology professor at Florida State University in Tallahassee, says he had "high hopes" for the benefits of boosting self-esteem when he began studying it more than 30 years ago. But his lengthy review of 18,000 articles, published in Psychological Science in the Public Interest, ended with the realization that only two clear benefits emerge from high self-esteem: enhanced initiative, which boosts confidence, and increased happiness. "There is not nearly as much benefit as we hoped," he says. "It's been one of the biggest disappointments of my career."

I don't find any of this particularly surprising. Nor did Orson Scott Card, who wrote on the subject in his Jan. 23rd column at Card manages to bring in both American Idol and the Baumeister study which was the subject of an article in the January issue of Scientifc American.

Roy F. Baumeister, Jennifer D. Campbell, Joachim I. Krueger and Kathleen D. Vohs published an article in the January 2005 Scientific American titled "Exploding the Self-Esteem Myth."

Their method was not so much research as a review of research.

They went through all the published research on self-esteem and immediately eliminated all the studies that depended on self-reporting along.

Here's the problem: If somebody reports that they have a very positive self-image, and then tells you that he is very successful in his job and his social life, what have you actually learned?

That people who have a high opinion of themselves have a high opinion of themselves.


. . .

There is no statistically significant connection between high self-esteem and genuine achievement, ability, or successfulness. Not in the real world.

Except in one area: Making new acquaintances like you. If you have high self-esteem, you're probably a little bit better at making friends (though it's not inevitable -- just slightly more likely).

Card doesn't suggest completely eliminating "You can do it!" boosterism, but says it's important to strike a balance between building up esteem and leveling the necessary critique. Failing to provide the honest truth, Card says, is actually a selfish act, which I think is an interesting way to look at it.

The truth might hurt at the moment -- but nowhere near as badly as seeing themselves made ridiculous in front of an audience of millions.

Yet I can also understand their friends and family. It's so much easier just to say, "Sure, you're great, you're wonderful" and then change the subject. No confrontation. No moments of unhappiness that you've caused.

Praising people who have done nothing to deserve praise is the lazy, selfish thing to do. It makes them like you while setting them up for embarrassment and failure later.

He closes with some good advice:

Here's what works: You teach children the connection between work and achievement.

Great achievements aren't made by feeling good about yourself. They're made by boldness, originality, hard work, painstaking attention to detail, long practice, self-effacing cooperation, reliability, and a host of other attributes and actions.

Whom would you rather hire to work for you? The person who thinks he's wonderful all the time, regardless of what he does, or the person who is always questioning the quality of his own work and trying to do better?

. . .

Children need encouragement -- but they also need realistic assessments of their current level of achievement so they know what they need to work on.

The people who know them best and love them most are in the best position to do this.

. . .

Praise real achievements, however small, and you help a child. Praise him regardless of achievement, and you do damage, either to your own credibility or to the child's ability to know himself well enough to improve.

This is so obvious it shouldn't even need saying.

Probably. But it's always good to hear people say it.

Boo Simon Cowell if you like, but he might just be doing these contestants a favor.


At 1:38 PM, Blogger ambiance-five said...

Agreed that judgement is needed as long as the enjoyment comes from improvment of the act and not just enjoyment of judgement.

I am not quite sure which end of the spectrum Simon's enjoyment comes from.


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