It’s hard to imagine anything young people might value more than food, getting an extra paycheck or even having sex, but according to the results of a recent study in the Journal of Personality there is one thing prized most among college students: a boost to their self-esteem.
In two consecutive studies of a total 282 students, researchers at Ohio State University showed that the majority of students chose kudos over more primal rewards like food, alcohol and sex as well as more sentimental rewards, like seeing a close friend. They even chose accolades over cold, hard cash. But why? (More on Time.com: Why That Rich Guy is Being So Nice to You)
Lead researcher Brad Bushman believes that young people may be “addicted” to self-esteem. “It is somewhat surprising how this desire to feel worthy and valuable trumps almost any other pleasant activity you can imagine,” he said in a statement.
The New York Times reports:
Recent books like “The Narcissism Epidemic,” by Jean M. Twenge and W. Keith Campbell, have described a trend toward increasing levels of self-esteem and narcissism in young people. The idea is not without controversy, as other psychologists have questioned whether young people today are any more self-absorbed than earlier generations. Some believe that the maturation process is simply more protracted, and the delays are misinterpreted as selfishness.
The results of the new paper suggest young people have a compulsion to feel good about themselves that overwhelms and precedes other desires.
In order to determine if the subjects had an attachment to praise that was more akin to addiction or entitlement than simple enjoyment or pleasure, Bushman had students fill out two surveys: one that measured their tendency toward narcissism and another that tracked their vulnerability to addictive or rewarding behaviors. The narcissism inventory tested for a disordered level of entitlement, while the other questionnaire was meant to measure how easily they got “hooked.” (More on Time.com: Study: Why We Think Women Are More Trustworthy Than Men)
Following the evaluation, students were presented with quizzes asking them to rate how much they liked certain scenarios. In the first, 130 of the subjects were asked if they would prefer to eat their favorite food, indulge in their favorite sexual activity, or experience their favorite self esteem builder, such as getting a good grade or receiving a compliment. They rated each activity on a scale of 1 (not at all) to 5 (extremely) using two metrics: how much they wanted each and how much they liked each. Across the board, students ‘liked’ all the pleasant activities, but they ‘wanted’ the self-esteem builder more.
But Bushman and his team worried that their first design had flaws. For instance, a good grade could have been seen by ambitious students as a smarter career move than a night of good food or sex. So in a second study, they upped the ante and offered other rewards that might suggest success in life — rather than simple pleasures — such as a paycheck (professional recognition) or seeing a best friend (a sense of social belonging). They added an evening of drinking alcohol to the options as well. Once again, the majority of the 152 students wanted the self-esteem boost almost as much as they liked it.
Students who scored high for entitlement on the narcissistic inventory were more likely to “want” and less likely to “like” any of the activities, though there was no greater correlation with the self-esteem building activities. Among the students who wanted the self-esteem booster the most —which, in the researchers’ theory, was a sign of addictive tendencies — this desire only correlated to negatives consequence if the student also had a low “like” score for the ego boost. (More on Time.com: Consumer Breakups: Why We Lash Out at the Brands We Once Loved)
In other words, wrote the authors. “wanting self-esteem more than liking it predicted making self-serving judgments about the likelihood of future negative events.” These subjects were less likely to acknowledge negative events would happen to them.
It is worth noting that the desire for validation may have had a different quality than the desire for a drink. Wrote the authors:
[W]hen people ‘want’ self-esteem more than they ‘like’ it, they pursue behavioral strategies to obtain it. Both men and women valued self-esteem more than sex and food. Men also valued self-esteem more than money, friends, and alcohol, whereas women only valued self-esteem more than alcohol. Collectively, these findings lend new credence to the view of self-esteem as an essential need.
“The problem isn’t with having high self-esteem; it’s how much people are driven to boost their self-esteem. When people highly value self-esteem, they may avoid doing things such as acknowledging a wrong they did. Admitting you were wrong may be uncomfortable for self-esteem at the moment, but ultimately it could lead to better learning, relationships, growth, and even future self-esteem,” said Jennifer Crocker, co-author and professor of psychology at Ohio State in a statement. (More on Time.com: Forget the Joneses: How Envy Drives Destructive Behavior)
But not everyone was convinced. As the Times reported:
Carol Landau, a clinical professor of psychiatry and medicine at Alpert Medical School at Brown University, pointed out that sex and alcohol are readily available on many college campuses and within students’ reach. Their accessibility could explain why students are more motivated to get good grades and positive feedback, which may be harder to come by. “The other rewards are somewhat within their control,” Dr. Landau said. “The self-esteem factors are not.”