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Dangerous Idea

January 7th, 2009 by Mike N · 10 Comments · Culture

The Monday 12/29/08 Detroit News carried a commentary by Pete Maurer, a local school teacher, titled “Bullies don’t have self-esteem issues”. The article starts:

“For years, the conventional wisdom was that bullies picked on others because they had low self-esteem and often turned to hurting others so they could feel better about themselves.
I’m not sure about you, but the bullies I went to school with seemed to have no problems with self-esteem issues; they actually appeared to enjoy pushing people around.

Now comes research that suggests bullies do get a kick out of kicking others around. If anything, bullies enjoy extremely high self-esteem.”

He doesn’t define what he means by self-esteem but evidently he means feeling happy with oneself. But is momentarily feeling good about one’s self a sign of self-esteem? Not necessarily. A man of low self-esteem can feel good about himself for getting away with something he shouldn’t have.

He then cites this research:

“Researchers at the University of Chicago recently conducted brain scans of teen-agers who had a history of aggressive bullying, showing them video clips of people inflicting pain on others.
To the researchers’ surprise, the portions of the brain most associated with reward, areas called the amygdala and ventral striatum, lit up like the proverbial Christmas tree. In other words, the bullies enjoyed watching someone starting a fight or using a weapon to intimidate someone.

Lending support to this discovery, the self-regulatory areas of the brain showed little or no activity. The control group of teenage boys, by the way, had the opposite results; their brains showed increased activity in self-regulation, along with decreased activity in the reward centers.

What isn’t clear to researchers is whether this type of brain activity is learned or is hard-wired since birth, a genetic mistake that sends the bully on a lifelong pursuit of hurting others to earn his or her reward.”

But is getting a reward the essence of self-esteem? What about the issue of earning one’s esteem?

I fired off this LTE which the News has not yet printed.

The commentary of 12/29/08 “School bullies don’t have self-esteem issues” is way off base. Genuine self-esteem comes from confidence in one’s efficacy at living a productive life proper to a rational being. Such a person knows that reason is the only tool that can provide a genuine happiness and that such a value must be earned.
A bully has subordinated his reason to justifying his feelings whose satisfaction can only come from forcing others to provide him with an unearned or commanded esteem. The man of self-esteem reshapes reality to serve his survival according to his best judgment. The bully tries to reshape men and reality to conform to his feelings and whims.

To suggest as Mr. Maurer, and the studies he cites, that self-esteem can be achieved by starting the use of force against others, is to obliterate the difference between the earned and the unearned and to teach students a wrong notion of self-esteem.

Michael Neibel

Speaking of self esteem Ayn rand writes:

“Self-esteem is reliance on one’s power to think. It cannot be replaced by one’s power to deceive. The self-confidence of a scientist and the self-confidence of a con man are not interchangeable states, and do not come from the same psychological universe. The success of a man who deals with reality augments his self-confidence. The success of a con man augments his panic.” (from her essay ‘The Age of Envy’ in the book Return of the Primitive: The Anti-Industrial Revolution)

And so the self confidence of a productive person and that of a bully are two different things. One is earned the other is forced. It is a dangerous practice to even suggest that self-esteem can be had by bullying others. That a reputable university is claiming to support this notion is scary.

10 Comments so far ↓

  • Bill Brown

    I’m flabbergasted. I’ve heard self-esteem misconstrued plenty, but I’ve never heard it said of schoolyard bullies.

  • EdMcGon

    Mike, you’re confusing psychology with philosophy. Mind you, I agree with you that the psychologists are confusing temporary self-esteem with overall self-esteem.

    Using a philosopher such as Ayn Rand to disprove a scientific theory is no better than using the Bible to disprove Evolution.

  • Rory


    And using a ‘psychologist’ like Freud or Jung is no better than using a Witch Doctor to prove the existence of the ‘Id’. I’m not suggesting you buy into their theories, but that being labeled a psychologist doesn’t automatically qualify (nor does the inverse disqualify one) from talking about psychology.


    I’m glad to hear moral relativism is making a come back!
    “It’s perfectly fine what they’re doing. It feels good to them. Who are we to judge?”

  • EdMcGon

    Rory, did I suggest using Freud or Jung? No, you use can use science to argue against other science. There are plenty of people doing psychological research today, without having to dig up psychological theories from 100 years ago.

  • Burgess Laughlin

    What is the difference between “self-esteem” and “self-confidence”? I use these terms to mean that the latter is a consequence of the former.

    Self-esteem means valuing oneself. After valuing myself in action, I gain self-confidence–knowing I can sustain my life– from the observable results.

    Mike, I applaud you for citing Ayn Rand, a philosopher. Philosophy, when objective, is the foundation for all of the specialized sciences. Self-esteem is a philosophical value, that is, a value that applies to all individuals, everywhere, and at all times. Philosophy, properly defined, precedes the specialized sciences.

    The province of psychology is not universal issues, but the individual workings–healthy or pathological–of the mind, especially the subconscious aspects of mind that require specialized methods to understand.

    For the philosopher’s role in setting the philosophical vocabulary for others, see Ayn Rand, Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology, p. 74.

  • Andrew Dalton

    It wouldn’t surprise me if bullies and criminals have a certain kind of high self-regard, in a sense of entitlement instead of achievement. (“The world owes me something, and if I don’t get what I want, I’ll take it.”)

    It is always possible to use words to conflate dissimilar concepts, which is one reason why it is important for people (and yes, especially philosophers) to evaluate terms such as “self esteem” and “altruism” when they are used in generalizations claimed by others. The special sciences are no exception.

  • Jim May

    That Ayn Rand quote reminded me of Eliot Spitzer (and now Rod Blagojevich).

  • Mike N

    Thanks all for the valuable input. My main idea was that bullying is not the right way to achieve a genuine self-esteem. I think I made my point. Perhaps I could have been clearer in pointing out that the bully’s self-esteem is a phoney one; that he’s happy only on the outside or only momentarily; that it is a tenuous one dependent on the submission of others without which it vanishes.

    I think Ayn Rand’s writing is more than qualified to address issues of psychology in fundamental terms. I wasn’t trying to refute any psychological theories on self-esteem, only a single idea: that bullying is the wrong way to get it and that the University of Chicago is using science in support of a dangerous idea: “Want to feel good about yourself? Hurt others.”

    But let me say that the above commentators have helped me to think. That’s always a good thing.

  • Stephen Bourque

    Good post, Mike. I think you’ve hit the nail on the head with the idea that the bully seeks to manipulate and dominate PEOPLE as opposed to THINGS. There is something inherently parasitical and second-handed about the bully – the very opposite of the rational selfishness that would lead one to true self-esteem.

  • L-C

    The fact that ideas matter is a little known secret. If it has any significance at all, these very same boys would’ve displayed the same results from the brain scans as those of the control group, had they chosen reason instead of emotionalism.

    I do not think highly of attempts to deny free will. Modern psychology and psychiatry are incessant in their, dare I say crusade to disqualify the mind as being volitional.

    This research from the University of Chicago proves, not that bullies are born as such, but that ideas have a very concrete effect. Their minds are wired the wrong way and, consequently, so are their brains.