College and University Blog

Surprise, Surprise? College Students Choose Praise Over Sex, Drinking and Money

When it comes to self-esteem, it appears that most young people believe “Too much of a good thing is never enough.”

Using questionnaires which included the Narcissistic Personality Inventory— the most widely used measure of narcissism in social psychological research— three researchers from The Ohio State University and Brookhaven National Laboratory in Upton, New York conducted two separate studies of 282 students that gauged the desire for praise, as well as the desire to engage in sex, drink alcohol, get a paycheck, eat a favorite food or see a best friend.

The studies were conducted by Ohio State professors Brad Bushman and Jennifer Crocker, as well as Scott Moeller of Brookhaven National Laboratory. The research team found that college students valued experiences that boosted their self-esteem, such as receiving a good grade or a compliment, more than any other pleasant activity they were asked about.

The surprising findings were reported online in a Journal of Personality article titled Sweets, Sex, or Self-Esteem? Comparing the Value of Self-Esteem Boosts with Other Pleasant Rewards, The article will soon be available in a printed issue.

Young People Have a Strong Desire for Self-Esteem

In the first study, lead researcher Bushman and his team surveyed 130 University of Michigan students, asking them to think about their favorite food, sexual activity and self-esteem building experiences. The students then had to rate how much they liked those items or activities—asking themselves how pleasant it would be to eat it, do it or have it—and how badly they wanted the item or experience on a scale from one to five.

In the second study, 152 students rated how much they wanted and liked the same pleasurable experiences described in the first study as well as receiving a paycheck, seeing a best friend and drinking alcohol.

USA Today explains that part of what the researchers analyzed was the difference between “liking” and “wanting,” based on study participants’ self-reports. Students said that they liked the rewards listed in the study more than they actually wanted them, which Bushman says is considered healthy. However, the liking-wanting distinction was smallest for self-esteem, suggesting a stronger desire for it than the other rewards.

“These are college students; look at this list of activities. College students love sex, they love to eat — any place there is free food, they are there,” Bushman told LiveScience. “And yet they love self-esteem more.”

When broken down by gender, male students preferred self-esteem boosting activities to all other activities. Among female students, though, self-esteem boosts—such as those linked with getting a good grade or a compliment—rated parallel with money and friends.

Too Many People Believe Self-Esteem is a Cure-All

Bushman reports that his research group’s findings represent a problematic obsession with self-esteem. He believes that Americans have come to think of boosting self-esteem as a solution to many societal problems, such as teen pregnancy and drug abuse.

The study participants also took a test which they were told measured intellectual ability. They were told if they waited 10 minutes, their score would be recalculated with a method that usually produced better results. The students who highly valued self-esteem were more likely to stay to get the higher scores.

“The problem isn’t with having high self-esteem; it’s how much people are driven to boost their self-esteem,” says Bushman’s co-researcher Jennifer Crocker. “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.”

Self-Esteem is on the Rise

Bushman says self-esteem levels have been rising ever since a widely used standard was developed in 1965. "People seem to value it more highly today than in the past.”

Robert Reasoner of Port Ludlow, Washington has been involved with the self-esteem movement for forty years. He believes self-esteem offers confidence in your ability to deal with life’s challenges and a sense of personal worth, as opposed to generalized praise and undeserved rewards.

Reasoner, who was a founder of the National Association for Self-Esteem, an organization developed 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,” told USA Today that “All humans want to have positive emotional feelings about themselves.”

College Students: Too Self-Centered?

In 2007, MSNBC reported that a study conducted by a group of five psychologists found that today’s college students are more narcissistic and self-centered than their predecessors.

“We need to stop endlessly repeating ‘You’re special’ and having children repeat that back,” the study’s lead author, Professor Jean Twenge of San Diego State University, said at the time. “Kids are self-centered enough already.”


Melissa Rhone+

Melissa Rhone earned her Bachelor of Music in Education from the University of Tampa. She resides in the Tampa Bay area and enjoys writing about college, pop culture, and epilepsy awareness.