Repeat after me: "I am a lovable person."
If you already believe that, then it'll probably help your self-esteem to say it. But if you have low self-esteem — meaning you are the type of person such a self-help technique would be aimed at — it'll likely just make you feel worse, a new study finds.
The finding, reported by the BBC, is detailed in the journal Psychological Science.
However, self-esteem and its close cousin self-confidence are slippery research topics. Scientists don't even know to what extent they are inherited vs. fostered.
Many scientists have long assumed that a person's self-image was largely a product of environment, of what happens growing up. But it might instead be mostly inherited, a recent study of twins suggests. The research suggests self-confidence may be related to genetics as much as IQ is, according to an article in The Daily Mail.
It's an ongoing mystery worth solving because what one believes about oneself affects how life plays out. Students with high self-esteem are known to do better in school, for example, and it certainly is one useful ingredient for success later in life.
Oddly, however, a 2007 study found that we all have roughly the same amount of self-esteem — each of us just expresses it differently. So the "bull in the China shop" is just more blustery, not necessarily more confident, the thinking goes, and the seemingly meek may simply be quieter.
A slightly related study last year found that group pride — the boastful self-aggrandizing you see at a football game or a frat house — may be the product of individuals trying to mask insecurity and low social status.
Psychologists have found in recent years that high self-esteem is not always what it seems: Some people have plenty of self-esteem, but they don't seem to be certain about it; their view of themselves is, instead, fragile.
That was the conclusion of a study last year, reported in the Journal of Personality, which found that people with high self-esteem are less defensive, but only if their self-esteem is actually secure. "People with fragile high self-esteem compensate for their self-doubts by engaging in exaggerated tendencies to defend, protect and enhance their feelings of self-worth," said University of Georgia psychology professor Michael Kernis, who led the study.
Psych studies tend to trump previous psych studies with great frequency, however, and you can be confident that the last word on this topic has not been spoken.
In The Water Cooler, Imaginova's Editorial Director Robert Roy Britt looks at what people are talking about in the world of science and beyond. Find more in the archives and on Twitter.
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Robert is an independent health and science journalist and writer based in Phoenix, Arizona. He is a former editor-in-chief of Live Science with over 20 years of experience as a reporter and editor. He has worked on websites such as Space.com and Tom's Guide, and is a contributor on Medium, covering how we age and how to optimize the mind and body through time. He has a journalism degree from Humboldt State University in California.