Sex, favorite foods, alcohol, a visit with a best friend and a paycheck – a self-esteem boost trumps them all for most college students, according to two new studies that asked students to rate the pleasant activities they most desired.
"These are college students, look at this list of activities," said Brad Bushman, lead study researcher and a professor of communication and psychology at The Ohio State University.
"College students love sex, they love to eat — any place there is free food, they are there," Bushman told LiveScience, continuing through the list. "And yet they love self-esteem more."
When the results of the two studies were broken down by gender, however, self-esteem didn't trump everything. Male students preferred it to all other activities, but among women, self-esteem boosts, such as those linked with getting a good grade or a compliment, rated neck-and-neck with money and friends.
In the first study, Bushman's team asked 130 University of Michigan students, who received course credit, to think about their favorite food, sexual activity and self-esteem building experiences. Then they had to rate on a scale from 1 to 5 how much they liked it – "How pleasant would it be to eat it (food), do it (sex), or have that experience (self-esteem)?" – and how much they wanted it – "How much do you want to eat it (food), do it (sex), or have that experience (self-esteem)?"
In the second study, the 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.
Overall, the participants liked all the activities more than they wanted, or needed, them, which is healthy, the researchers said. But the difference between liking and wanting was the smallest for self-esteem building experiences. This is significant, because addiction research suggests that addicts tend to "want" the object of their addiction more than they actually "like" it, according to Bushman.
"Notice for self-esteem the gap is the smallest, so if people are addicted to anything, they are addicted to self-esteem," he said, cautioning that the study results don't indicate any kind of addiction.
As part of the first study, participants took a test they were told measured intelligence. Afterward, they were told that if they waited an additional 10 minutes, they could have the test rescored and possibly improve their score. The researchers found that the greater the gap in favor of wanting a self-esteem boost versus liking it, the more likely a student was to wait.
These results represent a problematic obsession with self-esteem, according to the researchers.
Americans have come to think of boosting self-esteem as a solution to many societal problems, such as teen pregnancy and drug abuse, according to Bushman.
"But I think that is backwards," he said. "Good performance has to come before, not after, self-esteem."
There are also behavioral implications.
"The problem isn't with having high self-esteem; it's how much people are driven to boost their self-esteem," said study researcher Jennifer Crocker, a psychology professor at The Ohio State University. "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."
Both studies are published online in the Journal of Personality and will appear in a forthcoming print issue.
You can follow LiveScience writer Wynne Parry on Twitter @Wynne_Parry.