Millennials are sometimes derided as sensitive "snowflakes" who have an inflated sense of self-worth. If so, don't blame them, blame the "self-esteem" movement that took over American classrooms in the 1980s and '90s, complete with mirrors engraved with phrases such as "You are now looking at one of the most special people in the whole wide world!" In New York magazine, Jesse Singal traces the roots of the movement to California and explores how it overcame early skepticism to become a booming cultural phenomenon. "As it turned out, the central claim underlying the trend, that there's a causal relationship between self-esteem and various positive outcomes, was almost certainly inaccurate," writes Singal. But by the time it caught on, the simplistic fix for all of society's ills proved too hard to resist: Boost kids' self-esteem and watch their problems melt away.
As Singal explains, one "very eccentric" state lawmaker in California, John Vasconcellos, might be considered the father of the movement. He was so convinced about the concept that he spearheaded the creation of the California Task Force to Promote Self-Esteem and Personal and Social Responsibility in 1986. It was ridiculed at first, most famously in the comic strip Doonesbury, but it not only persevered, it thrived. Generally speaking, adherents made one fundamental mistake: They viewed self-esteem as the cause of things such as good grades instead of recognizing that the reverse is more likely true: Good grades result in higher self-esteem. It wasn't until the early 2000s that psychologists produced hard evidence that Vasconcellos' ideas were bogus. Click for the full story, in which Singal sees a potential parallel in the more modern phenomenon of "grit." (Read more Longform stories.)