How a rebel psychologist challenged one of the 20th century’s biggest—and most dangerous—ideas.
FOR MUCH OF HUMAN HISTORY, our beliefs have been based on the assumption that people are fundamentally bad. Strip away a person’s smile and you’ll find a grotesque, writhing animal-thing. Human instincts have to be controlled, and religions have often been guides for containing the demons. Sigmund Freud held a similar view: Psychotherapy was his method of making the unconscious conscious, helping people restrain their bestial desires and accord with the moral laws of civilization.
In the middle of the 20th century, an alternative school of thought appeared. It was popularized by Carl Rogers, an influential psychotherapist at the University of Chicago, and it reversed the presumption of original sin. Rogers argued that people are innately decent. Children, he believed, should be raised in an environment of “unconditional positive regard”. They should be liberated from the inhibitions and restraints that prevented them from attaining their full potential.
It was a characteristically American idea—perhaps even the American idea. Underneath it all, people are good, and to get the best out of themselves, they just need to be free.
Economic change gave Rogers’s theory traction. It was the 1950s, and a nation of workmen was turning into a nation of salesmen. To make good in life, interpersonal sunniness was becoming essential. Meanwhile, rising divorce rates and the surge of women into the workplace were triggering anxieties about the lives of children born into the baby boom. Parents wanted to counteract the stresses of modern family life, and boosting their children’s self-esteem seemed like the solution.
By the early 1960s, wild thinkers in California were pushing Rogers’s idea even further. The “human potential movement” argued that most people were using just 10 percent of their intellectual capacity. It leaned on the work of Abraham Maslow, who studied exceptional people such as Albert Einstein and Eleanor Roosevelt and said there were five human needs, the most important of which was self-actualization—the realization of one’s maximum potential. Number two on the list was esteem.
At the close of the decade, the idea that self-esteem was the key to psychological riches finally exploded. The trigger was Nathaniel Branden, a handsome Canadian psychotherapist who had moved to Los Angeles as a disciple of the philosopher Ayn Rand. One of Rand’s big ideas was that moral good would arise when humans ruthlessly pursued their own self-interest. She and Branden began a tortuous love affair, and her theories had an intense impact on the young psychotherapist. In The Psychology of Self-Esteem, published in 1969, Branden argued that self-esteem “has profound effects on a man’s thinking processes, emotions, desires, values and goals. It is the single most significant key to his behavior.” It was an international bestseller, and it propelled the self-esteem movement out of the counterculture and into the mainstream.
The year that Branden published his book, a sixteen-year-old in Euclid, Ohio named Roy Baumeister was grappling with his own self-esteem problem: his Dad.
Roy’s father, Rudy, was a middle manager at Standard Oil. He’d emigrated from Germany a few years earlier, after serving with Hitler’s army on the eastern front, where he’d spent several months in a Russian POW camp. Rudy dressed plainly: colored button-down shirts, khaki trousers, and a military-style buzz cut. He was quick to anger, and strict on discipline with his two children.
“He was very right-wing,” says his daughter, Susan. “He was a control freak. It was always his way, always needing to be the leader and call all the shots. He had a very big ego. From an early age, he was raised to be looked up to. He was the firstborn, he was the son, he was the one. He always had to be the one.”
Hiding from all this in an upstairs room at the back of the house was Roy: fair-haired, blue-eyed, well-mannered. He was often frightened by his father, but he was smart as well. He would become a distinguished psychologist, and a broad, controversial thinker. In the process, Roy would challenge his father. He would also, perhaps unknowingly, adopt his father’s contrary nature, his instinct for an outsider position. That’s one explanation, at least, for how Roy helped bring the self-esteem movement crashing down.
IN THE YEARS AFTER BRANDEN’S BOOK, the importance of boosting self-esteem became increasingly entrenched in American life. One of the high points occurred in 1986, when Californian legislators created the State Task Force to Promote Self-Esteem and Personal and Social Responsibility. This was a project born perfectly into its time and place. Its purpose was to discover how self-esteem is “nurtured, harmed, rehabilitated” and to understand its relationship to social problems. After three years of review, the task force’s final report became one of the foundational works of the self-esteem movement. It concluded that:
“Self-esteem is the likeliest candidate for a social vaccine, something that empowers us to live responsibly and that inoculates us against the lures of crime, violence, substance abuse, teen pregnancy, child abuse, chronic welfare dependency and educational failure. The lack of self-esteem is central to most personal and social ills plaguing our state and nation as we approach the end of the 20th century.”
The task force’s conclusion followed a review of the scientific literature that looked at real-world outcomes of high self-esteem. The evidence was limited, but the task force would not contemplate criticism. Leader John Vasconcellos, a California assemblyman, dismissed doubters as people who “only live in their heads,” insisting that “we all know in our gut that it’s true.”
He was right. Thousands and thousands of Americans just knew it in their guts. The idea of self-esteem as a social panacea was too good to question. It spread through the country and much of the Western world. Heads big and small were systematically stuffed full of their own wondrousness. As the 1980s became the 1990s, schools and kindergartens began boosting self-esteem in classes, encouraging children to write letters to themselves, telling themselves how special they are. Five-year-olds in a Texas nursery were made to wear T-shirts that said ‘I’m loveable and capable’ and to recite the mantra daily. High school awards were dropped by the thousands, and grades were inflated to protect the esteem of low achievers. (One teacher argued, “I don’t think it’s grade inflation. It’s grade encouragement.”)
Meanwhile, in the courts, judges offered self-esteem boosts to drug dealers, sex workers, and people who wrote bad checks. Court appearances were rewarded with key rings; those who completed periods of drug-free living were given doughnuts. “We try to build self-esteem,” explained one judge. “I’m talking in terms of treatment, love, and care.” The movement crossed political divides: Barbara Bush told interviewers that “self-esteem has everything to do with how well all human beings live and work,” while Bill Clinton praised the California task force’s report as a “remarkable document.” When Whitney Houston sang that “the greatest love” was loving yourself, nobody thought that was strange at all.
THE WINDOWS IN ROY’S CHILDHOOD HOME looked out over the branches of beautiful oaks, and the shelves on his light blue walls held the books that gave him an escape. He’d wander through the stories of King Arthur and spend hours poring over his prized encyclopedia, delighting his sister with trivia from presidential campaigns all the way back to George Washington.
At school he was first in his class, but he carried a painful feeling that he was missing out on all the fun. “My parents didn’t believe that kids should do sports,” he says. “They didn’t think we should go to dances or parties. It was pretty much just come home and do the chores and schoolwork.” The pressure to succeed was vast. “We had to be the best in everything,” says Susan. “The tallest, the blondest, the smartest, the most good-looking.” Because Roy found school easy, his parents had him skip the fifth grade. “It’s difficult for a boy to be a year younger than everyone else,” says Roy. “I grew up feeling like a small person.”
One of Roy’s early preoccupations was religion. He read the Bible from cover to cover, trying to find important answers about life and its secrets, but it left him wanting. And, as the years passed, the questions inside Roy began to press against the walls of his smart, colonial-style family house. “As a child, you believe what your parents tell you,” he says. “There was a very strict message about ‘this is what life is and what you have to believe in, and anyone who disagrees is an idiot or evil person’. They made their views seem compelling and plausible. But I started realizing some of the stuff they taught me wasn’t right.”
He went on to study mathematics at Princeton, where the cracks grew and merged. During a foreign study program at the University of Heidelberg, he took up philosophy and started reading Freud. “I wanted to understand what people are like, why we’re here and what we’re doing. It was a revelation: Freud was approaching the question of where our ideas of right and wrong come from.” Here, it seemed, was a superior method for revealing the secret rules of human operation. But when Roy asked his father if he could transfer to psychology, his father dismissed the idea. “You’ll be wasting your brain,” he said. It was only when he discovered that Standard Oil’s staff psychologists were paid more than he was that he permitted his son to switch tracks.
As Roy’s education continued—Princeton, Duke, Berkeley—he would get together with his sister and try to solve the riddle of their domineering and egocentric father. “Roy’s way to cope is to analyze,” says Susan. “We would try and talk through what he’d been learning—‘Well, maybe he’s doing this because he’s feeling this.’” Roy came to believe his father’s experience in the war, which he entered aged just 17, was formative. “It made him tough. Kind of bitter. Ruined his teenage years. For a lot of people, those years are a chance to develop your social skills. They didn’t develop very well.”
But the war hadn’t just changed people: It also changed the world. The USA started to become an alien place to men like Rudy, and as the power of the human potential movement grew, the older generation was being left on the outside.
When Nathaniel Branden’s blockbuster book brought the idea of beneficial high self-esteem to the public, Roy Baumeister was at university. “We didn’t hear much about Branden in academia; he was more out there in the world,” he says. “But he was really a leader of the self-esteem movement with that book. I was sympathetic to the idea, but I remember being disappointed. He would tell a lot of stories. It was fun to read. But I was looking for science.”
To fill in the gaps, Baumeister started studying the differences between people who think highly of themselves and their glum counterparts. His interest was partly pragmatic: Self-esteem was a hot topic, and a great subject for a young academic beginning his career. His undergraduate thesis explored how people respond to public challenges to their self-esteem. “I was looking at how high- and low-self-esteem people react differently to a situation,” he says. “How they relate to others, how they react to failure, how long they keep going when things are difficult versus giving up, whether they’d rather protect themselves with an excuse or go all out to chase success.”
Baumeister remembers reacting angrily to one sociologist who challenged the impact of positive regard. Just like everyone else, Roy Baumeister was a believer.
THINGS STARTED TO CHANGE IN 1984, when Roy was preparing to drive across America with a young psychologist named Dianne Tice. “She had long red hair and a quick wit,” he remembers. “She was a very thoughtful, disciplined person.” Roy was 31, six foot two, and fresh from the implosion of his first marriage. Dianne, too, was bruised by a recent breakup. “We’d known each other as somebody else’s partner for a couple of years,” says Roy. But by the time it came for them to climb into his Honda Accord for their drive out west, “our partners had just sort of disappeared.”
It was a 2,500 mile trip across a continent, 18 hours on the road at a time for five days straight. “You can’t go five days with someone in a small car without either hating them or falling in love,” says Dianne. In California, they lived across the San Francisco Bay from each other and would go away on weekend trips. “We went to Big Sur and I almost got swept into a waterfall,” says Dianne. “A rogue wave knocked me off my feet. There was a bad riptide that would’ve sucked me down very far. But Roy grabbed me. He saved me. I said right then, ‘I owe you my life.’”
Dianne and Roy became partners in love and science. “We did a lot of that early self-esteem work together,” she says, “looking at what made high-self-esteem and low-self-esteem people tick. At the time, he was totally in favor of high-self-esteem.”
But his assumption that high-self-esteem was an unparalleled good, she thinks, was never going to hold. The reasons go back to that smart, sad house near the banks of Lake Erie, during years of the Civil Rights movement, where Roy had weathered the powerful opinions of his out-of-time father.
“His parents always encouraged him very strongly to challenge the authority of popular culture,” she says. “‘If everybody’s doing it, it’s probably wrong’. So he’s always been one to challenge the status quo.” Even deeper than this, she believes, is a pent-up need to revolt against the assumptions. “He was not allowed to challenge his parents at all, so he built up a reservoir of wanting to do that. If you believe in Freud, it’s a Freudian fixation. He always wants to look at embedded views and see ‘could they possibly be wrong?’”
AS THE IDEA OF SELF-ESTEEM AS A SOCIAL VACCINE spread from California to other parts of America and elsewhere, Baumeister was pricked with doubts. “There wasn’t a specific moment,” he says, “there was just a growing sense of skepticism. I started noticing they were making awfully extravagant claims, like they could balance the state’s budget because people with high self-esteem earn more money and pay taxes.” He read the California state report and its argument, and wasn’t impressed. “The data was quite weak. I thought, ‘If that’s the best case, then it’s not that strong.’”
It was then that his critical break with the movement came. “Everybody said low self-esteem was a big cause of violence because people with low self-esteem were aggressive,” he says. “But I knew from my lab work that they’re actually shy and unsure of themselves. They don’t want to take chances or stand out. They do what other people tell them. None of that sounds like they’re going to be aggressive.”
Intrigued by the apparent contradiction, Baumeister attempted to chase down the source of the idea that people who hit out do so because, deep down inside, they feel bad about themselves. “Everybody who said it cited somebody else, so I’d look up the previous source, and they’d also cited somebody else. That’s when I realized there was no evidence for it.”
He remembers feeling surprised: “It would be easy to do that experiment. The fact that there was nothing made me suspicious.” He began to wonder; to theorize. “It’s not thinking badly of yourself that causes aggression. It’s when other people think badly of you. That’s where it all goes horribly wrong.”
In 1996 Baumeister, now teaching at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, co-authored a review of the literature that concluded that it was, in fact, “threatened egotism” that lead to aggression. Evil, he suggested, was often accompanied by high self-esteem. “Dangerous people, from playground bullies to warmongering dictators, consist mostly of those who have highly favorable views of themselves,” he wrote.
It was an astonishing theory because it ran counter to everything that society and the experts who inform it had been saying for years. It wasn’t low self-esteem that caused violence: It was when self-esteem was artificially high.
BAUMEISTER’S PAPER MADE an unhappy man of Nathaniel Branden. The movement’s founding father complained of the “specious reasoning” in Baumeister’s study, holding it up as an example of “what can happen when consciousness and reality are omitted from the investigation.” For Branden, the violent people Baumeister wrote about might have appeared confident, but underneath all that bluster they actually had low self-esteem. “One does not need to be a trained psychologist to know that some people with low self-esteem strive to compensate for their deficit by boasting, arrogance, and conceited behavior,” he wrote.
But Baumeister had more bad news for the self-esteem boosters. In 1999 the American Psychological Society (since renamed the Association for Psychological Science) asked Baumeister to lead a team that would review the literature in its entirety to see, finally, what effect self-esteem had on behaviors such as happiness, health, and interpersonal success.
“Our first computer search looking for ‘self-esteem’ in the abstract came up with 15,000 papers,” Baumeister recalls. “We had a stack of manuscripts waist-high. Several big boxes-full. We cut it down with strict criteria. We wanted actual data, not just clinical case studies and things like that. We sorted through them, critiqued them, and tried to pull the information together.”
A major problem with many of the papers was that they relied on self-reporting. “People with high self-esteem just say everything about them is great,” Baumeister says. “If you give them a questionnaire and ask them about their relationships, they’ll say, ‘Oh, yeah, my relationships are great!” The team would only accept papers that measured self-esteem objectively. After their cull of the woolly and anecdotal, just 200 or so papers remained.
Among the most egregious errors they discovered were those in the papers that focused on academic performance. A correlation had been repeatedly found between high self-esteem and good grades. So, the logic went, if you boosted self-esteem you’d also boost grades. But the authors had made one of the most elementary mistakes in science. “When they tracked people over time,” says Baumeister, “the grades came first, and then the self-esteem. High self-esteem was a result of good grades, not a cause.”
Baumeister realized that efforts to boost self-esteem hadn’t improved school performance. Nor did self-esteem help in the successful performance of various tasks. It didn’t make people more likeable in the long term, or increase the quality or duration of their relationships. It didn’t prevent children smoking, taking drugs, or engaging in “early sex.” His report made the claims of the self-esteem movement look like those of a street-corner wizard.
Baumeister and his team did find a few benefits. “High self-esteem makes you feel good,” he says. “It also seems to support initiative.” But as the paper archly observed in its conclusion, “Hitler had very high self-esteem and plenty of initiative, too, but those were hardly guarantees of ethical behavior.” Baumeister’s study was published in May 2003. “It was,” he says, “a shock to a lot of people.”
Where does all this leave that confused and pulled-apart thing, the human self? What is the nature of that which lies beneath? Are we that saturnine creature of the Old World, of Freud and Baumeister’s father? A beast that needs to be controlled? Or is there still a chance that the New World can prevail, with its hopeful vision of a pure heart that thirsts only for freedom?
IN A 2000 PAPER in the journal Advances in Experimental Psychology, Baumeister and colleagues proposed a new way of thinking about the problem. In their “sociometer” theory, self-esteem is a system for monitoring how well we’re doing in our quest for social acceptance. Assaults on our self-esteem trigger a form of pain signal that alerts us to the fact that damage is occurring to the opinions that others hold of us. “Self-esteem,” they wrote, “is one’s subjective appraisal of how one is faring with regard to being a valuable, viable and sought-after member of the groups and relationships to which one belongs and aspires to belong.”
The paper also contained a warning. It compared the pleasure of hollow self-esteem boosting to cocaine abuse.
“Drugs take advantage of natural pleasure mechanisms in the human body that exist to register the accomplishment of desirable goals,” they wrote. “A drug such as cocaine may create a euphoric feeling without one’s having to actually experience events that normally bring pleasure, fooling the nervous system into responding as if circumstances were good. In the same way, cognitively inflating one’s self-image is a way of fooling the natural sociometer mechanism into thinking one is a valued relational partner.”
We have a word for people who have become high on their own hollow self-esteem: narcissist.
The dangers of narcissism became apparent to Baumeister when he tested his theory that people with high self-esteem are largely responsible for violent acts. In one experiment, two people played a game in which the loser is punished with unpleasant barrages of noise. Each player sets the decibel level at which opponents get blasted. Would those with high self-esteem, as Baumeister predicted, turn the sound up to the most aggressive levels? Actually, no. In fact, the effects of self-esteem on aggression appeared to be vanishingly weak. But participants’ levels of narcissism had also been measured. “People had just started talking about narcissism, which seems to be the nasty kind of high self-esteem,” he says. “That had the strong effects. It was people who were high in narcissism who were more provoked and more aggressive than everybody else.”
The problem seemed to be that high self-esteem is a mixed category. Some who have it are presumably healthily and accurately confident in themselves. Their sociometers are functioning well. “If you went up to Einstein and told him he was stupid,” says Baumeister, “he’s not going to get mad.” Narcissism, though, is different: It’s the desire to feel you’re superior. “Narcissists believe they deserve to be treated better than other people,” he says. They also lack the moral values of people with genuine high self-esteem.
Narcissism, then, is a kind of addiction to self-esteem. So what would happen if you took an entire generation of young people and systematically and repeatedly masturbated their self-esteem mechanisms? Could it be true that the children raised in the school of Rogers, Branden, and Vasconcellos were growing up to be entitled, egomaniacal narcissists?
Baumeister has certainly been noticing something like that amongst his students. “They’re very confident and self-assured, but because of that, they don’t work as hard as they might,” he says. “Other faculties are saying the same thing. Some just cannot take criticism, which is a big problem in academic life. We get criticized endlessly when we submit something. Believing you’re perfect is not a good preparation for that.”
The appalling possibility that the self-esteem movement had created a generation of narcissists was picked up by Jean Twenge, one of Baumeister’s protégés. In her 2006 book Generation Me, Twenge laid out astonishing data. For example, by the mid-1990s, the average college male had higher self-esteem than 86 percent of college men in 1968. The figure for women was 71 percent. The average child in the mid-1990s had higher self-esteem than 73 per cent of children in 1979.
Back in the 1950s, just over one in ten 14- to 16-year-olds agreed with the statement “I am an important person.” By the late 1980s, that number had risen to 80 per cent, a figure Twenge describes as “incredible.” She argued the surge was linked to concomitant surges in rates of depression and anxiety. “We fixate on self-esteem and unthinkingly build narcissism,” Twenge wrote. “This will stay with us even if self-esteem programs end up in the dustbin of history.”
Both Baumeister and Twenge have their critics. Some academics take issue with the link between aggression and high self-esteem, arguing instead that factors like shame are more important. The evidence for a narcissism epidemic, too, has suffered an assault: researchers have questioned the methods used to measure narcissism and pointed to studies that don’t support such a rise. More recently, critics have proposed that every generation is “Generation Me,” and narcissism is just an eternal symptom of youth.
Yet Twenge insists she’s supported by the weight of the numbers, observing that there are 22 datasets that show generational increases—and only two that don’t. She also points out that her data compares youngster to youngster, not youngster to middle-aged grump.
In 2009, she published The Narcissism Epidemic, a follow-up written with another of Baumeister’s former students, W. Keith Campbell. Twenge claimed that narcissism among Americans was rising at the same rate as obesity, and documented how the mantras of the self-esteem movement had begun infiltrating churches, with God himself being redrawn in our new self-obsessed image. Pastor Joel Osteen, for example, preaches in Lakewood, Houston, at the biggest church in America. “God didn’t create you to be average,” he tells his congregation. “You were made to excel.”
But this is not the world that the progenitors of the self-esteem movement thought they were making. For them, positive self-regard was a state that had to be earned. “Nathaniel Branden meant something a little more honestly come by,” says Campbell, the co-author of The Narcissism Epidemic. “When people talked about self-actualization, that meant really pushing yourself to reach your full potential. Self-actualization is really hard.” The reason the empty version of self-esteem proved infectious, Campbell believes, is simple: “It feels good.”
The movement’s U.S. origins are surely no coincidence. Self-esteem fits perfectly over the top of the traditional ideal of the free and noble individual, striving to achieve the American dream. The movement’s sin was making it sound easy. It removed the part about striving, replacing it with an unearned assumption of exceptionalism. The lesson became that simply wanting it is enough. You’re special. You deserve it.
“My kids have to do tasks at school where they talk about why they’re special,” says Campbell. “I mean, you know, they’re not! They’re kids! It’s a curse in a lot of ways. It’s such a crazy idea.”
THE ESCAPE THAT ROY BAUMEISTER BEGAN in his room in Ohio may have continued through the decades, but the influence of his father seems to still be in close pursuit. Like Rudy, a man out of time, Baumeister is frequently on the outside, railing at the errors of those on the in. As a man of science, he insists his views are influenced only by data; his determination to remain apart from ideology is so strong that he even refuses to vote. “I try not to have political views,” he says. “I try to get rid of all biases. I want to be open to all ideas. Caring just slows me down.”
His most brilliant and controversial work has at its center a refusal to engage with simplistic narratives of right and wrong. “I see the world far more in terms of trade-offs than a lot of other people,” he says. “Good actions are often tied to bad actions. People do things that are corrupt. They take money out of the system. But it’s usually towards supporting their families and relatives.” For example, he has addressed the “myth of pure evil,” observing that most people who commit terrible acts, even mass murder, do so in the sincere conviction that they’re on the side of the angels. “I wanted to understand how ordinary people got caught up in doing these things,” he says. “I came to realize that those who come to do evil don’t view it as evil. Evil is in the mind of the perceiver. Most of the Nazis thought they were doing noble work.”
The feted University of Chicago neuroscientist John Cacioppo is among those who disagree with some of Baumeister’s interpretations—but he recognizes his dedication to thinking the unthinkable. “Too many people just follow others and Roy doesn’t do that. I give him a lot of credit for that. I’m a more conservative, rigorous scientist than he is. He’ll say a lot of things I’d be hesitant to say until I had a lot more data. That’s not meant to be a negative statement about Roy. I don’t think that’s bad. It’s just different. I see a real role for people who have less rigor. It’s antithetical to me personally, but I want to give him kudos for what he’s done. He’s been fearless in a lot of things.”
Dianne Tice, his wife, says that this disregard for conventional thinking is not without incident: “Sometimes I have to keep him quiet because the things he wants to say are not always politically correct.”
Take, for example, Baumeister’s 2010 book Is There Anything Good About Men?. It built upon the idea that culture changes our biology and behavior. “I wanted a case study on how culture influences a broad class of people,” he says. He chose the human male.
Rejecting the feminist notion of patriarchy as a conspiracy theory, he presented differences in gender roles as a trade-off. Within human culture, men both win and lose. The mistake of many modern feminists, he writes, is that they “look only at the top of society and draw conclusions about society as a whole. Yes, there are mostly men at the top. But if you look at the bottom, really at the bottom, you’ll find mostly men there, too.” His examples: The homeless; the imprisoned; the people who die at work, 92 percent of whom are male. The popular modern view is that it’s women who are most poorly valued by culture. But, ever the contrarian, Baumeister says men are demonstrably “more expendable than women.”
“After he wrote that book, people didn’t believe that he used to be a feminist,” says Tice. “But he was, much more even than I was. And I think he’s right that society doesn’t place much value on men. What really opened my eyes is the work on battered men. We know that men and women hit each other in about equal amounts. It’s just men are more dangerous because they’re bigger.” She was, however, concerned about the book’s ramifications. “I was worried it might hurt him if he wanted to apply for other jobs or grants. He might be negatively evaluated as a result of people seeing him as sexist.” And did anything like that happen? “One never knows.”
Political correctness upsets Roy Baumeister. He rages against what he sees as a left-wing bias in social psychology that means that white prejudice against the black community is studied frequently, while inter-minority racism is comparatively ignored. Papers that show greed might be in any way good are rejected. “If you have a finding that says the conservative viewpoint did better, nobody wants to publish it,” he says.
Does the breath of Baumeister’s father still tickle the back of his neck? After all, here’s the dictator’s son railing against political correctness; here he is seeking to understand how ordinary people become evil; defenestrating modern feminism; agitating for the representation of right-wing views in academia. Baumeister’s opinions may well come shielded by data, but what are the wounds that guide his analysis?
Does Roy fear becoming Rudy? Is he attempting to correct for that possibility by trusting only the methods of science? Does he find, in his psychology journals, the proximity to humanity’s true nature that his parents, and the Letters of St. Paul, failed to provide?
When I ask him if he’s undergone a drift rightwards since his student days, there’s a long silence.
“Oh, I don’t know,” he says. “I wouldn’t say that. In America there’s a third movement, the libertarians, who are trying to reduce government involvement and promote freedom. To me, they make a lot of sense.”
Once again Baumeister is assuming the pose of heretic—but it’s impossible to avoid the observation that the song he sings is one the political right knows by heart. He’s frustrated by left’s compulsion to look outside individuals for the causes of their problem, be it poverty or addiction. “I sometimes feel like our job is to make excuses for people,” he says. I mention that the “sense” of libertarianism is an ideology that—like the self-esteem movement he rejected—was highly influenced by another thinker who believed in the power of the will: Rand. “I’ve never read her stuff,” he says with a shrug.
NOW 63, BAUMEISTER HAS TRAVELLED FAR from that room in Euclid. Today, as Francis Eppes Professor of Psychology at Florida State University, he’s received the Association for Psychological Science’s highest honor, the William James Award, and written or edited over 30 books on subjects as diverse as free will, masochism, and the meaning of life. His parents, meanwhile, are still alive and married. Susan says her father—who once scoffed at psychology—is proud of his son. “The fact that Roy got a Ph.D. and then became number one in his field, he loves that.”
But pride isn’t love. Susan remembers hearing about a theory that the most successful people in life are those who are still searching for their parents’ unconditional regard. “I don’t know that my father actually had the capacity to love,” she says. “That’s probably a lot of what’s behind Roy.”
Through his work, Baumeister has attempted not only to understand his father, but to escape him and the powerful influence of his ideas. Instead of political ideology, he adopts the methods and disciplines of science. But isn’t it true that all scientists, no matter what their intelligence or learning, believe their data is the best? Nobody is free from the unconscious pulls of instinct and bias. No matter how much we might resist it, we’re all political in the end. Perhaps Roy Baumeister’s greatest victory in his flight from Rudy is his refusal to view the world through the narrow prism of right and wrong. The truth, as he has learned, is that life is never so simple. There’s always a trade-off.
From certain upstairs windows in the house where Baumeister grew up, you could catch tantalizing glimpses of Lake Erie. His father loved sailing and swimming, but would never buy a property on the lakefront. It would be a poor investment, he argued. And what if a great storm blew in off the water? There was no control down there by the lake. It was safer where they were. When Baumeister moved back to Cleveland in 1991, he recalled his father’s warnings as he looked for a new place to live.
They made sense. But it was a trade-off. You could avoid the risks of being by the water, or you could experience the simple joy of waking up and seeing the lake spread out in front of you.
Roy and Dianne signed the purchase papers on Christmas Eve. Their new house was right on the shore.