The other day a Facebook friend sent me (along with 60 or so other friends) a message that presented me with a bit of a conflict. Her daughter had entered a photograph in a contest and my friend asked her Facebook friends to go to the website and vote for her daughter’s photograph. What I found intriguing is that the successful winner of the contest would be judged not by the quality of her photographic submission, but rather by the effectiveness of her supporters’ online campaign. The reason this request represented a challenge is because of some of the newest psychological research into self-worth, success and happiness.
Would I be doing this child’s psychological well-being a favor by voting for her picture solely on the basis of her mother’s desire to see her daughter succeed? Renowned psychologist Martin Seligman suggests that one of the causes of depression in contemporary society is our unwitting tendency to try to boost self-esteem artificially rather than through genuine accomplishment and even failure (Seligman, 1995). In other words, we may give praise when praise isn’t due. It is kind of like “letting her win.” In this scenario, suppose the child thinks her picture “sucks.” Yet she wins the best picture award anyway. She could experience some kind of cognitive dissonance that she resolves with the acquired belief that “I am really not good at photography, but people voted for me because they felt sorry for me.” In this case, we inadvertently reinforce a negative self-image in our desire to make the child feel worthwhile. Of course, this scenario is conjectural, but it is a plausible outcome for some of the applicants.
Seligman would argue that artificially augmenting self-esteem by fostering on the child that her accomplishment is greater than it actually is contributes to depression. Alternatively, allowing the child to win or lose, succeed or fail, on her own genuine merits results in authentic self-esteem. Allowing the child to feel bad in response to failure motivates the child to try harder to succeed next time. With each successive improvement in performance, the child gains confidence in her ability to navigate her world and makes her more resilient when her performance is judged less than stellar.
As a result of this discussion, I have resolved my conflict by choosing not to vote in this photo contest. Had my friend written, “Please vote for the picture you like the best,” and provided that all the pictures lacked identification until after the vote, I would certainly cast a ballot.
Seligman, M. E. (1995). The Optimistic Child: Proven Program to Safeguard Children from Depression & Build Lifelong Resilience. New York: Houghton Mifflin.