College Students Would Rather Get Praised Than Laid

A study supposedly shows that college students would rather have a self-esteem boost than sex or a slice of pizza. If that's true, would it be such a bad thing?

According to Roni Caryn Rabin of the Times Well blog, "152 University of Michigan students were asked about their favorite activity, but were given an expanded list to choose from that included receiving a paycheck, seeing a best friend and drinking alcohol, in addition to eating a favorite food, engaging in a favorite sexual activity and having a self-esteem-building experience" (though Rabin's headline and image depict pizza, it's not clear that this was one of the specific choices). Self-esteem-building beat out all the others. Says lead study author Brad Bushman,

Everybody likes compliments, but more than engaging in your favorite sexual activity? More than receiving a paycheck? I was surprised it was such a powerful thing that it trumped everything else.

I'm not all that surprised — as Carol Landau, a psych professor at Brandeis, points out, many college students can get a piece of pizza pretty easily, and a hookup may not be too difficult to orchestrate either. Getting praise is tougher — even hard work doesn't necessarily ensure it. Explains Landau, "The other rewards are somewhat within their control. The self-esteem factors are not." It makes a certain amount of sense that students would prize something that comes their way only rarely, and whose arrival they can't really predict or influence.

Somewhat predictably, Rabin uses the research to talk about the so-called "me generation" and "narcissism epidemic" — but self-esteem gets a bad rap. Though some research suggests that the wrong kind of praise can lead kids to fear failure, the right kind can spur them on to greater success. Anyone who's received much-needed encouragement in a time of doubt knows that a self-esteem boost can increase determination and drive, not just entitlement or narcissism. We need self-esteem to to help us remember that we can run a race, finish school, learn a new language, do well at our jobs, form healthy relationships, or be good parents ourselves. Even harsh "tiger mother" Amy Chua doesn't discount the importance of self-esteem — she just believes in her own way of reinforcing it.

Ultimately, I'm not sure the study proves much about how much college students crave praise — after all, it's pretty difficult to compare one's desire for a meal or a blowjob to one's need to feel like a worthwhile person. However, that need isn't pathological or unhealthy — and young people shouldn't be demonized as narcissists for acknowledging it.

Choosing Self-Esteem Over Sex Or Pizza [NYT Well Blog]

Image via Taushia Jackson/Shutterstock.com