No, Hitler Did Not Have Unusually High Self-Esteem

Psychology Textbooks Continue to Misinform Students with Cool but Tall Tales

Posted Jan 02, 2019

A recent blog post from scholar Uli Schimmack noted that at least one undergraduate textbook contained the rather clumsy claim that Hitler had “high self-esteem.”  This comment was made as part of an insinuation that individuals who have committed a considerable amount of violent acts, whether gang leaders or violent criminals, tend to have higher self-esteem.  Leaving aside these broader claims for a moment, and ignoring that mental health problems are, in fact, quite common among prison populations, let’s take a closer look at the claim about Hitler.

The textbook’s source for the Hitler claim appears to be a 2003 scholarly article that concludes, despite some benefits to self-esteem, efforts to boost self-esteem aren’t particularly helpful to society.  The full quote on Hitler from that source is:

“It [self-esteem] may still prove a useful tool to promote success and virtue, but it should be clearly and explicitly linked to desirable behavior. After all, Hitler had very high self-esteem and plenty of initiative, too, but those were hardly guarantees of ethical behavior. He attracted followers by offering them self-esteem that was not tied to achievement or ethical behavior—rather, he told them that they were superior beings simply by virtue of being themselves, members of the so-called Master Race, an idea that undoubtedly had a broad, seductive appeal. We have found no data to indicate that indiscriminately promoting self-esteem in today’s children or adults, just for being themselves, has any benefits beyond that seductive pleasure.”

The idea that self-esteem or any other subjective experience (such as happiness) is only worthwhile if it can be linked to “desirable behavior” itself seems a bit too “Brave New World” for me.  But the implication here seems to be a reductio ad Hitlerum logical fallacy: Hitler had high self-esteem, therefor it is bad.  But did he really have high self-esteem at all?

Curiously, neither the textbook nor the original scholarly article provides any citation or reference to historical documents to back up this claim.  It seems to be little more than the authors’ impression of Hitler.  There’s a good reason why there are no historical citations: the historical evidence could not back this claim, certainly not made in such a sweeping and facile way.  Biographies of Hitler, as well as medical casebooks of his mental and physical health made clear that Hitler’s psychology and mental health were complex and can’t be boiled down to the “happy camper” narrative being fed undergraduate psychology students.

How healthy was his self-esteem?  Unfortunately, Hitler never found the time to sit down and fill out surveys for psychologists of the future, one thing that should give folks pause in making these types of claims.  Like most people, Hitler’s self-esteem likely ebbed and flowed depending on his successes and failures.  He certainly had a deep and near-delusional perception of his unique role in history.  But this was marred by significant failures in his early life, lifelong difficulties with social connections and periods of deep depression and anxiety.  His personality was driven by paranoia and hatred and an unusual admiration for destruction and war as cleansing agents for humanity.  He took considerable risks (which worked out remarkably well before and during the early stages of WWII, but became a serious liability in the latter war) but at times could be paralyzed with indecision and despair such as after the 1923 Beer Hall Putsch.  For years, he suffered from somatic complaints including gastrointestinal distress, weakness and tremors.  Whether these were psychogenic or due to an unknown illness remains debated.  By the war years he had become an amphetamine addict. 

To boil all this down to “high self-esteem” is, to say the least, to do a gross injustice to the education of our psychology students.  Similarly, the notion that Hitler’s rise to power can be boiled down to his offering followers self-esteem without ethical obligations is, likewise, absurdly reductive and incomplete.  In fairness, the textbook is only repeating the scholarly article, and textbook authors often must rely on the hopes that original sources are not full of crap.  Although only one example, I argue the Hitler foolishness is a symptom of a larger problem for psychology textbooks.  In a recent study I conducted with colleagues at Texas A&M International University, we found that errors, biases and repetitions of myths such as the fable that dozens of eyewitnesses failed to help murder victim Kitty Genovese remained common in psychology textbooks.  Some textbooks were better than others, and hopefully some have improved since our study.  But, clearly, we have more work to do.

Stories such as “Hitler had high self-esteem” serve to hook students’ attention and illustrate a point.  But when those stories are inaccurate or poorly sourced, they do a disservice to our students.  We would not tolerate our students making up loose claims in a research paper merely because it was convenient for them.  Therefore, we should not provide a bad example by doing the same in our psychology textbooks.

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