Psychologist on Idol criticism: “Telling your kid they’re great can create more vulnerability”

In a surprisingly humorous attempt to treat American Idol with the seriousness that we expect from a weekly newsmagazine, Newsweek talks to a psychology professor about the first two episodes, and the criticism that they’ve been rather mean. (The judges and producers defended the show to TV critics this weekend.)

Mostly, the University of Michigan’s Dr. Jennifer Crocker–“a professor … who focuses on self-esteem issues,” according to Newsweek–talks about the show like any well-informed, college-educated person who can type without her caps lock key on.

For example, she says that “Simon Cowell, more than Paula Abdul, is really trying to tell them the truth about their chances, if they are really trying to sing, and what they could do to improve. … It is really more valuable than the unconditional love Paula Abdul gives. She wants to be encouraging, but some of these people shouldn’t be encouraged to become pop idols.”

Here’s my MFA in creative writing-level assessment of that PhD-level assessment: Duh.

However, as she runs the Contingencies of Self-Esteem Laboratory, she does offer interesting science, although some of it is little more than conjecture. For example, she says, “There’s some evidence that depression results when goals that are essential to people become blocked, but I think that most of the contestants probably rebound fairly quickly.”

She also says that the judges’ criticism “can hurt people’s self-esteem temporarily and the more invested they are, the more they’ve attached their self-worth to being a great singer, the more it’s going to hurt.” While she says that “there’s probably a small risk of violence or suicide” among those who are criticized, “[t]he fact that some people really personalize it is not the fault of the show.”

She also says that contestants’ reactions have more to do with their own issues than with the criticism, which again is not a huge surprise. “There’s research that people who are narcissistic respond to insults by becoming aggressive so I think that’s a concern. Then I think there are other people who will really internalize it and become depressed, some of whom might have some preexisting vulnerability, so it’s not impossible they may become suicidal, but it would be unfair to say the criticism itself would cause that,” she tells Newsweek.

Finally, to all those delusional parents who comforted their delusional kids by saying delusional things like, “Next year, honey,” Crocker says, “I don’t think it’s positive for parents to encourage their kids in the belief that they will be America’s next idol if there’s no chance. Telling your kid they’re great can create more vulnerability. Some people think kids can’t stand to hear anything negative so they only give them praise, but research shows that those are the kids who are the most vulnerable when they experience a setback.”

Simon, the Supportive? [Newsweek]