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.”

“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.”

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.”