Generation Y regularly takes lashings in the media for being the “self esteem generation” or “trophy kids,” raised in an era of coddling and compliments and faring poorly in the workplace without constant praise. A new study raises some new, albeit unusual, alarm bells on this: an article in the forthcoming Journal of Personality article titled “Sweets, Sex, or Self-Esteem? Comparing the Value of Self-Esteem Boosts with Other Pleasant Rewards.” The big finding: young adults like and want moments that boost self esteem more than having sex, eating a favorite food, drinking or pretty much any other pleasurable activity the paper studied.

Participants in the study were asked to imagine their favorite food, sexual activity and self-esteem building experience, such as getting a good grade or receiving a compliment.Then, participants asked how much they “liked” and “wanted” each of those things. The 130 University of Michigan undergrads “liked” and “wanted” the self-esteem boosts more than either of the other activities. Here’s how they matched up:

There was a small gender split here: while men valued self-esteem boosts above everything, women put them on par with seeing best friends and getting paid.

How generalizable these results are is a bit unknown. As the researchers Brad Bushman, Scott Moeller and Jennifer Crocker note, “We are unable to know what kinds of self-esteem boosts people were considering.” Either way, they do see the results as a red flag. The paper ends with a reference to Fritz Perls, an early 19th century psychologist, and his stern warning that “Our dependency makes slaves out of us, especially if this dependency is a dependency of our self-esteem.”