Self-esteem increases during adolescence, then slows in young adulthood, but contrary to popular belief, there is no significant difference between men’s and women’s self-esteem during either of those life phases, according to research published by the American Psychological Association.
In addition, the researchers found that in adolescence, Hispanics had lower self-esteem than blacks or non-Hispanic whites, but Hispanics’ self-esteem increased more strongly so that by age 30, they had higher self-esteem than whites. Indeed, at age 30, whites also trailed blacks in self-esteem, according to the study, published online in APA’s Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.
Researchers at the University of Basel in Switzerland looked at data from the Young Adults section of the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth, a U.S. national probability survey that was started in 1979 and included an oversampling of blacks and Hispanics. The sample consisted of 7,100 individuals age 14-30. Forty-nine percent were female; 37 percent were white, 32 percent black, 20 percent Hispanic; and 11 percent other ethnicities. The participants were assessed every two years from 1994 to 2008.
The researchers, led by Ruth Yasemin Erol, MSc, tested how five personality traits — openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness and neuroticism — affect self-esteem. In addition, they looked at subjects’ sense of life mastery, risk-taking tendencies, gender, ethnicity, health and income.
“We tested for factors that we thought would have an impact on how self-esteem develops,” Erol said. “Understanding the trajectory of self-esteem is important to pinpointing and timing interventions that could improve people’s self-esteem.”
Consistent with prior research, Erol and her colleague Ulrich Orth, PhD, found that blacks have higher self-esteem than whites in both adolescence and young adulthood. Even when they controlled for a sense of mastery, or the perception of control over one’s life, the researchers found ethnic differences remained. The same was true regarding mastery when they compared the self-esteem of men and women.
“The converging evidence on gender similarity in self-esteem is important because false beliefs in gender differences in self-esteem may carry substantial costs,” Erol said. “For example, parents, teachers and counselors may overlook self-esteem problems in male adolescents and young men because of the widespread belief that men have higher self-esteem than women have.”
Mastery had a strong positive effect on the subjects’ level of self-esteem, according to the study. In contrast, income did not influence the level or shape of the self-esteem trajectory in adolescence and young adulthood, the researchers found.
“The present research suggests that, in particular, emotional stability, extraversion, conscientiousness and a sense of mastery are important predictors of the self-esteem trajectory in adolescence and young adulthood,” they wrote.