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Developmental, Personality and self

Teenagers define themselves mostly in terms of their positive traits

By contrast, adults define themselves more in terms of their social roles.

28 May 2019

By Christian Jarrett

Write down the unfinished statement “I am …” twenty times. Now think to yourself “Who am I?” and complete as many of the “I am …” statements as you can in the next five minutes or less.

This is the Twenty Statements Test and it’s designed to assess how we see ourselves – our “self-concept”. For their new paper in the journal Memory, a team at the University of Reading, led by Emily Hards, gave this test to 822 teenagers (aged 13-18) from three schools in England, with the additional instruction “not to think too much about the responses and not to worry about the order/importance of the statements”.

While it’s widely recognised that adolescence is a crucial period for the establishment of our sense of self, little is actually known about how teenagers’ generally see themselves. Indeed, this is the first time that teenagers’ own self-generated descriptions of themselves (what the researchers call their “self-images”) have been gathered in a systematic way.

In all, the participants provided 6,558 self-descriptions or self-images. After removing any redundancy (for example, treating “I am irritating at times” and “I am somewhat irritating” as the same response), the researchers calculated that the teens came up with 443 different ways of describing themselves.

On average, the participants provided eight self-images. The twenty most commonly given, from most to least, were: happy, a son/daughter, funny, a student, a sports player, a friend, a brother/sister, kind, friendly, [some kind of description of] appearance, [description of] height, tired, sporty, caring, confident, [something about their] age, love, smart, shy, [description of their] gender, quiet.

Overall then, at a time when there is much talk of a crisis of mental health among young people, the researchers said their results paint a rather a “striking and reassuring” picture. Most of the teens’ self-images pertained to traits, and most of them were positive.

The participants’ focus on their personal characteristics and traits is consistent with “broader ideas in developmental psychology,” the researchers said, “which suggest that during adolescence young people become increasingly focused on their ‘psychological interior’ and engage in self-reflection.”

A few gender differences were apparent: girls tended to provide more self-images than boys; girls more often described themselves as a daughter (relative to how often boys described themselves as a son), as being a sibling, a friend, mentioning their appearance, as tired, caring, love, shy, or quiet; whereas boys more often described themselves as a sports player and sporty.

The researchers also compared the teenagers’ self-images with those obtained in an earlier study from a sample of predominantly young adults (aged 18 to 30). The main difference was that whereas the teenagers mostly described themselves in terms of their traits, the adults more often described themselves in terms of their social roles, such as friend or son. “…[S]ocial roles may be more accessible and important among adults than adolescents” the researchers said.

The images we form of ourselves in adolescence can have a lasting impact on the rest of our lives – shaping (and being shaped by) the autobiographical memories that we hold most dear, thereby influencing the way we see ourselves for years to come. Though limited by its monocultural and cross-sectional design, this research helps lay the groundwork for a better understanding how people come to see themselves the way they do, and for investigating what might be different about the self-images of those teenagers who develop depression or other mental health problems. Hards and her colleagues have also made their findings publicly available as a searchable database, providing a useful resource for future research.

Further reading

Memories of the self in adolescence: examining 6558 self-image norms

About the author

Christian Jarrett (@Psych_Writer) is Editor of BPS Research Digest