Self-Esteem Development Over Time: The Maturity Hypothesis


Recent research by Tilmann von Soest, Lars Wichstrøm, and Ingela Lundin Kvalem looks at how people’s self-esteem changed over a 13-year period. With this study, they were able to see whether self-esteem grew or stayed the same and whether things like physical appearance became more or less important over time.

First, What is Self-Esteem?

This might seem like a silly question. Schools put a lot of work into raising kids’ self-esteem, and you can find tons of books on boosting self-esteem, but how would you define it?

handSocial psychologists use self-esteem to refer to your overall evaluation of yourself. Do you see yourself positively or negatively? How positive or how negative? That’s self-esteem. It’s been a hot topic in research for many years, and we’ve learned a lot about what affects self-esteem and what outcomes are associated with it. (See Social Psychology of the Self for more).

Beyond all that, though, psychologists have looked at the structure of self-esteem. That is, what’s it based on? What are the elements that make up your self-esteem?

This can be different for different people. One person might base her self-esteem entirely on her athletic abilities. Another person might base his self-esteem entirely on his physical appearance. Still another person could have a multi-faceted sense of self-esteem, basing it in part on athleticism, appearance, intelligence, relationships, etc.

Self-Esteem’s Development Over Time: The Maturity Hypothesis

clock-761606_640Let’s hold off on those specific domains of self-esteem for a minute and focus first on general self-esteem. One question that’s intrigued researchers is whether people’s overall self-evaluations change over their lives. Do we see ourselves more positively or more negatively as we grow up?

A bunch of studies have shown that self-esteem increases as we get older. This research looks at people’s self-esteem (which they openly reveal in a survey) starting around middle adolescence and continues to ask those people about their self-esteem at various points as they grow up. Over time, there’s a subtle tendency for self-esteem to get more positive.

One reason for this increase is called the maturity principle. The idea is that early in life, we’re confused about where we fit into the grand scheme of society. As we get older, though, we start to adapt to social roles and understand our place. In doing so, we get more comfortable, confident, and capable.

New Research on Self-Esteem Development

So we know that general self-esteem tends to increase with age, but what about the structure of it? What about those specific domains of self-esteem like appearance and intelligence?

That’s where the new research comes in. A team of researchers in Norway analyzed data from more than 3,000 people as they aged from around 13 years old to around 31 years old. Data collection started in 1992 with middle and high school students who responded to a bunch of questions about their self-esteem. The same people were asked to respond to follow-up surveys in 1994, 1999, and 2005.

First, patterns from the previous research show up with this group of people, too. Over time, levels of self-esteem reliably grew and grew (although it’s worth noting that these increases were relatively small).

Development of the Domains of Self-Esteem


One fascinating new question that this research was able to address was whether overall self-esteem became more or less linked with specific domains of self-esteem over time. To do this, the researchers looked at the correlations between each specific self-esteem (e.g., physical appearance self-esteem) and overall self-esteem at each point in the study. In doing this, they could see whether they became more correlated or less correlated over time.

For physical appearance self-esteem, the correlations started high and ended high. In other words, no matter how old they are, people’s general self-esteem is strongly tied how happy they are with their physical appearance.

However, over time, general self-esteem became more correlated with social acceptance and close friendship-related self-esteem. So at a young age, how we view ourselves isn’t that related to our social standing (as we perceive it, anyway), but as we get older, social acceptance and quality relationships become a more important part of feeling good about ourselves.

Interestingly, the research also shows that self-esteem related to academic competence and athletic ability are, overall, weakly related to general self-esteem, and that doesn’t seem to change much over time.

The Maturity Principle Returns

An intriguing finding in this study is that in adolescence, physical appearance esteem was the domain most strongly related to overall self-esteem, but at this early age, social connections were less important. von Soest and colleagues note that this is perfectly compatible with the maturity principle.

As they write, in adolescence, “one’s own capabilities and roles in society are not yet strongly consolidated,” so “easily observable characteristics such as appearance may be particularly important.” It’s only with age and greater understanding of one’s social role that those role-related forms of self-esteem hold more weight.

Overall, this research gives us exciting new insight into how self-esteem changes as we amass life experience, and in the case of physical appearance’s influence on self-esteem, how it doesn’t change at all.

Have you experienced greater self-esteem as you’ve gotten older?

This post is part of New Research Friday: Each Friday, we aim to bring new research in social psychology to the blog, highlighting information revealed in studies that have only recently been published.


Feature Image: “self-esteem” by Kiran Foster is licensed under CC BY 2.0, cropped and levels adjusted

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