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Gender paths wind toward self-esteem.

A study tracking self-esteem and psychological adjustment in youngsters from the early teens to young adulthood finds that a healthy regard for oneself develops differently in boys and girls.

What's more, reported feelings of self-worth do not necessarily reflect psychological health, according to the new data, which will appear in the June CHILD DEVELOPMENT. For example, 14-year-old boys who expressed abundant self-esteem displayed considerable trouble in expressing their emotions and dealing effectively with others.

However, healthy self-esteem tended to increase for boys and decrease for girls during the nine-year study period.

"We're now looking closely at the possibility that there may be different types of self-esteem in our sample," says Jack Block, a psychologist at the University of California, Berkeley. Block conducted the analysis with Berkeley colleague Richard W. Robins.

A recent one-time survey of U.S. youngsters age 9 to 16 noted drops in self-esteem for girls entering adolescence that far outpace those reported by boys (SN: 3/23/91, p. 184). Other researchers who have studied children as they proceed through early adolescence cite less pronounced and often temporary self-esteem differences between boys and girls.

"It's rare for self-esteem researchers to look beyond the early adolescent years," asserts Barton J. Hirsch, a psychologist at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill. "That's what makes this new study interesting."

Block and Robins studied 47 women and 44 men, all of whom live in the San Francisco Bay Area. Each participant entered the study in 1968, at age 3. About two-thirds are white; the rest are black or Asian. Ongoing analyses have yielded clues to the development of drug use and delinquency (SN: 5/1/93, p.282).

At ages 14, 18, and 23, volunteers completed a two-part self-esteem test. First, they described themselves by grouping 43 adjectives and short phrases -- including "competitive," "creative," and "gets upset easily" -- into seven categories ranging from "most underscriptive" to "most descriptive." About one week later, they performed the same task to describe the person they would ideally like to be. The extent of agreement between the two sets of descriptions determined that person's self-esteem.

Most self-esteem studies rely on short questionnaires that make general inquiries into whether people like themselves, but fail to establish why they like themselves, Block contends. On these tests, a report of high self-esteem may reflect an attempt to deceive or please the researcher, self-absorption, or healthy feelings of self-worth, he holds.

Unlike most previous studies, the Berkeley project used clinicians to develope a personality profile of each youngster at the time of each self-esteem test.

From age 14 to 23, one-fifth of the boys displayed substantial losses and one-third reported marked gains in self-esteem. Over the same period, nearly one-half of the girls cited a significant decline and one-fifth reported a considerable increase in self-esteem.

Boys exhibited much individual volatility in self-esteem, particularly between ages 14 and 18, the researchers note.

The personality profile of girls reporting high self-esteem remained consistent at all three ages. Clinicians rated them as cheerful, assertive, emotionally open and warm, relatively spontaneous, able to work well with others, and unwilling to give up when frustrated.

In contrast, the profile of boys citing high self-esteem changed radically. Although rated as stern, humorless, unemotional, and lacking in social skills at age 14, at later ages these boys developed more of the openness and expressiveness shown by high self-esteem girls.

Relating to others well fosters self-esteem for females, whereas managing one's anxiety in social situations importantly aids male self-esteem, the psychologists suggest. For instance, 23-year-old women with high self-esteem emphasized the closeness of their social relations, while high self-esteem males at that age stressed keeping emotional distance and control when dealing with others.

The "cultural press" of adolescence may help shape gender differences in the nature of self-esteem, Block notes. "In crasser terms, females are socialized to get along in society, and males are socialized to get ahead," he says.

The researchers plan to look at how adolescent self-esteem relates to adult functioning and how universal, gender, and individual experiences lead some people to feel good about themselves and others to feel worthless.
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Title Annotation:gender differences in self-esteem development
Author:Bower, Bruce
Publication:Science News
Date:May 15, 1993
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