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Beyond the Debate: Why Some Adolescents Report Stable Self-Worth Over Time and Situation, Whereas Others Report Changes in Self-Worth


  • This research was supported by a grant from NICHD. An earlier version of this paper was Presented at a Symposium at the Society for Research on Adolescence, New Orleans, April 11, 2002. Requests for information or reprints should be sent to Susan Harter at the Department of Psychology, University of Denver, 2155 S. Race St., Denver, CO 80208.


Abstract Within the field of personality and social psychology, there has been historical controversy over whether constructs such as self-esteem are stable over time and situation or whether they are changeable. One response to this question has been to invoke two types of self-esteem or self-worth, trait self-esteem and state self-esteem. Thus it has been asserted that adolescents, the participants in this paper, have both a baseline self-esteem as well as a barometric self-esteem that represents short-term fluctuations (Rosenberg, 1986). In this paper, we contend that constructs such as self-esteem are not, in and of themselves, trait-like or state-like in nature. Rather, certain individuals display trait-like behavior, whereas others demonstrate change in self-esteem or self-worth across relatively long periods of time, on a short-term basis, and across situations. Three studies document these claims. The first addresses self-worth as a function of the transition from high school to college. The second examines short-term fluctuations in self-worth. The third investigates variability in self-worth across relational contexts, namely, relational self-worth. In each study, findings reveal that certain adolescents report stability in self-worth whereas others report change, fluctuations, or variability. Social causes of these individual differences are identified in each study, as are mental health implications. It is argued that such approaches provide a clearer understanding of the complexity of self-processes.