The investigators discovered that self-esteem tended to rise slightly from ages 4 to 11, remain stagnant from 11 to 15, increase markedly from 15 to 30, and subtly improve until peaking at 60. It stayed constant from 60 to 70 years old, declined slightly from ages 70 to 90, and dropped sharply from 90 to 94. (Fewer studies addressed the oldest and youngest age groups—just a couple each for the 4 to 6 range and 90 to 94 range—so the evidence is weaker for the tail ends of the spectrum.) The results were published in the journal Psychological Bulletin.
The team analyzed 331 studies that assessed self-esteem, collectively covering more than 164,000 people between 4 and 94 years old. Self-esteem is measured with questionnaires in which respondents state to what extent they agree with statements such as “I feel that I’m a person of worth, at least on an equal basis with others” or “I wish I could have more respect for myself.”
“This is the first time researchers have charted out, across studies, the trajectory of self-esteem,” says Brent Donnellan, a professor of psychology at Michigan State University who was not involved with the research. “It’s a massive contribution to understanding self-esteem across the lifespan.”
Scientists recently combed through numerous studies of self-esteem to chart the average changes that occur from childhood to old age. The trajectory they observed challenges ideas about how self-esteem develops and deepens our understanding of a trait thought to influence relationships, health, education, and professional success.
Positive self-regard varies from person to person, but research shows that this psychological resource rises and falls in systematic ways across the lifespan.