From Teen to Young Adult: How Self-Certainty and Prosociality work together

Sometimes it is hard to imagine how a teenager becomes an adult. While the stereotypical view of the adolescent is that they are maybe a little asocial and confused, we usually think that being an adult means that you are a well-adjusted human being. So what changes when we leave our teens behind us, and what stays the same?

The paper,  “the Interplay of Self‐Certainty and Prosocial Development in the Transition from Late Adolescence to Emerging Adulthood” by Crocetti,  et al.  tries to answer part of this question. As you might have gathered from the title they look at the transition to emerging adulthood. Emerging adulthood (early twenties) is a life phase that has appeared more recently, that has sprung from the fact that most people in the developed world take up adult roles and responsibilities later in life than before. For example less people marry, get children or a steady job in their early twenties. Thus emerging adulthood is a phase where people do become more independent from their parents, but do not bear all the burdens of full fledged adulthood. As both in adolescence and emerging adulthood expanding horizons, finding your role in society and romancing are important, the researchers look at self-certainty and prosociality, in particular. The former can be defined as the perceived consistency and clarity of your self-concept, while the latter is about the how much you tend to behave in a way that is helpful towards others. Specifically they wanted to know how prosocial and self-certain people are at different ages, and if being more prosocial will lead to more self-certainty and the other way around.

In order to answer these questions 244 participants (all Dutch) self-reported on their self-certainty and prosociality once a year, for 6 years (from about 17 to 23 years old). With this data they looked at the average of prosociality and self-clarity, and how much the score on both concepts in the previous year is related to the score in the year after that. In other words do people that score high on self-clarity also score high on prosociality one year later, and the other way around. This resulted in four main findings: (1) The participants increased in prosociality over the years, (2) Self-certainty also increased after an initial drop, and (3) the two concepts positively influenced each other, but (4) prosociality has a greater effect on self-certainty than the other way around. In other words while having a high self-certainty a year before predicts a high prosociality the next year, the reverse is even more true.

To come back to what I said in the beginning. How does the confused teen become an adult? Well this paper suggests that shortly after and around our 18th birthday things start to become more clear and stable. Which is not too surprising when you consider that around this time most Dutch high schoolers choose what they are going to do after they are done with high school. When you are making that choice you might be exploring different options and reevaluating who you think you are. This can be confusing, but once a choice is made the path of life becomes a little clearer again.

But I think that especially the fact that being prosocial predicts a higher self-certainty  is interesting when you consider identity formation. Most of us already understand that others are incredibly important when we try to define who we are ourselves, for example being part of a certain group can be a large part of who you think you are. But this also suggest that if you are more helpful towards others you understand yourself better. Crocetti suggests that this is because people with quality relationships will receive more feedback on how they behave or come across towards others. For instance, you are doubting if you are interested to go and study psychology, and a friend says: “Omg, that is so you!” you get positive feedback that you are, in fact, acting in a way that fits with you. However, prosociality does not only include having high quality relationship with people that are close you, but also social behavior towards strangers. If it turns out that this general helpfulness is also important for self-certainty then I would be really interested in hearing how that would work! But all in all, it is nice to know that quality relationships are still very important in so many different ways. To take the quote that is printed on the a wooden board in the window sill of one of my neighbors “Giving love is as important as receiving it. ”


If you want to read the full article, it can be found on google scholar using this reference:

Crocetti, E., Moscatelli, S., Van der Graaff, J., Rubini, M., Meeus, W., & Branje, S. (2016). The Interplay of Self‐Certainty and Prosocial Development in the Transition from Late Adolescence to Emerging Adulthood. European Journal of Personality, 30(6), 594-607.

Or this link.

If you (or your university) don’t have access to this article, but you still really want to read it you can always e-mail the authors to request a copy!

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