The Hidden Brain

Our unconscious biases.

Self Esteem Among Americans peaks at age 60

Older adults have higher self esteem than younger people

Americans turn out to have the highest self-esteem at age 60, according to new research.

There are important variables and nuances, but the basic message might be surprising to many who believe that very young people have better self-esteem than older people.

Ulrich Orth and Richard Robins surveyed 3,617 adults in the United States between 1986 and 2002, and asked them how they felt about themselves -- whether they felt competent and able to carry out their goals successfully, or incompetent and helpless. Women tended to have lower self esteem than men -- which to me overwhelmingly suggests the hand of sexism, both conscious and unconscious, both internalized and external -- but the sexes converge in their self esteem later in life. Blacks and whites have similar self-esteem during most of life, but black self-esteem seems to drop more abruptly than among whites late in life.

While positive relationships are linked to better self-esteem, even those with positive relationships tended to experience declines in self-esteem after age 60. It's possible the peak in self-esteem comes about at the point in many people's lives where they have achieved some professional success, have formed good track records in personal relationships and have some leisure time. The research was published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

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Shankar Vedantam is a science reporter with National Public Radio and a Nieman fellow at Harvard University.

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