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Psychology and Aging Copyright 2001 by the American Psychological Association, Inc.

2001, Vol. 16, No. 4, 643-654 0882-7974/01/S5.00 DOI: 10.1037//0882-7974.16.4.643

Self-Concept Differentiation Across the Adult Life Span

Manfred Diehl Catherine T. Hastings and James M. Stanton


University of Florida University of Colorado at Colorado Springs

This study used 2 measures to examine 158 adults' (80 men, 78 women; ages 20 to 88 years) self-concept
differentiation (SCD) across 5 role-specific self-representations. Findings revealed that the 2 measures
did not assess SCD in similar ways and that they showed different associations with age. Specifically, the
1st measure was not significantly related to age, whereas the 2nd measure showed a curvilinear, U-shaped
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association with age. The 2nd SCD index also showed significant associations with several measures of
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emotional adjustment and 6 dimensions of psychological well-being. Additional analyses showed that
age moderated the associations between SCD and positive and negative psychological well-being. A high
level of SCD was associated with lower positive and higher negative psychological well-being for both
young and older adults. However, this effect was significantly more pronounced in older adults.

This study focused on self-concept differentiation (SCD), the personality psychologists have investigated to what extent a dif-
extent to which persons' self-representations are different for dif- ferentiated self-concept is adaptive (Donahue, Robins, Roberts, &
ferent social roles and contexts, across the adult life span. Specif- John, 1993) and how SCD affects intra- and interpersonal pro-
ically, we had three objectives for this study. The first objective cesses (Higgins, 1996; Markus & Wurf, 1987).
was to examine the convergent validity of two measures of SCD A major shortcoming in this area of research, however, has been
and the associations of these two measures with assessments of that different investigators have used different measures to assess
emotional adjustment and psychological well-being. The second SCD and that little is known about the convergent validity of the
objective focused on examining the relationships of the two mea- different measures (D. T. Campbell & Fiske, 1959). This lack of
sures of SCD with age. Finally, the third objective focused on information regarding the convergent validity of SCD measures is
whether the associations between SCD and measures of psycho- especially concerning as researchers start to investigate SCD in
logical well-being were moderated by age. adulthood and adopt methods that were originally developed for
use with children and adolescents.
Measures of SCD Thus, the first objective of the present study focused on assess-
ing the convergent validity of two measures of SCD. The first
Current theory and research conceptualize the human self- measure was originally developed by Harter and Monsour (1992)
concept as a contextualized and dynamic cognitive structure with for research with adolescents (see also Harter, Bresnick, Bouchey,
important adaptive and self-regulatory functions (Baumeister, & Whitesell, 1997). The second measure was originally developed
1998; Brandtstadter & Greve, 1994; Higgins, 1996; Markus & by Block (1961) and has been used in several studies with college
Herzog, 1991; Markus & Wurf, 1987). This conceptualization students (Donahue et al., 1993, Study 1; Sheldon, Ryan, Raws-
implies that individuals' self-concept is seen as an "organized thorne, & Ilardi, 1997) and in a longitudinal study with middle-
knowledge structure that contains traits, values, episodic and se- aged women (Donahue et al., 1993, Study 2). Because both mea-
mantic memories about the self and that controls the processing of sures assessed SCD in similar ways, it was expected that they
self-relevant information" (J. D. Campbell et al., 1996, p. 141). would show significant and substantial intercorrelations. More-
Developmental psychologists have shown that during the early life over, it was expected that both measures would show similar
span (i.e., childhood and adolescence) self-representations develop patterns of associations with measures of emotional adjustment
in a predictable order and that increasing differentiation into role- and psychological well-being and that the pattern of associations
specific multiple selves is one of the major changes in self-concept would be similar to the findings reported by Donahue et al. (1993).
development (see Damon & Hart, 1988; Harter, 1998, 1999; Mon- Specifically, these researchers showed in two studies that SCD was
temayor & Eisen, 1977; Rosenberg, 1986). Similarly, social and negatively associated with positive outcomes, such as self-esteem
and well-being, and positively associated with negative outcomes,
such as neuroticism, depression, and anxiety.
Manfred Diehl, Institute on Aging, Department of Health Policy and
Epidemiology, University of Florida; Catherine T. Hastings and James M.
Stanton, Department of Psychology, University of Colorado at Colorado SCD Across the Adult Life Span
Springs.
Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Manfred Recent years have seen important extensions of self-concept
Diehl, Institute on Aging, Department of Health Policy and Epidemiology, theory into research on adult development and aging (Brandtstad-
University of Florida, 1329 SW 16th Street, P.O. Box 103505, Gainesville, ter & Greve, 1994; Filipp & Klauer, 1986). For example, research
Florida 32610-3505. Electronic mail may be sent to mdiehl@ufl.edu. has shown that adults' possible selves (Cross & Markus, 1991;
643
644 DffiHL, HASTINGS, AND STANTON

Hooker, 1992, 1999; Ryff, 1991) reflect their preoccupations with and older adults, this general understanding may motivate middle-
different developmental tasks and life domains (e.g., family, work, aged individuals to strive for greater coherence and consistency
and health) and provide a context for the motivation, interpreta- across social roles, resulting in lower SCD.
tion, and evaluation of the current self (Cross & Markus, 1991; Because different theoretical assumptions suggest different as-
Hooker, 1992; Hooker & Kaus, 1994; Ryff, 1991). Other studies sociations between SCD and age across the adult life span, our
have examined the role of the self-system as a coping resource in second objective focused on the relationships of the two SCD
the aging process (Freund & Smith, 1999; Heidrich & Ryff, 1993; measures with age. Two age trajectories were considered equally
Kling, Ryff, & Essex, 1997; Staudinger, Freund, Linden, & Maas, plausible to emerge. First, an inversely U-shaped relationship
1999; Troll & Skaff, 1997). Taken together, these studies have between age and SCD was considered to be plausible, because an
shown that the content and organization of adults' self- earlier study had shown that the cognitive complexity of adults'
representations serve important adaptive functions and are related spontaneous self-representations peaked in middle age and was
to different psychological outcomes (Kling et al., 1997; Showers & significantly lower in young and older adults (Labouvie-Vief,
Ryff, 1996; Woolfolk, Novalany, Gara, Allen, & Polino, 1995). Chiodo, Goguen, Diehl, & Orwoll, 1995). Although Labouvie-
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SCD, the extent to which a person's self-representations are Vief et al. (1995) operationalized self-complexity in a different
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different across social roles and social contexts, is one of the way than the assessments used in the present study, their findings
structural-organizational features that have received attention represented a reasonable starting point to speculate about the age
from life span developmental psychologists. Building on an ex- trajectory of SCD across adulthood. Second, a U-shaped relation-
tensive body of literature that documents the development of ship between age and SCD across the adult life span was also
self-representations during the early life span (Damon & Hart, considered plausible. It was assumed that compared with younger
1988; Harter, 1998), life span developmentalists have started to and older adults, middle-aged adults may experience greater socio-
ask whether the process of SCD continues across the adult life cultural pressures (i.e., social norms, role-specific expectations)
span, whether there is an optimal level of SCD, and to what extent and may therefore strive for maximum coherence among their
SCD is adaptive or maladaptive. Although there has been an role-specific selves, thus resulting in a significantly lower level of
increasing number of studies examining the role of the adult SCD.
self-concept as it relates to life transitions (Kling et al., 1997;
Showers & Ryff, 1996) and psychological well-being (Herzog, Age as a Moderator of the Relationship Between SCD
Franks, Markus, & Holmberg, 1998; Showers, Abramson, & and Psychological Well-Being
Hogan, 1998; Woolfolk et al., 1995), information on the age
trajectory of SCD across the whole adult life span is rather scarce Our third objective was to examine whether the relationships
(see Brandtstadter & Greve, 1994; Filipp & Klauer, 1986). Such between SCD and measures of psychological well-being were
information, however, is needed for describing the regularities in moderated by age. This question is relevant because the existing
self-concept development across the adult life span (Filipp & literature on the adaptive functionality of SCD is inconclusive and
Klauer, 1986) and for evaluating the consistency of observed raises the question about variables that may moderate the associ-
developmental changes with theoretical assumptions (Brandtstad- ations of SCD with markers of psychological adjustment. Al-
ter & Greve, 1994). Moreover, such information is needed as part though some of these moderating variables seem to be inherent
of the systematic endeavor of investigating the adaptive functions characteristics of self-attributes, such as positivity-negativity or
of self-representations across the adult life span (Higgins, 1996; centrality of self-descriptors (see Linville, 1987; Showers, 1992;
Markus & Herzog, 1991) and for examining the role that accumu- Showers et al., 1998), there may also be other individual-
lated self-knowledge plays in the regulation of individuals' behav- differences variables that may moderate the association between
ior (Carver & Scheier, 1998; Higgins, 1996). SCD and outcomes. From a developmental perspective the age of
The major theoretical framework that has been used to generate a person appears to be such a possible moderator.
hypotheses regarding the relationship between SCD and age across Several studies with college students have shown that a more
the adult life span is role theory (Donahue et al., 1993; Stryker, complex or compartmentalized self-concept was associated with
1987; Thoits, 1983; Turner, 1978). In particular, role theory sug- positive emotional health (Linville, 1987) and with faster recovery
gests two plausible scenarios. On the one hand, some propositions from sad mood (Showers, 1992; Showers et al., 1998). Consistent
of role theory suggest an inverse U-shaped relationship between with these laboratory-based studies are findings reported by Thoits
SCD and age, because SCD may increase with the number of (1983), showing for a community sample of 720 adults that a
social roles a person draws on for his or her self-definition. Thus, larger number of salient identities were associated with greater
SCD may be expected to increase from adolescence through mid- psychological well-being.
dle adulthood as the number of social roles increases, and to In contrast, several studies (Block, 1961; Donahue et al., 1993)
decrease in later adulthood because of age-related role losses. On have shown that high SCD was associated with poorer self-esteem,
the other hand, some propositions of role theory suggest a more depressive symptoms, and higher neuroticism and anxiety
U-shaped association between SCD and chronological age, be- scores (see also Woolfolk et al., 1995). Most convincing in this
cause a person's self-concept is also shaped by comparisons with regard are the findings from the second study reported by Donahue
significant others and social reference groups (Cooley, 1902; Har- et al. (1993). On the basis of data from the Mills Longitudinal
ter, 1999; Mead, 1934). These social comparisons may result in a Study, Donahue et al. showed that the high levels of distress and
general understanding that social norms for a coherent and con- low levels of adjustment that characterized women with high SCD
sistent self-concept differ for different age periods and may be at age 52 had characterized them for most of their adult lives.
most explicit for middle adulthood. Thus, compared with younger Because most of these studies relied on very age-homogeneous
SELF-CONCEPT DIFFERENTIATION IN ADULTHOOD 645

samples, none examined whether the relationship between SCD middle-aged adults who were recruited through the university participant
and the measured outcomes was moderated by age. Examining pool received course credit for their participation.1 Middle-aged and older
whether age moderates the relationship between SCD and mea- adults who were recruited from the community volunteered their time and
sures of psychological well-being is relevant, however, if one did not receive any monetary compensation.
The first session was conducted individually, whereas the second session
assumes that the role and importance of SCD may vary with age.
was held in a group format with an average of 4 participants per session.
Because the measures used in this study were similar to the ones
Group sessions were conducted with members from the same age group
used by Donahue et al. (1993), we hypothesized that, in general, only. Between testing sessions, participants filled out two self-report ques-
greater SCD would be associated with poorer adjustment and tionnaires, which they returned to the tester in Session 2. Testing was
psychological well-being. In addition, however, we expected that conducted by specially trained graduate research assistants either at the
the effects of different levels of SCD on psychological well-being research laboratory or at a location in the participant's community (e.g., the
would be different for adults of different ages. Specifically, we participant's apartment or the senior citizen center).
assumed that a high level of SCD would be less detrimental during
early adulthood when individuals commit to new social roles and Measures
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have to coordinate the different demands associated with these


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roles. In contrast, high levels of SCD were expected to have a The test battery consisted of a personal background questionnaire, two
stronger negative effect on adults' psychological well-being in measures of role-specific self-representations to assess SCD, two measures
middle and later adulthood when socio-cultural expectations may of global self-concept, a personality inventory, and several measures of
demand a more consolidated and consistent self-concept. The emotional functioning and psychological well-being. To control for order
of administration effects (i.e., to examine whether the order of adminis-
present study represents a first attempt to examine these
tration-primed participants to generate their self-representations in a sys-
hypotheses.
tematic way), the two measures of SCD were administered in a counter-
balanced fashion. All other measures were administered in the same order
Method across participants (see the Appendix).

Participants
Self-Representation Task
The study sample consisted of 158 adults (80 men and 78 women)
ranging in age from 20 to 88 years. Participants were recruited in a The first measure of SCD we used in this study was the self-
mid-sized urban area in southern Colorado through newspaper announce- representation task developed by Harter and Monsour (1992). Participants
ments and announcements at local civic organizations. The majority of the were presented with five sheets, one for each self-representation. At the top
young adults (61.5%) were recruited through announcements at the Uni- of each sheet was the heading "What I am like with my family" (or "my
versity of Colorado. spouse/significant other/romantic partner," "my close friend," "my co-
The study sample was divided into three age groups: young adults (n = workers/covolunteers," "someone I very much dislike," for the other four
52; age range = 20-39 years), middle-aged adults (« = 51; age range = roles). Six sentence stems were presented on each page (i.e., I am
40-59 years), and older adults (n = 55; age range = 60-88 years). In each with my family), and the participant was asked to generate
age group, men and women were represented in about equal numbers. up to six self-relevant attributes. For each of the five roles, participants
Table 1 displays the means and standard deviations for key demographic were asked to describe themselves as accurately as possible. Furthermore,
and health variables separated by age group. they were told that the words that they chose could be similar or different
The majority of the participants (89.2%) were Caucasian, reported to be across roles. Participants were encouraged to include negative as well as
in good health (M = 5.18,SD = 0.89; 1 = verypoor,6 = very good), and positive attributes. After the self-attributes for each role were completed,
to be quite satisfied with their lives (M = 4.73, SD = 0.76; 1 = extremely the tester transferred all of the descriptors by role onto a summary sheet to
unhappy, 6 = extremely happy). Sixty-seven percent of the young adults facilitate the calculation of the index of SCD.
were full-time or part-time employed, and 27% were full-time students. Of
the middle-aged adults, 92% were either full- or part-time employed; the
1
majority of older adults (87%) were retired, yet all of them reported that One reviewer expressed concerns about the fact that some participants
they were actively involved in volunteer activities. Of the young adults, received a compensation (i.e., extra credit) for their participation, whereas
58% were single and 35% were married. Of the middle-aged adults, 77% others (mostly middle-aged and older adults) did not receive any compen-
were married and 21% were separated or divorced. Of the older adults, sation. To address this concern, we conducted a literature search and found
56% were married and 31% were widowed. one study by Gribbin and Schaie (1976) that had examined the role of a
Significant differences between age groups were found for the following monetary incentive on potential participants' willingness to enroll in a
demographic and health variables: annual family income, F(2, study on cognitive aging. Findings from Gribbin and Schaie's study
157) = 4.33, p < .05, life satisfaction, F(2, 157) = 11.18, p < .001, showed no differences between incentive conditions "for 2466 potential
physical health, F(2, 157) = 5.44, p < .01, and self-reported hearing, F(2, subjects on willingness to participate, nor for 591 subjects eventually tested
157) = 3.67, p < .05. Middle-aged adults' annual income was significantly on their scores on the Primary Mental Abilities Test, the Test of Behavioral
higher than young and older adults' income. Older adults were, on average, Rigidity and Cattell's 16 PF' (Gribbin & Schaie, 1976, p. 461). In addition,
more satisfied with their lives than young and middle-aged adults. On we performed a series of analyses in which we compared the scores of
average, older adults rated their overall physical health better than young those participants who had received extra credit to the scores of those
adults; however, older adults reported having significantly poorer hearing participants who had not received a compensation. Nineteen out of 24
compared with young adults. comparisons (79.2 %) did not reveal any significant differences (p < .05)
between the two groups; 3 comparisons showed higher scores for the
Procedure compensated participants, whereas 2 comparisons showed higher scores for
the noncompensated group. On the basis of these results, we believe it is
Participants took part in two 2-hr testing sessions that were, on average, reasonable to conclude that the compensation to some of the participants
scheduled 1 week apart. In compliance with university policy, young and did not bias the findings from this study in any major way.
646 DIEHL, HASTINGS, AND STANTON

Table 1
Sample Description: Means and Standard Deviations of Sociodemographic and Health Variables

Age group

Young adults Middle-aged adults Older adults


(n = 52) (n = 51) (n = 55)

Variable M SD M SD M SD

Age (in years) 28.68 6.19 48.06 5.10 74.43 7.61


Education (in years) 15.08 1.87 16.26 2.36 16.02 3.48
Annual income (in $1,000) 42.50 30.00 65.00 30.00 42.50 5.00
Physical health rating 4.90 0.93 5.18 0.89 5.46 0.77
Vision rating 4.64 1.27 4.45 1.14 4.95 0.78
Hearing rating 4.98 0.87 4.94 1.10 4.47 1.23
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Life satisfaction rating 4.42 0.72 4.69 0.76 5.07 0.66


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The index derived from this procedure assessed SCD as 1.0 minus the self-report questionnaire that measures the extent to which a person con-
proportion of overlap of self-attributes between pairwise combinations of siders him- or herself worthy and holds a positive attitude toward him- or
role-specific self-representations. That is, if four out of six attributes for herself. Items are presented as a 4-point Likert-type scale (1 = strongly
two role-specific self-representations were identical, then the proportion of agree, 4 = strongly disagree), with a higher total score indicating higher
overlap was 0.67 and the index of SCD was 1.0 - 0.67.2 Given that this self-esteem.
study used five role-specific self-representations, SCD coefficients for 10 The SES is widely used in research with adults (Byrne, 1996), and its
pairwise combinations of self-representations (self with family versus self reliability has been examined in terms of internal consistency (Cronbach's
with significant other, self with family versus self with close friend, and so a = .72-.8S) and in terms of test-retest reliability (1-week interval: r =
on) were calculated. For comparison with the second measure of SCD used .82; 7-month interval: r = .63). In addition, the SES has been evaluated
in this study, an overall SCD index was also calculated as the mean with regard to its convergent and construct validity (for a summary, see
proportion of unique attributes across all pairwise self-representations. Byrne, 1996). The coefficient of internal consistency (Cronbach's alpha) in
this study was .85.
SCD Ratings Positive and negative affect. We used the Positive Affect and Negative
Affect Scale (PANAS; Watson, Clark, & Tellegen, 1988) to assess two
The second measure we used to assess participants' role-specific self- primary dimensions of mood. Positive affect (PA) reflects the extent to
representations was the SCD rating originally developed by Block (1961) which a person feels enthusiastic, active, and alert. High PA is indicative
and more recently used by Donahue et al. (1993). For each of the five of a high energy level, full concentration, and pleasurable engagement,
role-specific self-representations, participants rated a total of 60 attributes whereas low PA is indicative of sadness and lethargy. In contrast, negative
in terms of how characteristic each attribute was of them (1 = extremely affect (NA) is a general dimension of aversive mood states such as anger,
uncharacteristic, 8 = extremely characteristic) with regard to the respec- contempt, disgust, guilt, fear, and nervousness, with low NA being a state
tive self-representation. Attributes were presented in the same order for of calmness and serenity.
each self-representation, and each self-representation was presented on a The PANAS has a total of 20 items, 10 for PA and 10 for NA.
separate page. To control for order of administration effects, the order of Respondents rate each item on a 5-point Likert-type scale (1 = very
self-representations was counterbalanced across participants. Participants slightly or not at all, 5 = extremely), indicating to what extent they felt this
worked on one self-representation at a time and were not permitted to way during the past week. The psychometric properties of the PANAS
refer back to their earlier ratings when they worked on subsequent have been examined with regard to internal consistency and test-retest
self-representations. reliability and in terms of construct validity (see Watson et al., 1988). The
An index of SCD was derived from this measure in the following way. coefficients of internal consistency for PA and NA in this study were .88
Separately for each study participant, the ratings for the five self- and .86, respectively.
representations were intercorrelated and the resulting 5 X 5 correlation Depressive symptoms. We used the Center for Epidemiologic Studies
matrix was subjected to a principal-components analysis. The first princi- Depression Scale (CES-D; Radloff, 1977) to assess the frequency of
pal component, representing the variance shared by the five self- participants' depressive symptoms. Unlike more clinically oriented depres-
representations, was extracted, and the remaining variance (i.e., 100% sion scales, the CES-D focuses on milder depressive symptoms, with an
minus the percentage of variance accounted for by the first principal emphasis on depressed affect or mood. Individuals are asked to indicate
component) was used as a person's index of SCD. Higher values indicate how frequently they experienced the listed symptoms within the past week
more unshared variance across the self-representations and therefore indi- (1 = rarely or none of the time, 4 = most or all of the time). Respondents'
cate greater SCD. answers are summed into a total score, with higher scores indicating a
higher frequency of depressive symptoms. The CES-D has been specifi-
Emotional Adjustment and Psychological Well-Being
2
We included several measures to examine the relationships between Harter and Monsour (1992) used the proportion of overlapping at-
SCD and markers of emotional adjustment and psychological well-being. tributes as their dependent variable. This is somewhat counterintuitive,
Measures were selected on the basis of theoretical considerations and to because the proportion of overlap, strictly speaking, indicates the degree of
permit comparisons with previous studies. nondifferentiation. To be consistent in our definition of SCD across the two
Self-esteem. We used the Rosenberg Self-Esteem Scale (SES; Rosen- measures, we opted to use (1.00 - the proportion of overlap) as the
berg, 1989) to assess participants' global self-esteem. The SES is a 10-item measure of SCD.
SELF-CONCEPT DIFFERENTIATION IN ADULTHOOD 647

cally recommended for use with nonclinical, community-based samples administration did not prime participants to create their self-
(Shaver & Brennan, 1991), and its psychometric properties are well estab- representations in specific ways.3
lished (Radloff, 1977). The coefficient of internal consistency for the
CES-D in this study was .88.
State anxiety. Using the State Anxiety (S-Anxiety) scale from the Associations Between Measures of SCD
Spielberger State-Trait Anxiety Inventory (STAI; Spielberger, 1983), we
assessed participants' tendency to experience feelings of anxiety in a Pearson product-moment correlations were calculated to exam-
situation-specific way. The S-Anxiety scale (STAI Form Y-l) consists ine the convergent validity of the two SCD measures and the
of 20 items that evaluate how a person feels "right now, at this moment." associations of these two measures with assessments of emotional
The STAI has been used extensively in research and clinical practice, and
adjustment and psychological well-being. The correlation between
the reliability and validity of its scales are well established (see Spiel-
the two SCD measures was .16 (p < .05). Although this coeffi-
berger, 1983). Moreover, the STAI has been used with adults of all ages,
including older adults. The coefficient of internal consistency (Cronbach's cient was statistically significant, it suggested that the two mea-
alpha) in this study was .92. sures did not assess SCD in similar ways.
Psychological well-being. We used Ryff s (1989; Ryff & Keyes, 1995) To rule out that the lack of convergence was not a function of
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Short Psychological Well-Being (SPWB) scales to assess participants' how the two indices had been calculated, we recalculated the SCD
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psychological well-being. This self-report inventory measures six dimen- index on the basis of the 60 adjectives and created an index that
sions of psychological well-being that have been derived from the literature paralleled the index derived from the Harter and Monsour (1992)
on life span development, mental health, and personal growth (Ryff, 1989, self-representation task. This was done in the following way. For
1995). The six dimensions include self-acceptance, environmental mastery, each of the 10 pairwise combinations of the role-specific self-
purpose in life, positive relations with others, personal growth, and
representations we calculated the proportion of overlapping adjec-
autonomy.
Each dimension of well-being is measured with a 14-item scale of
tives by counting the adjectives that received exactly the same
positively and negatively phrased items, which are alternated in their order rating in both roles. Then we calculated the measure of SCD as 1.0
across dimensions. Participants respond to each item on a 6-point Likert- minus the proportion of overlap. When the resulting 10 indices
type scale (1 = strongly disagree, 6 = strongly agree). The psychometric were correlated with the 10 indices derived from the Harter and
properties of the SPWB have been examined in terms of internal consis- Monsour (1992) self-representation task, the correlations ranged
tency (alphas ranged from .86 for autonomy to .93 for self-acceptance) and from .01 to .24. Thus, findings from these analyses also suggested
in terms of test-retest reliability (6-week test-retest rs ranged from .81 for that the two measures did not assess SCD in similar ways.
personal growth to .88 for autonomy). Ryff and Keyes (1995) have also A second set of analyses focused on the associations between
reported findings from confirmatory factor analyses supporting the six- the two SCD measures and measures of emotional adjustment and
factor structure of the questionnaire. Coefficients of internal consistency in
psychological well-being. Table 2 displays the resulting correla-
this study were .91, .89, .87, .88, .84, and .87 for self-acceptance, envi-
tions among the variables included in this analysis.
ronmental mastery, purpose in life, positive relations with others, personal
growth, and autonomy, respectively. As can be seen in Table 2, the index derived from the Harter and
Monsour (1992) self-representation task (i.e., percentage of unique
attributes) showed one significant correlation with the measures of
Results emotional adjustment and psychological well-being. Specifically,
We present the findings in three sections, corresponding to each the proportion of unique attributes was negatively correlated with
of the study objectives. First, findings from control analyses and purpose in life, indicating that greater SCD tended to be associated
from analyses examining the convergent validity of the two SCD with a lower score on purpose in life.
measures are reported. Second, results from correlational analyses In contrast, the SCD index derived from the Donahue et al.
examining the associations between age and the two indices of (1993) measure showed significant associations with all of the
SCD are presented. Third, results from multiple regression analy- outcome measures. In particular, the SCD index had significant
ses examining whether the relationships between SCD and positive correlations with NA, depressive symptoms, and state and
markers of psychological well-being were moderated by age are trait anxiety. These correlations ranged from .28 for NA to .44 for
reported. trait anxiety and indicated that greater SCD was associated with
poorer emotional adjustment. In a complementary fashion, the
SCD index showed significant negative correlations with self-
Order of Administration Effects esteem, PA, and with all six dimensions of psychological well-
being. These correlations ranged from - .25 for personal growth to
Two univariate analyses of variance with order of administra-
- .47 for environmental mastery and supported the notion that, in
tion as the between-subjects factor were performed to examine
general, greater SCD was associated with lower psychological
whether the order of presentation influenced the way in which
well-being and poorer emotional adjustment.
participants created their self-representations. The dependent vari-
Because the findings reported in this section cast serious doubts
ables were the overall proportion of unique attributes derived from
on the validity of the SCD measure derived from the Harter and
the Harter and Monsour (1992) self-representation task and the
SCD index derived from the Donahue et al. (1993) self- Monsour (1992) self-representation task, analyses with this mea-
representation ratings.
Findings from these analyses showed that there was neither a 3
These analyses were also performed with the 10 proportions of unique
statistically significant effect for the proportion of unique at- attributes derived from the pairwise combinations of self-representations as
tributes, F(3, 154) = 1.40, p > .05, nor for the SCD index, F(3, dependent variables. None of these analyses showed a significant effect of
154) = 2.00, p > .05. Thus, it can be concluded that the order of order of administration.
648 DIEHL, HASTINGS, AND STANTON

Table 2
Correlations of SCO Measures With Measures of Emotional Adjustment and Dimensions of Psychological Well-Being (N = 158)

Variable 1 10 11 12 13

1. % unique attributes — .16 -.10 -.08 -.03 .02 .01 -.10 -.09 -.16 -.06 -.08 -.04
2. SCD index — -.42 -.28 .28 .41 .42 -.35 -.47 -.32 -.47 -.25 -.38
3. Self-esteem — .50 -.30 -.49 .40 .72 .60 .65 .49 .48 .56
4. Positive affect — -.27 -.35 -.41 .46 .44 .51 .25 .37 .35
5. Negative affect — .55 .50 -.36 -.39 -.18 -.22 -.14 -.20
6. Depressive symptoms — .62 -.60 -.59 -.48 -.37 -.34 -.26
7. State anxiety — -.53 -.58 -.42 -.36 -.25 -.27
8. Self-acceptance — .81 .81 .62 .53 .58
9. Environmental mastery — .75 .63 .50 .57
10. Purpose in life — .62 .62 .57
11. Positive relations with others — .39 .36
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12. Personal growth — .50


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13. Autonomy —
Note. Correlations |.15| < r < .20] are significant alp < .05; correlations |.20 £ r £ |.27| are significant aip < .01; correlations r a |.28| are significant
atp < .001. SCD = self-concept differentiation.

sure ceased at this point in time, and the remaining study aims adults (r = .29, p < .05). Using Fisher's r-to-z transformation,
were addressed using only the SCD index based on the Donahue et pairwise comparisons of these three correlation coefficients
al. (1993) approach. Given the findings from previous studies showed that they were significantly different from each other (zs
(Block, 1961; Donahue et al., 1993; Sheldon et al., 1997), we felt ranged from —1.95 to -4.04, ps < .05). Second, a multiple
confident that this measure provided a reliable assessment of the regression was performed in which the SCD index was regressed
SCD construct. on age and age squared in order to model the curvilinear relation-
ship. This analysis showed that the quadratic age term was signif-
Associations of SCD With Participants' Age icant (ft = .36, p < .001) above and beyond the linear age term
(j3 = -.34, p < .001), providing support for the curvilinear
The correlation between the Donahue et al. (1993) SCD index relationship between age and the SCD index.
and age was -.26 (p < .01). Closer inspection of the scatterplot,
however, suggested that the relationship between age and the SCD
Moderator Effect of Age
index followed a curvilinear, U-shaped pattern (see Figure 1).
To examine the curvilinear pattern between the SCD index and Given that the previous analyses had shown a curvilinear rela-
age, two separate analyses were performed. First, bivariate corre- tionship between the SCD index and age, a final set of analyses
lations were calculated by age group. This analysis showed that the was performed to examine whether age moderated the associations
association between age and the SCD index was negative for between the SCD index and variables of emotional adjustment and
young adults (r = -.46, p < .01), not significantly different from psychological well-being (Aiken & West, 1991; Baron & Kenny,
zero for middle-aged adults (r = -.09, ns), and positive for older 1986; Jaccard, Turrisi, & Wan, 1990). Specifically, two separate
hierarchical multiple regression analyses were performed to exam-
ine whether the Age X SCD Index interaction term was significant
0.6-
beyond the main effects. According to Baron and Kenny (1986),
the moderator hypothesis is supported if the interaction term is
0.5- significant beyond the main effects (see also Aiken & West, 1991;
Jaccard et al., 1990).
Because there were moderate to large intercorrelations among
the measures of emotional adjustment and psychological well-
being (see Table 2), indicating a good deal of conceptual and
I
-£0.34
Q statistical overlap among these variables, a factor analysis was
O
CO performed to obtain a more parsimonious number of outcome
0.2- variables for use in the moderated regression analyses. Findings
from this factor analysis suggested a two-factor solution. Table 3
shows the factor loadings of the observed variables on these two
0.1-
factors.
As can be seen in Table 3, the first factor was defined by high
QJ • —i— loadings on self-esteem, PA, and the six dimensions of psycho-
20 30 40 50 60 70 80 90
Age logical well-being (i.e., self-acceptance, environmental mastery,
purpose in life, positive relations with others, personal growth, and
Figure 1. Relationship between self-concept differentiation (SCD) index autonomy). Thus, this factor described a dimension of positive
and participants' age. psychological well-being.
SELF-CONCEPT DIFFERENTIATION IN ADULTHOOD 649

Table 3 psychological well-being. A decomposition analysis was con-


Factor Analysis of the Measures of Emotional Adjustment ducted to determine the significance of the slope of positive
and Psychological Weil-Being (N = 158) psychological well-being on SCD for young adults (1 SD below
the mean, equivalent to an age of 30.8 years) and older adults (1
Scale Factor 1 Factor 2
SD above the mean, equivalent to an age of 70.9 years). Figure 2
Self-esteem .75 -.12 displays the slopes resulting from this analysis.
Positive affect .48 -.22 The slope of positive psychological well-being on SCD was
Negative affect .12 .88
significantly different from zero for young adults (b = -23.14,
Depressive symptoms -.21 .74
State anxiety -.15 .76 SE = 6.26), ((154) = -3.70, p < .001, and for older adults (b =
Self-acceptance .78 -.23 -54.20, SE = 8.27), ((154) = -6.55, p < .001. The sign of the
Environmental mastery .71 -.30 significant coefficients indicated that a higher level of SCD was
Purpose in life .91 .02
Positive relations with others .66 -.07 associated with a lower level of positive psychological well-being
Personal growth .81 .17 for both young and older adults. However, the slope of the regres-
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Autonomy .81 .15 sion line for older adults was significantly steeper than the slope of
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the regression line for young adults as indicated by the significant


Proportion of variance 52.80 22.33
Cumulative proportion of variance 52.80 75.13 ( value for the regression coefficient of the interaction term (see
Aiken & West, 1991, p. 20).
A second decomposition analysis was conducted to determine
In contrast, the second factor was defined by high loadings on the significance of the slope of negative psychological well-being
NA, depressive symptoms, and state anxiety. Thus, this factor on SCD for young adults (1 SD below the mean, equivalent to an
described a dimension of negative psychological well-being. The age of 30.8 years) and older adults (1 SD above the mean, equiv-
two factors had an intercorrelation of —.42 and accounted alent to an age of 70.9 years). Figure 3 shows the slopes resulting
for 75.13% of the variance among the observed variables. For use from this analysis.
in the hierarchical regression analyses, factor scores were calcu- Again, the slope of negative psychological well-being on SCD
lated using the method of unit weighting. was significantly different from zero for young adults (b = 19.58,
Two separate hierarchical regression analyses were performed SE = 5.82), ((154) = 3.36, p < .001, and for older adults
to examine whether the effect of SCD on positive and negative (b = 40.84,SE = 7.69), ((154) = 5.31, p< .001. The sign of the
psychological well-being was moderated by participants' age. In significant coefficients indicated that a higher level of SCD was
Step 1, age and the SCD index were entered into the regression associated with a higher level of negative psychological well-being
equation. In Step 2, the Age X SCD Index interaction was added for both young and older adults. However, the slope of the regres-
to the equation. Moderating effects were indicated when the inter-
sion line for older adults was significantly steeper than the slope of
action term had a significant effect beyond the main effects as
the regression line for young adults as indicated by the significant
expressed by a significant regression coefficient. Centered scores
( value for the regression coefficient of the interaction term (see
for SCD and age were used in these analyses to avoid potential
Aiken & West, 1991, p. 20).
problems with multicollinearity between the main effect variables
and the interaction term (see Aiken & West, 1991; Jaccard et al., In summary, findings from these regression analyses showed
1990). The findings from the two regression analyses are shown in that age moderated the effect of SCD on participants' positive and
Table 4. negative psychological well-being. Although a high level of SCD
As can be seen in Table 4, the interaction term was significant was associated with lower positive and higher negative psycho-
for both positive and negative psychological well-being, indicating logical well-being in both young and older adults, this effect was
that age moderated the effect of SCD on positive and negative significantly more pronounced in older adults.

Table 4
Hierarchical Multiple Regression Analyses for Positive and Negative
Psychological Weil-Being (N = 158)

Positive psychological well-being Negative psychological well-being


2
Variable SE B Afl B SEE A/?2

Step 1
Age 0.03 0.03 .08 -0.07 0.02 -.23**
SCD -33.84 5.44 -.45*** .23*** 26.90 4.98 .39*** .25***
Step 2
Age 0.08 0.03 .23** -0.11 0.03 -.34***
SCD -38.67 5.49 -.52*** 30.21 5.10 .44***
Age X SCD -0.78 0.24 -.28** .05** 0.53 0.23 .21* .03*

Note. SCD = self-concept differentiation index.


*p<.05. **p < .01. ***/><.001.
650 DIEHL, HASTINGS, AND STANTON

70

OS 65

j? 60
"o
•g
£.
:! 55
o
a.
This article is intended solely for the personal use of the individual user and is not to be disseminated broadly.
This document is copyrighted by the American Psychological Association or one of its allied publishers.

50
Low High
Self-Concept Differentiation (SCO)

Figure 2. Interaction of self-concept differentiation and age for positive psychological well-being.

Discussion warranted for at least two reasons. First, because this measure has
currently been used by only one research group (Harter et al.,
In terms of the first study objective, findings failed to support
1997; Harter & Monsour, 1992), evidence from other studies is
the convergent validity of the two measures of SCD. Although the
needed to document that results based on this measure can be
correlation between the two measures was statistically significant,
replicated independently. Second, additional work seems to be
it was small in size and suggested that the two measures did not
warranted to examine whether modifications of the original mea-
assess SCD in similar ways. Moreover, the lack of convergence
sure are needed for use with adults. For example, permitting
was not a function of the particular mathematical algorithms that
had been used to derive the two indices. This alternative explana- participants to generate a larger number of self-attributes per
tion can be ruled out, because when the SCD index based on role-specific self-representation should result in greater variability
Donahue et al.'s (1993) method was recalculated to parallel the of the SCD index and may result in larger intercorrelations with
SCD index based on the Harter and Monsour (1992) approach, the similar measures. Furthermore, more systematic work examining
resulting intercorrelations remained small. whether this measure and the derived SCD index behave differ-
These findings cast doubts on the validity of the Harter and ently depending on the mode of administration (e.g., using
Monsour (1992) measure for use with an adult sample. Although experimenter-defined versus self-defined social roles, varying the
this protocol and the resulting SCD index have been used success- number of social roles) seems to be warranted before a more
fully in research with adolescents and had high face validity in the conclusive evaluation of its usefulness for research with adults can
present study, additional work with this measure seems to be be reached. The results of the present study cannot be used to rule

35

3 30

S 25

£ 20

15
Low High
Self-Concept Differentiation (SCD)

Figure 3. Interaction of self-concept differentiation and age for negative psychological well-being.
SELF-CONCEPT DIFFERENTIATION IN ADULTHOOD 651

out that the lack of convergence between the two measures of SCD et al. (1993) SCD index and participants' age. Thus, from early
may have been due to any of these method factors. adulthood to middle age SCD tended to go down, reaching its
Doubts about the psychometric value of the Harter and Monsour lowest level in late middle adulthood. Conversely, from late mid-
(1992) SCD index were also cast by the absence of significant dle age to old age SCD tended to increase again, showing a
associations with measures of emotional adjustment and psycho- positive association with age for this part of the adult life span.
logical well-being. In contrast, the SCD index based on the Although this pattern of association was not consistent with data
Donahue et al. (1993) approach showed significant positive cor- reported by Labouvie-Vief et al. (1995) for the cognitive complex-
relations with NA, depressive symptoms, and state anxiety and ity of adults' self-representations, this pattern of association was
significant negative correlations with self-esteem, PA, and the six consistent with assumptions derived from role and socialization
scales of psychological well-being. This means that, on the one theory (Hagestad, 1990; Stryker, 1987; Turner, 1978). Building on
hand, adults with greater SCD tended to have lower self-esteem, the grand theories of Cooley (1902) and Mead (1934), these
tended to experience less PA, and tended to score lower on all approaches suggest that a person's self-concept is, to a certain
dimensions of psychological well-being. On the other hand, these extent, the result and reflection of social feedback and social
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individuals tended to experience more NA, tended to be more comparison processes. Although we did not gather data on social
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depressed, and tended to experience more feelings of anxiety. comparison processes in the present study, the assumption that,
These findings were consistent with our initial hypotheses. More- compared with younger and older adults, middle-aged adults may
over, these findings were consistent with the results reported by experience greater socio-cultural pressures and may therefore
Donahue et al. (1993) for a cross-sectional sample of college strive for greater coherence among their role-specific selves is
students and a longitudinal sample of middle-aged women. Thus, consistent with emerging data on midlife development (Lachman
these results provided independent support for the argument that & James, 1997). Moreover, this assumption is consistent with
high SCD, as operationalized in this study, should not be viewed research showing that in early and late adulthood societal expec-
as adaptive specialization but should rather be seen as self-concept tations for social roles tend to be less codified and structured than
fragmentation (Donahue et al., 1993). during middle adulthood, thus providing the individual with more
These findings, however, were not consistent with results from opportunities for self-definition and self-differentiation (see Gra-
studies on the role of self-complexity, showing a positive associ- ber, Brooks-Gunn, & Petersen, 1996; Hagestad, 1990; Rosow,
ation between self-complexity and measures of physical and psy- 1985).
chological well-being (see J. D. Campbell, Chew, & Scratchley, To our knowledge, this is the first study that has examined the
1991; Linville, 1987). These contradictory findings hint at impor- age trajectory of a measure of SCD not only across a limited age
tant differences in the operationalization of two constructs that are range (e.g., adolescence or early adulthood) but across the whole
often used interchangeably. For example, whereas the measures of adult life span. Thus, the finding that age and SCD were related in
SCD used in this study assessed how differently individuals see a nonlinear fashion extends the existing literature in several ways.
themselves in different social roles, measures of self-complexity First, within the limits of the cross-sectional age-comparative
usually reflect the number of distinct self-aspects individuals gen- design, findings from this study suggest that different levels of
erate when providing free descriptions of themselves (Linville, SCD may be differentially adaptive at different points of the adult
1987). Thus, measures of self-complexity focus on the cognitive life span. Second, this finding also suggests that besides individual
complexity and flexibility in the way persons construe themselves psychological factors (e.g., level of cognitive development), a
and show that the number of self-defining domains is positively person's age and position within the life course may be one of the
associated with psychological well-being (J. D. Campbell et al., conditional factors that influence his or her level of SCD. How-
1991; Freund & Smith, 1999; Linville, 1987). ever, to what extent it is chronological age per se or to what extent
In contrast, the measures used in this study assessed SCD as the age may serve as a proxy variable for other psychological, social,
lack of interrelatedness of role identities and therefore focused on and cultural processes (e.g., social comparison processes) in de-
lack of coherence in the self-concept as the defining criterion (see termining a person's level of SCD will require further clarification.
Donahue et al., 1993). We find it interesting that recent research by Especially longitudinal studies following individuals prospectively
Woolfolk et al. (1995) showed that when self-complexity was over longer periods of time will be required to study the role of
operationalized as positive and negative self-complexity, the usual chronological age in comparison to psychological and socio-
pattern of findings was only replicated for positive self- cultural influences.
complexity. In contrast, negative self-complexity showed a pattern
of associations with measures of psychological well-being (e.g.,
depressive symptoms) similar to the pattern reported in this study. Age Moderated the Effect of SCD
Thus, findings from this study and from Woolfolk et al.'s research on Psychological Weil-Being
are consistent with Donahue et al.'s (1993) conclusion that their
SCD index assesses a fragmented or divided sense of self and Hierarchical multiple regression analyses with interaction terms
should therefore be seen as theoretically and empirically distinct (Aiken & West, 1991; Baron & Kenny, 1986) showed that age
from the concept of self-complexity. moderated the effect of SCD on measures of emotional adjustment
and psychological well-being. Specifically, for older adults a high
Age Trajectory of SCD Across the Adult Life Span level of SCD was associated with significantly lower levels of
positive psychological well-being and significantly higher levels
With regard to the second objective, findings from this study of negative psychological well-being compared with younger
revealed a curvilinear, U-shaped relationship between the Donahue adults. Taken together these findings suggest that the negative
652 DIEHL, HASTINGS, AND STANTON

effects of high SCD increased with age and were most pronounced Future studies may benefit from comparing experimenter-
in the group of older adults. generated attribute lists with participant-generated attribute lists
This finding was consistent with findings reported by Donahue and from examining the age equivalence of such lists. In addition,
et al. (1993, Study 2) for a sample of women, showing that the future studies may also examine the differences in SCD that may
bivariate associations between SCD and measures of adjustment emerge depending on whether the social roles are experimenter
became stronger over a 30-year period. For example, the intrain- determined or participant determined.
dividual correlation between SCD and psychoneuroticism in- Finally, we note that there is a good deal of conceptual confu-
creased from .20 at age 21 to .48 at age 52; similarly, the corre- sion regarding the term self-concept differentiation. This confusion
lation between SCD and overall emotional adjustment increased is reflected in the existing operationalizations of the construct and
from -.23 at age 21 to —.45 at age 52. On the basis of their results, in the fact that the terms self-complexity and self-concept differ-
Donahue et al. (1993) suggested that the negative effects of SCD entiation are often used interchangeably. For example, whereas
are more than a transient phenomenon but rather reflect "a long- some researchers define and measure SCD in terms of how dif-
term pattern of both intrapersonal and interpersonal problems" (p. ferent a person construes his or her own self across different social
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843). Although findings from the present study are based on roles or situations (see Donahue et al., 1993; Harter & Monsour,
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cross-sectional data, in conjunction with Donahue et al.'s findings 1992), others define SCD in terms of how differentiated and
they seem to suggest that lacking a coherent sense of self may have detailed a person's cognitive reflections are about his or her
cumulative negative effects across the adult life span. To say it role-specific self-representations and about possible contradictions
differently, a coherent sense of self (i.e., low SCD) may have its among these self-representations (see Labouvie-Vief et al., 1995).
most protective impact with regard to emotional adjustment and The latter approach usually uses qualitative coding of narrative
psychological well-being in later life, when age-related changes in data about a person's self and may have the advantage over the
a person's level of functioning, social network, and role repertoire former approach that not only the fragmented facet but also the
challenge the integrity of his or her self-concept (see also Freund integrated facet of SCD can be captured. We believe that further
& Smith, 1999; Heidrich & Ryff, 1993; Troll & Skaff, 1997). progress in the investigation of the adult self-concept will greatly
Additional longitudinal work is needed to examine this suggestion depend on the refinement of existing measures and on the extent to
and to consolidate the currently available evidence with regard to which these measures can reliably and validly distinguish inte-
this conclusion. grated from fragmented SCD (Rogers, 1959). The distinction
between integrated and fragmented SCD is not only of theoretical
Limitations and Future Directions importance but also of empirical importance (see Higgins, 1996).
Research by Showers et al. (1998), for example, has shown that
Several limitations of this study need to be acknowledged. First, under certain life circumstances a highly compartmentalized orga-
the cross-sectional design of this study confounds age with cohort. nization of the self-concept is likely to break down, whereas an
Thus, it is not possible to determine to what extent the specific integrated organization is more likely to withstand stressful situ-
pattern of association between SCD and age may not only reflect ations and to buffer against the adverse effects of life stress.
the influence of age but also reflect the influence of cohort.
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Appendix

Order of Testing Session 2: Group Testing


Session 1: Individual Testing Self-Concept Differentiation Ratings (Donahue, Robins, Rob-
Personal Background Questionnaire erts, & John, 1993)
Role-Specific Self-Representation Task (Harter & Monsour, Self-Concept Clarity Scale (J. D. Campbell et al, 1996)
1992) Short Psychological Well-Being Scales (Ryff, 1989)
Positive Affect and Negative Affect Scale (Watson, Clark, & Center for Epidemiological Studies Depression Scale (Radloff,
Tellegen, 1988) 1977)
Rosenberg Self-Esteem Scale (Rosenberg, 1989)

Take-Home Tests Received June 17, 1999


NEO Five-Factor Inventory (Costa & McCrae, 1992) Revision received January 23, 2001
State-Trait Anxiety Inventory (Spielberger, 1983) Accepted February 2, 2001