The development of self-awareness and shifts of Locus of self Knowledge

Last Updated: 26 Jan 2021
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This study examines the theoretical framework of developmental sequences and self descriptions and its proposed idea that children’s sense of self change as they become older and more able to take into account the information about themselves available from other sources such as their social environment. A small-scale investigation into the ways children give self-descriptions and how the characteristics of these change with age was conducted by comparison of short interviews with two participants aged 8 and 16 years following a similar methodology to Rosenberg’s (1979) study of self description.

Analysis of the material show that indeed there is evidence that older children tend to give accounts of themselves by using more inner characteristics and emotional traits then younger children providing support to existing research in the subject.


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The subject of development of identity has been a topic of intense debate amongst scholars in the field of child development. The multidimensionality of identity imposes that many external aspects are involved in its development like religious, cultural, social ethnic, therefore in order to develop and identity children must be able to take into account such aspects. Maccoby (as cited in Miel and Ding 2005 p. 131) proposes that for that reason, as sense of self happens by degrees. William James (1892 as cited in Miel and Ding 2005 pp 131) introduced the idea that a sense of self is divided in two stages: the self as a subject of experience and the self as an object of knowledge (Miel and Ding, 2005 pg. 131).

This means that as children get older, they become more competent at self-awareness and more realistically involved in perception and responses of others in their lives. According to James, this development occurs during childhood by means of interactions between cognitive aspects and Social experiences where children actively use their incoming knowledge about themselves to make a difference in their environment. Subsequently, as children gain increasing levels of self awareness, a second stage emerges defined as the self as an object or categorical self (James 1961 as cited in Miel and Ding 2005 pg. 133) where children begin to be categorized by others and themselves in defining roles in society.

Cooley and Mead (1935) further underpinned the importance of social influences upon the development of an identity by coining the term “looking glass self” and the development of the theory of “symbolic interactionism” where they stress that a sense of identity emerges from reactions of others in the environment to us and the impressions we make internalize of these judgments (Mead 1934, as cited in: Miell and Ding, 2005, pp. 134-136.

More recently, developmental Psychologists such as Harter (1983) and Rosenberg (1979) have used methods of semi-structured interviews and self report measures to investigate children’s developmental sequences in the formation of the self. In Her analysis of interviews with children of various ages, Harter (1983, as cited in Miell and Ding, 2005, pp.128-129) framed a developmental sequence where younger children show tendency to describe behavior and objective facts gradually shifting from traits of physical aspects and ultimately to interpersonal traits.

Rosenberg’s findings suggest that younger children tend to rely on physical aspects and character traits observable by others to describe their sense of self whereas older children make more use of inner qualities and emotions only known to them. Rosenberg was interested beyond simple aspects of self description and added to his questions, topics that explored the children’s categorical self and what he defines as Locus of self knowledge.

This study aims to investigate children’s accounts in their self concept by using pre recorded semi-structured interviews with two participants aged 8 and 16 years and applying Rosenberg’s categories of self description, self evaluation, self and others, Ideal self and Locus of self knowledge in slightly altered forms. With view on the relevant theories to the context of this study, the research question in focus is “Do children acquire a progressive sense of self as they grow older and interact with their social environment?”



The design of this study consists in a comparison of the self-descriptions given by two young people, during semi-structured interviews.


The participants that took place in this study were selected from two schools (one primary and one secondary) in the surrounding areas of Milton Keynes. Anne aged 8 yeas and Adam ages 16 years were randomly selected and given informed consent as well as their parents to participate in this research.

Materias and procedure

The material for this study was collected by the course team of ED209 Child Development at Open University and every step has been taken to ensure its compliance with the British Psychological Society’s ethical guidelines for research with human participants. In order to record the interviews, a microphone was strategically placed in a non intrusive location near the participant. An A4 sheet of paper was used for the participants to complete their self description (“I statements”) and a recorder was used to record the interviews. The interviews took place during the day in May 2005. The locations of the interviews were in places familiar to the children.

The younger participant (Annie) was interviewed by a member of the module team Kieron Sheehy and Peter Barnes conducted the interview with the older participant (Adam). Both children were informed prior to the start of their right to withdraw from the interview at any time as well as to have any data deleted should they feel something was said that they do not want in recording. None of them did so. Care was taken to ensure the best possible quality to the recordings which required such to be stopped at times when background noise was too inconvenient.

Near the beginning of the interview the participants were asked to write down a description of themselves on a sheet of A4 paper. At the top were the words ‘Who am I’ and below that were ten numbered lines, each beginning ‘I...’ The recording was paused while the children completed these descriptions. Subsequently, the participants were asked questions based on Rosenberg’s questions of self evaluation, self and others and ideal self as well as on the concept of Locus of self knowledge.


Self descriptions

The research question proposed by this study is that younger children rely on physical and character traits when giving accounts of themselves and this should progressively shift with age as they make more use of inner traits for self description. The categories proposed by Rosenberg and used in this study and the results in percentage of the accounts of the two participants are as seen in table 1 bellow.

Percentages were rounded to the nearest null

The results above clearly show that the younger participant (Annie) relies solely on physical and character traits to describe herself whereas the older participant (Adam) makes much more use of inner characteristics and relationship connections supporting the hypothesis proposed by this study.

Locus of Self Knowledge

Annie shows internal and external locus when she suggests that both her and her mother would know better about her Maths, acknowledging that her mother might not know that she is “getting better every day”. Nevertheless in the question of behavior she placed the locus externally saying that her mom would be correct.

Adam, the older participant was clear saying that his mother would be correct if asked what subjects he is better at school and about his behavior at home.

Self evaluation

When describing her weak and strong points Annie pointed out solely to physical traits of herself “my ears and legs (11:06)” and observable characteristics “I’ve got lots of friends (9:13)”. Adam equally relied heavily on character traits to describe his strong and weak points, however with a difference that his accounts were mostly related to internal (not necessarily observable) traits “I think im approachable b anyone…I suppose that my personality like just being a relaxed person (20:02)”

Ideal self

The older participant (Annie) relied on external factors to describe her ideal self like jobs “for my job I would like to be an actress (13:42)” making no account of any inner characteristic. Adam (16 years) on the other hand showed a capability to project his future in terms of interpersonal traits “I’d be like a leader, like a leader or something with power, because I like to think that I’d been really strong as a leader”

Self and others

Annie made comparisons of herself to others in terms of similar or different she is regarding her physical characteristics “I’m the same as Naomi as we both like Maths…(11:24)”. Nevertheless, she shows an ability to reflect on internal aspects of herself and the importance of her uniqueness as a person “Because if all the people are the same as me then I wouldn’t feel special (13:23).”

Most of Adam’s comparisons to others were described in terms of the quality of inner similarities that enables relationships to form and be maintained “we’ve more or less got the same viewpoints (23:21)” and his inner drives that differentiates him from others “I like to think that I’m not going to spend the rest of my life working in a shop like some of my friends (25:00)”


The purpose of this study was to investigate by means of comparison of interviews with two young participants (Annie aged 8 and Adam aged 16), the idea outlined in current research that development of identity occurs progressively from an existential self to a categorical self and children’s self descriptions shift gradually from predominantly physical traits in younger children to more interpersonal characteristics in older ones. Equally it aimed to analyze Rosenberg’s suggestion that a transfer in the locus of self knowledge from external to internal occurs as age progresses.

In the self description task, Annie made use exclusively of physical and character traits to provide a description of herself where Adam showed a fluent ability to understand himself as an abstract being and use interpersonal and emotional traits when talking about himself. This is consistent with the idea of James (1892 as cited in Miel and Ding 2005 pp 131) that a sense of self emerges gradually.

In detailed analysis of the questions related to the locus of self knowledge, Both Annie and Adam place emphasis on the other rather than the self contradicting Rosenberg’s findings that a shift occurs to the self as children grow older (Rosenberg 1979 as cited in the Open University 2012 assessment guide). However this could be so for reasons related to the methodology of research itself. For instance both participants did not seem to grasp the meaning of the questions initially, or perhaps confounding variables like power imbalance between researcher and participant could have played a role.

On this topic it is therefore impossible to draw a positive or negative conclusion based only on this sample size. Cooley (1902 as cited in Miel and Ding 2005 pg 134) suggests the idea of the self as a looking glass where the person develops a sense of self by gradually undertaking other’s views and reactions of them. This theory can be supported by the findings of this study regarding the locus of self-knowledge where both children seem to see their own selves through the “looking glass” of others.

The responses given in the other themes (ideal self, self and others and self evaluation) provide a strong support to Harter (1983 as cited in Open University 2012 assessment guide) and Rosenberg’s theory of a reliance on physical activities and aspects by younger children and a shift to more inner traits and relation to others in older participants.

It is important to note that this study relies on a sample size too small to allow its results to be universalized. Also the context of the interviews and the participants were selected in a Western society where emphasis is strong on individuality and independence (Tobin et al 1989 as cited in Miell and Ding 2005 pp130). Therefore this study should only be interpreted within the limits of its settings; however it gives interest to the possibility of further research with a broader cross-cultural selection of participants.

Briefly, some methodological issues came up in the formulation of questions that could perhaps have had an impact however small on the results of this study; At times, both participants showed confusion regarding the questions asked. Perhaps a different wording would have been more appropriate.


This study supports ongoing theories of a gradual development of self awareness proving the initial research question suggested and the idea that identity is shaped by an interaction of cognitive factors with various external aspects like social, peer, religion etc… Due to methodological issues and small sample size it is impossible to offer conclusive support to the theory of Locus-of-self –knowledge. In future, the field of developmental psychology could benefit from further research involving larger sample sizes of varied cultures as this study can only account for children based in the scope of western society

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The development of self-awareness and shifts of Locus of self Knowledge. (2017, Dec 17). Retrieved from

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