Self Concept

How do adolescents’ views of themselves develop while they grow up?

Andrik Becht, Sabine Peters, Laura van der Aar, Jochem Spaans


Adolescence (ages 9-25) is an important time for young people to better get to know themselves, their abilities and their interests. Adolescents may notice that they are a slightly different version of themselves in different social contexts, which may be confusing and can cause them to question who they really are. Adolescents feel more self-conscious and experience a heightened sensitivity to the opinions of others, which may lead them to feel insecure about themselves. So it is not strange that teenagers are sometimes described as being extremely focused on or preoccupied with themselves. Getting to know the self well and developing a positive self-concept, is important for one’s mental well-being and for being able to make important life decisions that fit the self, such as the choice for a study major or a job.

Study Design:

The self-concept study is a longitudinal study that combines experimental designs, self-report surveys, behavior observations, biological markers, brain imaging and a naturalistic intervention.

Self-concept can be described as the subjective evaluation of one’s traits or characteristics. For example, one may think of themselves as being curious, selfish, or pretty to a greater or lesser extent. During adolescence, several cognitive and social developments prime dramatic changes in self-concept.

Even though it was recently discovered that self-related thoughts can be robustly assessed using neural responses to self-related cues, not much is known about the neural processes underlying these changes in self-concept during adolescence. The main aim of this study is to investigate how adolescents’ self-concept development is associated with changes in structural and functional brain development.

The first part of the Self-concept study is a longitudinal study, where adolescents aged between 10 and 24 years visited our lab in three consecutive years. In total, 3 waves of data collection have been completed between 2016 and 2019 and are currently analyzed. Additionally, 2 behavioral follow-ups were conducted during the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 and 2021.

A second of this project examined a specific group of adolescents who experience difficulties with finding a suitable major and take a gap-year with Foundation Gap-Year in the Netherlands ( During this year, they focus on personal development and start working on improving their self-esteem and decision-making skills. Participants were followed for 18 months between 2017 and 2019 (4 time points, two MRI) with the aim of examining changes in their self-concept and underlying neural mechanisms. An additional aim was to test whether they were able to make better suited academic decisions after their gap-year.

A third subpart of this project includes a study in adolescent males diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Self-concept is a social construct that develops in interaction with the social environment. Therefore it may be expected that adolescents with ASD, who often experience trouble reading or dealing with social situations, could experience difficulties in forming their self-concept. The main aim of this study is to investigate differences in self-concept positivity between adolescent males with and without ASD, and to examine whether underlying neural activation would be similar or dissimilar for these adolescents. In 2018, 40 adolescent males aged 12-16 years participated in this cross-sectional study.

This project was funded by the Netherlands Organization for Scientific Research (NWO-VICI 453-14-001 E.A.C.).



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