Who am I Essay

An investigation of self-descriptions based on data collected from two participants of differing age, and how this age gap influences the focus of their self-descriptions based on the findings of Morris Rosenberg (1979)


This research paper investigates the self-descriptions of two participants in the light of the findings of Morris Rosenberg (1979). Rosenberg suggested that younger children usually describe themselves in physical conditions, and older children/adults have a tendency to use character and relationship qualities.

Two participants were interviewed using a semi-structured style and the information obtained was divided into the four categories suggested by Rosenberg, either physical, character, relationships or inner. The information from the two participants was then contrasted to the findings of Rosenberg. The theory of locus of self-knowledge was also explored, which Rosenberg claimed changed from outer to inner relatedness, the older the individual gets.

My findings did not entirely agree with Rosenberg’s conclusions that with age there is a move away from physical descriptions, but there did appear a shift from locus of self-knowledge from parents to oneself, as age increased.


This study explores the self-descriptions of two individuals in the context of the conclusions reached by Morris Rosenberg (1979) who originally study the work of Bannister and Agnew (1977). Rosenberg suggests that young children describe themselves in terms of physicality, activities and behaviour, while older children/adults use character and relationships, a more psychological perspective.

Rosenberg’s study involved interviewing a group 8-18 year olds selected from 25 schools in a random procedure. He then classified the answers to the question he asked these students “Who am I” into four groups, these were: Physical – descriptions of features and activities, Character – descriptions of personal characteristics, personality, Relationships – descriptions of interpersonal traits and relationships with others, Inner – descriptions of inner thoughts, feelings, desires, knowledge of oneself.

Rosenberg’s study revealed that descriptors of younger children generally were physical in activity and characteristic, while older children used more character descriptors to identify themselves. He suggests that the older child refers more to relationships and inner qualities when describing the self.

Rosenberg also studied another feature of self-development, which he called “the locus of self-knowledge”. This involved the ability of a person to develop a self-governing sense of oneself, unconnected from figures in authority, especially parents. Rosenberg’s questioning sought to establish who knew the children better, themselves or their parents. He discovered that younger children were more likely to rely on another person as a guide to who they were. There was a thirty-five percent difference between the younger children compared to older children in placing the locus of self-knowledge with themselves. This means that as one gets older, there is more of an inner knowledge of oneself as a basis for the self rather than influences from parents and others in authority, (teachers for example)

In order to investigate Rosenberg’s findings a semi-structured interview was employed to gain information from participants. The classification of which does involve a degree of interpretation on the part of the researcher. It can be difficult to know in which category to put an answer given by the participant, especially when using children in the sample. Another point to bear in mind is that, perhaps more so with the older participant, they may give answers to the questions that put them in a better light, thus presenting a better image of themselves. The hypothesis therefore is to determine if a younger child will have more physical self-descriptors and have a locus of self-knowledge with others compared to the older participant who will use more inner qualities of the self and themselves as a pivot form the locus of self-knowledge.



The investigation is anticipated to demonstrate how self-description changes with an increase in age. A questionnaire (see Appendix A) that was designed by the Open University to replicate that of Rosenberg was used.

The investigation began by asking the two participants in turn the question “Who am I”? in order that a list of at least ten self-descriptions were revealed about the participant. The answers were then divided into one of the four of Rosenberg’s categories either physical, characteristic, interpersonal or inner traits, (see Appendix B). A semi-structured interview was then carried out to elicit the theory of ‘locus of self-knowledge’ that Rosenberg explored.


Two individuals took part in this study: one female, one male. The researcher knew both participants. The female is twelve years old and is an only child. The male is married and forty-two years old. They are father and daughter, and to avoid any awkwardness in terms of their answers both interviews were carried out on an individual and confidential basis.


Both participants were asked the same questions (see Appendix A). For question one: “Who am I?” paper and a pen were provided for the participants to write their answers down in their own time. For questions two – nine the interviewer made notes on the answers the participants gave.


I first explained to the participants the nature of the study and explained that in order for the research to be credible it was necessary for the answers given to be honest, truthful and open. I was not to there to judge them or criticise them for answers I deemed seemed incorrect. I endeavoured to put both participants at ease with answering the questions, and this helped by asking them to write the answers to the first question “Who am I?” on paper first. A semi-structured interview then took place and brief notes made by the interviewee.

Ethical Considerations

I carried out these interviews to the best of my knowledge within The British Psychological Society’s Code of Conduct for Psychologists. I obtained consent from the child’s parents, and made it clear what my intentions were and the nature of my investigation. I stated that all information given would be treated in a confidential manner and the real names of the participants would not be used on any material. I conducted the interviews in a professional manner and thanked the participants for helping me to carry out the study.


The results of the question “Who am I”? was firstly put into one of the four descriptions of Rosenberg’s category’s (see Appendix B) and the proportion of total coded responses that fall into each of the four categories was carried out. This was expressed as percentages and the results for each participant is shown diagrammatically in the form of Pie Charts (see Appendix C). The age gap between the two participants is 30 years, yet interestingly they both have the same percentage score for Physical traits, 60%. The scores for Inner and Character traits are both reduced by half in the older participant from 20% to 10%. Only Participant 2, the older of the two, had a score of 20% for Relationships. These initial results would indicate that the older one gets the greater there is a disposition to be more involved in relationships with others rather than concentrating solely on the self. The younger participant at this moment in development may have no real need to feel relationships are important to them at present.

With reference to evidence for developmental trends in locus of self knowledge the questions asked, specifically questions 7, 8 and 9 (see Appendix A) did see a trend towards the older participant (two) having a locus of self knowledge relating primarily to themselves, as these questions were all answered as ‘self’ by the older interviewee compared to only one answer of ‘self’ by the younger interviewee (one), the other two answers being ‘other’ namely the parents. These results did support Rosenberg’s hypotheses “there is a shift with age in the locus of self-knowledge from important others, particularly parents, to the self.”


The investigation has produced a divers result. The deduction from the interviews suggest that both participants chose self-descriptors that orientated towards the physical traits of Rosenberg’s divisions, which does not show the reduction that Rosenberg suggests occurs with age. Although they do not agree with Rosenberg’s findings it would be incorrect to over generalise and assume Rosenberg’s theory is incorrect, on the basis that only two participants were studied. The outcome of locus of self-knowledge questions did produce the results that Rosenberg suggested would occur, that being that as one gets older the higher the locus of self-knowledge comes from within themselves rather than from outside and authoritative others. I concluded from my interview with the younger participant that it appears therefore that they do not credit anyone with knowledge about themselves apart from a relevant adult – therefore questions about ‘Who knows you better’, it would be the person relevant to that situation, for example a teacher would know how a child was performing in a subject better than their mother, and a mother would know more about personal characteristics, such as whether the child is tired or not than another adult. In consequence, it does seem that young children might have a positive basis for attributing self-knowledge to relevant adult. The way a child learns about itself, the environment and other people is guided by input from adults therefore it is not surprising that younger children will regard adults as knowledgeable figures, in fact more knowledgeable than themselves.

There were quite a few complications with this study, the first being the difficulty with categorising the self-descriptors, into the four Rosenberg suggests, and the fact that it was the researcher who had to judge which category to use. This could have been made easier if two people decided which category to use, it would have eliminated a margin of error based on sole judgement of one person, who knew the participants in the first place, and could have prejudiced the participants answers in a favourable way. Therefore it must be noted that the results cannot be deemed completely significant in relation to Rosenberg’s findings when these points are taken into consideration.

The initial questioned asked, “Who am I”? was used by Kuhn and McPartland (1954) to evaluate identity in what was know as the “Twenty Statements Test”, this asked the participant to note down 20 answers to the question. This was formulated to give an insider view of person’s inner thoughts and ideas. This method of introspection was developed by Erik Erikson (1902 -1994) who regarded adolescence as an important stage in the development of identity and so perhaps physical descriptions of oneself is a firm foundation upon which an individual can identify with and go on to build an individual personality specific to their likes/dislikes etc.

It is also worth noting that that the answers to the question “Who am I”? can alter over time, purely because the nature of developing an understanding of oneself is regarded in Western cultures as something that happens over a long period. What you may be in terms of your individuality may still be the same when you are older, or depending on your life experiences, education and social activities your individuality will change completely and you may have completely different priorities. It would be interesting to see if a longitudinal method of research into this were carried out to see if there is any alteration in locus of self

For example Participant 1 in the study referred mainly to characteristics and likes whereas Participant 2 had obviously more responsibility in terms of being a father, and being in employment which illustrated the importance these factors place on the participants personality. This is reflected in Piaget’s theory of cognitive development, which suggests that at about 12 years old there is a shift from the ‘concrete operations’ of development into the final stage of ‘formal operations’ (quoted in Chap. 7 Growth and change in Adolescence) This stage seems to be the point at which most adolescents start to construct an individual identity and are able to put into perspective knowledge and social ideas about what it is to become an adult and reflect purposefully on their self awareness.


To conclude, it can be seen from this investigation that one of Rosenberg’s initial hypothesis that of locus of self-knowledge has been partly demonstrated to be correct, albeit the sample size was much smaller as well as the age of one participant being incompatible, with Rosenberg’s study. My deduction is to suggest that younger children do indeed tend to describe themselves in terms of physical traits while adults rely more on relationships, although the shift from physical outward descriptions of the younger person to the more personal and inner behaviours of the older adult did not appear in these results. This study has highlighted the difficulty in trying to measure and explore the concept of self-image and locus of self-knowledge, and can only act as an indicator to the inner thoughts and feelings of an individual in the process of development.


M. Rosenberg (1979) Conceiving the Self, New York, Basic Books, cited in ED209 Child Development – Resources Booklet, The Open University 2003, SUP 70404 4.

D Bannister and J Agnew ( 1977) ‘The childs’s construing of self’in Cole J (ed) Nebraska Symposium on Motivation, Lincoln, University of Nebraska Press, cited in Chap 5, Devoloping a Sense of Self, D Miell, The Open Universiyt- Personal, Social and Emotional Development of Children 1995.

Kuhn and Mc Partland (1954) The Twenty Statements Test – The Open University DSE212 Methods Booklet.

Erik Erikson (1968) Childhood and Society, Harmondsworth, Penguin Books, cited in Chap 7 Growth and Change in Adolescence The Open University 1995, Personal, Social and Emotional Development of Children.

Barnes P (1995) Personal,Social and Emotional Development of Children, The Open University, Chapter 7 – Growth and Change in Adolescence. P 290.