How does our Sense of Self Develop?

Project Plan

Focusing on the self has become increasingly entrenched in Western Culture. Social Media puts it on display by allowing people to post a pin-up board of ‘selfies’ or to exchange their deepest (or most shallow) thoughts for ‘likes’. How many feel the warm glow of acknowledgement when we hear the mantra of the self-esteem movement, ‘I am special’?

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We have not always had the same access to be able to promote ourselves and interests as we are able to do today, and they have not always been part of our culture.  These cultural changes have unsurprisingly been linked to the ‘Me’ Generation. This fixation on self-esteem enhancement has developed what some researchers are calling ‘the Culture of Narcissism’, and these changes have actually been measured. Research by Jean Twenge has found that in the 1950s, 10% of American university students endorsed the statement, “I am an important person” in research surveys. In the 1980’s this number had grown to 80% of university students endorsing the statement.

The problem with this is that not everyone can be special and important. Because if everyone was special, then special would not be special anymore, it would be ordinary. But is there actually anything wrong with people thinking that they are special, even if they are not? Won’t this just make us dream big, work hard, be absurdly ambitious and eventually achieve our goals, realise the dream… and become special?

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In some ways, it is hard to answer this question.  It may indeed be that thinking we are special will mean that we are reluctant to settle for less, and to strive to achieve our best.  This has not been tested in research, however.  What has been researched that may help us answer this question in part is a personality trait, called ‘narcissism.’  Narcissism can be defined as a grandiose sense of self, and as such is partly defined by feelings of ‘specialness’.  One of the central characteristics of a narcissistic personality is entitlement (i.e., the feeling or belief that you deserve something).

While we would all like to have high self-esteem, few of us would like to be labeled, ‘narcissistic.’ Similarly, as parents, we would all like for our parenting to encourage resilience and perseverance in our children, not entitlement and narcissism. It is the purpose of my research to try and understand the nature of narcissism in adults and children, and to identify factors (such as social media use or parenting styles) that contribute to its development.

I also want to know how narcissism functions for children – that is, is narcissism different to high self-esteem in children. It could be that having very high confidence during childhood works differently than in adulthood because children are confronted with failure and struggle during this time of development as they work hard to master new skills and tasks, as well as develop a sense of identity.  My hope is that looking at these factors in children will help us understand how narcissism, very high confidence, and entitlement work during childhood, and, eventually, provide information to parents that will empower them to make choices that will help to ensure a happy and fulfilling life for their children.


This project will therefore have four separate parts:

  1. Investigate how narcissism manifests in adults, and how this is different to self-esteem – Project completed, 2014.
  2. Investigate the relationship between social media use and a person’s sense of self – Project under investigation now.
  3. Investigate how narcissism manifests in children, and how it is different from self-esteem.
  4. Investigate the relationship between parenting styles and a child’s sense of self.


Your Support

We need 200 Australian adults to volunteer to participate in Part 2 of this study by following the link below to an online survey that will take approximately 10 minutes to complete.  Participants who complete the current survey will gain immediate access to the Summary of Results of Part 1 of this study, and will also be sent the results of the current study (Part 2) when they are available. Participants can also register their interest for Part 3 of this Study, if they are a parent with a child age 8 to 17. If they are not a parent, but would like to receive a Summary of Results for Part 3 and 4 of this study, they will be given the opportunity to sign up to be send these results when they are available as well.

Thank you for your interest in my research, it would not be possible without volunteers like you!

Project Members

Phd Candidate

Reference List:

  • Figure 1. A photo of researcher Kate Derry and children Zahli, Xavier and Amaya Evitt. Retrieved July 31, 2015, from Copyright 2015 by Midland Kalamunda Reporter. Reprinted with permission.
  • Figure 3. Illustrations by Jaqueline C. Retrieved August 8, 2015, from Copyright 2015 by Chibird. Reprinted with permission.
  • Figure 4. Family portrait in crayon [Online image]. Retrieved August 8, 2015, from
  • Figure 5. Illustrations by Jaqueline C. Retrieved August 8, 2015, from Copyright 2015 by Chibird. Reprinted with permission.
  • Figure 6. K. L. Derry, personal photograph. Retrieved 11 August, 2015.
  • Figure 7. J. L. Ohan, personal photograph. Retrieved 11 August, 2015.
  • Figure 8. D. M. Bayliss, personal photograph. Retrieved 11 August, 2015.