EU-Project Self-Esteem Processes

Self-esteem - the subjective evaluation of a person’s worth - affects major life outcomes, including mental and physical health, economic prospects and longevity. Long considered to be stable, newer evidence shows that self-esteem can change in response to life events. Yet, knowledge about the conditions and processes that elicit self-esteem change is scarce but needed to develop self-esteem theories and prevention and intervention programs directed at promoting successful development.

The central aim of of project “A self-esteem process framework of the transition to work”, short “Self-Esteem Processes”, is to advance the understanding of the processes underlying self-esteem development during major life events. Specifically, the aim was to illuminate the short-term processes, including the micro-level processes of thoughts, feelings, and behavior evoked through the daily interaction with the environment and how they get manifested in state and trait self-esteem.

This project has received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under the Marie Sklodowska-Curie grant agreement No 846839, awarded to Anne Reitz. The project has been resumed at the end of September 2022.

Project GradLife

The EU research funding was used to collect an intensive longitudinal data set of 300 young adults who transitioned from university to work.

Logo GradLife

The transition into the workforce is a major developmental milestone in young adulthood that brings tremendous life changes - an ideal setting to study self-esteem development. The data collection started in May 2020 and ran for two years during which young adults transitioned from studying to working (see Figure below).

The first four waves were spaced 4 months apart and a fifth follow-up wave took place in May 2022. In all waves, online questionnaires were used to assess rich information on participants’ personality and well-being (e.g., self-esteem, Big Five traits, identity, life satisfaction) and 14-day mobile ambulatory assessments (daily diary and experience sampling methods) were used to capture their daily experiences (e.g., their emotions, daily events, psychological states). With this design, self-esteem and personality change could be studied over 2 years, while the high-intensity assessments provided insights into the processes underlying this change (for more information on study design and measures, see the Open Science framework.

An intensive longitudinal study on the transition from education to work

Figure: An intensive longitudinal study on the transition from education to work


  • Dr. Anne Reitz

    Dr. Anne Reitz

    PI of the project

    If you want to collaborate and use this data, please get in touch with Anne Reitz.

Project STRIDE

This project led to a follow-up project STRIDE: Student-Teacher Transition and Individual Development, which studies personality development of students from the beginning of their teacher education until the start of working as teachers.

Theoretical Contribution

There is currently no theory of self-esteem development. To pave the way for further theoretical developments that are much needed, I integrated theoretical perspectives from personality, social and developmental psychology in an overarching process framework (published in a conceptual article; Reitz, 2022; The framework is an integrative, life-span psychological approach that considers contexts, changeability, and individual differences. The framework specifies short- and long-term processes of self-esteem, which provides opportunities for theoretical and methodological advancements. I delineated specific dynamic long- and short-term processes underlying self-esteem development during life events that are a major avenue for future research. I delineated specific avenues for future research in line with the specific objectives of the project:

1. The macro-level processes of self-esteem development during life transitions (including social roles and developmental tasks such as being a successful employee during the transition to work).

2. The micro-level processes of self-esteem development during the work transition (including agentic and communal triggering situations, psychological states, and state self-esteem).

3. Examining the processes that link micro-level change to macro-level change including reflective processes and the repetition of the sequence of the micro-level processes). I also specified several moderators that help explain the large individual variability in change (including social relationships such as social support and psychological needs such as the need to achieve during the transition to work).

Empirical Contribution

Overall, I found that self-esteem can change during the transition to work, but individuals differed greatly in the direction and magnitude of this change. These individual differences in change were explained by individual differences in how the transition uniquely unfolded in people’s lives. Specifically, the following results were obtained:

1. Description of individual development in the context of life events

I examined whether and how life events lead to changes in personality development. I found that job entry (Reitz et al., 2020; 2022), new occupations (Reitz et al., 2021), and bereavement (Reitz et al., 2022) hardly predicted average changes in Big Five traits, self-esteem, and life satisfaction. However, self-esteem and life satisfaction decreased even before unemployment (Reitz et al., 2021). Personality also affected the experience of life events (selection): Individuals with high levels of self-esteem and life satisfaction were more likely to become employed and less likely to become unemployed (Reitz et al., 2021).

2. Capturing and explaining individual variability in developmental change.

My research has shown that individuals vary considerably in their personality development. Self-esteem and "personality maturity" increased for some and decreased for others during career entry (Reitz et al., 2020; 2021; 2022). Individual and contextual factors were associated with this variability, such as job satisfaction. Individuals also responded differently to bereavement depending on the significance of the loss (Reitz et al., 2021).

3. Explanation of processes underlying developmental change.

In several projects I investigated how life events indirectly affect personality via processes in daily life (situations; ABCD: Affect, Behavior, Cognitions, Desires) and how these processes first affect states and then traits. I have found that daily success situations were associated with the development of self-esteem (Reitz et al., 2020) and "personality maturity" (Reitz et al., 2022) and that pride (Diwan et al., under review) and narrative identity (van Doeselaar & Reitz, 2022) were associated with state self-esteem during the education-to-work transition.

List of Project-Related Publications

Publications on data of project GradLife (preregistered and peer-reviewed)

  • Reitz, A. K., den Boer, van Scheppingen, & Diwan, K. (2022). Personality maturation through sense of mastery? Longitudinal evidence from two education-to-work transition studies. Journal of Personality.
  • van Doeselaar, L. & Reitz, A. K. (2022). Personal narratives as a predictor of trait change and state fluctuations in self-esteem and life satisfaction during the transition from education to work. Identity.

Conceptual article on Self-Esteem Processes

  • Reitz, A. K. (2022). Self‐esteem development and life events: A review and integrative process framework. Social and Personality Psychology Compass, 16(11), e12709.

Other publications related to Self-Esteem Processes (preregistered and peer-reviewed)

  • Reitz, A. K., Luhmann, M., Bleidorn, W., & Denissen, J. J. A. (2022). Unraveling the complex relationship between work transitions and self-esteem and life satisfaction. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 123(3), 597–620.
  • Reitz, A. K., Weidmann, R., Wünsche, J., Bühler, J. Burriss, R. P., & Grob, A. (2022). In good times and in bad: A longitudinal analysis of the impact of bereavement on self-esteem and life satisfaction in couples. European Journal of Personality, 36(4), 616–639.
Conclusions & Implications

Project Self-Esteem Processes has contributed novel insights into when, how, and why personality changes in the context of major life events, which has important implications.

First, I found that self-esteem, the Big Five traits, and life satisfaction can change in adulthood during major life events. This makes life events, especially those in young adulthood important developmental windows for prevention programs.

Second, my work provided new information regarding the timing of such programs. I found that personality trait change can be observed over 4 months, which is a novel finding and underlines the dynamic aspects of personality. Hence, personality might change during interventions and such change might happen faster than previously thought.

Third, another insight regarding the timing concerns my finding of anticipatory change. People decreased in their self-esteem already before unemployment began, which points to anticipatory processes. Hence, programs should start before unemployment begins.

Fourth, I identified a group at risk: People with low self-esteem and low life satisfaction seem to be more likely to become unemployed and less likely to (re)enter the labor market, which decreases their self-esteem and life satisfaction further in a downward spiral. Especially if these events are long and frequent, negative effects on their psychological adjustment might accumulate, which makes this group an important target group for prevention programs.

Fifth, my work has revealed some promising mechanisms that could be targeted in programs directed at promoting well-being in young adults. Their transition experience differs to a large degree and their subjective experience of mastering this transition plays a big role for their adjustment. Programs should focus on supporting young adults in this transition by tailoring the transition experience more to their needs.

Sixth, my work has underlined that people do not experience major life events in isolation, but with their social relationship partners. I found for the first time that a person’s loss of a close person predicted decreased self-esteem levels in the romantic partner. Hence, couples should be considered as a developmental unit when studying life event effects.