Reciprocal Effects Between Academic Self-Concept, Self-Esteem, Achievement, and Attainment Over Seven Adolescent Years: Unidimensional and Multidimensional Perspectives of Self-Concept
Herbert W. Marsh Alison O’Mara University of Oxford
2005; Hunter & Csikszentmihalyi, 2003; Marsh & Craven, 2006). In a potentially serious threat to this positive psychology movement, Baumeister, Campbell, Krueger, and Vohs (2003, 2005) challenged the prevail- ing optimistic perspective of the value of positive self- beliefs in a highly influential review commissioned for Psychological Science in the Public Interest. They posed the question, “Does high self-esteem cause better per- formance, interpersonal success, happiness, or healthier lifestyles?” Arguing for a negative response to their question, Baumeister et al. (2003) concluded that “self- esteem per se is not the social panacea that many people hoped it was” (p. 38), a point reiterated by Baumeister et al. (2005) in their article in Scientific American when they concluded “that efforts to boost people’s self- esteem are of little value in fostering academic achieve- ment or preventing undesirable behaviour” (p. 84). Because of the strength of these conclusions and the prestige of the journals in which they appeared, this might seem to be the definitive word for mainstream psychology on this construct that has been so central in the development of psychology from the time of William James. However, as noted by Baumeister et al. (2003, see p. 7), their conclusions apply only to global
Authors’ Note: Requests for further information about this investiga- tion should be sent to Professor Herbert W. Marsh, Department of Education, University of Oxford, 15 Norham Gardens, Oxford, OX2 6PY, UK; e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.
PSPB, Vol. 34 No. 4, April 2008 542-552 DOI: 10.1177/0146167207312313 © 2008 by the Society for Personality and Social Psychology, Inc.
In their influential review, Baumeister, Campbell, Krueger, and Vohs (2003) concluded that self-esteem— the global component of self-concept—has no effect on subsequent academic performance. In contrast, Marsh and Craven’s (2006) review of reciprocal effects models from an explicitly multidimensional perspective demon- strated that academic self-concept and achievement are both a cause and an effect of each other. Ironically, both reviews cited classic Youth in Transition studies in support of their respective claims. In definitive tests of these counter claims, the authors reanalyze these data—including self-esteem (emphasized by Baumeister et al.), academic self-concept (emphasized by Marsh & Craven), and postsecondary edu- cational attainment—using stronger statistical methods based on five waves of data (grade 10 through 5 years after graduation; N = 2,213). Integrating apparently discrepant findings under a common theoretical framework based on a multidimensional perspective, academic self-concept had consistent reciprocal effects with both achievement and educational attainment, whereas self-esteem had almost none.
Keywords: self-concept; self-esteem; reciprocal effects model; structural equation modeling
There is a revolution sweeping psychology, one thatemphasizes a positive psychology focusing on how healthy, normal, and exceptional individuals can get the most from life (e.g., Fredrickson, 2006; Lopez et al., 2006; Seligman & Csikszentmihalyi, 2000). Positive self-beliefs are at the heart of this revolution (Furr,
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self-esteem and not to specific components of self-concept. Emphasizing the importance of this distinction, we demonstrate that Baumeister et al.’s conclusions need not sound the death knell for the relevance of self-beliefs to achievement if self-concept is appropriately consid- ered from a multidimensional perspective. Indeed, there is convincing evidence for the consistent positive effects of academic self-concept on subsequent achievement after controlling the effects of prior achievement (e.g., Byrne, 1996; Marsh & Craven, 2006; Valentine & DuBois, 2005; Valentine, DuBois, & Cooper, 2004). Marsh and Craven argued that conclusions drawn by Baumeister and colleagues were based largely on research studies, statistical methodology, and theoretical concep- tualizations of self-concept that are no longer current. Here, we provide an empirical test of a theoretical model that integrates both of these apparently contra- dictory conclusions.
There were important areas of agreement between Baumeister et al. (2003; see also Baumeister et al., 2005) and Marsh and Craven (2006) on appropriate methodol- ogy. In particular, all parties agreed that correlations based on a single wave of data cannot be used to infer cau- sation and the need for longitudinal panel designs (as in the reciprocal effects model outlined by Marsh & Craven, 1997, 2006), in which achievement and self-beliefs are each measured on at least two different occasions. Noting the strength and appropriateness of this design, Baumeister et al. (2003) added the caveat,
Insisting that self-esteem [at Time 1] must predict achieve- ment at Time 2 after controlling for achievement at Time 1 could obscure some actual causal relationships, so it should be regarded as a highly conservative way of testing the hypothesis . . . one may be throwing a very large baby out with the statistical bathwater. (p. 9)
Despite such areas of agreement, there were key areas of disagreement between the two sets of reviews in terms of the following:
a. Use of current research: Baumeister et al. (2003) only considered publications from before 1990, whereas Marsh and Craven mostly considered studies from the past 10 years;
b. Research methodology: Research reviewed by Baumeister et al. (2003) was largely based on multiple regression that was typical of research of that earlier era, whereas Marsh and Craven (2006) focused on studies that used structural equation models (SEM) based on multiple indicators;
c. Unidimensional versus multidimensional perspective: Baumeister et al. (2003) focused on an implicit unidi- mensional perspective of self-concept through their sole reliance on self-esteem—the global component of multidimensional, hierarchical models of self-concept (see Marsh, 1993; Shavelson, Hubner, & Stanton, 1976). Marsh and Craven (2006) took an explicitly mul- tidimensional perspective based on multiple, relatively distinct components of self-concept.
CONSTRUCT DEFINITION OF SELF-CONCEPT: A MULTIDIMENSIONAL,
In their classic review of self-concept research, theory, and measurement, Shavelson et al. (1976) developed a multidimensional, hierarchical model of self-concept that fundamentally impacted self-concept research (Marsh & Hattie, 1996). Self-concept, broadly defined by Shavelson et al., is a person’s self-perceptions formed through expe- rience with and interpretations of one’s environment. These self-perceptions are influenced especially by evalu- ations by significant others, reinforcements, and attribu- tions for one’s own behavior. Self-concept is not an entity within the person but a hypothetical construct that is potentially useful in explaining and predicting how a person acts. Shavelson et al. noted that self-concept is important both as an outcome and as a mediating variable that helps to explain other outcomes. Self-perceptions influence the way one acts, and behaviors in turn influence one’s self-perceptions.
Although some researchers reserve the term self- esteem for the evaluative component of self-perception and use the term self-concept for descriptive compo- nents of self-perception, Shavelson et al. (1976) argue that self-concept is both descriptive and evaluative (also see Marsh, 1993; Marsh & Craven, 2006; Swann, Chang-Schneider, & Larsen McClarty, 2007). Thus, for example, statements such as “I am good at mathemat- ics,” “I can run a long way without stopping,” and “I am good looking” all have both evaluative and descrip- tive components and clearly reflect specific components of self-concept (math, physical and appearance self- |concepts, respectively). More recently, Swann et al. also concluded that there is little basis for such evaluative- descriptive and cognitive-affective distinctions, as both self-esteem and self-concepts involve cognitive and affective components, noting that researchers in related fields (attitude researchers, interpersonal expectancy researchers, trait theorists) have not found this to be a useful distinction.
In support of the conceptualization of self-esteem as a global component of self-concept, Rosenberg (1979) maintained that the self-esteem construct based on instruments such as the Rosenberg Scale emphasizes an overarching, general, or global construct that at least implicitly incorporates many (or all) specific compo- nents according to the subjective weight put on each by the respondent (also see Marsh, 1986). In higher order factor analysis studies (see Marsh & Hattie, 1996), global measures of self-esteem consistently correlated about .95 with the highest-order factor (representing the apex of Shavelson et al.’s hierarchical model) based on specific components of self-concept. It is important to note that multidimensional self-concept theorists (e.g., Marsh & Craven, 2006) do not deny the existence of an overarching, global self-concept or self-esteem.
Indeed, multidimensional hierarchical models of self- concept integrate specific and global self-esteem dimen- sions of self-concept, such that global self-esteem is a component of the multidimensional self-concept struc- ture (Marsh, 1993; Marsh, Craven, & Martin, 2006). Hence, for the purposes of this study, we use the term self-esteem to refer to the global component of self- concept and to distinguish between this and specific components of self-concept (e.g., physical, social, and academic).
Factor analytic research (e.g., Marsh, Byrne, & Shavelson, 1988; Marsh & Hattie, 1996) showed that the hierarchical aspect of the multidimensional, hier- archical model proposed by Shavelson et al. (1976) was much weaker than originally hypothesized. In particular, specific components of self-concept were more differentiated and less highly correlated with each other than anticipated, so that much of the vari- ance in domain specific factors of self-concept could not be explained in terms of higher order self-concept factors or self-esteem. Thus, for example, factor analy- sis of adolescent responses to a recent adaptation of the multidimensional Self-Definition Questionnaire III clearly supported the 17 self-concept factors that the instrument was designed to measure (Marsh, Trautwein, Lüdtke, Köller, & Baumert, 2006). Furthermore, the average correlation among the 17 self-concept factors—even after controlling for unreliability—was only .14, thus verifying the distinctiveness of these dimensions.
Consistent with a large amount of subsequent research in support of the model by Shavelson et al. (1976), Marsh and Craven (1997, 2006) argued for the importance of a multidimensional perspective of self- concept. They suggested that researchers should focus on specific components of self-concept most logically related to the goals of their particular research instead of, or in addition to, a global measure of self-esteem. The distinctive nature of the various domains of self- concept means that global self-esteem scales may con- ceal or distort the multiplicity of self-beliefs (Harter, 1999; Hattie, 1992). For example, if a child has a low reading self-concept and a high math self-concept, then a measure of global self-esteem is not useful as a diag- nostic tool. This has ramifications for self-concept inter- vention research, as the underuse of multidimensional instruments may lead researchers to underestimate the effectiveness of their intervention (Bracken, 1996; Craven, Marsh, & Burnett, 2003; O’Mara, Marsh, Craven, & Debus, 2006).
Swann et al. (2007) made a related point about the predictive power of content-specific components of self- concept compared to the more global component of self- esteem. Drawing on historical parallels from attitude
research, personality research, and trait-theory research, they emphasized the importance of the specificity matching principle, that specific predictors should be used to predict specific behaviors and general predictors should be used to predict general behaviors. More specifically, they concluded, “From the perspective of the specificity matching principle, then, recent reviews of the self-esteem literature (e.g., Baumeister et al., 2003) have violated the specificity matching principle by focusing on the capacity of global measures of self- esteem to predict specific outcomes (e.g., Does self- esteem predict grades in a math class?)” (p. 87). They reviewed evidence from different areas of research to support the contention that predictive validity is maxi- mized when predictors and outcomes referred to the same conceptual variable.
Particularly in educational psychological research, Marsh and Craven (2006; also see Byrne, 1996; Marsh, 1993) reviewed a large body of research showing that diverse academic outcomes were systematically related to academic self-concept but nearly unrelated (or even nega- tively related) to global self-esteem and other nonacademic components of self-concept. This extreme multidimensional- ity was highlighted by Marsh et al. (2006), who showed that nine academic outcomes (standardized test scores, school grades, and course work selection in different school subjects) were systematically related to corresponding academic self-concepts. For example, math self-concept for their late-adolescent sample was substantially related to math school grades (.71), math standardized achieve- ment test scores (.59), and advanced math courses (.51). In contrast, the academic outcomes were nearly unrelated to global self-esteem (rs ranging from –.03 to .05) as well as nine other nonacademic specific domains of self-con- cept. While support for this multidimensional perspective of self-concept was particularly strong in educational research, Marsh and Craven (1997, 2006) reviewed other research demonstrating its importance in social, personal- ity, developmental, and sport psychology, as well as elite sport, mental health, and gender studies. Hence, Marsh and Craven (1997) argued, “If the role of self-concept research is to better understand the complexity of self in different contexts, to predict a wide variety of behaviors, to pro- vide outcome measures for diverse interventions, and to relate self-concept to other constructs, then the specific domains of self-concept are more useful than a general domain” (p. 191).
THE PRESENT INVESTIGATION
For present purposes, the most important finding of the Marsh and Craven (2006) review was the consistent support for the reciprocal effects model predictions based on
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longitudinal panel studies showing that academic self-concept and achievement were mutually reinforcing constructs, each having an impact on the other. Indeed, they concluded that clear support for the reciprocal effects models based on aca- demic self-concept, coupled with the clear lack of support for the reciprocal effects models based on self-esteem, pro- vided good evidence for the discriminant validity of acade- mic self-concept in relation to self-esteem and for their multidimensional perspective. Whereas the Marsh and Craven review focused primarily on their own research program, Valentine’s (Valentine & DuBois, 2005; Valentine et al., 2004) comprehensive meta-analysis found consistent support for reciprocal effects between academic self-beliefs and achievement but little or no reciprocal effects based on self-esteem (also see Trautwein, Lüdtke, Köller, & Baumert, 2006). Because the substantial body of support for the reciprocal effects model focused primarily on academic self- concept, it was ignored in the Baumeister et al. (2003, 2005) reviews that focused on global self-esteem.
Indeed, a critical limitation in reviews by both Baumeister et al. (2003, 2005) and by Marsh and Craven, 1997, 2006)—as well as research reviewed by Valentine et al. (2004)—was the dearth of studies avail- able to compare and contrast the effects of academic self-concept and self-esteem based on appropriate SEM models that included both constructs. Furthermore, even though the Baumeister et al. (2003, 2005) and Marsh and Craven (1997, 2006) reviews addressed basically the same question about the effects of self- beliefs on subsequent academic performance, there was almost no overlap in the studies that they drew upon to support their apparently contradictory conclusions. Ironically, one exception was that both of these reviews emphasized publications based on the classic Youth in Transition study as critical in support of their appar- ently conflicting conclusions. Marsh and Craven pointed to Marsh’s (1990) Youth in Transition study of academic self-concept as the classic reciprocal effects model study—the first to propose the reciprocal effects model, superseding earlier self-enhancement and skill development models, and supporting reciprocal effects model predictions using an appropriate design and sta- tistical procedures (also see Byrne, 1996).
Baumeister et al. (2003) commented that the Bachman and O’Malley (1977) study was an “early and still well respected study” (p. 11) based on the large, nationally representative Youth in Transition database. Baumeister et al. interpreted their results to mean that “Although Bachman and O’Malley found that self-esteem correlated with school performance, their more sophisticated statis- tical tests (i.e., path analyses) did not point to any causal role for self-esteem” (p. 11). However, a careful reading of the original Bachman and O’Malley (1977) study shows that, whereas prior school performance did have a moderate effect on subsequent self-esteem, the authors
did not actually test effects of prior self-esteem to subse- quent high school performance. Indeed, their main focus was on postsecondary educational attainment rather than school performance per se, showing that self-esteem dur- ing high school had little positive, direct effect on educa- tional attainment 5 years after graduation from high school. Hence, although the Youth in Transition data are clearly appropriate for testing a reciprocal effects model based on self-esteem and school performance, this model was not actually tested by Bachman and O’Malley. Furthermore, although subsequent educational attain- ment is a critical outcome variable for testing the long- term effects of academic self-concept, Marsh (1990) did not include attainment in his Youth in Transition study.
While the two different studies based on the same Youth in Transition data yielded apparently contradictory conclu- sions about the effects of self-beliefs, Marsh and Craven (2006) argued that the findings were not inconsistent:
The juxtaposition of the two seemingly contradictory sets of conclusions based on analyses of the same data [the Bachman & O’Malley, 1977, and the Marsh, 1990, stud- ies] reinforces the importance of considering academic self- concept measures in causal-ordering studies of school performance and the need to account for the multidimen- sionality of the self-concept construct. (p. 150)
Given the critical role of the Youth in Transition data in this debate, we extended previous Youth in Transition stud- ies to include academic self-concept (emphasized by Marsh, 1990; Marsh & Craven, 2006), self-esteem (emphasized by Baumeister et al., 2003, 2005), and educational attain- ment (emphasized by Bachman & O’Malley, 1977), using current statistical procedures that provide a definitive test to the apparently contradictory conclusions about self-beliefs and their integration into the multidimensional perspective proposed by Marsh and Craven (2006). Consistent with the reciprocal effects model and the multidimensional per- spective, we predict that (a) there will be consistently posi- tive links relating prior academic self-concept to subsequent school achievement (school grades) and educational attain- ment, and relating prior achievement and attainment to subsequent academic self-concept; and (b) links relating self-esteem with school grades and attainment will be con- sistently smaller (or nonsignificant) than corresponding links involving academic self-concept.
Database, Variables, and Model
The Youth in Transition database is a longitudinal, large, nationally representative database of 10th grade boys in U.S. public high schools in 1966; for more detailed description of the database and the variables
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used here, see Bachman, 2002 (also see Bachman & O’Malley, 1977; Marsh, 1990; appendix). Five waves of data were collected between 1966 and 1974: Time 1 (T1, early 10th grade; N = 2,213), Time 2 (T2, late 11th grade; N = 1,886), Time 3 (T3, late 12th grade; N = 1,799), Time 4 (T4, 1 year after graduation; N = 1,620), and Time 5 (T5, 5 years after graduation; N = 1,608). Following earlier Youth in Transition studies (Bachman & O’Malley, 1977; Marsh, 1990), we considered 15 latent constructs based on 73 indicators: socioeconomic status (SES; T1, 6 indicators); academic ability (T1, 4 standardized test scores); academic self-concept (T1, T2, and T3 based on 3, 3, and 2 items, respectively); global self-esteem (T1, T2, T3, T4, T5, 10 items each); school grades (GPA; T1, T2, T3, 1 item each); and prior educational attainment (T4, T5, highest level of educa- tion completed; Bachman & O’Malley, 1977).
The initial a priori model (see Figure 1) was primar- ily based on the temporal ordering of the data collection (i.e., T1 variables precede T2 variables). Control vari- ables (ability and SES) came first in the posited causal
ordering, followed by school grades and then academic self-concept and global self-esteem (school grades came before academic self-concept and self-esteem, because students reported their grades from the previous year). Academic self-concept and self-esteem were posited to be correlated with no causal ordering within a single wave of data. Educational attainment at T4 followed T3 variables, from before the end of high school, but proceeded T4 academic self-concept and T4 self-esteem.
Statistical analyses were SEMs using the complex modeling procedure in MPLUS (Version 4.0; Muthén & Muthén, 2006) that takes into account the nonindepen- dence of the scores for students from the same school— the clustering effect of students nested within schools. We used the robust maximum likelihood estimator with maximum likelihood parameter estimates, standard errors, and a chi-square test statistic that are robust to nonnormality and nonindependence of observations and full information estimation for missing data (Muthén & Muthén, 2006). We considered a very restrictive measurement model in which each indicator was allowed to load on only the latent variable it was designed to measure.
Figure 1 A structural equation model of the reciprocal relations between academic self-concept, global self-esteem, academic achievement, and educational attainment.
NOTE: A structural equation model of the reciprocal relations between academic self-concept (ASC), global self-esteem (Estm), academic achieve- ment (GPA), and educational attainment (EdAt), controlling for initial academic ability and socioeconomic status (SES) across five data collec- tion waves (T1-T3, last 3 years of high school; T4-T5, 1 and 5 years postsecondary). Path coefficients not relevant to the reciprocal effects model or not significant are excluded for purposes of clarity (but see the Appendix for the presentation of all parameter estimates). Critical significant paths representing reciprocal effects of ASC with GPA and attainment are represented with bold black lines (and path coefficients in black boxes with gray shading). Critical significant paths representing reciprocal effects of self-esteem with GPA and attainment are represented with bold gray lines (and white path coefficients in solid black boxes). Despite a significant chi square (χ2(2318) = 4893.9, p < .001) due in part to the large sample size, goodness of fit indices provided good support for the ability of the a priori model to fit the data: root mean square error of approx- imation = .022; Tucker-Lewis Index = .93; confirmatory fit index = .94; and standardized root mean square residual = .046.
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School grades and educational attainment measures were each based on one indicator, so that it was not possible to estimate their reliabilities (and correct for measurement error) as part of the analysis. Consistent with Marsh (1990) and more general recommendations (e.g., Jöreskog, 1979), we constrained the standardized uniqueness for each of these measures to be .10 (reflect- ing a conservative estimate of reliability of .90). Also, consistent with analyses by Marsh (1990) and recom- mendations for longitudinal panel data more generally (Jöreskog, 1979; Marsh & Hau, 1996), correlated residuals were posited a priori between matching indi- cators of the same construct administered on different occasions (e.g., responses to the first self-esteem item administered at T1-T5). Failure to control this error structure would result in positively biased estimates of stability over time and distort parameter estimates based on the reciprocal effects model (see Marsh & Hau, 1996). Responses to the many variations of the Rosenberg self-esteem instrument do not have a simple unidimensional structure. Consistent with recommen- dations and empirical results by Marsh (1996), the orig- inal design of the scale, and the way it was used by Bachman and O’Malley (1977), we posited one substan- tive global self-esteem factor based on all (positively and negatively worded items) and a negative item–method effect represented by correlated uniquenesses among responses to just the negatively worded items administered within the same data collection wave. Although the a priori error structure posited in this study is complex, it is important to emphasize that all correlated unique- nesses were posited a priori, following from previous empirical research and theory.
RESULTS AND DISCUSSION
Relations Between Academic Self-Concept and Self-Esteem to School Grades
In terms of testing the reciprocal effects model, the most important predictions are the reciprocal effects relating academic self-concept and school grades. Critical paths (bold black arrows with path coefficients in black boxes with gray shading, Figure 1; also see appendix) are those leading from prior school grades to subsequent academic self-concept and those leading from prior academic self-concept to subsequent school grades (controlling for SES, ability, and prior school grades). All of these paths are statistically significant, at least moderate in size (.14 to .36), and highly consistent
across the different waves. These results replicate the findings of the Marsh (1990) study within the context of this larger model and stronger statistical methodology.
Results based on the corresponding paths relating self-esteem and school grades (GPA; bold gray arrows with white coefficients in black boxes, Figure 1; also see appendix) are all small; only the path from T2 self- esteem to T3 school grades (.07) is marginally signifi- cant, and no paths from school grades to self-esteem are significant. Whereas the results provide some minimal support for the effect of prior self-esteem on subsequent school grades, the reciprocal effects involving academic self-concept are clearly stronger and more consistent. Even though academic self-concept and self-esteem are moderately correlated (rs = .44 to .46 for different waves; see appendix), academic self-concept shows a strong pattern of reciprocal effects with subsequent achieve- ment, whereas self-esteem shows almost none.
Relations Between Academic Self-Concept and Self-Esteem to Attainment
The most important new feature of the present inves- tigation is the inclusion of educational attainment col- lected 1 (T4) and 5 years (T5) after the normal graduation from high school. Both T1 academic self- concept and T2 academic self-concept (recalling that there is no T3 academic self-concept) are significant pre- dictors of T4 attainment, T4 attainment is a significant predictor of T4 academic self-concept, and T4 academic self-concept is a significant predictor of T5 attainment. Hence, there is a clear pattern of reciprocal effects relat- ing academic self-concept and attainment. Particularly given that T4 attainment is, not surprisingly, the best predictor of T5 attainment and that there is a 4-year gap between T4 and T5, the contribution of T4 acade- mic self-concept (.22) is strong—clearly larger than any other predictors of T5 attainment (school grades, abil- ity, SES, self-esteem). Hence, T4 academic self-concept is a significant predictor of subsequent growth in edu- cational attainment between 1 and 5 years after the nor- mal graduation of high school.
In contrast to the consistent pattern of relations between academic self-concept and attainment, rela- tions involving self-esteem are small and mostly non- significant. Whereas T1 self-esteem has a small (.08) statistically significant effect on T4 attainment, T2 and T3 self-esteem do not. T4 self-esteem has no significant effect on T5 attainment. It is interesting that T3 self- esteem had a small (.08) statistically significant effect on T5 attainment but not on T4 attainment. T5 attain- ment, however, was a statistically significant predictor of T5 self-esteem.
In summary, the results clearly support reciprocal effects between academic self-concept and educational attainment. However, the results also suggest that prior self-esteem has a small positive effect on subsequent educational attainment beyond what can be explained in terms of prior measures of SES, test scores, school grades, and academic self-concept. Although somewhat at odds with Baumeister et al.’s (2003, 2005) depiction of results based on these data in their interpretation of the Bachman and O’Malley’s (1977) study, these find- ings are consistent findings actually reported by Bachman and O’Malley’s results that were based on a very different analytical strategy and different variables.
CONCLUSIONS AND IMPLICATIONS
Marsh and Craven (2006) sought a rapprochement between Baumeister et al.’s (2003) pessimistic conclu- sions about the importance of self-beliefs and their own more optimistic perspective based on their research showing a pattern of reciprocal effects between acade- mic self-concept and academic achievement. From their multidimensional perspective (also see related support for the specificity matching hypothesis by Swann et al., 2007), Marsh and Craven argued that it is entirely log- ical that there are few, if any, significant linkages between self-esteem and school grades even though the reciprocal linkages between academic self-concept and school grades are consistently positive. They lamented that Baumeister et al. had limited their consideration to older studies of self-esteem and had not considered the growing body of newer academic self-concept studies based on stronger statistical methodology and theory, but they conceded that their reciprocal effects model studies had focused on academic self-concept to the vir- tual exclusion of self-esteem. What was needed, they argued, was more research that considered the compli- cated pattern of reciprocal effects between academic self- concept, self-esteem, academic achievement, and other academic criterion measures. Noting that the reviews by Baumeister et al. and by Marsh and Craven both emphasized apparently contradictory interpretations of Youth in Transition studies, we reanalyzed this classic database, including the self-esteem measures empha- sized by Baumeister et al., the academic self-concept measures emphasized by Marsh and Craven, and the educational attainment measures originally emphasized by Bachman and O’Malley (1977). Based on a wider selection of variables and stronger statistical methodology, we found (a) consistent support for positive reciprocal effects between academic self-concept and school grades, (b) consistent support for reciprocal effects relating acade- mic self-concept and educational attainment, and (c) only
weak and inconsistent support for linkages between self-esteem and either school grades or attainment.
It is also important to emphasize that we are not claiming that self-esteem is never a useful construct. Rather, consistent with the specificity matching princi- ple (Swann et al., 2007), our conclusion is that when the focus of a study is on educational outcomes, it is impor- tant to focus on academic components of self-concept. While our results provide clear support for the specificity- matching principle, they also demonstrate implications of this principle when taken to its logical extreme. Indeed, a growing body of educational research reviewed by Marsh and Craven (2006) shows that global self-esteem is nearly unrelated to a wide variety of academic outcomes, even though these outcomes are substantially and logically related to specific compo- nents of academic self-concept. Nevertheless, the results of the present investigation provide some weak support for the positive effects of prior global self-esteem on sub- sequent academic achievement and educational attain- ment. Swann et al. (2007) also reviewed other research consistent with the specificity-matching principle, show- ing that self-esteem significantly but weakly predicted specific outcomes and more strongly predicted global out- comes (e.g., Donnellan, Trzesniewski, Robins, Moffitt, & Caspi, 2005; Trzesniewski et al., 2006). Although beyond the scope of the present investigation, there is need for more rig- orous tests of the specificity-matching principle, comparing the predictive power of self-esteem and a comprehensive set of specific components of self-concept across a range of specific and global outcome measures (e.g., Marsh et al., 2006) to evaluate when (or if) global self-esteem is better able to predict substantively important out- comes than appropriately constructed specific compo- nents of self-esteem.
Following from this, we suggest that the behavioral implications of enhancing academic self-concept are clear. Some examples of the behavioral implications of having higher academic self-concept include a reduction in test anxiety (e.g., Zeidner & Schleyer, 1999), taking advanced course work (e.g., Marsh, 1993; Marsh & Yeung, 1998), not dropping out of school (e.g., House, 1993), and as shown in the present investigation, higher lev- els of long-term educational attainment. Thus, unlike global self-esteem, which has no clear behavioral implications for academic achievement or future educational attain- ment, improved academic self-concept has obvious direct and indirect implications.
In summary, our new results extend support for the reciprocal effects model debate in three important direc- tions. First, they provide definitive support for Marsh and Craven’s (2006) proposed rapprochement in their debate with Baumeister et al. (2003, 2005), integrating apparently contradictory results into a single theoretical
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framework based on a multidimensional perspective of self-concept. Second, they extend previous reciprocal effects model research, demonstrating the effects of prior academic self-concept on subsequent educational attainment, beyond the effects of prior attainment, SES, academic ability, school grades, and self-esteem. Third, the integration of Baumeister’s et al.’s implicit unidi- mensional approach with Marsh and Craven’s explicit multidimensional approach provides a substantively important, new application of the specificity matching principle (Swann et al., 2007).
Despite the high quality of the Youth in Transition data, the application of new, more powerful statistical analyses, and new theoretical developments underpin- ning our research, there are limitations that dictate caution in the interpretation of our results. Because the data are based on responses by boys, the general- izability to girls cannot be tested (although Marsh and Craven, 2006, reported that the pattern of results is similar for boys and girls based on other research; also see Marsh, 1989; Marsh & Yeung, 1998). In addition, the use of historical data suggests the need for further research to test the generalizability of the results (although the results are consistent with Valentine and DuBois’s 2005 meta-analysis). Although self-concept is necessarily based on self-perceptions, school grades and educational attainment were also based on self- report measures (even though these measures were ver- ified in interviews and are clearly less subjective than self-concept responses). While the reciprocal effects model clearly posits causal relations and the results support these predictions, it is important to be cau- tious about drawing causal interpretations from corre- lational data. However, we agree with Baumeister et al. (2003) that longitudinal panel studies provide the strongest tests of the reciprocal effects model—and indeed may even be overly conservative—and that the Youth in Transition is one of the best longitudinal panel studies for this purpose. Finally, although the statistical methods used here are clearly stronger than those used by Marsh (1990) and particularly those used by Bachman and O’Malley (1977) and those in studies reviewed by Baumeister et al., this is a rapidly developing area in which further methodological developments are likely.
Our results also bear on another concern expressed by Baumeister et al. (2003) who argued that it was counter- productive to enhance self-esteem in ways that were not contingent upon meritorious performances; they were particularly critical of the so-called self-esteem movement. Although we take a somewhat different perspective, the Marsh and Craven (2006) review of reciprocal effects model research and the results of the present investigation largely support Baumeister et al.’s concerns and have important practical implications for practitioners,
counselors, and policy makers. Support for our reciprocal effects model implies that academic self-concept and per- formance are reciprocally related and mutually reinforc- ing. Improved academic self-concepts lead to better performance, and improved performance leads to better academic self-concepts. However, if practitioners enhance academic self-concepts without improving performance, then the gains in academic self-concept are likely to be short lived. Even less useful would be interventions such as those criticized by Baumeister et al. that aim to improve self-concept in areas unrelated to intended areas of per- formance gain. Drawing from the reciprocal effects model research, if practitioners improve performances without also fostering participants’ self-beliefs in their capabilities, then the performance gains are also unlikely to be long lasting. Worse yet, interventions may unintentionally undermine academic self-concept in ways that will even- tually undermine the short-term gains in performance (e.g., the social comparison/competitive intervention in Marsh & Peart, 1988). Importantly, if practitioners focus on either one of these constructs to the exclusion of the other, then both are likely to suffer. Hence, based on the reciprocal effects model results, practitioners should strive to improve both academic self-concept and performance. Thus, for example, Hilyer and Mitchell (1979) found the need to supplement performance training with a counsel- ing intervention to enhance self-concepts of participants with initially low levels of self-concept (also see Marsh & Peart, 1988).
The juxtaposition of research in support of the mul- tidimensional perspective and the reciprocal effects model suggests that practitioners need to target specific components of self-concept logically related to their per- formance goals and intended outcomes. Whereas target- ing global components such as self-esteem may result in increased happiness, as suggested by Baumeister et al. (2003), these results may not generalize to the desired outcomes. This has particular implications for interven- tion research, as the success in enhancing academic self- concept or its relation with the desired outcome (e.g., achievement) may be inaccurately assessed and substan- tially underestimate the true effects of the intervention in relation to appropriate, specific components of self- concept, as has been shown to be the case in recent meta-analytic research (O’Mara et al., 2006).
Finally, although our focus has been on substantive issues, it is significant to emphasize that the study demonstrates the importance of methodological– substantive synergies that combine strong theory, the most appropriate methodologies, and the best statistical analyses to evaluate substantively important issues (Marsh & Hau, 2007). Marsh and Hau argued that important methodological advances in latent variable modelling allow researchers to evaluate new theoretical models and revisit unresolved issues in ways that were