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Developing your own self-image and choosing the right study programme

How you think about yourself is important for the choices you make. Adolescents are faced with choosing a study programme that will determine their future, while their self-image is still under development. Tough choice? Research by psychologist Laura van der Aar has shown that taking a training course in self-development during a gap year could offer a solution. PhD defence on 15 June.

Cover of Laura van der Aar’s dissertation

Self-image is a subject that by definition has to be personal. In her dissertation Dear Future Me, development psychologist Laura van der Aar includes personal statements by adolescents who took part in her research that are often about school. Are we maybe asking young people to make important choices much too early? That starts as early as the transition from primary school to secondary education, and very soon after that they have to decide which subject cluster to choose. For many of them this is a difficult choice: they put off making a decision, don’t dare to choose or decide but then drop out after the first year. This is a problem for society as a whole.  It prompted Van der Aar to examine the self-image of young people in this stage of their lives.

Social environment

Research has shown that self-image is a complex construction with many different facets, all of which play a role in choosing a study programme. The self-image of 16 to 17-year-olds is very much still under development, which means their social environment has a strong influence on how they think about themselves. Van der Aar: ‘That can have negative consequences if they compare themselves with others. But it can also be positive if they manage to improve their self-image through intervention and training, so that they can ultimately choose a study programme that is right for them.'

Gap year

Some adolescents opt to take a structured gap year after secondary education to find out who they really are, what their strong points are and what kind of further education will best suit them. Van der Aar monitored the self-development of a group of 40 such young people during their gap year. She used questionnaires to gain a general idea of their self-confidence, asking such questions as: Do I believe I am a worthwhile person? Am I OK as I am? She also asked questions about how clear their self-image was: Do I know who I am, or does that change from day to day? 

"A lot more confident, daring to do things and worrying less about what other people think.’ 

More positive self-image 

Before the gap year started, Van der Aar compared these gap-year adolescents with young people who had made a choice about their further studies. The difference in self-image was not in how they valued their academic abilities, but in their general self-confidence and how clear their self-image was. These were also the aspects that most improved during the gap year. These young people had more self-confidence and they had a better understanding of who they really are. The clarity of their self-image even  had a predictive effect. The young people who showed most improvement in this area performed better in their further education and got on better with their peers, possibly because they chose a study programme that suited them better.

MRI scanner

As well as studying the behaviour of these adolescents, Van der Aar also studied their self-image at neural level by examining their brain activity in an MRI scanner. She asked them three different types of questions: What do you think of your academic abilities, your physical appearance and your social skills? Van der Aar: ‘When  young people think about themselves, you can see this, as with adults,  in the centre line of the brain, which is involved in considering and evaluating yourself. Young people who assessed themselves more positively after their gap year showed more activity in these areas of the brain.’  

Popular science

Van der Aar felt drawn towards to the young people who experienced strong development in their gap year. ‘You see them really thrive after that year. There are a lot of expectations from parents and society. It can have a negative effect on your self-image if you think you can’t meet these expectations and you feel you’re lagging behind.’  She would like to work with this target group and help improve student wellbeing. But first a popular science book on self-image is on the agenda, together with PhD candidate Renske van der Cruijsen and PhD supervisor Eveline Crone. ‘I really want to help people who are interested in these issues find out more about science, such as with my tests on self-image for the Humania exhibition in NEMO. Or, by working with influencer Anna Nooshin, who wanted to know more about the role that our appearance plays in our self-image.’  

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