This article was written for the academic journals in 2001 but was not accepted for publication
SELF-CONFIDENCE, SOCIAL DESIRABILITY AND THE FEMALE MID-LIFE CRISIS
John J. Ray and Frances H. Lovejoy
Sociology, University of N.S.W.
Sheehy (1976) postulates a major fluctuation in self-confidence as women pass through the 30s and 40s. This was seen as a possible explanation for the observed higher levels of social desirability responding among older women. A factorial exploration of this possibility was attempted among a community sample of 174 Australian women. A factor of shyness/self-confidence was found but no significant fluctuations were observed on it in the age ranges from 20 to 60. With some methodological reservations, it was concluded that shyness/self-confidence does not vary over the female life-stages and cannot hence be used to explain variations in social desirability responding.
The phenomenon of the mid-life crisis seems by now to have passed into public consciousness and writers such as Sheehy (1976) have given much detail of the psychological changes that occur among both men and women around the age of 40. The changes posited do seem to be very wide-ranging indeed.
Ray (1988) reported a finding (replicated on various general population samples both in Australia and elsewhere) that may have some relevance in this connection. He found that Social Desirability responding ("Faking good") increased with age among women but not among men. What could be the reason for this? Ray (1988) speculated that self-perceived "loss" of looks with advancing age was the reason.
This would seem to imply that a loss of self-confidence underlay the elevated social desirability responding. Women tried to make up for their "fading" looks by promoting themselves as having other virtues. Sheehy (1976) however notes that there is often a major fluctuation in self-confidence as women pass through the mid-life crisis -- from a lack of confidence in the mid-30s to a feeling of "unboundedness" (p. 418) in the 40s. So this leads to an alternate explanation of Ray's (1988) finding: Older women (particularly those over 40) describe themselves in improbably desirable ways because they really believe such self-descriptions to be true! Their high level of social desirability responding could stem from increased self-confidence rather than diminished self-confidence. These alternate hypotheses would seem in some need of testing.
As it happened, some possibly useful data on this question became available in connection with a study of psychological androgyny. This concept is well-known from the work of Bem (1974) but Bem's measuring instrument (the BSRI) has come in for much criticism on psychometric grounds (Ray & Lovejoy, 1984). The present study used therefore a third-generation derivative of the BSRI -- the Ray & Lovejoy (1984) Masculinity and Feminity sex-role scales.
Senior Sociology students were asked to administer questionnaires to women they knew under the constraint that no more than one person in three was to be tertiary educated and that women between 30 and 59 were the preferred respondents. The educational restriction was to counter the usual bias towards more highly educated respondents in such samples. The age restriction was designed to bracket the presumably crucial ages surrounding the mid-life crisis.
Extensive precautions were taken to ensure that the students did not "fake" any responses.
The questionnaire contained the version of the Crowne & Marlowe (1964) social desirability scale as used previously as well as the sex-role scales. Age was requested in categories: 20-29, 30-39, 40-49, 50-59 and 60-69.
The reliabilities ("alpha") for the sex role scales indicated very little internal consistency for them so a factor-analytic exploration of the items to determine the actual structure in them seemed appropriate. A form of cluster analysis (McQuitty's, 1961, "Elementary Factor Analysis") was chosen for the purpose because of the intelligibility of the structures that it tends to yield. There was only one large cluster found -- a very clear 10-item cluster of Shyness/self-confidence.
Nine items (Need approval, Nervous, Lacking confidence, Gullible, Bashful, I feel inferior, Unwilling to take risks, Seldom outspoken and Excitable in a major crisis) were worded in the "Shy" direction and one (I seldom if ever cry) was worded in the "Confident" direction. This cluster was therefore treated as a scale and found to have a Cronbach (1951) alpha of .62 on the sample overall. This would be seen as fairly low on a well-established scale but did seem a reasonable result for a short factorially-derived scale. The linear correlation between this scale and age in the total sample was not significant (r = .062) but it seemed possible that some non-linear relationships might nonetheless be present. To check this, the sample was broken up into sub-samples by age.
The respondents comprised 24 women in their 20s, 71 women in their 30s, 61 in their 40s and 32 in their 50s. There were also 6 respondents in their 60s. The means (and S.D.s) for the first four age groups on Self-Confidence were respectively 21.83 (4.81), 22.52 (3.40), 21.55 (4.16) and 23.18 (3.81). The numbers in the 60s age-group were deemed to be too small to permit meaningful analysis. The findings imply that the 20s and 40s were the time of greatest self-confidence with women in the 50s being least confident. The t test between even the extreme groups in this range, however was not significant (t =1.15, d.f. 54).
Interestingly, the mean scores on Shyness/Confidence also did not differ significantly between the 107 married women in the sample and the 23 separated or divorced women in the sample.
The previous findings about social desirability responding were replicated in that in the total sample (N = 194) the r between age and the short Crowne & Marlowe scale was .241 (p <.01).
Any concept that there is a general upsurge in self-confidence in association with the female mid-life crisis would seem to be called into question by these results. The present results are also inconsistent with Sheehy's (1976) claim that the 30s are a time of low self-confidence for women.
These results imply then that the upsurge in social desirability responding among older women is not an outcome of increased self-confidence in the later years. By the same token, the theory that increased social desirability responding reflects a diminution in self-confidence in the later years is also not supported. Theories that do not involve reference to self-confidence must then be sought to account for increased female social desirability responding in the later years.
That self-confidence did not differ even between married and unmarried women could have many interpretations but one possibility is that the items used in the present study were tapping into a fairly basic personality trait that is not much susceptible to any environmental or situational influences. If so, it might be possible to find a different set of items having to do with self-confidence that do yield differences between women in different situations.
That the measure used here was not as strong as a well-established and well-validated scale must however be conceded and it should also be said that self-confidence in some areas more specific than those examined here might well vary over the life-stages. Sheehy's (1976) account of the mid-life crisis is a persuasive one so disconfirmations such as the present one will need to be supplemented by other work before her account is rejected
Bem, S. (1974) The measurement of psychological androgyny. J. Consulting & Clin. Psychology. 42, 155-162.
Cronbach, L.J. (1951) Coefficient alpha and the internal structure of tests. Psychometrika 16, 297-334.
Crowne, D.P. & Marlowe, D. (1964) The approval motive N.Y.: Wiley.
McQuitty, L.C. (1961) Elementary factor analysis. Psychol. Reports 9, 71-78.
Ray, J.J. (1988) Lie scales and the elderly. Personality & Individual Differences, 9, 417-418.
Ray, J.J. & Lovejoy, F.H. (1984) The great androgyny myth: Sex roles and mental health in the community at large. J. Social Psychology 124, 237-246.
Sheehy, G. (1976) Passages: Predictable crises of adult life N.Y.: Bantam
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