Who Do You Want to be Like? Factors Influencing Early Adolescents’ Selection of Accessible and Inaccessible Role Models

Background

Adolescence may be a time when individuals look to others to better understand who they are and who they want to be (Erikson, 1968). When adolescents look to specific others to observe and imitate their behaviours, these specific others can be understood as role models. It can therefore be extrapolated that adolescence may be a particularly pertinent time during which role models may impact a person’s understanding of themself.

This study sought to examine specifically how role models are selected and what their impact is on the adolescent’s conceptualization of their own identities. The study was carried out in the context of an educational intervention designed to support socially disadvantaged students build educational resilience, based on material on nine pre-selected career role models. We studied the adolescents’ experiences in relation to the intervention role models, as well as role models more broadly.

Method

Participants were recruited from one school in which the intervention had taken place. The final number of participants was 15. 11 were male; 14 students were between 14 and 15 years old and one student was 17 years old. Data were gathered using semi-structured interviews, administered by the lead author. Interviews were audio recorded and subsequently transcribed. The transcriptions were analysed thematically.

Results

Adolescents discussed three major criteria when selecting role models. They tended to identify adults as role models who:

  • directly and regularly supported their emotional and cognitive psychological functioning.
  • were relatable, in terms of shared interest, shared experience or shared background.
  • were perceived as successful.

Three themes also emerged regarding the impact role models had on the adolescents’ conceptions of themselves. The identified role models:

  • gave the adolescents specific models for how success could be attained, as well as direct advice regarding these strategies.
  • inspired the adolescents that challenges, including being treated “unfairly” due to systemic lack of power, could be overcome and success could be attained.
  • demonstrated that through hard work and perseverance it could be possible for anyone to achieve their goals, which was perceived as inspirational that they could be themselves and “if you believe something you can do it”.

Conclusion

Consistent with previous work (Lockwood & Kunda, 1997), adolescents seemed to gauge whether adults were relatable based on three categories— shared interest, background, and experience. The selected adult role models provided information about possible futures and mechanism to get there.

Accessible role models, whom the adolescents directly interacted with, served the primary function of providing socioemotional support and fostering positive self-esteem.

Inaccessible role models, those with whom the adolescents did not interact with, demonstrated a more extreme example of success than the accessible role models did in the study context of social disadvantage.

Adolescents who are able to both identify a role model who is relatable and successful, as well as a local adult who provides practical and emotional support may evaluate themselves more positively and feel empowered to work towards a future idealized self.

Contact: norasburke@gmail.com

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