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Study suggests your adulthood self-esteem has its roots in the way you were raised as a child

By Christian Jarrett

Studies of identical and non-identical twins indicate that our self-esteem is influenced by the genes we inherited from our parents, but also, and perhaps slightly more so, by environmental factors. And according to a new study in Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, these environmental influences started playing a lasting role very early in life.

Ulrich Orth at the University of Bern has reported evidence that, on average, the higher the quality of a person’s home environment when they were aged between 0 and 6 years – based on warm and responsive parenting; cognitive stimulation; and a safe, organised physical environment – the higher their self-esteem many years later in adulthood.


The data come from nearly 9,000 individuals, born between 1970 and 2001, whose mothers had enrolled in the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth that started in the US in 1979.

Orth analysed the biennial interviews with the mothers that took place in their homes when their children – the participants in this study – were aged 0 to 6. This provided the measure of the quality of the participants’ early childhood home environment in terms of parental warmth and responsiveness, cognitive stimulation and the safety and organisation of the home. Orth also noted the quality of the relationship between mother and father during this period; the presence or not of the father; maternal depression; and family poverty.

Measures of the participants’ self-esteem started when they were aged just 8 and continued biennially until they were 27. The survey researchers used a measure designed for children until the participants were age 14, and thereafter switched to the well-known Rosenberg Self-esteem Scale.

The critical finding is that the quality of the home environment between the ages of 0 to 6 correlated significantly with participants’ self-reported self-esteem in later childhood, and even with their self-esteem into adulthood, although the association weakened over time. “The findings suggest that the home environment is a key factor in early childhood that influences the long-term development of self-esteem”, Orth said.

Other childhood environmental factors besides the quality of the home environment were also associated with later self-esteem. Maternal depression (associated with lower self-esteem) and better quality of parents’ relationship (associated with higher self-esteem) correlated with participants’ self-esteem in later childhood, but these correlations approached zero over the longer-term into adulthood.

In contrast, the families’ poverty (associated with lower self-esteem) and, to a lesser extent, the presence of the father (associated with higher self-esteem) continued to correlate with later self-esteem through to age 27.

When factoring out quality of the home environment, the association between these other childhood factors (maternal depression, parents’ relationship, poverty, and father’s presence) and participants’ later self-esteem was weakened substantially (but not entirely eradicated) suggesting that these other factors are tied to later self-esteem largely via their influence on the quality of the home environment.

Orth added a note of caution in relation to the findings for fathers’ presence. The data do not say anything about homosexual same-sex parents and children’s later self-esteem because such a family situation was too rare in the survey. It’s possible, he says, that the presence of any second parent – not necessarily a father – would have the same associations with later, higher self-esteem. In any case, the association between father’s presence and later self-esteem, though statistically significant, was only very small (over the long term, the effect sizes for poverty and especially for quality of the home environment were larger).

Why should the early family environment have such enduring associations with later self-esteem? Orth believes it is because early child-parent interactions affect a person’s pre-conscious representations of who they are and their self worth, eventually becoming deeply embodied in their self concept.

Orth says his findings have important practical implications because they suggest that interventions designed to enhance the quality of the early home environment could have lasting benefits for a child’s self-esteem. The way that the quality of the home environment mediated the role of other factors, like poverty, is particularly relevant. This suggests, Orth explains, that “…the negative effects of poverty on children’s self-esteem could be prevented, or at least reduced, by interventions that improve the quality of the home environment in families that are in poverty.”

As with all survey research of this kind, it’s important to remember that causality has not been demonstrated conclusively between the earlier measured factors and later self-esteem – it’s possible unknown factors are at play. Most obviously, a study of this kind cannot account for the role played by genes shared between parents and their children.

Perhaps a deeper question is whether higher self-esteem is a desirable outcome at all. There was a time when many psychologists and social reformers believed increasing the average self-esteem of a community would open the doors to a range of welcome outcomes, from superior mental health to career success. However, we know today that the benefits of greater self-esteem are quite modest, mostly centred on feeling happier and having more initiative, and that excessive self-esteem can even be problematic in some cases, especially if it slides into narcissism.

The family environment in early childhood has a long-term effect on self-esteem: A longitudinal study from birth to age 27 years

Christian Jarrett (@Psych_Writer) is Editor of BPS Research Digest

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Automation, not cheap labor, is reshaping outsourcing

automationThe offshore outsourcing of IT grew because of the cost of offshore labor. A software engineer in India is paid but a fraction of what a U.S. worker earns. Payscale puts the median salary for a senior software engineer in India at $10,000.

When IT services firms bring in H-1B visa workers, these workers earn substantially more than their overseas counterparts, but often significantly less than American IT employees.

This labor cost advantage has been a powerful lure for U.S. customers, but analysts see labor costs diminishing in importance. Customers want more automation, whether it’s infrastructure management or business process outsourcing. IT services firms can no longer complete exclusively on lower cost labor.

“The search for just cheaper people is a thing of the past,” said Frances Karamouzis, an analyst at Gartner. What customers now want is to buy more “thinking” and automation for the “doing,” she said.

One process that has taken off is called “Robotic Process Automation (RPA),” a term given to a virtual machine that takes over some of the applications and workflows managed by workers. These systems don’t directly replace humans, but take structured tasks and automate them, with users saving as much as much as 15%, said Karamouzis.

But Karamouzis sees RPA as a gateway to more sophisticated tools. Once IT services customers realize savings using this tool, their next question often is: What else can we automate?

Automation tools are coming, and quickly. IBM, which is a major employer in India and has shifted much of its work overseas, is focusing a large part of its future on its cognitive engine, Watson.

Gartner believes that by 2020 Microsoft will center its strategy around Cortana, its intelligent personal assistant, instead of Windows.

The overseas firms — Infosys, Tata Consultancy Services and Wipro, in particular — are also focusing on artificial intelligence tools to take over tasks. Infosys, in a recent annual report, said it was able to move nearly 4,000 full-time employees from projects to other tasks as a result of the automation of underlying services.

“Is offshore dead? No, but it’s no longer going to be used for competitive advantage,” said Karamouzis.

Offshore outsourcing may be one of the more controversial issues in the political landscape, but the industry has grown despite it.

Among the large offshore providers, Everest Group said that HCL, for instance, had 450 clients in 2014 providing $1 million plus in revenue; last year, it had 495. Infosys had 950 active clients in March 2015. This past March, that number had grown to 1,092, with repeat business accounting for 97%, said Salil Dani a vice president at Everest. Other firms showed gains as well.

IT services firms are shifting to automation, cloud, the Internet of Things and to “next generation services contracts that have pushed the traditional outsourcing services to the backseat,” said Dani.

More broadly, the arrival of intelligent automation is spreading through all industries, not just IT services.

“Intelligent Automation is one of the most disruptive trends the industry has seen,” said Tom Reuner, an analyst at HFS Research. The approaches are “about decoupling routine service delivery from labor arbitrage. However, the direction of travel is toward human augmentation, and not substitution.”

In some ways, it is hard to imagine the labor advantage disappearing anytime soon.

The cost advantage of using offshore workers in the U.S. remain substantial. Outsourcers must pay visa workers the prevailing wage, but about half of these workers are paid Level 1, or entry level, salaries in a four-tier system, according to a report by the U.S. Government Accountability Office. (The prevailing wage Level 3 represents the median.)

Presumptive Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump has offered up an immigration reform plan to raise H-1B wages that strongly implies using Level 3 as the new wage floor.

Ron Hira, a public policy professor at Howard University, looked at the wages paid at one firm, Southern California Edison, which cut some 500 jobs last year after signing outsourcing deals, and compared it to data paid to H-1B workers. What he found was that the offshore contractors were saving as much as 41% on labor cost by using visa workers. His research, which was published by the Economic Policy Institute.

The idea of raising the wages of H-1B workers is championed by reformers in Congress. But what analysts are saying is that wage advantages won’t be as important as automation capabilities in the years ahead.

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Government behaving badly on outsourcing contracts

Many of the problems in government outsourcing result from bad behaviour

The boss of outsourcing giant Serco has accused the Government of “behaving badly” by passing off unreasonable contracts to suppliers, ignoring its own guidelines and shrouding its decisions in secrecy. In a Commons hearing on lessons learned from the collapse of Carillion, chief executive Rupert Soames told MPs that a raft of “well run and well respected” outsourcers have lost vast amounts of money in recent years working on government contracts with “unmanageable amounts of risks”.

Mr Soames – a grandson of Sir Winston Churchill – claimed the Government has previously tried to pass off controversial and “unreasonable” contracts to outsourcing firms, while also routinely expecting suppliers to shoulder the risk of major law and policy change.

The recent woes in the outsourcing sector, which led to the collapse of Carillion and forced a number of its rivals to raise emergency capital to bolster their finances, was “astonishing”. “It’s been a massive, massive disruption in the supplier sector, the likes of which I’ve never seen – £8 billion written off of the supplier sector and billions of pounds being raised to recapitalise.” He added: “A lot of this is management’s fault, but … the Government as a monopoly buyer cannot stand idly by and say ‘nothing to do with me, Gov’.”


Mitie chief executive Phil Bentley, who was also giving evidence in the hearing, told MPs on the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee that he believed inaccurate data was also to blame for some failed outsourced contracts and called for greater data sharing and transparency. He gave the example of the asylum seeker contract handled by Serco, which he said saw the numbers of asylum seekers “massively underestimated” and led to hefty losses on the work.

Both bosses also said the bidding process was also flawed, with the Government under pressure to choose the cheapest supplier, rather than focusing on quality and expertise. Mr Soames added there are “no benefits for good behaviour, and no penalties for bad behaviour” in the process.

The company chiefs said the Government had tried to pass on the extra cost of the national living wage on some contracts, while also expecting suppliers to take the hit from any future policy changes from Brexit law changes.


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