What Is an Adult?: A Prototype Analysis of Attributes of Adulthood

Emerging adulthood is described by Arnett (2000) as a recent developmental period, between the stages of adolescence and young adulthood. To understand the transition into adulthood, it is necessary to understand the definition of what an adult is, from the perspective of the general public. In the current study, a bottom-up approach is used to understand people’s perceptions of adulthood through a prototype analysis, a procedure modeled from Kearns and Fincham (2004). 122 participants were recruited through snowball sampling on social media sites and classroom advertisements. Participants ranged from 18-62 years old. They completed an online questionnaire asking: “What is an adult? Please list all the attributes of an adult that come to mind.” Participants listed up to 20 attributes each. The attributes are categorized based on similarities of linguistic units. The importance of this exploratory study is to contribute to the literature of perceptions of adulthood. It could also have potential to be applied in intervention work designed to help adolescents through the transition to young adulthood.