Continuity and change in the life story: A longitudinal study of autobiographical memories in emerging adulthood

D.P. McAdams, J.J. Bauer, A. Sakaeda, N.A. Anyidoho, M.A. Machado, K. Magrino, K.W. White, J.L. Pals

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle

163 Scopus citations

Abstract

If a person's internalized and evolving life story (narrative identity) is to be considered an integral feature of personality itself, then aspects of that story should manifest some continuity over time while also providing evidence regarding important personality change. Accordingly, college freshmen and seniors provided detailed written accounts of 10 key scenes in their life stories, and they repeated the same procedure 3 months and then 3 years later. The accounts were content analyzed for reliable narrative indices employed in previous studies of life stories: emotional tone, motivational themes (agency, communion, personal growth), and narrative complexity. The results showed substantial continuity over time for narrative complexity and positive (vs. negative) emotional tone and moderate but still significant continuity for themes of agency and growth. In addition, emerging adults (1) constructed more emotionally positive stories and showed (2) greater levels of emotional nuance and self-differentiation and (3) greater understanding of their own personal development in the 4th year of the study compared to the 1st year. The study is the first to demonstrate both temporal continuity and developmental change in narrative identity over time in a broad sampling of personally meaningful life-story scenes. Narrative approaches to personality suggest that people create meaning and purpose in their lives through the construction of life stories (Hermans, 1996; McAdams, 1985, 1999; Singer, 2004; Thorne, 2000; Tomkins, 1987). People explain who they are, how they came to be, and where they believe their lives 5 be going by formulating, telling, and revising stories about the personal past and the imagined future (Bruner, 1990). A person's life story is an internalized and evolving narrative of the self that selectively reconstructs the past and anticipates the future in such a way as to provide a life with an overall sense of coherence and purpose. Like dispositional traits, it has been argued, individual differences in the structure and content of life stories represent significant and measurable aspects of personality itself (Hooker & McAdams, 2003; McAdams, 1995). In that traits sketch out broad consistencies in behavior and experience, trait assessments ultimately yield a dispositional profile of psychological individuality (e.g., Costa & McCrae, 1994). By contrast, life stories speak to how a person integrates his or her life in time and social context and what he or she believes that life means, ultimately expressing the person's narrative identity (Singer, 2004). A full accounting of personality should encompass, among other things, both dispositional profiles and narrative identities. If, however, narrative identity is to be considered an integral feature of personality itself, then the themes, images, and plots that make it up should show some evidence of continuity over time. Yet virtually no studies have examined the extent to which individual differences in the structure and content of life stories show longitudinal consistency. Nor have quantitative, empirical studies carefully examined developmental change. Narrative psychologists typically argue that life stories are strongly shaped by environmental and cultural forces, leading to the expectation that narrative identities should be rather less stable than dispositional traits over time (McAdams, 1994), more subject to situational fluctuation and negotiation (Shotter & Gergen, 1989), and likely to reveal developmental change (Young, Stewart, & Miner-Rubino, 2001). At the same time, narrative identity would be expected to show some thematic continuity from one point in time to the next if it reflects characteristic ways in which people make meaning of their lives (McAdams, 1985; Singer, 1995). The current study employs a longitudinal design to address the extent to which individual differences in certain basic features of life stories show continuity over ti
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1371-1400
JournalJournal of Personality
Volume74
DOIs
StatePublished - 2006

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