4. “Stories change over time”

Our memory of personal events is largely unreliable. With time, we tend to misremember the details. We’re also not any better at remembering historical events such as 9/11 or JFK’s assassination than other more mundane memories.

As time passes and our goals, concerns and motives change, we may attribute different meanings to events. In a 3-year study conducted by McAdams and colleagues, the authors found that over this period of time, students’ recollections of certain life events “became more complex, and they incorporated a greater number of themes suggestive of personal growth and integration.”

5. “Stories are cultural texts”

The culture we live in is incredibly influential on our stories. As McAdams eloquently puts it:

Stories live in culture. They are born, they grow, they proliferate, and they truly die according to the norms, rules and traditions that prevail in a given society’s implicit understanding of what counts as a tellable life (Rosenwald, 1992).

Research that’s compared East Asian cultures with North American ones has found differences in each culture’s storytelling. In one study, when asked to recall 20 autobiographical events, Americans talked more about personal experiences and concentrated on their roles and emotions, whereas Chinese adults discussed memories that concerned social and historical events. Instead of emphasizing their roles and reactions as the Americans did, they focused on their interactions and significant others.

6. “Some stories are better than others”

Stories can be evaluated based on morals (good vs. bad) and whether they tell a “good life story,” which narrative researchers have been exploring for some time. Assessment is based on various factors like complexity, mental health and maturity.

According to narrative therapy (also see here for more info), “clients often present disrupted and disorganized life stories that contribute to their symptoms and underlie poor mental health.” Narrative therapists help people change their stories into ones that “affirm growth, health and adaptation.”

More on Narrative Identity in Personality Psychology

Personality psychologists have focused their research “on the identification of structural characteristics and content themes in life stories and the examination of their relationships to traits, motives, and mental health,” McAdams and Pals write in the American Psychologist.

For example, they cite one study that explored the stories of parents of infants with Down syndrome. They found that narratives that included foreshadowing and hopeful conclusions predicted well-being and ego development. In another interesting study, researchers found that participants’ specific beliefs were associated with different emotional tones in the stories they told.

McAdams also has articulated a concept called “the redemptive self,” which is particular to Americans. According to the article, the redemptive self is:

…a particular kind of life story—one that portrays a gifted protagonist who is ultimately delivered from suffering to enhanced psychological or social state—that appears to reinforce and make especially meaningful a highly productive, caring, and prosocial approach to adult life in America today.

For Further Information

Learn more about the redemptive self here.

APA’s Monitor on Psychology has an excellent article on life stories and narrative psychology.

References

McAdams, D. P. (2008). Personal narratives and the life story in John, O., Robins, R., & Pervin, L. A., Handbook of personality: Theory and research: 241-261.

McAdams, D. P., & Pals, J. L. (2006). A new Big Five: Fundamental principles for an integrative science of personality. American Psychologist: 204-217.

You can download both pieces here, along with other papers by McAdams and colleagues.