The Power of Stories in Personality Psychology
God made man because He loves stories. ~ Elie Wiesel
I’ve always loved this quote in part because I’m a sucker for stories. (As a writer I guess that’s a prerequisite, but we’re all storytellers by nature; yes, all of us.)
Stories are how we make sense of our lives and the world and how we communicate with others.
Stories also are how we make sense of ourselves. According to researcher Dan P. McAdams in his chapter in the Handbook of Personality: Theory and Research:
…the stories we construct to make sense of our lives are fundamentally about our struggle to reconcile who we imagine we were, are and might be in our heads and bodies with who we were, are and might be in the social contexts of family, community, the workplace, ethnicity, religion, gender, social class and culture writ large.
So essentially, the stories we tell are a window into our personalities. And many personality researchers, including McAdams, have been culling our stories for clues. A key concept, writes McAdams, in this literature is “narrative identity,” or “an individual’s internalized, evolving and integrative story of the self.”
As McAdams and Pals write in the American Psychologist:
Narrative approaches to personality suggest that human beings construe their own lives as ongoing stories and that these life stories help to shape behavior, establish identity, and integrate individuals into modern social life (Hermans, Kempen, & van Loon, 1992; Josselson & Lieblich, 1993; McAdams, 1985; Singer & Salovey, 1993; Tomkins, 1987).
Six Principles of Storytelling
According to McAdams, there are many theories about life stories, which differ in various ways. But there are six common principles to the “narrative study of lives” that researchers do agree on, which he discusses in the book chapter.
1. “The self is storied”
Every culture has its own stories, and you can see evidence of this in everything from mythology to motion picture, from biography to Broadway, from novels to the news. We also start telling stories as young kids.
What’s especially important about our stories, McAdams writes, is the personal meaning we assign to them. Our memories are of course colored by our perspective, goals and so on. “Life stories, therefore, are always about both the reconstructed past and the imagined future.”
2. “Stories integrate lives”
One of the most important things that stories can do is a process called “integration,” bringing “together into an understandable frame disparate ideas, characters, happenings and other elements of life that were previously set apart.” We try to find meaning in everything from a minor event to major life experiences, which is called “autobiographical reasoning.”
Whether aimed at finding meaning in yesterday’s conversation around the water cooler or in a 15-year marriage that ended two decades ago, autobiographical reasoning is an exercise in personal integration—putting things together into a narrative pattern that affirms life meaning and purpose.
3. “Stories are told in social relationships”
Stories, of course, are not told in isolation. We tell stories to others, and so they are “social phenomena, told in accord with societal expectations and norms.” Research has shown that inattention can squash or shorten storytelling. For instance, if the listener is distracted while the speaker is telling their story, they tell shorter stories (half as long as the condition that had an attentive listener).
People also adjust their stories depending on their audience. One researcher refers to two types of storytelling: dramatic and reflective. Dramatic storytelling is just like it sounds with gesturing, vivid words and efforts to recreate the scenes. Reflective storytelling is much less about the story details and more about the meaning. The person talks about what the event meant to them or how it made them feel.
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.
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.
Tartakovsky, M. (2016). The Power of Stories in Personality Psychology. Psych Central. Retrieved on February 20, 2017, from https://psychcentral.com/lib/the-power-of-stories-in-personality-psychology/