What Does Narrative Identity Do?

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Note: This post is an excerpt of “Narrative Identity: What Is It? What Does It Do? How Do You Measure It?” published March 1, 2018 in Imagination, Cognition, and Personality. Read the full article here.

 

Psychology’s turn toward narrative in the 1980s was a logical extension of its gradual emancipation from the behaviorist grip. It may have been inevitable that once empirical psychologists defied the strictures of behaviorism to peer inside the black box of the human mind, as they began to do in the late 1950s and 1960s, they would eventually happen upon the idea of story. After all, human beings the world over love to tell and hear stories, as Bruner (1986) and Sarbin (1986) both observed. Human beings routinely adopt a narrative mode of thought and expression, Bruner wrote, when it comes to explaining why people do what they do. He distinguished the narrative mode from the paradigmatic mode of thought, which employs logic, evidence, and argument to explain instead how the (physicochemical) world works. Sarbin went so far as to anoint narrative as the new root metaphor for psychological science. Human beings are storytellers by nature, Sarbin argued. Human conduct seems to obey narrative rules. People think about their own lives, and the lives of others, in narrative terms, as stories unfolding over time (Polkinghorne, 1988).

 

Outside of psychology proper, social scientists and humanists of many different persuasions became enamored with narrative in the 1980s and 1990s. A central question running across many disciplines during this time concerned the function of narrative: What do stories do? First and foremost, they entertain us, some scholars argued (Brewer & Lichtenstein, 1982). Stories engage human emotions, and when they do not, they fail. What is the worst thing you can say about a story? That it is boring. From the parables of Jesus to Dickens, stories also provide instruction on virtue and morality, on how to live a good life (Coles, 1989). Throughout human evolution, even before language when people enacted narrative in gesture and dance, stories have functioned to simulate social experience (Mar & Oatley, 2008). When we read a good story or watch a good movie today, we observe social interactions up close. We witness the clash of human intentions and the timeless social conflicts and motivational dilemmas that characterize so well what human life has always been about. It is probably no exaggeration, then, to claim that stories teach us how to be human (McAdams, 2015).

 

Narrative identity is a special kind of story—a story about how I came to be the person I am becoming. With this special status comes the special function, a function that Erikson (1963)assigned to identity itself. It is the function of integration. Narrative identity brings things together, integrating elements of the self in both a synchronic and a diachronic sense (McAdams, 1985). Synchronically, narrative identity integrates different social roles (Dunlop, this volume), values (Pasupathi et al., this volumeWang, Song, & Koh, this volume), attitudes, and performance demands in the variegated here-and-now of life. A person’s story, thus, explains how he or she continues to affirm a sense of “inner sameness and continuity” (Erikson, 1963, p. 251) across different situational and role contexts. The life story also integrates life in a diachronic sense, that is, over time, ideally showing how the self of yesterday has become the self of today, the very same self that hopes or expects to become a certain kind of (different but still similar) self in the future. Concerns about both synchronic and diachronic integration—self-unity in space and time—are salient in Holm and Thomsen’s (this volume) study of self-event connections, self-concept clarity, and dissociation.

 

Since the 1980s, psychologists have identified a number of other potential functions of narrative identity. As the most notable example, Bluck and Alea (2011) have enumerated (and developed a measure to assess) three primary functions of autobiographical memory in everyday life. People may call upon stories about their personal past to serve social, directive, or self functions. Telling autobiographical memories may promote social relationships; people enjoy sharing stories about their lives with each other. Autobiographical memories may also provide guidance (directives) for life. When confronting a difficult decision, for example, a person may call up memories of similar events in his or her life, consulting them for advice, mining them for insights that may prove helpful in the current situation. What Bluck and Alea put into the domain of functions serving the self includes promoting self-continuity (diachronic integration) for sure, but it also includes the ways in which memories may be called upon to boost morale or sustain positive self-regard. In this light, Liao et al. (this volume) found that positive meaning making in self-defining memories predicted enhanced self-esteem one year later.

 

In adopting a developmental framework for understanding narrative identity, Fivush, Booker, and Graci (this volume) bring together issues regarding both function and form. They point out that life story construction is constrained by the exigencies of the developmental period during which a narrator aims to make sense of the past. The same event, then, can mean very different things for the same person at two different points in time (Josselson, 2009). At an early age, for example, the narrator may lack certain skills in autobiographical reasoning that would otherwise enable him or her to discern a significant theme or insight from the event, or connect the event to similar others (Habermas & Bluck, 2000). When those skills come online later in development, the person may now understand that same event in very different terms. In this regard, McLean, Breen, and Fournier (2010) have shown that unlike older individuals and unlike females, early-adolescent boys who narrate negative experiences in highly elaborative ways do not enjoy higher levels of psychological well-being. Young adolescent boys may lack the autobiographical skills to process aversive life events in a psychologically productive manner.

 

Whereas developmental level may constrain meaning making in narrative identity, meaning making efforts may also catalyze development. Fivush et al. (this volume) describe the process of making narrative sense out of life as a mechanism for self-development. The performance of narrative identity may function, therefore, to refine meanings and thereby help the narrator attain a better understanding of self and reach a higher developmental plateau. Elaborating upon the distinction between narrative as window and narrative as process, introduced by Grysman and Mansfield (this volume)Fivush et al. (this volume) contend that narrating life experiences is indeed a window into the current developmental dynamics and parameters that prevail in a given life, but also a process that may promote development itself.

 


Dan P. McAdams is the Henry Wade Rogers Professor of Psychology and Professor of Human Development and Social Policy, and former chair of the Department of Psychology at Northwestern University. He is the author most recently of THE REDEMPTIVE SELF:  STORIES AMERICANS LIVE BY (Oxford University Press, 2013) and THE ART AND SCIENCE OF PERSONALITY DEVELOPMENT (Guilford Press, 2015), and President of the Association for Research in Personality. McAdams is a scholar with Virtue, Happiness, & the Meaning of Life.

Dan P. McAdams on “The Mind of Donald Trump”

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Our scholar Dan P. McAdams  is a psychologist whose work focuses on stories people tell about their lives and how their narratives help create their respective personalities. “Redemptive life narratives serve as a psychological resource for highly generative adults, providing them with the kind of personal story (narrative identity) they often need to persevere in the face of adversity and to keep focused on trying to make a positive difference in the lives of others and in society writ large,” he wrote about his research in  The Virtue Blog last October.

Recently, McAdams published a piece in the June/July issue of The Atlantic analyzing how the personality of Donald Trump might shape his presidency, writing “A large and rapidly growing body of research shows that people’s temperament, their characteristic motivations and goals, and their internal conceptions of themselves are powerful predictors of what they will feel, think, and do in the future, and powerful aids in explaining why. In the realm of politics, psychologists have recently demonstrated how fundamental features of human personality—such as extroversion and narcissism—shaped the distinctive leadership styles of past U. S. presidents, and the decisions they made. While a range of factors, such as world events and political realities, determine what political leaders can and will do in office, foundational tendencies in human personality, which differ dramatically from one leader to the next, are among them.”

McAdams investigated 4 areas of personality construction: Disposition, mental habits, motivations, self-conception; in doing so he explored Trump’s telling of early childhood memories, self-referential language, authoritarianism, focus on personal relationships and one-on-one negotiating, and persona as warrior.

In the August/September issue, readers responded to the article. McAdams also wrote about the piece, noting “Composing an evidence-based psychological commentary on a presidential candidate—one that draws exclusively on well-validated constructs in personality and social psychology and relies on reputable biographical sources—constrains an author in many ways. For one, there have been only 43 U.S. presidents, which is a small sample size for comparison . . .While some supporters of Trump may dismiss any effort to make psychological sense of the man, some detractors will not be satisfied until he has been psychologically eviscerated. I tried to perform a fair-minded interpretation—sticking to the facts as we know them and to some of the best ideas in contemporary psychological science.”

Read “The Mind of Donald Trump” in The Atlantic here.

Read comments and Dan P. McAdams’ response here.


Dan P. McAdams is a scholar with Virtue, Happiness, and the Meaning of Life, and Henry Wade Rogers Professor of Psychology at Northwestern University.

Valerie Wallace is Assistant Director, Communications, for Virtue, Happiness, & the Meaning of Life.

What is virtue?

Bond Chapel in Winter - photo by Chris Smith
Bond Chapel in Winter – photo by Chris Smith

‘Vir,’ the Latin root for the term, links to the term for the male organ–as in ‘virile’–and was used to denote a strength of some sort.

In contemporary philosophy and religious studies, a virtue is a character trait, not a personality trait.  Social scientists sometimes treat character traits such as virtues as features of personality, but some scholars have recently begun working on the necessity of elucidating the strict separation of work on personality from work on character.  ‘Character’ is a developed, stable way of taking in what you get from the world, feeling/emotion/response to others, and action.  For example, kind people don’t just help people who fall down on the ground in front of them, although they normally WILL do that; kind people also find instances and reports of cruelty painful, look for ways to make others’ lives go more smoothly, enjoy it when things go well for others, and try to avoid injuring people.  Kind people notice the kinds of things that injure or could injure others.  Kind people also are willing to do unpleasant things for the sake of helping others, and may even be willing to do dangerous things to help others.  That is plain old virtue at work.  Kindness may start when caretakers invite a child to think how she would feel if someone else did/said that thing (that she just did/said) to her.

There are two sorts of virtues–strengths–that our philosophers and religious thinkers have studied. These two are acquired virtue and infused virtue.

An acquired virtue is a strength of character that develops by doing the things one ought to do–e.g., telling the truth, paying your bills, looking after the health and well being of those who depend on you.  Children begin to develop proto-virtues by obeying adults and gradually stopping doing the kinds of things that make it really hard to look after groups of children–hitting, lying, being selfish with toys or crayons, etc. Acquired virtues become habitual, and help direct the person towards good, but like any habit, they can also be broken, become infrequently used, or go entirely absent.

An infused virtue, on the other hand, is one given to you, and not one you can acquire. In Christian theology, infused virtues are given to us by God. Virtues that Catholic theologians always consider to be infused include faith, hope, and charity. Thomas Aquinas believed that infused virtues such as these prepare us for union with God. Instead of becoming confused, losing wisdom, and going astray–as we are wont to do–we are kept on track by our infused virtues, and our whole natures are better ordered towards the pursuit of what is best and most just, making us right with ourselves, each other, and God.

Aquinas thinks that he finds in Aristotle the idea that even plain old virtue is directed to the common good–basically, that my virtues (if I have any) are at least as likely to benefit others as they are to benefit me, and that the benefit to others is genuine benefit–I help contribute to GOOD ways of producing and reproducing the GOOD aspects of the social world we share.  Although it is not at all clear that this view comes from Aristotle, what IS clear is that virtue is hard to cultivate and puts people at risk in various ways.  Testifying truthfully in court about gang activity in my neighborhood can make me a target for bad stuff, for example.  It is not nearly as easy to be kind to angry or frightened and unpleasant people as it is to be kind to puppies, well-behaved children, and pleasant adults.  But it is often the unpleasant living things that need kindness.

Virtue, then, is not an attitude, although attitudes often go along with virtue.  It is not a belief system or a kind of desire or a kind of feeling/emotion, although virtue shapes thoughts and feelings.  It is closer to a stable, cultivated way of noticing what’s going on and responding to what’s going on (inwardly and through one’s actions) aimed at supporting, enabling, or doing actual good.  On the traditional account, even though there are distinct virtues, these have to work together if actual good is supposed to be the result.  For instance, it isn’t kindness if I tell you lies in order to make you feel better, even if telling you the truth will likely make both of us feel worse.  It’s not generosity if I offer to drive the getaway car when you guys are set on armed robbery.  Personality traits concern me and my psychology.  Character traits can correct aspects of my personality. For instance, if I tend to be irritable or gullible or petty, virtues like temperance, practical wisdom, and justice can help to correct these flaws in my personality. If I am impulsive, virtue can help bring a measure of thoughtfulness and care to my doings. Basically, virtues help to govern my mind, emotions, will and actions so that I can pursue good without sabotaging my own efforts or impeding myself.


Candace Vogler is the David B. and Clara E. Stern Professor of Philosophy and Professor in the College at the University of Chicago, and Principal Investigator for Virtue, Happiness, & the Meaning of Life.