Over the past few years, memoirs have continually been at the top of the best seller lists. Americans love to hear about the lives of others. Whether to comfort themselves about the state of their own lives or simply for a better understanding of a public figure, most humans are interested in finding out how and why people do the things they do. Yet they rarely ask the question of themselves in the same context. A recent article from the New York Times, written by Benedict Carey, is excerpted below. It examines the way people choose to express their memories as a narrative, thus affecting how they live in the present and how they move into the future.
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For more than a century, researchers have been trying to work out the raw ingredients that account for personality, the sweetness and neuroses that make Anna Anna. They have largely ignored the first-person explanation — the life story that people themselves tell about who they are, and why.
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The tone, the lessons, even the facts in a life story can all shift in the changing light of a person’s mood, its major notes turning minor, its depths appearing shallow. The way in which we visualize each scene of our lives not only shapes how we think about ourselves, but how we behave, new studies find.
“When we first started studying life stories, people thought it was just idle curiosity — stories, isn’t that cool?” said Dan P. McAdams, a professor of psychology at Northwestern and author of the 2006 book, “The Redemptive Self.” “Well, we find that these narratives guide behavior in every moment, and frame not only how we see the past but how we see ourselves in the future.”
Researchers have found that the human brain has a natural affinity for narrative construction. People tend to remember facts more accurately if they encounter them in a story rather than in a list, studies find; and they rate legal arguments as more convincing when built into narrative tales rather than on legal precedent.
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YouTube routines notwithstanding, most people do not begin to see themselves in the midst of a tale with a beginning, middle and eventual end until they are teenagers. “Younger kids see themselves in terms of broad, stable traits: ‘I like baseball but not soccer,’ ” said Kate McLean, a psychologist at the University of Toronto in Mississauga. “This meaning-making capability — to talk about growth, to explain what something says about who I am — develops across adolescence.”
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In analyzing the texts of life-story interviews, the researchers found strong correlations between the content of people’s current lives and the stories they tell. Those with mood problems have many good memories, but these scenes are usually tainted by some dark detail.
By contrast, so-called generative adults — those who score highly on tests measuring civic-mindedness, and who are likely to be energetic and involved — tend to see many of the events in their life in the reverse order, as linked by themes of redemption. They flunked sixth grade but met a wonderful counselor and made honor roll in seventh.
In broad outline, the researchers report, such tales express distinctly American cultural narratives, of emancipation or atonement, of Horatio Alger advancement, of epiphany and second chances. But the point is that the narrative themes are, as much as any other trait, driving factors in people’s behavior, the researchers say. “We find that when it comes to the big choices people make — should I marry this person? should I take this job? should I move across the country? — they draw on these stories implicitly, whether they know they are working from them or not,” Dr. McAdams said.
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The research so far suggests that people’s life stories are neither rigid nor wildly variable, but rather change gradually over time, in close tandem with meaningful life events.
Jonathan Adler, a researcher at Northwestern, has found that people’s accounts of their experiences in psychotherapy provide clues about the nature of their recovery. In a recent study presented at the annual meeting of the Society for Personality and Social Psychology in January, Mr. Adler reported on 180 adults from the Chicago area who had recently completed a course of talk therapy.
Mr. Adler found that in fact those former patients who scored highest on measures of well-being — who had recovered, by standard measures — told very similar tales about their experiences. They described their problem, whether depression or an eating disorder, as coming on suddenly, as if out of nowhere. They characterized their difficulty as if it were an outside enemy, often giving it a name (the black dog, the walk of shame). And eventually they conquered it.
Those in the study who scored lower on measures of psychological well-being were more likely to see their moods and behavior problems as a part of their own character, rather than as a villain to be defeated. To them, therapy was part of a continuing adaptation, not a decisive battle.
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To better understand how stories are built in real time, researchers have recently studied how people recall vivid scenes from recent memory. They find that one important factor is the perspective people take when they revisit the scene — whether in the first person, or in the third person, as if they were watching themselves in a movie.
In a 2005 study reported in the journal Psychological Science, researchers at Columbia University measured how student participants reacted to a bad memory when it was recalled in the third person. They tested levels of conscious and unconscious hostility after the recollections, using both standard questionnaires and students’ essays. The investigators found that the third-person scenes were significantly less upsetting, compared with bad memories recalled in the first person.
What our experiment showed is that this shift in perspective, having this distance from yourself, allows you to relive the experience and focus on why you’re feeling upset,” instead of being immersed in it, said Ethan Kross, the study’s lead author. The emotional content of the memory is still felt, he said, but its sting is blunted as the brain frames its meaning, as it builds the story.
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The way people replay and recast memories, day by day, deepens and reshapes their larger life story. And as it evolves, that larger story in turn colors the interpretation of the scenes.
Psychologists have shown just how interpretations of memories can alter future behavior. In an experiment published in 2005, researchers had college students who described themselves as socially awkward in high school recall one of their most embarrassing moments. Half of the students reimagined the humiliation in the first person, and the other half pictured it in the third person.
Two clear differences emerged. Those who replayed the scene in the third person rated themselves as having changed significantly since high school — much more so than the first-person group did. The third-person perspective allowed people to reflect on the meaning of their social miscues, the authors suggest, and thus to perceive more psychological growth. And their behavior changed, too.
Recordings showed that members of the third-person group were much more sociable than the others. “They were more likely to initiate a conversation, after having perceived themselves as more changed,” said Lisa Libby, the lead author and a psychologist at Ohio State University. She added, “We think that feeling you have changed frees you up to behave as if you have; you think, ‘Wow, I’ve really made some progress’ and it gives you some real momentum.”
Dr. Libby and others have found that projecting future actions in the third person may also affect what people later do, as well. In another study, students who pictured themselves voting for president in the 2004 election, from a third-person perspective, were more likely to actually go to the polls than those imagining themselves casting votes in the first person.
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It is unclear whether such scene-making is more functional for some people, and some memories, than for others. And no one yet knows how fundamental personality factors, like neuroticism or extraversion, shape the content of life stories or their component scenes.
But the new research is giving narrative psychologists something they did not have before: a coherent story to tell. Seeing oneself as acting in a movie or a play is not merely fantasy or indulgence; it is fundamental to how people work out who it is they are, and may become.
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“The idea that whoever appeared onstage would play not me but a character was central to imagining how to make the narrative: I would need to see myself from outside,” the writer Joan Didion has said of “The Year of Magical Thinking,” her autobiographical play about mourning the death of her husband and her daughter. “I would need to locate the dissonance between the person I thought I was and the person other people saw.”
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To read the entire article, click here. For related posts on how people understand themselves and the difference it makes, see “Self-Serving Biases,” “The Perils of ‘Being Smart’ (or Not So Much),” and “Promoting Dispositionism Through Entertainment” (Part I, Part II & Part III). Situationist Contributor, Timothy Wilson, has written extensively about how we conceive of ourselves — our identities. Roughly, Wilson finds that the adaptive unconscious — our non-cognitive filter that gathers, interprets, and evaluates information and emotions — provides the mental processes that we unknowingly use to assess the world, establish goals, and initiate action, while our consciousness focuses on other matters to which we (often mistakenly) ascribe importance. Consequently, Wilson writes in his outstanding book, Strangers to Ourselves, “we don’t know ourselves—our potentials, feelings, or motives,” but instead “have developed a plausible story about ourselves that is out of touch with our adaptive unconscious.”