The New York Times (5/22/2007) included an article: “This Is Your Life
(and How You Tell It)” by Benedict Carey.

Here’s the article:

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, the sluggishness and sensitivity that make Andrew
Andrew. They have largely ignored the first-person explanation — the
life story that people themselves tell about who they are, and why.

Stories are stories, after all. The attractive stranger at the airport
bar hears one version, the parole officer another, and the P.T.A. board
gets something entirely different. Moreover, 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.

Yet in the past decade or so a handful of psychologists have argued that
the quicksilver elements of personal narrative belong in any three-
dimensional picture of personality. And a burst of new findings are now
helping them make the case. Generous, civic-minded adults from diverse
backgrounds tell life stories with very similar and telling features,
studies find; so likewise do people who have overcome mental distress
through psychotherapy.

Every American may be working on a screenplay, but we are also
continually updating a treatment of our own life — and the way in which
we visualize each scene not only shapes how we think about ourselves,
but how we behave, new studies find. By better understanding how life
stories are built, this work suggests, people may be able to alter their
own narrative, in small ways and perhaps large ones.

“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.

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.”

Psychologists know what life stories look like when they are fully
hatched, at least for some Americans. Over the years, Dr. McAdams and
others have interviewed hundreds of men and women, most in their 30s and
older.

During a standard life-story interview, people describe phases of their
lives as if they were outlining chapters, from the sandlot years through
adolescence and middle age. They also describe several crucial scenes in
detail, including high points (the graduation speech, complete with
verbal drum roll); low points (the college nervous breakdown, complete
with the list of witnesses); and turning points. The entire two-hour
session is recorded and transcribed.

In analyzing the texts, 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. The pride of college graduation is
spoiled when a friend makes a cutting remark. The wedding party was
wonderful until the best man collapsed from drink. A note of
disappointment seems to close each narrative phrase.

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. They were laid
low by divorce, only to meet a wonderful new partner. Often, too, they
say they felt singled out from very early in life — protected, even as
others nearby suffered.

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. Depending on the
person, the story itself might be nuanced or simplistic, powerfully
dramatic or cloyingly pious. 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.

Any life story is by definition a retrospective reconstruction, at least
in part an outgrowth of native temperament. Yet 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. They sought treatment for things
like depression, anxiety, marital problems and fear of flying, and spent
months to years in therapy.

At some level, talk therapy has always been an exercise in replaying and
reinterpreting each person’s unique life story. Yet 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.

“The story is one of victorious battle: ‘I ended therapy because I could
overcome this on my own,’ ” Mr. Adler said. 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.

The findings suggest that psychotherapy, when it is effective, gives
people who are feeling helpless a sense of their own power, in effect
altering their life story even as they work to disarm their own demons,
Mr. Adler said.

Mental resilience relies in part on exactly this kind of
autobiographical storytelling, moment to moment, when navigating life’s
stings and sorrows. 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, whether an argument or failed exam, 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.

Taken together, these findings suggest a kind of give and take between
life stories and individual memories, between the larger screenplay and
the individual scenes. 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.

Nic Weststrate, 23, a student living in Toronto, said he was able to
reinterpret many of his most painful memories with more compassion after
having come out as a gay man. He was very hard on himself, for instance,
when at age 20 he misjudged a relationship with a friend who turned out
to be straight.

He now sees the end of that relationship as both a painful lesson and
part of a larger narrative. “I really had no meaningful story for my
life then,” he said, “and I think if I had been open about being gay I
might not have put myself in that position, and he probably wouldn’t
have either.”

After coming out, he said: “I saw that there were other possibilities. I
would be presenting myself openly to a gay audience, and just having a
coherent story about who I am made a big difference. It affects how you
see the past, but it also really affects your future.”

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. After completing the psychological
questionnaires, each study participant spent time in a waiting room with
another student, someone the research subject thought was taking part in
the study. In fact the person was working for the research team, and
secretly recorded the conversation between the pair, if any. This double
agent had no idea which study participants had just relived a high
school horror, and which had viewed theirs as a movie scene.

The 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.

The implications of these results for self-improvement, whether sticking
to a diet or finishing a degree or a novel, are still unknown. Likewise,
experts say, 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.

“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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