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Getting a Life Takes Time: The Development of the Life Story in Adolescence, Its Precursors and Consequences

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Getting a Life Takes Time: The Development of the Life Story in Adolescence, Its Precursors and Consequences

Abstract

The life story is a special cognitive-communicative format which allows understanding persons from a biographical perspective through autobiographical reasoning and life narrating. Reviewing research on the development of the life story from the past 15 years, we clarify the conceptual and developmental specificity of the life story by comparing it to single event stories, and the specificity of autobiographical reasoning by comparing it to other forms of reasoning. To support the claim that the life story emerges only in adolescence, we review the earlier development of self and autobiographical remembering leading up to the life story. We outline the significance of autobiographical reasoning for bridging biographical ruptures, and we discuss the meaning of the cultural context for the development of the life story and its functionality. Finally, we suggest major developmental research questions that remain to be pursued. https://www.jstor.org/tc/accept?origin=%2Fstable%2Fpdf%2F26765107.pdf%3Fab_segments%3D0%25252Fbasic_SYC-5152%25252Ftest%26refreqid%3Dexcelsior%253A307c6fa9d172f82a9da3114b58c1963a&is_image=False
GETTING A LIFE TAKES TIME 1
Getting a life takes time:
The development of the life story in adolescence,
its precursors and consequences
Tilmann Habermas and Elaine Reese
Goethe University Frankfurt, Germany, and University of Otago, New Zealand
Habermas, T., & Reese, E. (2015). Getting a life takes time: The development of the life story in adolescence and its precursors.
Human Development, 58, 172-201. 10.1159/000437245 © Karger https://www.karger.com/Article/Abstract/437245.
For a commentary see: Lilgendahl, J. P. (2015). Getting a Life Takes Time and an Open Mind: Remembering to Question
Assumptions and Embrace Variations as We Continue to Develop Life Story Theory. A commentary. Human Development, 58,
201-207. DOI:10.1159/000438764 https://www.karger.com/Article/Abstract/438764
Acknowledgment: We thank our respective collaborators as well as our colleagues in the fields of
development, personality, and memory who have advanced this research area in the past decades. The
first author thanks Christin Köber, Christine Paha, Cybèle de Silveira, Verena Diel and Alexa Negele, the
second author thanks Yan Chen, Helena McAnally, Ella Myftari, and Tia Neha for their help in shaping
her thinking about the issues presented. We also thank the reviewers for their very helpful suggestions.
Abstract
The life story is a special cognitive-communicative format which allows understanding persons
from a biographical perspective through autobiographical reasoning and life narrating.
Reviewing research on the development of the life story from the past 15 years, we clarify the
conceptual and developmental specificity of the life story by comparing it to single event
stories, and the specificity of autobiographical reasoning by comparing it to other forms of
reasoning. To support the claim that the life story emerges only in adolescence, we review the
earlier development of self and autobiographical remembering leading up to the life story. We
outline the significance of autobiographical reasoning for bridging biographical ruptures, and
we discuss the meaning of the cultural context for the development of the life story and its
functionality. Finally, we suggest major developmental research questions that remain to be
pursued.
GETTING A LIFE TAKES TIME 2
Early psychologists, such as Karl Philipp Moritz and Sigmund Freud, valued autobiography and
biography to study the lives of individuals. In everyday life, biography and autobiography are of interest
not only as literary genres, but also in the popular media. Writing ones autobiography is so popular that
commercial services offer to help.
Psychology’s interest in the biographical format as an object of research, in contrast to biography as
a scientific method, is fairly recent. The interest in individuals’ subjective life stories came out of the life
story as a method for psychotherapy (Freud, 1905) and for research in personality psychology (Allport,
1942; Murray, 1938). Erik Erikson drew on these traditions both for writing the psychobiographies of
Luther (1958) and Gandhi (1970), and for conceptualizing the development of psychosocial identity,
especially in adolescence.
Only with the narrative turn in the 1980s did the subjective life story become a topic in psychology.
Schafer (1983) interpreted psychoanalytic therapy as a repair of the subjective life story, while Bruner
(1987) attributed a storied nature to life itself. Two Harvard-trained psychologists transferred to
Chicago, however, introduced the subjective life story as a narrative into psychology. Bertram Cohler
suggested in a programmatic essay (1982) that the personal narrative of one’s life is the means by which
identity integration over time is maintained, being re-constructed as life is being lived. Cohler spelled
out what had remained somewhat implicit in Erikson - namely that adolescent cognitive development
allowed constructing a life story (cf. Schiff, 2014). Dan McAdams (1985) proposed a highly elaborate
personological model of the architecture of subjective life stories, including motives as thematic lines,
repetitive nuclear episodes, characters, and ideological settings, from which he developed a rich
research program in personality psychology (cf. McAdams & Zapata-Gietl, 2015).
The life story offers four major advantages compared to social-psychological (Turner, 1975) and
sociological (Goffman, 1963) concepts of personal and social identity, which are defined in terms of
membership in groups and combinations of these, as well as compared to a concept of personality
defined by stable traits in personality psychology. These advantages derive from the specific integrative
power of narrative. Identity requires an integrative effort of synthesizing the various aspects of the
individual into a more or less coherent self (Fournier et al., 2015; James, 1895). First, the life story is
foremost a format that allows the creation of self-continuity across biographical change. As McAdams
and Zapata-Gietl (2015, p. 85) point out, a sense of identity across time may be based on a stable self-
description in terms of personality traits as well as roles and group memberships. When traits or roles
change, however, this sense of self-sameness weakens. It is in these specific circumstances of
biographical change that the life story may compensate the sense of identity disruption, bridging
biographical change by integrating them in a narrative and allowing motivated transitions by way of
autobiographical arguments (Habermas & Köber, 2015a, b). This process is specifically what Ricoeur
(1990) termed narrative identity in contrast to identity as self-sameness across time. Secondly, the life
story may also facilitate the other integrative task of identity that of integrating various synchronic
aspects of the individual across situations and social contexts. The life story provides the possibility of
narrating how different aspects may harmonize with each other, or of explaining how they harmonize by
telling about the personal experiences in which they are rooted. Thirdly, the life story may best fulfill
another requirement of identity, that of demonstrating the person’s individuality. Although personal
identity conceived as a unique combination of social identities, or as a combination of numerical values
on several personality dimensions, does allow differentiating one person from another in an economic
way, social roles and traits do not define each person as unique (McAdams, 2001). The life story, in
contrast, offers a highly individualized version of identity. Finally, the life story not only allows one to
explicate the objective aspects of identity, but also implicitly expresses the subjective sense of identity,
“a subjective sense of an invigorating sameness and continuity” (Erikson, 1968, p. 19). Therefore, life
narratives can be used for the purpose of diagnosing identity integration in clinical contexts (Kernberg,
1984).
GETTING A LIFE TAKES TIME 3
The life story thus offers a clear advantage when it comes to identity integration and individuality,
although social identities and personality traits are highly relevant and useful formats of identity in
many contexts. The dominant empirical approach to the development of psychosocial identity is based
on Marcia’s (1966) theory of identity status. Marcia’s theory categorizes individuals on the basis of how
committed they are to values and whether they have undergone a phase of actively exploring these
values. The approach uses interviews or questionnaires and tends to focus on individual differences; its
developmental assumptions have not borne out so clearly (Crocetti & Meeus, 2015; Josselson & Flum,
2015). Whereas identity status is about a specific aspect of identity - the identification with values - the
life story is a format of identity that encompasses all possible prescriptive and descriptive aspects that
can be explicated and located in autobiography. Thinking about one’s past life story (autobiographical
reasoning, see below) is one way of exploring one’s identity (McLean & Pasupathi, 2012). Life narratives
should also allow an assessment of identity status, although researchers have not yet attempted this.
We would expect individuals with an achieved identity, who have undergone a phase of active identity
exploration, to provide more anchoring of their values and personality traits in personal experiences.
Up to 15 years ago, theorists had not yet systematically pursued the development of the subjective
conception of human lives and of thinking in biographical terms (but cf. Feldman, Bruner, Kalmar &
Renderer, 1993). In 2000 Susan Bluck and I (Habermas & Bluck, 2000) drew together what was known
about adolescent development to suggest which motivational and cognitive preconditions are necessary
to construct a subjective life story, explaining why we thought it did not emerge before adolescence.
Our initial review generated a wealth of findings in memory, personality, and developmental
psychology. Researchers gathered systematic evidence to test the emergence of the life story in
adolescence, and we also know much more now about the life story’s childhood precursors in the field
of autobiographical remembering. This blossoming of research has brought about a differentiation in
measures used and aspects of the life story studied. In this paper we address three aspects of the field
that we feel need to be critically assessed at this point. First, the broadening of the field and
proliferation of measures has had the side-effect of broadening and sometimes even blurring of
theoretical concepts and terminology. Dunlop and Walker (2013, p. 5), for instance, broadened their use
of the term life story to include any “phenomenological representation of the past, present, and future”,
thereby drastically blurring the conceptual boundaries. Second, the lower developmental boundary of
the life story and its relation to developmental precursors have not been defined and studied clearly. In
certain respects this is due to a lack of conceptual clarity, such as when Dunlop and Walker (2013)
declared that some forms of the life story develop in childhood; in other respects, the typical
quantitative reporting of results may obscure qualitative differences. Third, functional demand
characteristics of cultures may motivate individuals to develop the life story to a greater or lesser
degree. Functional consequences of the use of the life story, in terms of well-being or related constructs,
also merit increased attention as the basic developmental sequence of life story acquisition becomes
better established.
To address these issues, we first define the theoretical elements of the life story with respect to
entire life narratives and life story coherence, and the many forms of autobiographical reasoning. Then
we critically review the empirical evidence regarding the relation between self and memory before and
after the acquisition of the life story, then regarding representations of the entire life, and finally
regarding the autobiographical interpretation of specific events. In the last two sections we discuss the
development of the functional consequences of the life story for well-being, and the relevance of the
subjective life story across cultures in relation to a good life.
The life story and autobiographical reasoning: Their qualitative distinctness in development
Figure 1 illustrates the relations among the major concepts of life story theory. Habermas and Bluck
(2000) defined the life story as a theoretical concept and as one possible form of identity, which offers
GETTING A LIFE TAKES TIME 4
the most abstract and integrative level of the autobiographical knowledge base (Conway, Singer &
Tagini, 2004). We hypothesized that there is a mnemonic representation of the life story, termed the life
story schema (Bluck & Habermas, 2000). Whereas the life story schema is a hypothetical construct,
entire life narratives and autobiographical arguments are empirical phenomena. The life story is most
completely manifested in entire life narratives as specific, but rare linguistic products. A more frequent,
but only partial manifestation of the life story, is autobiographical arguments. The activity of using
autobiographical arguments in thinking, speaking, and writing is termed autobiographical reasoning.
Autobiographical arguments create links between personal experiences and other distant parts of one’s
life, and to the self and its development (Habermas, 2011). The life story schema results from the active
first-time construction of life story coherence in life story telling and, in turn, is used when telling a life
and when reasoning autobiographically.
Life narratives may be divided into partially overlapping chapters, which in turn are segmented into
three major types of text: namely single event narratives (e.g., my eighth birthday), chronicles which list
events or summarize extended time periods (e.g., one’s time at high school), and arguments (e.g.,
reflections about the quality of the relationship to one’s parents; see Figure 1). A life narrative cannot
consist solely of single event narratives. Chronicles need to summarize the extended time periods in
which specific events are embedded. Arguments sometimes constitute a separate segment of text, often
at the end of life narratives, when the narrator evaluates the life as a whole, or discusses a specific
concern (e.g., the development of the relationship to mother). Narrators may use autobiographical
arguments in single event narratives both as part of entire life narratives, contributing to their global
coherence, and in free-standing single event narratives. Narrators may also use arguments outside a
narrative context, such as in research interviews or self-reflections. For example, one may be wondering
about current difficulties with a parent, and look for reasons in one’s biography, without actually
narrating current difficulties. In Figure 1, the dashed lines exemplify the links created by
autobiographical arguments between distant parts of life and between life events and the self.
The life story is a highly distinct format. Following Cohler (1982), McAdams (1985), and Ricoeur
(1990), and in concordance with everyday usage of the word, we use the term life story for a
representation of an individual life with the quality of a narrative (temporal succession, evaluation -
Labov & Waletzky, 1967). Therefore the qualities of the life story can best be defined with reference to
an entire, globally coherent life narrative. A life narrative is thus more than a list of events which neither
narrates each event nor relates them to each other. A life narrative is also more than a list of events that
are locally coherent in themselves, but disconnected single event narratives from a life. Such event
narratives are discoherent (Linde, 1993) among each other, so that there is no global life narrative
coherence. Note that a lack of coherence, termed discoherence, is different from incoherence, which
stresses not only the lack of coherence, but also, at a semantic level, the contradictoriness of
statements, or, at a pragmatic level, the contradictoriness of a statement and an action.
On the one hand, a life narrative is by far more complex and comprehensive than a single event
narrative (e.g., Labov, 2013; Stein & Glenn, 1979) told in everyday life. On the other hand, its structure is
less clear-cut and less normative. A life narrative is not necessarily built around a complicating event
and attempts to solve it, i.e. it does not require a unitary plotline.
Therefore, Habermas and Bluck (2000) suggested different aspects of the overall global coherence of
life narratives. The most important aspects we suggested were temporal global coherence, allowing the
listener to place the events told in the life, causal-motivational global coherence, allowing the listener to
understand the personal development of the narrator as it was influenced by the contiguities of life as
well as by the main aims and values guiding the individual’s attempt to lead a good life, and, finally,
thematic global coherence, created by dominant motives and nuclear episodes which tend to
characterize the entire life and define the narrator’s individuality. Whereas thematic global coherence is
created by finding themes underlying heterogeneous events across life, stressing a pervasive individual
GETTING A LIFE TAKES TIME 5
theme, causal-motivational global coherence is created by rendering change and development of the
protagonist plausible. Thematic coherence stresses constancy, and causal-motivational coherence
creates continuity (not sameness!) across change and development (Habermas & Köber, 2015a, b).
An example from our corpus of how causal-motivational coherence may be created is 20 year-old
Dorian’s explanation for why he wants to become a carpenter. In his life narrative he mentions that he
lived in the Amazonas area with his parents for four years as an early adolescent. He felt indebted to the
hospitality he had received, obliged to help people there, and wished to return to the place where he
had spent the happiest time of his life. He reasoned that the skills of a carpenter would enable him to be
of use when returning to that area. The most extreme example of thematic coherence in our corpus was
created by Robert, a 73-year-old man who explained his entire life by his rebellion against the Nazi
ideology which his parents had attempted to instill in him, motivating him to fight against racism,
authoritarianism, and orderliness. At the same time this explanation contributed to some degree to
causal-motivational coherence, because it not only helped detect similarities across the lifetime, but
also explained how an early life experience created life themes. Thus temporal, causal-motivational, and
thematic coherence are three aspects of the global coherence of a text, i.e. of any given life narrative as
a linguistic product. In contrast, the fourth kind of coherence regards the coherence between a life
narrative and a cultural concept of biography, i.e. the normative expectation of what a life and a
biographical text should look like. A skeletal sequence of culturally normative, biographically salient
events and their normative timing provides a structure to a life narrative, both in terms of temporal
sequencing as well as in terms of which events are selected. Rubin and Berntsen (2003) termed this
sequence the life script.
We did not include in the original paper a good candidate for a fifth aspect of global life narrative
coherence. Providing context is a basic hermeneutic principle for allowing interpretation and giving
meaning to a text. Global contextualizing of a life can be effected in semantic terms by providing
information about the social and historical context of the individual’s life, and in narrative terms by
embedding the remembered life in a beginning, pre-dating personal memory and even the beginning of
life, and ending with a retrospective global evaluation and an outlook into the future. The nested
structure of life narratives also provides a kind of internal contextualization, with chapters (Thomsen &
Berntsen, 2008) covering lifetime periods (Conway, 2005), which in turn include segments covering
specific or extended events (Habermas & Hatiboĝlu, 2014).
Besides entire life narratives, another manifestation of the life story is autobiographical arguments,
which create causal-motivational or thematic links between different elements of a life. In life
narratives, they contribute to global coherence (Köber, Schmiedek & Habermas, 2015). In single event
narratives, corresponding to single memories, they serve to integrate these into the larger context of a
life by relating them to more enduring aspects of oneself or to other, distant events (see dashed lines in
Figure 1).
It is very important to distinguish between the local coherence of a single event narrative, which is
the prototype of a personal narrative (Labov & Waletzky, 1967), and life story coherence, which regards
the entire life. If not otherwise specified, the term narrative coherence when applied to
autobiographical narratives refers to the coherence within such a single event narrative. In contrast to
the life story, the ability to narrate single event narratives develops early on with the help of socializing
adults (cf. Fivush, Haden & Reese, 2006). Single event narratives are basically mastered by the early
school years, and the ability to narrate single events coherently continues to be refined up to late
childhood (e.g., Bamberg, 1997; Nicolopoulou, 2008; Peterson & McCabe, 1983; see Reese, 2014, for a
review). The differential developmental course of narrative coherence in single event narratives (e.g.,
what happened last weekend) and global life story coherence in life narratives was confirmed in a direct
comparison: Between ages 9 and 15, coherence for single event narratives increased only moderately,
whereas life story coherence increased steeply. Moreover, the two kinds of coherence were not
GETTING A LIFE TAKES TIME 6
correlated once age was partialled out (Bohn & Berntsen, 2008; 2013). Narrative coherence of single-
event narratives thus develops earlier than life story coherence.
Sometimes the use of the label narrative coherence in the context of single event narratives has not
clearly differentiated local coherence within a single event narrative from life story coherence, i.e. the
embedding of an event in an autobiographical context in one’s life and with respect to one’s personal
development. Many studies measure local narrative coherence in single event narratives (e.g., Baesler,
1995; Fiese et al., 1999; Klein & Boals, 2010), in one way or another taking the lead from the story
grammar (Stein & Glenn, 1979) or the sociolinguistic models of narrative (Labov & Waletzky, 1967).
Several coding schemes have been proposed to rate different aspects of coherence of single event
narratives (Baerger & McAdams, 1999; Reese et al., 2011). In each of these coding schemes, only one of
the scales includes a link to other parts of life as one possible criterion (e.g., integration in Baerger &
McAdams; thematic coherence in Reese et al., 2011). For both of these scales, there are multiple ways of
getting maximum credit. For instance, maximum credit of 3 on the scale of thematic coherence requires
a resolution, which might or might not link to other autobiographical experiences or self. Typically these
scales are applied to events that have been selected for their centrality in one’s life such as high, low
and turning points, which are termed critical event narratives (Chen et al., 2012). Still these scales
almost exclusively measure local coherence, not life story coherence. We thus propose using the term
life story coherence in a more restricted sense than Baerger and McAdams (1999) did in their path-
breaking study.
In the following three sections, we review evidence regarding the evolution of the life story and of
its precursors, especially the relationship between memory and self. We also provide a systematic
overview of the wealth of empirical indicators of the life story, grading their relation to the life story. We
start by presenting how autobiographical memory and the self are related in development, then review
developmental evidence regarding the entire life story, and finally discuss evidence regarding the
development of autobiographical reasoning. Our focus is on demonstrating the qualitative change that
takes place at the lower threshold of life story development between childhood and adolescence, i.e.
roughly around age 10.
Memory and self before and in the life story
Our strong developmental thesis is that the emergence of the life story in adolescence marks a
qualitatively new cognitive-communicative format that arises from the development of autobiographical
remembering and the development of the self. Both autobiographical remembering and self have been
developing from early childhood. Conceptually, the two are intertwined, because autobiographical
memories are inherently about self experiences (Brewer, 1996), and the self-concept influences, among
other factors, which events are important to retain in one’s autobiography (Conway, 2005). This
connection becomes explicit, however, only in the context of the adolescent life story.
Empirically, autobiographical memory and self are connected from the second year of life, when
young children begin to verbally reference past events (Miller, Chen & Olivarez, 2014) and, at around
the same time, develop a critical mass of self-awareness that enables them to recognize their physical
selves in mirrors and photos (see Reese, 2002). In a longitudinal New Zealand sample, children who
achieved visual self-recognition earlier in the second year of life displayed a faster rate of verbal
memory development over the next year when narrating their recent experiences to a researcher
(Harley & Reese, 1999). For the same children at ages 4-1/2 and 5-1/2, a more advanced form of self-
concept was linked to their autobiographical memory (Bird & Reese, 2006). Children who displayed a
more advanced self-concept at these ages were those who consistently endorsed themselves as high or
low on nine dimensions of self (e.g., harm avoidance, achievement). Children with advanced self-
concepts used more emotional and evaluative information in their autobiographical narratives. This
pattern suggests that children with a richer subjective perspective on past events experienced an
GETTING A LIFE TAKES TIME 7
advanced self-concept (cf. Wang, 2004). At age 12, the same children again displayed links between
autobiographical memory and self-concept. Adolescents who recalled a greater number of specific
autobiographical memories from earlier in childhood were those who had also displayed more advanced
self-awareness in early childhood (Reese, Jack, & White, 2010). Thus, empirical evidence supports
concurrent and longitudinal links between autobiographical memory and self-concept throughout
childhood.
Critically, children do not develop these autobiographical memory and self-understanding skills
in isolation. From early childhood, mothers support their children’s autobiographical memories and their
self-concepts in the way they talk to them about past events. In the same longitudinal study, mothers
who adopted a more elaborative and evaluative stance those who discussed memories in rich detail
and included emotional information - had children with more detailed autobiographical memories in
early childhood (Farrant & Reese, 2000; Newcombe & Reese, 2004; cf. Wang, 2007) and earlier
childhood memories in adolescence (Reese et al., 2010; cf. Jack, Hayne, MacDonald, & Reese, 2009). In
an experimental study, preschool children whose mothers had been trained in elaborative reminiscing
recalled more detailed memories later with a researcher, but only if they had had advanced self-
awareness as a toddler (Reese & Newcombe, 2007). Thus, parents’ reminiscing style matters for
children’s autobiographical memory.
One continuity in the relation between remembering and self before and after the advent of the life
story lies in the socializing mechanisms necessary for their development. The young adolescents who
experienced more elaborative reminiscing with their mothers about specific memories, and who
recalled earlier memories, also engaged in more autobiographical reasoning (learning a lesson, insight)
when narrating turning point events (Reese et al., 2010). Thus, mothers’ reminiscing style supports
autobiographical remembering and self in childhood, and is linked to autobiographical reasoning in
adolescence. This connection was also found in a cross-sectional study with children aged 8, 12, 16, and
20 in which mothers scaffolded their narrating of an entire life, actively supporting temporal coherence
in the children and autobiographical reasoning in the younger adolescents (Habermas, Negele & Mayer,
2010). We will soon be able to test the causal role of maternal reminiscing in adolescents’
autobiographical reasoning as we follow up the children from our (Elaine Reese’s and colleagues’)
experimental study into adolescence (Macfarlane, 2014).
Although autobiographical memory and self are intertwined from early in development, we claim
that the advent of the life story in adolescence introduces a new quality in the relationship between
autobiographical memory and the self. Even though the development of the self-concept and
autobiographical memory do influence each other and are partly acquired in the same social
interactions, earlier forms of the self-concept are synchronic, or lacking a biographical dimension. Up to
early adolescence both self and others are basically described in terms of synchronic attributes such as
physical characteristics, preferences, attitudes and habits, and personality traits, but not in terms of
their individual life experiences and how they have formed the development of their personalities
(Damon & Hart, 1988; Selman, 1980). Likewise, earlier forms of remembering are only implicitly linked
to the self, but not tied to identity in a causal-motivational or thematic way as it is by autobiographical
reasoning. Thus, the understanding of others and the self turns biographical in adolescence, and
autobiographical remembering becomes an essential part of identity (Habermas & Paha, 2001).
We suggest that this integration presupposes specific social-cognitive developments (cf. Habermas &
Bluck, 2000) besides the development of remembering and self, or more broadly of narrating and the
person concept just outlined. An understanding of calendar time (Friedman, Reese, & Dai, 2011) and
knowledge of the cultural concept of biography (Habermas, 2007) are probably also needed to construct
a most basic curriculum vitae. An additional element facilitating a narrative approach to a life is
epistemological development (Kuhn & Weinstock, 2002), which leads to an understanding that
knowledge requires interpretation. These assumed prerequisites are much more specific than Cohler’s
GETTING A LIFE TAKES TIME 8
(1982) and McAdam’s (1985) original suggestion that formal operations were a necessary prerequisite.
This specificity is due both to the lack of an integrative theory of adolescent social-cognitive
development, as opposed to Piaget’s theory of the development of non-social cognition (Inhelder &
Piaget, 1958), as well as to our conviction that the emergence of (auto-) biographical thinking is in itself
a central step in social-cognitive development. Furthermore, whether the ability to construct a life story
is ever actually developed by an individual - and to what degree it is elaborated - depends on
motivational factors stemming from the psychological needs to resolve conflicts between the past and
present self in the search for an integrated adult identity, as well as the social and cultural expectations
and requirements to develop and shape a highly individualized adult identity.
Thus memory and self are closely related throughout childhood. The emergence of the life story in
adolescence, however, introduces a new quality to this link by putting the self and others in a
biographical perspective. This is an essential part of adolescent social-cognitive development, rendered
possible by specific socializing experiences. In the following two sections, we present the developmental
evidence for the emergence of the life story in adolescence, first for global properties of the life story,
then for autobiographical reasoning. We illustrate this emergence with evidence for the qualitative
changes defining the lower developmental boundary of the life story.
Development of global coherence of the life story
Global properties of the life story can be measured in entire life narratives with global rating scales,
and by analyzing various aspects of the temporal macrostructure such as beginnings and endings of life
narratives, its structuring by normative life script transitions, and its temporal segmentation into life
story chapters. Short entire life narratives have been collected orally in two developmental German
samples with ages 12, 15, and 18 (Habermas & Paha, 2001) and with ages 8, 12, 16, and 20 at the
beginning of an eight-year longitudinal study (for cross-sectional evidence cf. Habermas & de Silveira,
2008; Habermas, Ehlert-Lerche & de Silveira, 2009; Habermas, Diel & Welzer, 2013; for the longitudinal
confirmation cf. Köber et al., 2015). Entire life narratives in written form have been collected in two
Danish samples with ages 9, 11, and 14 (Bohn & Berntsen, 2008) and with ages 10, 12, 13, and 15 (Bohn
& Berntsen, 2013). All four studies showed a steep increase in global coherence in life narratives
between late childhood and mid- to late adolescence. In the following, we report qualitative changes in
entire life narratives over this period. We do this to highlight the emergence in adolescence of a
qualitatively new ability to produce coherent life narratives.
We measured the global coherence of these life narratives in two ways, by global ratings and by
analyzing beginnings and endings. In Table 1, we provide a new integrative summary of the transition
between childhood and adolescence (ages 8 to 16). To highlight the qualitative changes, we
complement the mean values per age group reported in earlier publications by providing relative
frequencies of ordinal categories of global coherence. Table 1 clearly shows that overall coherence in
the life story in terms of developmental consequentiality, thematic coherence, and endings is
completely absent in children’s attempts to narrate their life stories roughly below age 10. Below we
outline in more detail the qualitative changes in the life story that take place between middle childhood
and adolescence.
Habermas and de Silveira (2008) used three rating scales for global textual coherence of the life
story: the global temporal orientation provided, the global sense of developmental consequentiality of
life events, and overall thematic coherence created for the listener (see Table 1, section 1). Global
temporal orientation increased most drastically between ages 8 and 12 and still quite a bit up to age 16,
both cross-sectionally and longitudinally. Over 80% of the 8-year olds provided temporal indications for
no more than half of the events. Causal-motivational coherence was measured as the degree to which a
motivated, plausible development of the narrator’s personality based on the biographical significance of
events is conveyed (developmental consequentiality in Table 1). It developed at about the same rate up
GETTING A LIFE TAKES TIME 9
to age 20, with minor increases up to age 28. At age 8, not one child attempted to describe the
development of personality. Four years later, only a third had started claiming some kind of change in
personality, though without providing any plausible substantiation. Only at age 16 had a majority named
personality development, and only a third had begun to provide some explanation for their personal
development. Thematic coherence developed at about the same rate up to age 20, with further
increases up to middle adulthood. At age 8, thematic coherence was absent in 81% of children and only
implicit in the remaining 19%. Only at age 16 did a majority provide implicit thematic coherence,
whereas over half of the participants from middle adulthood onwards provided explicit thematic
coherence (Köber et al., 2015).
Thus, in late childhood a temporal structure is mostly absent in attempts to narrate a life. Equally a
developmental point of view is absent, as is any explicit thematic coherence. Bohn and Berntsen (2008,
2013) used a different rating scale to measure whether more than one episode was named, whether
episodes were in chronological order, and whether they were evaluated, thus focusing mainly on global
temporal coherence (see Table 1, section 2). About a third of their 9-year-olds provided only a single
episode as a life narrative, and only 5 to 15% provided a good chronological order to the events.
Another way to measure global coherence in entire life narratives is by judging the elaboration of
beginnings (Habermas & Paha, 2001) and endings. The least adequate beginning is with an event from
any time in life. The next two more adequate beginnings are beginning with the onset of memory and
beginning with the onset of life. Birth may be further specified by providing date and place of birth.
Finally, a birth story may be used to foreshadow parts or themes of the life to come (Habermas, 2006).
In addition, the individual life may be contextualized describing the family one was born into, its
socioeconomic circumstances, and earlier family history (Habermas & Hatiboğlu, 2014). Endings should
arrive in the present. In addition, they may serve for a global retrospective evaluation of life as well as
for an outlook into the future (Habermas, 2006). The middle part of narratives is expected to follow
more or less a chronological order.
These beginning and ending parts of the temporal macrostructure are absent in most children’s life
narratives (see Table 1, section 3). Most children at age 8 lack an understanding that a life story starts
with birth and ends in the present, thus violating basic elements of the concept of life story. In the
Frankfurt sample, the mean elaboration of beginnings and endings continued to increase until the early
20s. Simply put, the narratives children tell are not organized into a life.
Global coherence of the life story may also be supported by how well it is hierarchically segmented
into larger lifetime periods. This development can be measured by the “chapter task” from the Emerging
Life Story Interview (ELSI; Reese, Chen, Jack, & Hayne, 2010; cf. Thomsen & Berntsen, 2008, for a similar
procedure with adults). In the chapter task, which can be used with children as young as 8 years old,
researchers invite children to tell the story of their life as if it were a story from a book. Children are
asked to name the chapters from their life story, and to tell the researcher roughly what happened in
each chapter, starting with the chapter they are in now, and moving backwards through time. The main
measure of organization in this task is the proportion of nominated chapters that form lifetime periods
rather than event-specific chapters. For instance, a chapter called “Going to Australia” was classified as
an event-specific chapter because it focused on a single event, a family holiday. In contrast, a chapter
called “My Primary School Years” was classified as a lifetime-period chapter.
The age differences in this task suggest a dramatic development in the organization of the life story
between middle childhood and adolescence (see Table 1, section 4; Chen, McAnally, & Reese, 2013,
Figure 1). Specifically, children (8-11 year olds) used predominantly event-specific chapters in their life
story, whereas young adolescents (12-14 year olds) used almost exclusively lifetime periods to organize
their life story.
Thomsen and Berntsen (2008) provided evidence that biographically salient transitional events,
or life script events, tend to demarcate lifetime periods in adults (cf. Thomsen, 2015). Thus these two
GETTING A LIFE TAKES TIME 10
structural elements of the life story probably develop together. They are part of the temporal
macrostructure of life narratives. This fits nicely with the suggestion that life chapters (Chen et al.,
2013), life scripts, and temporal macrostructure (Habermas & Bluck, 2000) all develop before
autobiographical reasoning. Following from this argument, we propose that between ages 8-12, children
are beginning to master the temporal macrostructure, including the life script and organization into
lifetime periods (see Chen et al., 2013). Note that at this same time, children are rapidly developing their
culture’s conventions of time (Friedman, Reese, & Dai, 2011).
A final aspect of life story coherence is measured by the cultural concept of biography (not
represented in Table 1,) and more specifically the life script. The life script contains chronologically
sequenced, biographically salient transitional life events with age norms attached to them. The life script
helps to structure life narratives, and thereby contributes to its global coherence. Four studies using two
different methods show that this normative biographical knowledge is acquired between the ages 8 and
16 (Bohn & Berntsen, 2008, 2013; Habermas, 2007; Saraiva et al., in preparation; for a longitudinal
example cf. Bohn, 2011). There was also a tendency for the acquisition of the life script to correlate with
the elaboration of beginnings and endings of life narratives (Bohn & Berntsen, 2008, 2013; Habermas et
al., 2009). Although one study found that the acquisition of the life script was achieved by age 16 and
did not increase after that, it is not clear when the life script begins to be acquired. In a study with 4 to
17-year-olds (Schorsch, 1992) attribution of 48 life events to age categories spanning three years began
to increase between preschool and grade school, and reached a maximum at about age 14, suggesting
that normative biographical knowledge begins to be acquired in early childhood. In the study by Saraiva
and colleagues (in preparation), life script knowledge did slowly increase between ages 6 and 10, the
steepest increase was between ages 9 to 10 and 11 to 12, levelling off after age 14, confirming
preadolescence as the life phase with the most rapid development of life script knowledge.
To illustrate the way 8-year-olds respond to the task to narrate their lives, we provide three
examples of the temporal-topical structure of their replies (taken from the Frankfurt longitudinal study
MainLife). Anna starts with an accident, bumping into the refrigerator when she could barely walk,
which obviously reports a story her parents had told her. Anna then mentions entering kindergarten at
age 3. The kindergarten took a field trip and staged a theater show. Then she talks about entering
school, evaluating it negatively and providing several reasons. Anna mentions another girl who was
nasty to her only to become a good friend later on. After telling how she bought fish with her father, she
gets into telling a series of vacations, listing several activities, to finally dedicate quite some time to the
story of an emaciated old cat whom she had fed but was not allowed to keep in the house. Finally she
lists who had been her friends, and who still was and who no longer was, ending by simply stopping to
talk.
Betty also starts with an accident she had had at age 1. Then she mentions the transition to daycare
center and describes daily routines there, ending the section with the narrative of an accident she had
had when running. Then she mentions starting school, and again tells the story of an accident, this time
with a bike. A final accident involved her friend and a swing. She ends saying: “That’s all I have to tell”.
Carla asks where she should start, the interviewer telling her she may choose herself. “When I first
really changed was when I started school”, when she felt confused and overwhelmed. “And when I was
in daycare, I fell, and then the nursery teacher, actually my favorite teacher took me to the doctor”.
She follows up with an accident with a sled at age 7. “And then another thing: Of course I am also very
sorry that my parents split up, and my Daddy married another woman. Too bad you can’t do anything
about it. I already have a stepbrother. Should I go on to tell more?” She then mentions an event with
her father before the divorce, a funny event from last winter, and finally that she is sad about having to
change schools.
These three examples demonstrate the range of temporal and topical structures of 8-year-olds.
Anna keeps a chronological order, and she uses normative transitions as landmarks (transitions to
GETTING A LIFE TAKES TIME 11
kindergarten and to school). However, the biographical salience and significance of events is not clear.
Anna recounts interesting or emotional events. Betty also includes the early part of her life, follows a
chronological order, and mentions normative transitions. The events she chooses to narrate, however,
are limited to one topic, accidents. The topical criterion for selecting events was also used by Anna when
recounting one vacation after the other. Carla, finally, does not follow a chronological order, but seems
to select events on the basis of exceptionality or emotionality. Thus, although 8-year-olds may have a
rough chronological orientation in their life stories, they select events less for their biographical salience
than for their emotional valence and for their topical interrelatedness. Thus categories of events, or in
other words the similarity of events, appear to be a dominant criterion for selecting events for inclusion.
Given that children have not yet mastered the complexity of constructing a chronological life, they seem
to prefer a classificatory approach to the selection of events rendered possible by concrete operations
(Inhelder & Piaget, 1958).
Eight years later, at age 16, Anna starts her life narrative with her birthplace, the quarter of the
city where she lived the first three years with her parents, and a story about the daycare center, where
she was beaten by a boy, so that her parents had to take her out. At age 3 she entered kindergarten,
which was fine. But the progressive school with a very special educational program her parents chose
turned out to be not a good environment, so that they again had to take her out of the institution. She
was transferred to a standard state school. The transition to high school also went well. Then, however,
there was a conflict with a boy who kept bothering her. Finally she recently dropped out of school. The
last two stories are about her present and future, i.e. how she just took part in a dance workshop her
mother organized, and how this gave her the idea to maybe become a dancer.
Anna begins this later life narrative with her place of birth and growing up and ends it with an
outlook into her possible future. The events she narrates have an obvious biographical salience. She no
longer narrates accidents or other very mundane events like going to buy a fish, but only events which
mark transitions or will prove consequential for later developments. There is a recurrent theme of her
parents choosing the wrong educational institutions, combined with a repeated emphasis on her shy
personality, leading up to her current failure to continue school. In the middle of having dropped out of
school and not knowing how to continue her life, Anna neither evaluates nor explicitly explains this
failure, but focuses instead on searching for a perspective on how to continue. In terms of global
coherence, the narrative is temporally quite coherent (rating of 6 out of 7); Anna does not explicate the
developmental consequences of events (rating of 3 out of 7; there is an implicit, but not explicit theme
of her parents choosing the wrong schools and her being too shy to cope with her peers (rating of 4 out
of 7; cf. notes to Table 1)..
Development of local indicators of life story development: Autobiographical arguments.
Autobiographical arguments weave together single strands of global life story coherence.
Autobiographical arguments can be identified both in entire life narratives and in single event
narratives. An ever-growing variety of autobiographical arguments is being used in the literature.
Autobiographical arguments may be grouped according to whether they indicate personal change,
contributing to causal-motivational coherence, or whether they indicate sameness, contributing to
thematic coherence (Habermas, 2011; Pasupathi, Mansour & Brubaker, 2007). Another distinction is
between autobiographical arguments that refer to the individual’s life as seen from a third-person
perspective (e.g., actions, life circumstances, personality, and values) and autobiographical arguments
that refer to the individuals own subjective view onto life, such as what is known, what is understood,
and how it is evaluated. In Table 2 we have listed the main autobiographical arguments and provided an
example for each (cf. Habermas, 2011; Habermas & Köber, 2015b, for a more detailed account).
Researchers use different labels for autobiographical arguments. McLean and Thorne (2003) used
the term ‘meaning making’ for changes in subjective point of view that have been induced by an event
GETTING A LIFE TAKES TIME 12
(A1subj, A3subj). Pasupathi and colleagues (2007) termed arguments A1 and B2 ‘self-event
connections’. Lilgendahl and McAdams (2011) coded arguments of type A1 in terms of whether the
consequences of an event for personal development were positive, calling this ‘positive processing’.
Blagov and Singer (2004) coded whether memory narratives referred to other, distant parts of life
(argument A6; cf. similarly Bluck & Glück, 2004; Grysman & Hudson, 2010). We believe that some
autobiographical arguments are more effective in integrating an event into the life story than others.
However, this contention remains to be tested.
Some authors devised brief rating scales which order several autobiographical arguments in terms of
how much they contribute to life story coherence. McLean and Pratt (2006) devised a rating scale for
meaning making; Chen et al. (2012) adapted the rating scale for developmental consequentiality in
entire life narratives (see above) for use with single-event narratives; and Waters and Fivush (2014)
proposed a self-functions scale, including any identity-related information, turning point or eye-opening
quality of an event without explanation, and finally with an explanation (similar to A1). The advantage of
rating scales is that they provide a global judgment with better psychometric properties than relative
frequencies of specific autobiographical arguments can offer. On the other hand, ratings are less precise
and objective than counting the frequency of specific autobiographical arguments.
Developmental studies of both single event narratives and of entire life narratives have identified
autobiographical arguments. Three cross-sectional studies collected high, low and turning point
narratives from adolescents, demonstrating age-related increases in the use of autobiographical
arguments across adolescence. Grysman and Hudson (2010) compared 14- and 18-year-olds on meaning
making (A1subj A3subj); McLean, Breen, and Fournier (2010) compared adolescent boys between ages
11 and 18 on meaning making (A1subj A3subj) and the arguments ‘event explains personality (A1obj)
and personality explains event (B2obj); and Chen and colleagues (2012; Chen, 2011) compared
adolescents and young adults aged 12 to 21 on meaning making (A1subj, A3subj) and developmental
consequentiality (rating scale)). In all cases, the turning point narratives had the highest frequency of,
and the steepest age-related increases in, the use of autobiographical arguments. Turning points by
necessity invoke the life story, because they imply a change in the direction of life’s path. Turning points
may reflect deeper processing of the event in order to create coherence across the biographical rupture.
The 11-year-olds did not use meaning making (A1subj, A3subj) once, and very rarely used arguments
explaining personality change based on an event (A1obj; McLean et al., 2010).
The two Frankfurt studies used entire life narratives to measure the frequency of autobiographical
arguments. In the pilot study with 12, 15, and 18 year-olds, participants generally used autobiographical
arguments more frequently with age (Habermas & Paha, 2001). To better describe the lower threshold
of the development of the life story than is possible with mean values for age groups, Table 3 lists the
absolute frequencies of participants of the youngest cohort of the Frankfurt longitudinal study MainLife
(cf. Köber et al., 2015), who used each autobiographical argument at least once. There is a drastic
increase in the use of autobiographical arguments between ages 8 and 16 for the same individuals over
time. If it is true that the life story does not develop before adolescence, then children should use no
autobiographical arguments. Out of the only four autobiographical arguments of 8-year-olds, two lacked
a justification, i.e. they were mere claims that were not backed up by any evidence. The remaining two
arguments belong to the simpler arguments of developmental status and personality explains action.
We therefore claim that autobiographical reasoning is as good as absent at age 8, and definitely absent
in its more complex forms.
Autobiographical reasoning and well-being across adolescence
In the above section, we outlined how autobiographical reasoning develops in adolescence in
both the life story and in single event narratives. A critical question for this literature is the function of
the life story for adolescents. Why does it matter that the life story develops in adolescence? Are these
GETTING A LIFE TAKES TIME 13
changes with age merely an epiphenomenon of adolescents’ developing cognitive capabilities, or do
they matter in any real way for adolescents’ lives? Because coherent life stories are linked theoretically
and empirically to psychological well-being in adulthood (e.g., Baerger & McAdams, 1999; McAdams,
2006), our specific focus is on how life story coherence is related to well-being in adolescence. A recent
review of the overall absent or weak positive effects of expressive writing in adolescence in contrast to
adulthood (Travargin, Margola, & Revenson, 2015) points to the relevance of life story development for
well-being, because the positive effects of expressive writing in adulthood are mediated by processes of
making sense of the experience. To our knowledge, no research has yet been conducted on coherence
of entire life narratives and well-being, so the following review will focus on single event narratives and
well-being. To address our central argument about the importance of autobiographical reasoning, we
review only those studies that measured autobiographical reasoning in critical event narratives which
are likely to evoke autobiographical reasoning, and not studies that measured only the coherence of
other single-event narratives (e.g., Baerger & McAdams, 1999).
Understanding the self and its development is highly valued in Western cultures. Interpreting
and integrating disruptive life events is potentially beneficial for well-being (Pals, 2006; Park, 2010).
More specifically, among 12th graders who reported having experienced a turning point, those who
included learning a lesson or an insight in their turning point narrative reported higher well-being than
those whose narratives did not include meaning making, even after controlling for their earlier well-
being (Tavernier & Willoughby, 2012). In the lifespan sample of the Frankfurt longitudinal study
MainLife, having experienced changes in life circumstances in the past four years led to a lower sense of
self-continuity. Autobiographical reasoning in life narratives, however, compensated for this loss of self-
continuity in those who had experienced biographical disruptions (Habermas & Köber, 2015a).
If one looks at the relation between autobiographical reasoning and well-being irrespective of
the experience of biographical disruptions, however, the two do not always correlate positively (McLean
& Mansfield, 2011). Rather it appears to be important for well-being that regardless of whether the
events included in the life story are positive or negative in valence, autobiographical reasoning leads to a
final positive evaluation of those events (e.g., a young man discovered a positive lesson from his
parents’ divorce that it is important to keep a relationship fresh if it is to endure; Pals Lilgendahl &
McAdams, 2011). In the case of highly negative or traumatic events, however, it appears to be better for
one’s well-being not to position that event as central to one’s identity (Rubin, Dennis & Beckham, 2012;
see Banks & Salmon, 2013 for related arguments).
Our question for this paper is whether these qualified positive connections observed in adults
between autobiographical reasoning and well-being also exist for adolescents. Several studies have now
examined the connection between autobiographical reasoning in critical event narratives and well-being
in adolescents of different ages. Across these studies, the evidence is now becoming strong that a
positive connection exists between autobiographical reasoning and well-being ONLY for older
adolescents and emerging adults, but not for younger adolescents. In our study of over 260 adolescents
from ages 12 to 21, we measured autobiographical arguments in turning point narratives (Reese et al.,
2015). Age moderated the link between developmental consequentiality of narrated events and well-
being, specifically for life satisfaction. For older adolescents and emerging adults (aged 18 to 21 years),
higher levels of developmental consequentiality in turning point narratives linked to higher levels of life
satisfaction; yet for the youngest adolescents in our sample (aged 12 to 14 years), higher levels of
developmental consequentiality in turning point narratives linked to lower levels of life satisfaction.
Crucially, these links were present after we took adolescents’ personality traits of (high)
conscientiousness and (low) neuroticism into account, both of which were strong correlates of life
satisfaction. Thus, the youngest adolescents with the highest levels of autobiographical reasoning were
the least satisfied with their lives. These patterns are similar to those McLean et al. (2010) noted with
adolescent boys from age 11 to 18 years, with a negative link between autobiographical reasoning
GETTING A LIFE TAKES TIME 14
(learning a lesson and insight) in four written narratives (low, high and turning point and a continuity
narrative) and well-being for younger adolescents. Note that McLean and colleagues did not find a
significant positive link between meaning making and well-being for older adolescents, but the oldest
adolescents in that sample were only 18. Even for emerging adults, as explicated above, the positive link
with well-being may be present only when autobiographical reasoning results in positive implications for
the self or if they regard turning points in life. Banks and Salmon (2013), for instance, found that young
adults who reasoned autobiographically about high points and low points with negative implications for
self, or who endorsed a low-point event as central to their identity, had lower instead of higher levels of
well-being. Similarly, autobiographical reasoning in the form of meaning-making (learning a lesson,
insight) about highly negative events was linked to greater depression symptoms for older African-
American adolescent girls (16 to 21 years of age; Sales, Merrill, & Fivush, 2013), but this link was no
longer present once their external locus-of-control was taken into account. It is possible that
autobiographical reasoning is more hazardous for individuals from socially disadvantaged or racially
ostracized groups because they experience more negative and less controllable events. As with adults,
the valence of the reasoning and the nature and controllability of the event are also important
determinants in the link between autobiographical reasoning and well-being for adolescents (e.g.,
Mansfield, McLean, & Pals Lilgendahl, 2010; Pals Lilgendahl & McAdams, 2011).
It is not too surprising that older adolescents and emerging adults are starting to look like adults
in the connections between autobiographical reasoning and well-being. The surprising aspect, of course,
is the negative link between autobiographical reasoning and well-being for younger adolescents, even
for turning point events, which are not typically highly negative. We suspect that younger adolescents
with this pattern are selecting highly negative events as turning points in their lives, and are reasoning
about these negative events in a negative way for self. They are unable to turn these negative events
into a growth experience because of their limited autobiographical reasoning and coping skills. Young
adolescents may also lack the experience that negative events can eventually culminate in positive
outcomes over time.
In the following example, a 13-year-old New Zealand Chinese adolescent boy, Tony, chooses a
highly negative event for his turning point narrative the first time his father hit him in the face for not
doing his homework and claims that the event changed him by making him aggressive like his father.
Tony: All right, since my father’s probably hit me I given a piece of him to me so I’m now a bit
yeah like my dad, um does it make sense?
Interviewer: Okay.
Tony: I’m kind of very aggressive towards other people . . . like ah she’s doing the wrong thing, I - I
react, I don’t mean to over-react, I mean to do it again, but I just stressing out and kind of . . .
doing what my dad does.
Interviewer: Okay, anything else?
Tony: And I just don’t normally trust people . . . the way I should.
After the event narrative, we prompt the adolescents with questions about how old they were, who was
there, and how the event changed their life:
Interviewer: Okay. So when did this happen, how old were you?
Tony: Um I was eight like I said [this event first came up in the life story chapter task administered
prior to the critical event narratives] um . . . the first time my dad hit me . . . I um I ahh, I kind
of, you know how adults have bad behavior and it transferred ‘em to their children, they
copy the bad things, the bad things only. . . .
Interviewer: Mmhmm. Um how did you feel?
Tony: Actually it’s not a really good side of me . . . it’s a very unpleasant side, ah side of me,
because “I’m trying to help you”[as if talking to someone else], [but] the other side I [am]
over-reacting.
GETTING A LIFE TAKES TIME 15
Interviewer: Mmhmm, yeah, um how did the other people feel? Do you know?
Tony: How did the other people feel? Um when I, um over-reacted?
Interviewer: Yeah or you know, you think you’ve changed and . . .
Tony: Well my mum and dad thinks I’m very aggressive, and um the people on the other I’m
growling at might feel unsure, unsecure, cos I‘m growling at them instead of trying to help
them.
Interviewer: Mmhmm. Okay and how did this event change your life?
Tony: Well, I just kind of learnt all my, learnt off my dad.
Clearly Tony is focused only on how this negative event has changed his life for the worse, by making
him aggressive like his father.
Thus, it appears that Bohanek and Fivush’s (2010) prediction about the benefits of narrative
meaning-making is turning out to be accurate: they proposed that adolescents younger than 14 are
unable to resolve the feelings of anxiety and depression that attempts at autobiographical reasoning can
create. For younger adolescents, whose autobiographical reasoning has not fully developed, there is no
evidence yet that their solo efforts toward meaning-making are positively linked to well-being. They may
even have difficulty with the concept of a turning-point event, and especially the concept that a negative
event can have positive spinoffs in the long-term. For younger adolescents, scaffolded autobiographical
reasoning may be necessary to create positive growth, especially from highly negative events (see
McLean & Mansfield, 2011). When older adolescents engage in autobiographical reasoning about
turning points, in contrast, those who are able to take a balanced, integrated view of events
concomitantly experience higher levels of life satisfaction.
The positive connection between autobiographical reasoning and well-being at older ages has
obvious practical importance for young people. Of course, we do not know from these studies whether
autobiographical reasoning plays a causal role in enhancing well-being for older adolescents and young
adults, or in decreasing well-being for younger adolescents. Because young adolescents experience a
rise in depressive symptoms (e.g., Petersen et al., 1993), it seems equally plausible that young
adolescents might begin casting about for reasons why they suddenly feel so much worse than they felt
just one or two years prior. They may become prone to ruminating on negative events from their lives,
combing through each one to discover if this could be the reason for their sour mood. We are both
currently exploring the role of rumination in the connection between autobiographical reasoning and
well-being for young adolescents. We are also following the young adolescents in our sample
longitudinally to discover whether, and if so at what age, this negative link between autobiographical
reasoning and well-being in early adolescence turns positive in the same individuals over time.
Culture and autobiographical reasoning
Undeniably, cultural differences exist in both autobiographical memory and self. Compared to
Western children and adults, East Asian children and adults recall fewer specific memories, and their
autobiographical memory generally begins at a later age in early childhood (see Wang, 2013 for a
review). Wang (2013) interpreted these differences as arising from the Western focus on the
independent, autonomous self in comparison to the East Asian focus on the interdependent, connected
self. We acknowledge that all individuals aspire to develop both independent and interdependent selves
in a complex “coexistence of orientations” (Killen & Wainryb, 2001, p. 17), yet there are identifiable
leanings across cultures toward independence or interdependence (Chandler, 2013). Our question in
this context is whether or not the cultural differences in autobiographical memory, which may reflect a
difference in independence/interdependence orientation, extend to autobiographical reasoning. If so,
what would that difference portend for identity?
Wang (2013) concluded that there is less social support for autobiographical remembering in
interdependently than in independently oriented cultures. We know that East Asian parents are less
GETTING A LIFE TAKES TIME 16
elaborative than Western parents when reminiscing with their young children about personal
experiences (e.g., Wang & Fivush, 2005). As reviewed above, in late childhood and early to mid-
adolescence, maternal reminiscing in Western families is linked to adolescents’ autobiographical
reasoning in critical event narratives (Reese et al., 2010) and in entire life narratives (Habermas et al.,
2010). Early adolescents whose mothers discussed events from early childhood in an elaborative fashion
evince higher levels of meaning making in turning point narratives about life-changing events at age 12
(Reese et al., 2010). Do adolescents in interdependent cultures progress in their autobiographical
reasoning in the same way and at the same rate as adolescents in Western societies?
We collected life story chapters and critical event narratives from adolescents aged 12 to 21
from three cultural subgroups in NZ: indigenous Māori, Chinese, and European (Reese et al., 2014;
2015). Māori adolescents possess dual orientations in that they are more interdependent than
adolescents from the dominant European culture, but simultaneously possess a strong independent self
(Jose & Schurer, 2010). Chinese adolescents in NZ vary in their interdependent orientations, most likely
as a function of their acculturation (Jose & Schurer, 2010). In their life story chapters, the NZ Chinese
adolescents in our sample (over half of whom were born outside NZ) included fewer specific, one-point-
in-time memories compared to NZ European adolescents (Chen et al., 2013), in line with comparisons
between Asian and Western individuals (e.g., Wang, 2006). Critically, only the NZ European adolescents
displayed the expected age-related increases in autobiographical reasoning as measured by the rating of
developmental consequentiality (Reese et al., 2014). For turning point narratives, the Māori and Chinese
adolescents were also lower in their autobiographical reasoning (again, via developmental
consequentiality), but not significantly lower in their local narrative coherence (single-event thematic
coherence) compared to European adolescents (Reese et al., 2015). To our knowledge, this study is the
only cross-cultural study of autobiographical reasoning in adolescence in the literature to date.
The results fit with proposals that young people in interdependent cultures will present less
explicitly elaborated autobiographical selves in terms of autobiographical reasoning, but that they may
find other narrative paths to identity (Chandler, 2013; Dunlop & Walker, 2013; Wang, 2013). For our
Māori adolescents, their local narrative coherence was more developed than their autobiographical
reasoning. Local narrative coherence can rely on other forms of meaning-making through elaboration
of the emotions involved or through a change in their understanding of others or the world than the
explicit focus on self required for the most complex autobiographical arguments in Table 2. In the
following example, Erana, an older Māori adolescent, describes a change in her understanding of the
world as a result of racial bullying. The narrative received maximum credit for local narrative coherence,
but did not reach the highest level of autobiographical reasoning on Chen et al.’s (2012) developmental
consequentiality scale because of the absence of an explicit link to personality. In terms of
autobiographical arguments we find a general insight (A2subj) and a specific lesson learnt (A3subj), but
no argument involving change in personality (A1):
Oh there was this one incident when I went somewhere and they all started talking Māori thinking
I couldn’t understand it ‘cause I was white and, and I answered back to them in Māori and you
know you should have seen their faces but it was just like, OK so because I’m white I have to prove
more so that I’m Māori, but I know brown people that don’t know how to do anything you know
but they don’t have to prove it because they’re brown. So that, that kind of opened the world to
me and up for me and OK, so this is what the world’s like, you know. There are a lot of stereo-types
and so that changed that side of me and that made me more determined. To prove, even though
you shouldn’t have to prove but I do. Like I want to show people that yeah I am and don’t
underestimate me just because I’ve got white skin. You know because it’s not the only factor and
so that, that particular bullying and sort of would have been a big change in how I perceived
things, yeah.
Crucially, however, in the same sample, the links between autobiographical reasoning and well-
GETTING A LIFE TAKES TIME 17
being at different ages were similar across independent and interdependent subcultures. Across all
three groups, as noted above, older adolescents and emerging adults with higher autobiographical
reasoning (developmental consequentiality) reported greater well-being, and younger adolescents with
higher autobiographical reasoning reported lower well-being. Notably, the Māori and Chinese
adolescents in our sample were of similar socioeconomic status to the European adolescents (Reese et
al., 2015). This finding of cultural similarity in links to well-being was somewhat surprising, given the
cultural differences we found in overall levels of autobiographical reasoning. It underscores the
importance of autobiographical reasoning for well-being across cultures.
We speculate that the need to make connections between one’s past and present self is
pressing in contemporary society, regardless of one’s culture. Wang (2013) discussed the presentation
of an autobiographical self through blogging and social networking as a given for most adolescents in
today’s global internet culture (cf. McLean & Breen, 2014). We argue that the need to make sense of
events for oneself is present for adolescents across contemporary cultures. Thus, self-presentational
requirements are ubiquitous, but the way that the self is constructed and presented to others is likely to
differ across cultures and subcultures. For instance, American bloggers reveal more intimate details
about themselves in their blogs, whereas Taiwanese bloggers focus more on social relations (Chen,
2010).
What is the impact of these new methods of self-presentation for autobiographical reasoning
and for identity? We argue that the nature of self-presentation in the virtual world may have an even
larger impact on autobiographical reasoning, and ultimately on identity, than does one’s culture. Around
the world, young people today do much more micro-blogging (e.g., status updates on Twitter and
Facebook) than macro-blogging, and the majority of micro-bloggers now are teenagers (Duggan &
Brenner, 2013). Micro-blogging presents a brief slice of life, not necessarily a narrative, and can be
disconnected from other events. On the other hand, micro-blogging on social networking sites such as
Facebook can offer the adolescent a linear, yet highly selective, representation of self in which
significant events are automatically ordered into a chronological timeline (see Manago, 2015; McLean &
Breen, 2014), supporting at least the development of a rudimentary curriculum vitae-like life story.
Macro-blogging, in contrast, may encourage autobiographical reasoning through the need to present a
coherent, integrated self to a virtual audience. Perhaps its most developed form is the digital life story
(see Lambert, 2013). In future research, it will be interesting to explore the impact of micro- and macro-
blogging on autobiographical reasoning abilities and on identity.
Future research on the development of the life story
We suggest that testing and expanding the existing theoretical model will further solidify and
refine life story theory, and that extending the scope of research to functional and socio-cultural
conditions, and to consequences of the use of the life story, will increasingly demonstrate its significance
for coping with everyday life. While adolescence is relatively well studied, precursors to the life story in
late childhood still need further longitudinal confirmation. Regarding continued development in
adulthood, several studies compared the use of autobiographical arguments in single event narratives in
cross-sectional comparisons across adulthood with somewhat contradictory results (Bluck & Glück,
2004; McLean, 2008; Pasupathi & Mansour, 2006; Singer, Rexhaj & Baddeley, 2007). The one
longitudinal study with more than two adult groups is compatible with McLean’s finding (2008) in
suggesting an increase in causal-motivational coherence up to the mid- to late-20s, and of thematic
coherence up to the 40s (Köber et al., 2015).
Once the life story format is acquired by the end of adolescence, the relative stability of the life
story merits study (Negele & Habermas, 2010). The claims that the life story is an internalized, evolving
story of the self (McAdams, 1985) and that a life story schema is a cognitive representation of a skeletal
version of the life story (Bluck & Habermas, 2000) require a certain stability of life narratives being told
GETTING A LIFE TAKES TIME 18
over time. The more a coherent life story is constructed, the more stable it should become. In addition,
once a life story is constructed, ideally it should flexibly adapt to newly emerging life experiences
without violating basic truth claims (Conway, Singer, & Tagini, 2004), thereby maintaining a sense of
self-continuity.
Finally, the relation between autobiographical reasoning and global coherence in life narratives
may need to be reconsidered once non-Western cultures or special situations or populations are
studied. To date, we considered autobiographical arguments in life narratives to contribute to their
global coherence (Habermas & Bluck, 2000), which was confirmed in a lifespan sample (Köber et al.,
2015). However, in cultures in which the life story is less well-established and in which finding an
individual identity and life course is less normative, extensive autobiographical reasoning may be less
successful because it is less practiced than in Western cultures. There may be undiscovered forms of
narrative meaning-making in non-Western cultures that can only be uncovered through ethnographic
study (see Miller, Fung, & Koven, 2007). Similarly, in acute critical life situations, autobiographical
reasoning may reflect the attempt to create personal continuity and to integrate disruptive experiences
into the life story, yet without success. In these situations, extensive autobiographical reasoning may
express the attempt to create global coherence in a life without succeeding, taking on the form of
rumination.
These considerations point to the significance of the life story in everyday life. Both cross-
cultural studies as well as studies of individuals in life transitions or crises will help test both the
suggested situational influence on the relation between life narrative coherence and autobiographical
reasoning, as well as conditions for autobiographical reasoning to be helpful for bridging biographical
ruptures. Furthermore, studies of the life circumstances and socializing experiences that motivate and
help to develop the life story are needed. Societies with strong requirements for individualized identities
and life courses, and even more so societies which require lifelong adaptations of psychosocial identity,
will promote the life story because it is the most flexible integrative form of identity (Giddens, 1991).
More traditional, rural areas of non-Western countries may demand less of a flexible format of identity.
Listening to stories, reading novels and biographies, and possibly also more complex practices of
biographical self-presentation in the social media create a culture in which autobiographical reasoning is
valued and fostered.
However, the evidence for such a link between societal requirements of lifelong individual
flexibility, media use and life story elaboration is scarce. Habermas and de Silveira (2008) reported a
moderate correlation between autobiographical practices and life narrative coherence. Mar, Peskin and
Fong (2011) found no evidence for a link between reading and the development of the life story, not
because of evidence to the contrary, but due to a lack of studies. A more direct influence might be
exerted by competent life story constructors, especially parents who know their children’s lives, but also
teachers, who scaffold adolescents’ autobiographical reasoning. The little evidence available points in
this direction (Habermas et al., 2010; McLean & Mansfield, 2012; Reese et al., 2010).
As life continues to be lived, the life story needs to evolve by adding new chapters, and by
adjusting and partially rewriting as life experiences illuminate the past in a new light. Thus constructing a
life story is learnt in adolescence, and may from then on maintain a certain stability. However, life story
work remains a lifelong task, depending on how much the existing life story is challenged by real life.
GETTING A LIFE TAKES TIME 19
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GETTING A LIFE TAKES TIME 23
Table 1
Relative Frequencies of Various Indicators of Global Coherence of the Life Story between Ages
Eight to Sixteen
Age Groups__________
Indicator Categories/ 8-10 11-12 13-14 15-16
Values
1) Global textual coherence
Frankfurt Longitudinala
< 50% events 43% 5% 0%
Temporal 50% of events 38% 14% 5%
Orientationb > 50% events 19% 81% 95%
no personality change 100% 67% 24%
Developmental personality change mentioned 0% 33% 43%
Consequentialityc personality change substantiated 0% 0% 33%
absent 81% 48% 14%
Thematic implicit 19% 48% 76%
Coherenced explicit -- 5% 10%
2) Chronological order and evaluation
Arhus Cross-Sectionale
Bohn & Berntsen 2008 Single event 28% 3% 0%
Several events 68% 58% 13%
+ Chronology 5% 40% 88%
Bohn & Berntsen, 2013 Single event 38% 18% 5% 0%
Several events 42% 54% 24% 27%
+ Chronology 20% 29% 71% 73%
3) Beginnings and endings
Frankfurt Longitudinala
Beginnings anytime after birth 74% 57% 33%
at birth 19% 29% 19%
birthdate, -place 0% 14% 48%
Endings anytime in life 86% 10% 0%
present 14% 71% 43%
+ retrospect/prospect 0% 20% 57%
Aarhus Cross-Sectional, Study 1e
Beginnings anytime after birth 60% 25%% 16%
at birth 23% 10%% 3%
birthdate, -place 18% 75% 81%
Endings anytime in life 73% 25% 9%
present 28% 53% 34%
+ retrospect/prospect -- 23% 56%
4) Lifetime periods
New Zealand cross-sectionalf
Chapters with lifetime periods 33% 48% 92% 96%
________________________________________________________
Note. a Longitudinal data for oral life narratives N = 21 initially 8-year-olds, measured
again at ages 12 and 16. For age 8, values are reported for the first of two life narratives.
Unpublished data taken from the study reported by Köber and colleagues (2015). b Values 1-3:
less than half of events are temporally located, 4 half of the events are, 5-7 more than half
of the events are. d Values 1-2: No change in personality mentioned, 3-4: personality change
claimed but not substantiated, 5-7 plausible personality change mentioned. d Values 1-2: No
thematic coherence, 3-4: implicit thematic coherence, 5-7 explicit thematic coherence. e Cross-
sectional data for written life narratives from two independent studies. Study 1 had N 42, 43,
and 37, study 2 had N = 32, 42, 48, 40 participants. f Cross-sectional data from chapter task
from two independent studies. Study 1 had n = 76 8-10 year olds and 48 11-12 year olds. Study 2
had 29 12-14 year olds (M age = 13.52 years).
GETTING A LIFE TAKES TIME 24
Table 2
Autobiographical Arguments Contributing to and Indicating Life Story Coherence,
Arranged in Descending Order of Assumed Centrality to Life Story Coherence
A. Arguments contributing to causal-motivational coherence (change)
AA1 Event explains self-related change
Objective: Event explains change in
personality/values
When I was 17 my father died
unexpectedly/ Up to then I had been a
careless adolescent/ who had never
given a thought about the future/ This
experience turned me into a responsible
adult worrying about life.
Subjective: Event motivates insight
into/reveals personality/values
I had always believed to be an independent
person./ Only when Anna had left me/ and I
could not get over it for over a year/ I
realized/ how much I needed a person close
to me.
A2 Event explains world-related change
Objective: Event changes important life
circumstances
When I went to prison,/ I lost my job
and my house/ and my wife divorced me.
Subjective: Event motivates general
insight/new knowledge/re-evaluation
I was missing him for many months.
/Probably it’s always like that, /when
it’s the first kiss.
A3 Event explains self-related situation-specific change
Objective: Event provides biographical
background for specific sensibility
She really freaked out/ when this guy
touched her./She had been beaten
regularly by her father.
Subjective: Event motivates learning
specific lesson
In my Freshman year I ran over a friend/
when I was driving drunk./ This taught me
never to drive a car/ when I have had as
much as a sip of alcohol
A4 Formative influence of life circumstances/significant others
Objective:
I grew up in poverty/ which has really
shaped the way I deal with goods/ I
just can’t throw away anything.
Subjective:
I grew up in poverty/ which has really
taught me to become a modest person.
A5 Contrasting past to present
Objective: Past state of things
contrasted to present state of things
I was enjoying my life/ and sleeping
around with different women/ I no
longer do that
Subjective: Past subjective view
contrasted to a present subjective view
Then I thought /that personal liberty was
the most important thing in life/ Now I
know /how important it is to keep up
relationships.
A6 Event causally connected with other distant event in life
Objective:
When I was a child/ we used to live in
Japan/ and I learnt the language/ Later
this very much helped me find a job in
international banking
GETTING A LIFE TAKES TIME 25
A7 Concept of lifespan development/developmental status invoked
Objective:
I was only 4 then,/ therefore I didn’t
understand/ why my mother left Dad
B. Arguments contributing to thematic coherence (stability)
B1 Metaphor describes personality or life
Objective:
My life has been like a roller coaster/
with all the ups and downs
B2 Personality explains/is exemplified by an action/event (or not)
Objective:
Personality/value explains action
I defended him against all the
students/ who made fun of him/ because
I can’t bear seeing people being
treated unjustly
Action exemplifies personality/value
I am a person who just can’t stand
injustice/ for example when at my
school everybody made fun of this poor
guy/ I spoke up …
Action dismissed as atypical for self
Everybody made fun of her/ because she
was stuttering/ and I laughed as well/
although usually I am someone /who
treats everybody with respect
B3 Event declared typical for many other events (nuclear episode)
Objective:
I was really afraid of this exam/ but I
didn’t prepare it/ I just tried not to
think of it/ a week before the exam I
was in panic/ and started preparing day
and night/ of course it didn’t help
much./ I have to admit/ that this is my
usual way of dealing with things /I am
afraid of/ I just try to ignore them/
until it’s too late to do something
about them.
B4 Comparing past and unchanged present
Objective: Past state of things is same
as present state of things
I was enjoying my life/ and sleeping
around with different women/ I still do
that
Subjective: Past subjective view is same
as present subjective view
I thought /that personal liberty was the
most important thing in life,/ and I am
still convinced,/ that my freedom is the
most important thing in my life.
GETTING A LIFE TAKES TIME 26
Table 3.
Longitudinal Frequency Distribution of Some Autobiographical Arguments in 21 Eight to
Sixteen-Year-Olds (Number of Participants Who Used an Argument At Least Once; Cohort 1
from Frankfurt Longitudinal Study MainLife, cf. Köber et al., 2015)
Age ____.
Indicator 8 12 16
A1obj Event explains change in personality 0 6 9
A1subj Event motivates insight into personality 0 0 1
A2subj Event motivates general insight - no justification 1 4 2
- justified 0 1 4
A3obj Biographical background for a sensibility 0 2 4
A3subj Event motivates learning a lesson 0 1 3
A4obj Formative influences - no justification 1 3 11
- justified 0 1 7
A7obj Developmental status 1 6 9
B2obj Personality explains/exemplified by action 2 4 12
B2obj Action is dismissed as atypical 0 1 1
GETTING A LIFE TAKES TIME 27
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