Life Story Narrative as a Means of Investigating Personality

Like the first three domains of personality, the use of narrative methods in multimethod research is a novel occurrence, yet has thus far been informative to the understanding of individual differences. Qualitative assessments of personality begin at the most basic level with the case study and progress to rigorously assessed structured interviews (McAdams, 1996, 1999). Qualitative data is frequently gathered in the form of open-ended questions concerning a topic of interest to the researcher. Consistent with the perspective that each domain of personality is arranged hierarchically, qualitative data can be examined at both the micro- and macrolevels. Microlevel assessment is concerned with specific linguistic patterns within the narrative such as pronoun usage or specific word type frequencies (e.g., Pennebaker & Francis, 1996). In contrast, macrolevel assessment focuses on the broad themes throughout a narrative, such as redemption sequences (McAdams, Reynolds, Lewis, Patten, & Bowman, 2001). Such thematic coding is often developed by the researchers after listening to interviews or reading written narratives. Trained coders can then rate each qualitative datum on the varying themes of interest. Topics that are open to narrative methods are limited only by the creativity and ambition of the researcher, and the richness of the data can afford multiple opportunities to better understand the personality of an individual. For example, McAdams' life story interview (McAdams, 1996, 1999) asks people to describe low points, turning points, and religious beliefs among other experiences. Each of these stories can be examined individually for specific types of experiences (e.g., questioning of parents' religious beliefs, difficult times) to broad life-span themes, such as agency and communion. Qualitative data can thus be converted into data that is quantitatively assessable without losing the nuances of the qualitative form. Additionally, excerpts from qualitative data may be used to reiterate a theoretical point. Examples from three studies will help to illuminate these methodologies. A substantial amount of narrative research concerns the reaction of an individual to difficult life events in his or her life. Theoretically, the manner in which an individual responds to traumatic experiences that threaten his or her view of self and the surrounding world is critical for understanding the identity of that individual. If an individual is able to construct a coherent self from a difficult life event, he or she is considered to have a healthy identity.

A recent multimethod study provides a clear example of the utility of the narrative approach. Parents of children with Down syndrome were contacted through a support group mailing list as well as through area hospitals (King, Scollon, Ramsey, & Williams, 2000). The parents were initially asked self-report questions concerning well-being, administered a projective test of ego development, and asked to write a story about when they were first told that their child had Down syndrome. Two years after the initial assessment, parents again responded to self-report measures of well-being and a projective measure of ego development. The narratives were assessed by three independent raters for themes of accommodation (exploration, shifts in perspective, activity) and closed (denial, negative affect). Parents who were low in ego development at Time 1 who wrote in an accommodative manner demonstrated increased ego development 2 years later. Parents who wrote narratives in both an accommodative and closure style had higher feelings of stress-related growth at the 2-year follow-up. This research provides an example of how healthy processing (i.e., exploring the impact of the event on the self and discovering a positive resolution about this experience) of difficult events on an individual level allows for healthier, more mature functioning later in life (King et al., 2000).

Helson (1992) examined more general identity threatening events in the writing of women's difficult life experiences in an ongoing, multimethod longitudinal study. Information was gathered about the age at which women experienced difficult, identity-changing life events and various personality factors that influenced the onset of such experiences. In addition, information about identity status (achieved, moratorium, foreclosed, and diffuse) was used to understand the meaning and effect of difficult times. Women who had a diffuse identity presented more themes related to negative evaluations of themselves. Foreclosed women wrote mainly about having bad partners or overload. Achieved/moratorium women wrote primarily about becoming psychologically independent and its consequences. Additionally, as women's vulnerability began to decrease and confidence began to increase on personality measures around 30 years of age, an increase in identity themes occurs. This research suggests that the rewriting of the life story occurs in middle age for women, and that this is associated with an increased importance of independence, which is in turn related to healthy identity functioning.

Pals (2005) combined the narratives of the women in the Mills study with themes parallel to those of King et al. (2000) to illustrate not only the correlation between personality on the trait level and narrative level, but also the dynamic interactive processes of trait and narrative conceptualizations of personality. Narratives from women who had participated in the longitudinal study described earlier (Helson, 1992) were coded for themes of resolution (overall resolution, positive ending, low negative ending, low lasting wounds, coherent ending) and impact on self (open response, narrative complexity, low self-distancing, acknowledged wounds, positive self-transformation, and active approach). These two dimensions were then used in conjunction with age 21 and age 52 responses to personality measures of open versus defensive coping (a combination of tolerance of ambiguity and reverse scored repression) and ego-resiliency to predict physical and psychological health outcomes at age 61. Findings demonstrated that whereas coping openness at age 21 was related to clinician-rated maturity at age 61, this relation was mediated by the extent to which women composed a narrative that was open to expressing the impact of the negative events on the self. Further, whereas a resolved narrative was related to subjective well-being at age 61, this effect was mediated by ego resiliency at ages 21 and 52, suggesting a dynamic interaction of trait and narrative personality in relation to healthy functioning.

Qualitative research provides the researcher with an ability to not only examine the individual, but also the world in which the individual exists and the events that precipitate change in the individual, thus providing a complex and invaluable source of data for understanding the person as a whole. Used in combination with other methods, it is clear that narrative data can not only add a deeper, more complex understanding of basic psychological phenomena, but also account for important variance in addition to standard methods, such as self-reported personality traits.

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