It Starts With the Negative, and Ends With the Positive

New research by UC Riverside psychology professor finds that life experience influences narrative story construction

William Dunlop

RIVERSIDE, Calif. ( – Among college students, the tendency to frame a life story in a redemptive manner (narrative begins negatively, but ends positively, such as when someone construes failing a chemistry class as leading to a promising career in a different area) increases from freshman to senior year. That is according to a new study by William Dunlop, assistant professor of psychology at the University of California, Riverside. The study, “The Autobiographical Author Through Time: Examining the Degree of Stability and Change in Redemptive and Contaminated Personal Narratives,” appears in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science.

“Previous research has shown that the tendency to construct redemptive stories is associated with a host of positive outcome variables, including well-being and prosocial behavior,” explained Dunlop. “But, we were the first to examine the degree of stability and change in the tendency to construct a life story or narrative identity that was redemptive in nature.”

The team of researchers studied three age groups – the first was made up of college freshmen and the second was college seniors. Both groups were followed for three years.  The final group was made up of midlife adults who were followed for five years.

Dunlop noted two main findings:

  • Among college freshmen, the tendency to frame their lives in redemptive terms increased as they progressed throughout college, but decreased after graduation. “One explanation for this finding is that young narrators may have the tendency to experiment with their identity as they begin engaging in this type of storied form of self-understanding,” explained Dunlop. “It’s possible that they moved away from a narrow self-identity to a more socially approved sense of self-understanding.”
  • Among midlife adults, Dunlop found that changes over time in the tendency to construct redemptive stories were predicted by the occurrence of a life event. In this case the researchers looked at a change in employment status, which could mean job loss, retirement, and accepting a new position. “This second point is particularly interesting, because it is the first study to show that the development of narrative identity is influenced by the occurrence of certain life experiences,” said Dunlop.

Given that experiencing a change in one’s occupational status is known to create lower morale and heightened stress, the team of researchers predicted and found that experiencing a shift in employment status corresponded with a decrease in redemptive story construction.  “Several research groups have shown that the occurrence of life events often predicts subsequent developments in personality traits, but never at the level of narrative identity.”

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