Skip to main content Accessibility help
  • Print publication year: 2020
  • Online publication date: May 2020

21 - Narrative and Identity

from Part III - Aging in a Socioemotional Context


The personal past is a critical aspect of identity in adulthood, especially in the later phases of life. This chapter reviews theories and empirical evidence on how personal memories are reconstructed over time in life stories. It starts with a historical overview, next describes the functional approach that focuses on why people remember, continues with the self-memory system that provides insight in how specific memories are related to the self-concept, and finally adds a narrative perspective on how people attribute meaning to their past. The chapter takes a life-span developmental approach with a particular focus on later life. It is concluded that the construction of meaning in personal stories about the past is a ubiquitous and adaptive process. Processes of evaluation and reinterpretation of personal memories enable people to maintain a sense of self and share with others the biographical story of how their unique life has unfolded.

Abram, M., Picard, L., Navarro, B., & Piolino, P. (2014). Mechanisms of remembering the past and imagining the future. Consciousness and Cognition: An International Journal, 29, 7689. doi: 10.1016/j.concog.2014.07.011
Adler, J. M., & Poulin, M. J. (2009). The political is personal: Narrating 9/11 and psychological well‐being. Journal of Personality, 77(4), 903932. doi: 10.1111/j.1467-6494.2009.00569.x
Alea, N., Bluck, S., & Ali, S. (2015). Function in context: Why American and Trinidadian young and older adults remember the personal past. Memory, 24, 5568. doi: 10.1080/09658211.2014.929704
Baddeley, A. (1988). But what the hell is it for? In Gruneberg, M. M., Morris, P. E., & Sykes, R. N. (Eds.), Practical aspects of memory: Current research and issues (Vol. 1, pp. 318). Oxford: Wiley.
Baltes, P. B., & Smith, J. (2003). New frontiers in the future of aging: From successful aging of the young old to the dilemmas of the fourth age. Gerontology, 49, 123135. doi: 10.1159/000067946
Baron, J. M., & Bluck, S. (2009). Autobiographical memory sharing in everyday life: Who tells better stories? International Journal of Behavioural Development, 33, 105117. doi: 10.1177/0165025408098039
Bauer, J. J., & McAdams, D. P. (2004). Personal growth in adults’ stories of life transition. Journal of Personality, 73, 573602. doi: 10.1111/j.0022-3506.2004.00273.x
Birren, J. E. (1958). Why study aging? American Psychologist, 13(6), 292296. doi: 10.1037/h0042971
Birren, J. E., & Deutchman, D. E. (1991). Guiding autobiography groups with older adults. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.
Bluck, S. (2003). Autobiographical memory: Exploring its functions in everyday life. Memory, 11, 113123. doi: 10.1080/741938206
Bluck, S., & Alea, N. (2002). Exploring the functions of autobiographical memory: Why do I remember the autumn? In Webster, J. D. & Haight, B. K. (Eds.), Critical Advances in Reminiscence: From Theory to Application (pp. 6175). New York: Springer.
Bluck, S., & Alea, N. (2008). Remembering being me: The self-continuity function of autobiographical memory in younger and older adults. In Sani, F. (Ed.), Self-continuity: Individual and collective perspectives (pp. 5570). New York: Psychology Press.
Bluck, S., & Alea, N. (2011). Crafting the TALE: Construction of a measure to assess the functions of autobiographical remembering. Memory, 19, 470486. doi: 10.1080/09658211.2011.590500
Bluck, S., Alea, N., & Ali, S. (2014). Remembering the historical roots of remembering the personal past. Applied Cognitive Psychology, 28, 290300. doi: 10.1002/acp.2987
Bluck, S., Alea, N., Baron-Lee, J. M., & Davis, D. K. (2016). Story asides as a useful construct in examining adults’ story recall. Psychology and Aging, 31, 4257. doi: 10.1037/a0039990
Bluck, S., Alea, N., & Demiray, B. (2010). You get what you need: The psychosocial functions of remembering. In Mace, J. (Ed.), The act of remembering: Toward an understanding of how we recall the past. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley-Blackwell.
Bluck, S., & Levine, L. J. (1998). Reminiscence as autobiographical memory: A catalyst for reminiscence theory development. Ageing and Society, 18, 185208. 10.1017/S0144686X98006862
Bluck, S., & Liao, H. W. (2013). I was therefore I am: Creating self-continuity through remembering our personal past. International Journal of Reminiscence and Life Review, 1, 712.
Bohlmeijer, E. T., Westerhof, G. J., & Lamers, S. (2014). The development and initial validation of the narrative foreclosure scale. Aging and Mental Health, 18(7), 879888. doi: 10.1080/13607863.2014.896865
Bohlmeijer, E. T., Westerhof, G. J., Randall, W. W., Tromp, T. T., & Kenyon, G. G. (2011). Narrative foreclosure in later life: Preliminary considerations for a new sensitizing concept. Journal of Aging Studies, 25, 364370. doi: 10.1016/j.jaging.2011.01.003
Bohn, A., & Berntsen, D. (2013). Cultural life scripts and the development of personal memories. In Bauer, P. & Fivush, R. (Eds.), The Wiley handbook on the development of children’s memory (Vol. 1, pp. 626644). Chichester, UK: Wiley-Blackwell.
Brandtstädter, J., & Greve, W. (1994). The aging self: Stabilizing and protective processes. Developmental Review, 14(1), 5280. doi: 10.1006/drev.1994.1003
Brockmeier, J. (2000).Autobiographical time. Narrative Inquiry, 10(1), 5173. doi: 10.1075/ni.10.1.03bro
Bruner, J. S. (1990). Acts of meaning. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Butler, R. N. (1963). The life review: An interpretation of reminiscence in the aged. Psychiatry, 26, 6576. doi: 10.1007/978-3-662-38534-0_20
Campbell, J. D., Trapnell, P. D., Heine, S. J., et al. (1996). Self-concept clarity. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 70(1), 141156. doi: 10.1037/0022-3514.70.1.141
Carstensen, L. L. (2006). The influence of a sense of time on human development. Science, 312(5782), 19131915. doi: 10.1126/science.1127488
Coleman, P. G. (1986). Ageing and reminiscence processes: Social and clinical implications. Oxford, UK: John Wiley & Sons.
Conway, M. A. (2005). Memory and the self. Journal of Memory and Language, 53, 594628. doi: 10.1016/j.jml.2005.08.005
Conway, M. A., & Pleydell-Pearce, C. W. (2000). The construction of autobiographical memories in the self-memory system. Psychological Review, 107, 261288. doi: 10.1037/0033-295X.107.2.261
de Beauvoir, S. (1972). The coming of age. New York: Putnam.
de Medeiros, K. (2005). The complementary self: Multiple perspectives on the aging person. Journal of Aging Studies, 19(1), 113. doi: 10.1016/j.jaging.2004.02.001
Demiray, B., & Bluck, S. (2011). The relation of the conceptual self to recent and distant autobiographical memories. Memory, 19, 975992. doi: 10.1080/09658211.2011.626427
Demiray, B., Gülgöz, S., & Bluck, S. (2009). Examining the life story account of the reminiscence bump: Why we remember more from young adulthood. Memory, 17(7), 708723. doi: 10.1080/09658210902939322
Demiray, B., Mischler, M., Martin, M., & Knight, B. G. (2017). Reminiscence in everyday conversations: A naturalistic observation study of older adults. Journals of Gerontology, Series A: Biological Sciences and Medical Sciences, 74(5), 745755. doi: 10.1093/geronb/gbx141
Erikson, E. H. (1950). Growth and crises of the “healthy personality.” In Senn, M. J. E. (Ed.), Symposium on the healthy personality (pp. 91146). Oxford, UK: Macy.
Fivush, R. (2011). The development of autobiographical memory. Annual Review of Psychology, 62, 559582. doi: 10.1146/annurev.psych.121208.131702
Fivush, R., Habermas, T., Waters, T., & Zaman, W. (2011). The making of autobiographical memory: Intersections of culture, narratives and identity. International Journal of Psychology, 46(5), 321345. doi: 10.1080/00207594.2011.596541
Ford, J. H., DiGirolamo, M. A., & Kensinger, E. A. (2016). Age influences the relation between subjective valence ratings and emotional word use during autobiographical memory retrieval. Memory, 24, 10231032. doi: 10.1080/09658211.2015.1061016
Freeman, M. (2000). When the story’s over: Narrative foreclosure and the possibility of self-renewal. In Andrews, M., Sclater, S. D., Squire, C., Treacher, A. (Eds.), Lines of narrative: Psychosocial perspectives (pp. 8191). New York: Routledge.
Fry, P. S. (1991). Individual differences in reminiscence among older adults: Predictors of frequency and pleasantness ratings of reminiscence activity. International Journal of Aging and Human Development, 33, 311326. doi: 10.2190/LFH1-CNDQ-GJ7Y-LTJF
Glueck, J., & Bluck, S. (2007). Looking back across the lifespan: A life story account of the reminiscence bump. Memory and Cognition, 35, 19281939. doi: 10.3758/BF03192926
Haber, D. (2006). Life review: Implementation, theory, research, and therapy. International Journal of Aging and Human Development, 63(2), 153171. doi: 10.2190/DA9G-RHK5-N9JP-T6CC
Habermas, T., & Bluck, S. (2000). Getting a life: The emergence of the life story in adolescence. Psychological Bulletin, 126, 748769. doi: 10.1037/0033-2909.126.5.748
Habermas, T., & de Silveira, C. (2008). The development of global coherence in life narratives across adolescence: Temporal, causal, and thematic aspects. Developmental Psychology, 44, 707721. doi: 10.1037/0012-1649.44.3.707
Harris, C. B., Rasmussen, A. S., & Berntsen, D. (2013). The functions of autobiographical memory: An integrative approach. Memory, 22, 559581. doi: 10.1080/09658211.2013.806555
Hyman, I. E., & Faries, J. M. (1992). The functions of autobiographical memory. In Conway, M. A., Rubin, D. C., Spinnler, H., & Wagenaar, J. W. A. (Eds.), Theoretical perspectives on autobiographical memory (pp. 207221). Amsterdam: Kluwer.
James, W. ([1890]1950). Principles of psychology. New York: Dover.
Jung, C. G. (1933). Modern man in search of a soul. New York: Harvest.
Kamiya, S. (2014). Relationship between frequency of involuntary autobiographical memories and cognitive failure. Memory, 22(7), 839851. doi: 10.1080/09658211.2013.838630
Kenyon, G., Bohlmeijer, E. T., & Randall, W. L. (Eds.) (2011). Storying later life. New York: Oxford University Press.
King, L. A., Scollon, C. K., Ramsey, C., & Williams, T. (2000). Stories of life transition: Subjective well-being and ego development in parents of children with Down syndrome. Journal of Research In Personality, 34(4), 509536. doi: 10.1006/jrpe.2000.2285
Köber, C., Schmiedek, F., & Habermas, T. (2015). Characterizing lifespan development of three aspects of coherence in life narratives: A cohort-sequential study. Developmental Psychology, 51(2), 260275. doi: 10.1037/a0038668
Laceulle, H. (2016). Becoming who you are: Aging, self-realization, and cultural narratives about later life. Utrecht: University of Humanistic Studies.
Liao, H. W., Bluck, S., Alea, N., & Cheng, C. L. (2016). Functions of autobiographical memory in Taiwanese and American emerging adults. Memory, 24(4), 423436. doi: 10.1080/09658211.2015.1015572
Liao, H. W., Bluck, S., & Westerhof, G. J. (2017). Longitudinal relations between self-defining memories and self-esteem: Mediating roles of meaning-making and memory function. Imagination, Cognition and Personality, 37, 318341. doi: 10.1177/0276236617733840
Luchetti, M., & Sutin, A. R. (2018). Age differences in autobiographical memory across the adult lifespan: Older adults report stronger phenomenology. Memory, 26(1), 117130. doi: 10.1080/09658211.2017.1335326
Mace, J. H. (2007). Involuntary memory: Concept and theory. In Mace, J. H. (Ed.), Involuntary memory (pp. 119). Malden, MA: Blackwell.
Mace, J. H., & Atkinson, E. (2009). Can we determine the functions of everyday involuntary autobiographical memories? In Kelley, M. R. (Ed.), Applied memory (pp. 199212). New York: Nova.
McAdams, D. P. (1996). Personality, modernity, and the storied self: A contemporary framework for studying persons. Psychological Inquiry, 7, 295321. doi: 10.1207/s15327965pli0704_1
McAdams, D. P. (2001). The psychology of life stories. Review of General Psychology, 5, 100122. doi: 10.1037/1089-2680.5.2.100
McAdams, D. P. (2006). The problem of narrative coherence. Journal of Constructivist Psychology, 19, 109125. doi: 10.1080/10720530500508720
McAdams, D. P., & McLean, K. C. (2013). Narrative identity. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 22(3), 233238. doi: 10.1177/0963721413475622
McLean, K. C. (2005). Late adolescent identity development: Narrative meaning making and memory telling. Developmental Psychology, 41, 683691. doi: 10.1037/0012-1649.41.4.683
McLean, K. C. (2008). Stories of the young and the old: Personal continuity and narrative identity. Developmental Psychology, 44(1), 254–164. doi: 10.1037/2F0012-1649.44.1.254
McLean, K. C., & Mansfield, C. D. (2010). To reason or not to reason: Is autobiographical reasoning always beneficial? New Directions for Child and Adolescent Development, 131, 8597. doi: 10.1002/cd.291
McLean, K. C., Pasupathi, M., & Pals, J. L. (2007). Selves creating stories creating selves: A process model of self-development. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 11(3), 262278. doi: 10.1177/1088868307301034
Neisser, U. (1978). Memory: What are the important questions? In Gruneberg, M. M., Morris, P., & Sykes, R. H. (Eds.), Practical aspects of memory (pp. 324). New York: Academic Press.
Neisser, U. (1988). Five kinds of self-knowledge. Philosophical Psychology, 1, 3559. doi: 10.1080/09515088808572924
Neugarten, B. L. (1973). Personality change in late life: A developmental perspective. In Eisdorfer, C. & Lawton, M. (Eds.), The psychology of adult development and aging (pp. 311335). Washington: American Psychological Association.
Parker, R. G. (1995). Reminiscence: A community theory framework.Gerontologist, 35(4), 515525. doi: 10.1093/geront/35.4.515
Pasupathi, M., & Mansour, E. (2006). Adult age differences in autobiographical reasoning in narratives. Developmental Psychology, 42(5), 798808. doi: 10.1037/0012-1649.42.5.798
Pillemer, D. B. (1992). Remembering personal circumstances: A functional analysis. In Winograd, E. & Neisser, U. (Eds.), Emory symposia in cognition. Affect and accuracy in recall: Studies of “flashbulb” memories (Vol. 4 pp. 236264). New York: Cambridge University Press.
Pinquart, M., & Forstmeier, S. (2012). Effects of reminiscence interventions on psychosocial outcomes: A meta-analysis. Aging and Mental Health, 16, 541558. doi: 10.1080/13607863.2011.651434
Prebble, S. C., Addis, D. R., & Tippett, L. J. (2013). Autobiographical memory and sense of self. Psychological Bulletin, 139(4), 815840. doi: 10.1037/a0030146
Randall, W. L., & McKim, E. (2008). Reading our lives: The poetics of growing old. New York: Oxford University Press.
Rasmussen, A. S., Johannessen, K. B., & Berntsen, D. (2014). Ways of sampling voluntary and involuntary autobiographical memories in daily life. Consciousness and Cognition: An International Journal, 30, 156168. doi: 10.1016/j.concog.2014.09.008
Rasmussen, A. S., Ramsgaard, S., & Berntsen, D. (2015). Frequency and functions of involuntary and voluntary autobiographical memories across the day. Psychology of Consciousness: Theory, Research, and Practice, 2(2), 185205. doi: 10.1037/cns0000042
Ros, L., Latorre, J. M., Serrano, J. P., & Ricarte, J. J. (2017). Overgeneral autobiographical memory in healthy young and older adults: Differential age effects on components of the capture and rumination, functional avoidance, and impaired executive control (CaRFAX) model. Psychology and Aging, 32(5), 447459. doi: 10.1037/pag0000175
Rubin, D. C., Rahhal, T. A., & Poon, L. W. (1998). Things learned in early adulthood are remembered best. Memory and Cognition, 26(1), 319. doi: 10.3758/BF03211366
Singer, J., Rexhaj, B., & Baddeley, J. (2007). Older, wiser, and happier? Comparing older adults’ and college students’ self-defining memories. Memory, 15(8), 886898. doi: 10.1080/09658210701754351
Skultety, K. M., & Whitbourne, S. K. (2004). Gender differences in identity processes and self-esteem in middle and later adulthood. Journal of Women and Aging, 16, 175188. doi: 10.1300/J074v16n01_12
Svensson, C. (2018). Special issue in honor of James Emmett Birren (1918–2016). International Journal of Reminiscence and Life Review, 5(1), 1.
Timmer, E., Westerhof, G. J., & Dittmann-Kohli, F. (2005). “When looking back on my past life I regret … ”: Retrospective regret in the second half of life. Death Studies, 29(7), 625644. doi: 10.1080/07481180591004660
Watt, L. M., & Wong, P. T. (1991). A taxonomy of reminiscence and therapeutic implications. Journal of Gerontological Social Work, 16(1–2), 3757. doi: 10.1300/J083v16n01_04
Webster, J. D. (1997). The reminiscence functions scale: A replication. International Journal of Aging and Human Development, 44(2), 137148. doi: 10.2190/AD4D-813D-F5XN-W07G
Webster, J. D., & McCall, M. E. (1999). Reminiscence functions across adulthood: A replication and extension. Journal of Adult Development, 6(1), 7385. doi: 10.1023/A:1021628525902
Westerhof, G. J. (2009). Identity construction in the third age: The role of self-narratives. In Hartung, H. & Maierhofer, R. (Eds.), Narratives of lives: Mediating age (pp. 5569). Münster: LIT.
Westerhof, G. J. (2018). Life review: Lifespan development, meaning processes, and interventions. In Gibson, F. (Ed.), International perspectives on reminiscence, life review, and life story work (pp. 312326). London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers.
Westerhof, G. J., & Bohlmeijer, E. T. (2012). Life stories and mental health: The role of identification processes in theory and interventions. Narrative Works, 2(1), 106128.
Westerhof, G. J., & Bohlmeijer, E. T. (2014). Celebrating fifty years of research and applications in reminiscence and life review: State of the art and new directions. Journal of Aging Studies, 29, 107114. doi: 10.1016/j.jaging.2014.02.003
Westerhof, G. J., Bohlmeijer, E. T., & Webster, J. D. (2010). Reminiscence and mental health: A review of recent progress in theory, research and interventions. Ageing and Society, 30(4), 697721. doi: 10.1017/S0144686X09990328
Wilson, A. E., & Ross, M. (2003). The identity function of autobiographical memory: Time is on our side. Memory, 11(2), 137149. doi: 10.1080/741938210
Wong, P. T., & Watt, L. M. (1991). What types of reminiscence are associated with successful aging? Psychology and Aging, 6(2), 272279. doi: 10.1037/0882-7974.6.2.272