The empirical structure of narrative identity: The initial big three

Kate C. McLean, Moin Syed, Monisha Pasupathi, Jonathan M. Adler, William L. Dunlop, David Drustrup, Robyn Fivush, Matthew E. Graci, Jennifer P. Lilgendahl, Jennifer Lodi-Smith, Dan P. McAdams, Tara P. McCoy

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

96 Scopus citations


A robust empirical literature suggests that individual differences in the thematic and structural aspects of life narratives are associated with and predictive of psychological well-being. However, 1 limitation of the current field is the multitude of ways of capturing these narrative features, with little attention to overarching dimensions or latent factors of narrative that are responsible for these associations with well-being. In the present study we uncovered a reliable structure that accommodates commonly studied features of life narratives in a large-scale, multi-university collaborative effort. Across 3 large samples of emerging and midlife adults responding to various narrative prompts (N = 855 participants, N = 2,565 narratives), we found support for 3 factors of life narratives: motivational and affective themes, autobiographical reasoning, and structural aspects. We also identified a "functional" model of these 3 factors that reveals a reduced set of narrative features that adequately captures each factor. Additionally, motivational and affective themes was the factor most reliably related to well-being. Finally, associations with personality traits were variable by narrative prompt. Overall, the present findings provide a comprehensive and robust model for understanding the empirical structure of narrative identity as it relates to well-being, which offers meaningful theoretical contributions to the literature, and facilitates practical decision making for researchers endeavoring to capture and quantify life narratives.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)920-944
Number of pages25
JournalJournal of personality and social psychology
Issue number4
StatePublished - Oct 2020

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
We thank the Foley Center grant to Dan McAdams for the funding of Sample 2, and Gina Logan for managing the project. We thank the following coders: Justin Poh and Sophia Seitz (Olin College of Engineer- ing); Sammy Loch, Lexi Lowe, Alyssa Goodwin, Kristin Sarjeant, and Sierra Combs (Western Washington University); Will Hynes, Misty Co-plan, Leith Christensen, Aydin Tasevac, Will Giddings, and Mekayla Brooks (University of Utah); Beth Rakowski, Charlotte Bamford, Furon Hilliard, Hatun Almhanna, Helena Mazurek, Helen Capita, Haylie Virginia, Jerrell Lanos, Kayla Markott, Laura Anderson, Melanie Nyhan, Max Rosenthal, Megan Stoll, Rufina Tsur-Tsar, Sara Cunningham, Sara Di-Mayo, and Steve Zafuto (Canisius College). We also thank the following institutions for helping to fund several meetings at which this project was developed: Emory University, The Foley Center at Northwestern University, Haverford College, University of California at Riverside, University of Utah, Western Washington University, Canisius College, Connecticut College, and Olin College of Engineering. Please find narrative prompts, coding systems, a list of papers using the datasets, analytic code, available datafiles, and additional supplemental tables for this study on: https://osf .io/sb9f5/.

Publisher Copyright:
© 2019 American Psychological Association.


  • Life stories
  • Narrative identity
  • Personality structure
  • Well-being

PubMed: MeSH publication types

  • Journal Article


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