Last updated: May 28, 2004

[Narrative Psychology]

 Topics in Narrative Psychology

 Personality, Psychobiography, and Psychology of the Life Story

"We create ourselves out of the stories we tell about our lives, stories that impose purpose and meaning on experiences that often seem random and discontinuous. As we scrutinize our own past in the effort to explain ourselves to ourselves, we discover - or invent - consistent motivations, characteristic patterns, fundamental values, a sense of self. Fashioned out of memories, our stories become our identities." --Drew Gilpin Faust, Harvard Magazine (2003)


Background  ||  Internet  ||  Bibliographical  ||  Theorists


Background Issues

This section deals with approaches to the study of personality and its development which are informed by intensive study of the individual life story over time. These approaches have been variously called "psychobiography," "biographical psychology," or "life story psychology." Individuals are studied across their lifespan from the perspective of the question: how can one understand their development psychologically? This approach has undergone scholarly development from the earlier basic work done by personality psychologists such as Henry Murray as well as other psychologists (e.g., Erikson) and historians using psychoanalytic tools by which to understand key individuals, e.g., Hitler and Gandhi among others. The initial set of resources here were drawn from Runyan (1996; see below). Since the mid-1980, extensive research in this tradition has been undertaken by Dan P. McAdams and his colleagues at Northwestern.

Theorists*Key Figures

Internet Resouces

Foley Center for the Study of Lives [Northwestern University]

Henry A. Murray Research Center [Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study; Harvard University]

Psychobiography [Todd Schultz, Pacific University]

Homepage: William MacKinley Runyan [UC Berkeley] The Homepage of Dr. Alan C. Elms [U California, Davis]


Bibliographical Resources

Alexander, I. (1990). Personology: Method and content in personality assessment and psychobiography. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Alexander, I. (1992). Silvan Samuel Tomkins (1911-1991). American Psychologist, 47, 1674-1675.

Anderson, J. W. (1981). The methodology of psychological biography. Journal of Interdisciplinary History, 2, 455-75. 

Anderson, J. W. (1988). Henry A. Murray's early career: A psychobiographical exploration. Journal of Personality, 56, 139-171.

[Subhead Icon] Rae S. Carlson

Carlson, R. (1971). Where is the person in personality research? Psychological Bulletin, 75, 203-219.

In her analysis of empirical research published in several journals devoted to personality, Carlson underscores significant methodological limitations (e.g., use of college student volunteers, gender imbalance, single instance data collection, deception, etc.) and the lack of substantial progress in understanding the actual functioning of persons.

Carlson, S. (1975). Personality. Annual Review of Psychology, 26, 393-414.

Influential literature review which detailed the emergence of personology and other innovative approaches to the study of personality.

Carlson, R. (1981). Studies in script theory: I. Adult analogs of a childhood nuclear scene. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 40, 501-510.

Discusses S. S. Tomkins' script theory as a breakthrough approach to understanding personality. Exemplifies the theory with a case study.

Carlson, R. (1982). Studies in script theory: II. Altruistic nuclear scene. Perceptual and Motor Skills, 55, 595-610.

Carlson, R. (1988). Exemplary lives: The uses of psychobiography for theory development. Journal of Personality, 56, 105-138.

Carlson, R. (1995). Silvan Tomkins's legacy: A grand theory of personality. In V. Demos (Ed). Exploring affect: The selected writings of Silvan S. Tomkins (pp. 295-300). Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Demos, V. (Ed.). (1995). Exploring affect: The selected writings of Silvan S. Tomkins. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Elms, A. C. (1993.) Allport's Personality and Allport's personality. In K. M. Craik, R. T. Hogan, & R. N. Wolfe (Eds.), Fifty years of personality psychology, (pp. 39-55). New York: Plenum.

Elms, A. C. (1994). Uncovering lives: The uneasy alliance of biography and psychology. New York: Oxford University Press. [BF39.4 .E46 1994] [Comments, table of contents, and sample chapter (#1) from Elms' site]

Franz, C., & Stewart, A. (Eds.). (1994). Women creating lives: Identities, resilience, and resistance. Boulder, CO: Westview Press.

Heller, B., & Elms, A. C. (1994). Elvis Presley: Character and charisma. In G. DePaoli (Ed.), Elvis + Marilyn: 2 x Immortal (pp. 73-97). New York: Rizzoli

[Subhead Icon] Dan P. McAdams

McAdams, D. P. (1985). Power, intimacy, and the life story: Personological inquiries into identity. New York: Guilford Press.

McAdams, D. P. (1993). The stories we live by: Personal myths and the making of the self. New York: Morrow.

McAdams, D. P. (1995). What do we know when we know a person? Journal of Personality, 63, 365-396.

McAdams, D. P. (1996). Personality, modernity, and the storied self: A contemporary framework for studying persons. Psychological Inquiry, 7, 295-321.

McAdams, D. P. (1997). The case for unity in the (post)modern self: A modest proposal. In R. Ashmore & L. Jussim (Eds.), Self and identity: Fundamental issues (pp. 46-78). New York: Oxford University Press.

Here McAdams takes issue (in his characteristically respectful fashion) to strong versions of theories of the self as multiple.

McAdams, D. P. (1999). Personal narratives and the life story. In L. Pervin & O. John (Eds.), Handbook of personality: Theory and research (2nd ed., pp. 478-500). New York: Guilford Press.

This is a classic and sweeping summary of the intersection of narrative and the life story. Essential reading.

McAdams, D. P. (2001). The person: An integrated introduction to personality psychology (3rd ed.). Fort Worth, TX: Harcourt.

McAdams, D. P. (2001). The psychology of life stories. Review of General Psychology, 5(2), 100-122.

This is a comprehensive review of McAdam's theory which situates life narratives both in the developmental context of individual development and the sociocultural setting of their telling.

McAdams, D. P., & Bowman, P. T. (2001). Narrating life's turning points: Redemption and contamination. In D. P. McAdams, R. Josselson, & A. Lieblich (Eds.), Turns in the road: Narrative studies of lives in transition (pp. 3-34). Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

This introductory essay to the new APA series (The Narrative Study of Lives) details the importance of adult-aged "turning points" and illustrates their role by examining McAdams' generativity research and its notion of redeemed vs. contaminated live stories.

McAdams, D. P., de St. Aubin, E., & Logan, R. (1993). Generativity among young, midlife, and older adults. Psychology and Aging, 8, 221-230.

McAdams, D. P., Diamond, A., de St. Aubin, E., & Mansfield, E. (1997). Stories of commitment: The psychosocial construction of generative lives. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 72, 678-694.

McAdams, D. P., Hoffman, B. J., Mansfield, E. D., & Day, R. (1996). Themes of agency and communion in significant autobiographical scenes. Journal of Personality, 64, 339-378.

McAdams, D. P., & Ochberg, R. (Eds.). (1988). Psychobiography and life narratives. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

McAdams, D. P., Reynolds, J., Lewis, M. L., Patten, A., & Bowman, P. T. (2001). When bad things turn good and good things turn bad: Sequences of redemption and contamination in life narrative, and their relation to psychosocial adaptation in midlife adults and in students. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 27, 472-483.

Pellegrini, R. J., & Sarbin, T. R. (2002). Between fathers and sons: Critical incident narratives in the development of men's lives. Binghamton, NY: Haworth Clinical Practice Press.

Pellegrini (San Jose State University) and Sarbin (UC Santa Cruz) have assembled 17 individual narratives from a group of distinguished psychologists and social scientists (e.g., Kenneth Gergen, Mark Freeman, George Rosenwald, Donald Spence, etc.). Each of these tales -- adopting varying styles and approaches -- focuses upon about the author's relationship with his own father and/or sons. Classified under three broad classifications (stories of identity, emotional life, and self-understanding), these chapters collectively offer multiple insights and challenges to an understanding of emotional and personal development, forms of memory, and the interplay of social context and historical situation in the way men express their roles as fathers and sons. They also give fascinating (auto)biographical insights into the lives of some of the most important constructivist and narratively-informed theorists in psychology. Pellegrini and Sarbin offer, respectively, a general introductory and a summary chapter for this collection.

Phelps, E., Furstenberg, F. F., Jr., & Colby, A. (2002). Looking at lives: American longitudinal studies of the 20th century. New York: Russell Sage Foundation.

An examination of a half-century of important longitudinal studies (since the 1950s). Prepared by researchers at the Murray Research Center at Harvard.

[Subhead Icon] William McKinley Runyan

Runyan, W. M. (1981). Why did Van Gogh cut off his ear? The problem of alternative explanations in psychobiography. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 40, 1070-1077. [Online version]

Runyan, W. M. (1982). Life histories and psychobiography: Explorations in theory and method. New York: Oxford University Press.

Runyan, W. M. (Ed.). (1988). Psychology and historical interpretation. New York: Oxford University Press.

Runyan, W. M. (1983) Idiographic goals and the study of lives. Journal of Personality, 51, 413-437. 

Runyan, W. M. (1988). Progress in psychobiography. Journal of Personality, 56, 295-326. 

Runyan, W. M. (1988). Psychology and historical interpretation. New York: Oxford University Press.

Runyan, W. M. (1994). Coming to terms with the life, loves, and work of Henry A. Murray [Review of the book Love's story told: A life of Henry A. Murray]. Contemporary Psychology, 39, 701-704.

Runyan, W. M. (1996). Psychobiography: Understanding one life at a time [Review of the book Uncovering lives: The uneasy alliance of biography and psychology]. Contemporary Psychology, 39, 984-987.

Runyan, W. M. (1997). Studying lives: Psychobiography and the conceptual structure of personality psychology. In R. Hogan, J. Johnson, et al. (Eds.), Handbook of personality psychology (pp. 41-69). Academic Press.

[Subhead Icon] Silvan S. Tomkins

Tomkins, S. S. (1962). Affect, imagery, consciousness. Volume 1: The positive affects. New York: Springer. 

Tomkins, S. S. (1963). Affect, imagery, consciousness. Volume 2: The negative affects. New York: Springer. 

Tomkins, S. S. (1978). Script theory: Differential magnification of affects. In H. E. Howe, & R. A. Dienstbier (Eds.), Nebraska Symposium on Motivation (Vol. 26, pp. 201-236) Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.

Tomkins, S. S. (1981). The quest for primary motives. Biography and autobiography of an idea. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 41, 306-329.

Tomkins, S. S. (1987). Script theory. In J. Aronoff, A. I. Rabin et al. (Eds.), The emergence of personality: Michigan State University-Henry A. Murray lectures in personality (pp. 147-216). New York: Springer Publishing Co.

Tomkins, S. S. (1991). Affect, imagery, consciousness. Volume 3: The negative affects: Anger and fear. New York: Springer Publishing Company.

Tomkins, S. S. (1992). Affect, imagery, consciousness. Volume 4: Cognition: Duplication and transformation of information. New York: Springer Publishing Company.

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Hevern, V. W. (2004, May). Personality, Psychobiography, and Psychology of the Life Story. Narrative psychology: Internet and resource guide. Retrieved [enter date] from the Le Moyne College Web site:

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