How Stable Is the Personal Past? Stability of Most Important Autobiographical Memories and Life Narratives Across Eight Years in a Life Span Sample

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Abstract

Considering life stories as the most individual layer of personality (McAdams, 2013) implies that life stories, similar to personality traits, exhibit some stability throughout life. Although stability of personality traits has been extensively investigated, only little is known about the stability of life stories. We therefore tested the influence of age, of the proportion of normative age-graded life events, and of global text coherence on the stability of the most important memories and of brief entire life narratives as 2 representations of the life story. We also explored whether normative age-graded life events form more stable parts of life narratives. In a longitudinal life span study covering up to 3 measurements across 8 years and 6 age groups (N = 164) the stability of important memories and of entire life narratives was measured as the percentage of events and narrative segments which were repeated in later tellings. Stability increased between ages 8 and 24, leveling off in middle adulthood. Beyond age, stability of life narratives was also predicted by proportion of normative age-graded life events and by causal-motivational text coherence in younger participants. Memories of normative developmental and social transitional life events were more stable than other memories. Stability of segments of life narratives exceeded the stability of single most important memories. Findings are discussed in terms of cognitive, personality, and narrative psychology and point to research questions in each of these fields.

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