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The Dynamics of Autobiographical Memory - Using the LIM / Life-line Interview Method

von: Marian H.J. Assink, Johannes J.F. Schroots

Hogrefe Publishing, 2010

ISBN: 9781616763701 , 337 Seiten

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The Dynamics of Autobiographical Memory - Using the LIM / Life-line Interview Method


1.3.2 Life story

Life events are embedded in the total life story. As Bluck (2001) states, life events are the building blocks of life stories. DeVries and Watt (1996) note that the story of a life is given substance, size and shape by the events it embodies. According to Conway and Pleydell-Pearce (2000) nearly all researchers in the area of autobiographical memory research assume that there is an important and strong relation between the self and autobiographical memory. “Autobiographical memory is of fundamental significance for the self, for emotions, and for the experience of personhood, that is, for the experience of enduring as an individual, in a culture, over time” (p. 261). According to some theorists autobiographical memory is a part of the self (Conway & Tacchi, 1996; Howe & Courage, 1997; Robinson, 1986). The source of information about the self lies in autobiography, “the story of an individual’s life told or written by himself or herself that is based on the recall of memories, events, experiences, and relationships with other persons” (Birren & Schroots, 2006, p. 478). Although autobiographical memory and narratives are closely related to each other, memory researchers and narrative researchers have gone their separate ways for the most part using different theories and methods and having their own traditions (Robinson & Taylor, 1998).

The roots for the narrative approach lie in the 1930s. Then, personality psychology was born (Allport, 1937) which emphasized biography, myth, narrative, and the intensive exploration of the single case in the study of human lives (McAdams, 1988). Murray (1938) had his subjects tell a story in response to a picture cue. Charlotte Bühler (1933) and Else Frenkel (1936) collected and analyzed autobiographical accounts written by 400 European men and women. They were more concerned with general principles in all lives than with the uniqueness of any single life and used these autobiographical data to generate hypotheses and theories (McAdams, 1988).

After the Second World War Erikson wrote psychobiographies about important historical persons, for instance Luther (1958) and Gandhi (1969) on the basis of the stage theory of life he had created (1950). Erikson considers development as a function of both individual and cultural factors. As the individual develops, he has to adapt to new demands society places on him. Erikson distinguishes eight stages in life and in each stage a psychosocial task is met. The first stage concerns ‘basic trust versus basic mistrust’ (ca. 0–1 yrs); during the first year of life the child learns whether he can trust or mistrust the predictability of the environment. In the second stage (ca. 1–6 yrs) the crisis concerns ‘autonomy versus shame and doubt’; the child has to attain self-control without loss of self-esteem and without feeling ashamed. In the third stage (ca. 6–10 yrs) the crisis ‘initiative versus guilt’ has to be solved; on one hand the child can develop a free sense of enterprise while on the other hand, with the development of conscience, the child can feel guilty about his thoughts and actions. In the fourth stage (ca. 10–14 yrs) the crisis ‘industry versus inferiority’ is central; when the child does not learn industry and does not become competent he can develop a sense of inadequacy and inferiority. The fifth stage (ca. 14–20 yrs) is ‘identity versus role confusion’; when the adolescent does not succeed to develop a sense of ego identity, he will be uncertain about who he is and what he will become. In young adulthood (ca. 20–35 yrs) the crisis ‘intimacy versus isolation’ has to be solved; when the individual has developed a separate identity he will be able to involve himself in intimate relationships instead of being isolated. In the seventh stage (ca. 35–65 yrs) the crisis is between ‘generativity versus stagnation’. Generativity refers to establishing and guiding the next generation. At last the person arrives at the final stage of ‘ego integrity versus despair and disgust’. When an individual succeeds to fulfill this task, he will accept his life for what it has been and will not look back with feelings of despair.

Integration in later life is facilitated by the process of life review. The concept of life review was introduced by Butler (1963) who saw reminiscence in the aged as part of a normal life review process to put one’s life in order by the realization of approaching death. Later, it was recognized that life review is not limited to old age but takes place in all stages of life. Reminiscence means literally the recall of memories without a specific purpose, while life review entails the recall, evaluation, and synthesis of positive and negative memories in a more systematic way (Webster & Haight, 1995). Reminiscence and life review are used for different goals such as enhancing self-esteem, improving social skills, attaining social integration, acquiring ego-integrity (Scherder, Schroots & Kerkhof, 2002) and also as a therapeutic tool for treatment of depressions for elderly (Bohlmeijer, Smit & Cuijpers, 2003). In a meta-analysis of studies which used reminiscence or life review as a method of intervention for depressive symptoms on elderly, results indicated that both reminiscence and life review are effective treatments for (severe) depressive symptoms (Bohlmeijer et al., 2003). Serrano, Latorre, Gatz and Montanes (2004) also found that at post test older adults who had received life review treatment based on autobiographical retrieval practice reported fewer depressive symptoms, less hopelessness, improved life satisfaction, and retrieval of more specific events than a non-treatment control group. Watt and Cappeliez (1995) identified two types of reminiscence which are supposed to be effective in the treatment of depression of elderly; (1) integrative reminiscence which focuses on a constructive reappraisal of the past resulting in positive beliefs about the self and attributions about one’s role in negative events, and (2) instrumental reminiscence which focuses on memories of past problem-solving experiences and coping activities resulting, ideally, in the use of adaptive coping appraisals and strategies to cope more adequately with experiences of stress. However, during the period in which psychology was dominated by behaviorism, the use of autobiographical data was of little scientific significance (McAdams, 2001). But since the mid-1980s, personality psychology has witnessed a strong upsurge of interest in personal narratives and life stories (Schroots & Birren, 2002). McAdams (1996; 2001) has delineated a conceptual framework that integrates the life story as an aspect of personality. McAdams makes a distinction between the I (selfas-knower) and the Me (self-as-known) features of personality; the I is viewed as the active subject who creates the self, while the Me is viewed as the object of knowledge, the self. The person can be described on three relatively independent, non-overlapping levels. The first level is the trait level; traits are described as those relatively nonconditional, decontextualized, generally linear, and implicitly comparative dimensions of personality which are rather stable over the lifespan. McCrae and Costa (1990) distinguished five personality traits, known as ‘the big five’: neuroticism, agreeableness, consciousness, extraversion, and openness. The second level of personality is called ‘personal concerns’ and relates to all kinds of constructs that are contextualized in time, place and role, for instance, personal strivings, defense mechanisms, goals, coping strategies and so on. The third level has to do with the meaning of life. Beyond traits and adaptations, many people seek an integrative frame for their own lives that gives them a sense that the various pieces of who they are come together into some kind of sensible whole. According to a number of theorists, this kind of integration of the self into an identity is accomplished through the construction and revision of a ‘life story’ (see McAdams, 1999). The third level of personality, then, is the level of identity which is expressed in the life story. The life story gives unity, meaning and purpose to a life. A life story can be defined as an internalized and evolving narrative of the self that integrates the reconstructed past, perceived present and anticipated future in order to provide a life with a sense of unity and purpose (McAdams, 1999). In sum, in the theoretical concept of McAdams (2001) the personality is viewed as a unique pattern of traits, characteristic adaptations and stories. It has to be remarked that identity and self are not the same. Children have a sense of ‘self’ but identity develops from the late teenage years through the mid-20s when, according to Erikson (1950), the integration of selfhood becomes a psychosocial problem for them. From that time on, individuals begin to ‘work on’ their identity. A life story is a psychosocial construction and not simply an objective account of ‘what really happened’ in the past (Gergen, 1988; McAdams, 1996). Life story data are viewed as temporary constructions of what seems most appropriate from the perspective of the narrator at that time (Gergen, 1988; McAdams, 1996); a life story is only one version of life and is subject to continuous changes.

During life many events occur but not all events individuals have experienced and which they remember are included in the story of one’s life (Bluck & Habermas, 2000). Only memories that are highly self-relevant when they are encoded, that have an emotional impact, or that provide a motivational explanation for later development and/or maintain significance at the time of retrieval are likely to be included in a life story (Conway & Holmes, 2004). Bluck and Habermas (2000) consider only those memories truly autobiographical that are linked to the self through emotional or motivational significance for one’s life. Another aspect of autobiographical memories is that these memories are not merely incidents but are given structure and meaning in the context of the whole life by their inclusion in a more flowing life story (Kenyon & Randall, 1999).

1.3.3 Categorization

Classifying life events

In order to make life events data more manageable, they have to be classified into categories. Lifeevent taxonomies classify life events according to different dimensions (Sugarman, 2001). Reese and Smyer (1983) identified 35 variables used to describe life events which can be grouped into three main dimensions: (a) ‘event’ dimensions which describe objective characteristics of the events themselves such as age relatedness, duration, type and prevalence; (b) ‘perception’ dimensions which concern the subjective impression or evaluation of the events such as control, desirability and meaning; (c) ‘effect’ dimensions which refer to the outcomes or consequences of the events such as impact and direction of impact (Brim & Ryff, 1980). Several life-event taxonomies utilize only one dimension, for instance Holmes and Rahe’s (1967) Social Readjustment Rating Scale. Respondents are asked to indicate which of forty-three events, rank ordered according to their estimated stressfulness, they have experienced within (usually) the last 12 months. The sum of the stress ratings for these events is determined and it is assumed that the greater the amount of stress experienced by individuals, the higher the likelihood these individuals will suffer stress-related health problems. A three-dimensional taxonomy of life events was compiled by Brim and Ryff (1980) on the basis of the likelihood, i.e. the probability that an event will take place, age-relatedness, i.e. the correlation of the event with chronological age, and prevalence of events, i.e. whether the event is experienced by many or few people. For each dimension a distinction was made between a ‘high’ and a ‘low’ category. For instance, Marriage is an event that has a strong correlation with age, is experienced by many individuals and has a high probability of occurrence. A two-dimensional taxonomy comprising 4 event ‘types’ and 14 event ‘contexts’ was proposed by Reese and Smyer (1983) resulting in 56 cells. The 4 event types were social-cultural, personal-sociological, biological and physical-environmental. The event contexts were grouped into 5 categories: family, self, social relations, work and miscellaneous. An event such as Marriage is classified into the context ‘Love and marriage’ which belongs to the category ‘Family’ and to the event type ‘Personal-sociological’. Baltes, Reese and Lipsitt (1980) distinguished three types of events or influences over the lifespan: normative age-graded, normative history-graded and non-normative life events. Normative age-graded events occur at about the same time to all individuals in a given (sub)culture, for instance, going to school at age four in The Netherlands. Normative history-graded events occur to most members of a given cohort in similar ways, for instance, the Second World War. Non-normative events do not occur in any normative age-graded or history-graded manner for most individuals, for instance, having a severe accident. Studies in the field of autobiographical memory all use different category lists to classify events which makes it rather difficult to compare results (Schroots & Assink, 2004).

Classifying LIM events

The data obtained by a LIM-interview are three-fold: a life-line, a series of temporally ordered life events and a life story. Each of these three types of data can be analyzed at different levels of complexity and requires its own specific method of analysis.