Who Am I? The Fascinating Science of Self-Identity
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One of the main ways individuals come to understand their lives — and their identity — is through the creation of personal narratives.

Plenty of psychology research has been dedicated to understanding how people make sense of traumatic events and integrate those into a life story. This work has found that individuals who can turn a traumatic event into a learning experience — one that has made them stronger — have higher levels of psychological health than those who seem defeated from a negative experience.

But positive events are important experiences, too, and Theodore Waters, assistant professor of psychology at NYU Abu Dhabi, is trying to understand how good experiences that become part of a person's identity influence their psychological health. A paper on the topic was published in the journal Memory.

Storytime

Telling stories is an essential human activity and an intuitive way to share critical information. Of course, humans have developed math, logic, and the sciences, which communicate information in other ways, Waters explained. But storytelling is much older.

"Storytelling is the way humans provide information both related to survival by sharing experiences, and it's also a way to facilitate bonding," Waters said. "It's something that's so fundamental and natural to us that it's embedded in almost every culture, if not every culture."

In addition to telling stories about experience as a way of sharing information, we also tell stories about ourselves — and these personal narratives are related to the way we see ourselves.

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My co-authors and I are interested in how people pick positive events and incorporate them as part of their identity.

Theodore Waters, assistant professor of psychology

"When you ask someone to tell you a narrative about something, you're asking them to tell you how they understand the world," Waters said. "It's a great way to see the world from someone else's eyes." The same can be said for when a person tells a story about an event in their life and how that event relates to their identity.

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NYUAD psychologists want to know how positive events in our lives, like graduating from university, contribute to how we see ourselves.

The Research

Waters works at the intersection of developmental and cognitive psychology and is interested in they way early experiences influence the creation of identity. "This particular paper is about the consequences there might be to making positive or negative meaning out of experiences you've had, especially when you connect them to yourself and your own identity," Waters said. The subjects of the study were university students ranging from 18 to 20 years old.

In the lab, participants were asked to write narratives about the most traumatic and the best event of their lives and link these events to who they think they are as a person.

The subjects of the study often shared stories an about academic achievement, a social success, or a milestone in a relationship. "Most people have positive events as part of their life," Waters said. "However, my co-authors and I are interested in how people pick positive events and incorporate them as part of their identity" and how doing so affects psychological health.

Findings

The study adds some nuance to a field that once argued that creating any kind of meaning — positive or negative — about a past experience was a good thing. "I think what we're starting to find is that there are differential effects to creating meaning out of events," Waters said. "The type of meaning you make and how you respond to trauma and how you respond to positive events" makes a difference.

Techniques like narrative therapy have been used in clinical settings for years now. But research like this provides evidence for the intuition of clinicians who use these therapies. "A clinician would say: 'I do this kind of thing all the time with patients,'" Waters said. "But this paper shows some empirical evidence for that kind of argument."

Waters also noted that the study shows that linking traumatic and positive events to identity in a positive way can have an additionally beneficial impact on individuals. "The more you talk positively about good events, and the more you think about negative events in a positive way" with respect to your identity, "you get a sort of boosting effect" on psychological adjustment.

By Matthew Corcoran, NYUAD Public Affairs