Autobiographical Narratives

Autobiographical Narratives Definition

Autobiographical narratives are the stories people remember (and often tell) about events in their lives. Some autobiographical narratives refer to memories of important personal events, like “my first date” or “the day my father died.” Others may seem trivial, like a memory of yesterday’s breakfast. Many psychologists study the extent to which memories of personal events are accurate. They ask questions like these: How true is the memory? Is the story a distortion of what really happened? Other psychologists are interested in what autobiographical narratives say about a person’s self-understanding or about social life and social relationships more generally. Their questions include these: What does a particular memory mean for the person remembering it? How do people use autobiographical narratives in daily life?

What Do We Remember?

Autobiographical NarrativesPeople’s memory of personal events is not like a video recording that can simply be played back. For one thing, people eventually forget most of the events that occur to them. Try to remember what you ate for lunch on June 1, 2005. Or what you wore the day before that. Clearly, the brain has more important things to do than remember every event that has ever occurred. Second, the details of those events people do recall, even when they recall them vividly, often turn out to be inaccurate and mixed up, especially as those events fade into the distant past. At the same time, research suggests that while people often make errors in recalling the details of important personal events from long ago, their narrative accounts are surprisingly accurate in conveying the overall gist of those events. People remember the big picture better than they do the small facts.

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Many psychologists see autobiographical memory as an active and creative process. People construct memories by (a) attending to certain features of a to-be-remembered event, (b) storing information about that event according to personally meaningful categories and past experiences, (c) retrieving event information in ways that help solve social problems or meet situational demands, and (d) translating the memory of the event into a coherent story. What people attend to, how they store autobiographical information, what they eventually retrieve from their memory, and how this all gets told to other people are all influenced by many different factors in the person’s life and social world, including especially a person’s goals. For example, a person whose life goal is to become a physician may have constructed especially vivid personal memories of interacting with doctors and nurses growing up, positive experiences with biology and the health sciences, and episodes of helping other people. Autobiographical narratives provide a ready supply of episodic information that people may consult in making important decisions about the future.

Autobiographical Narratives Development and Functions

Most people can recall virtually nothing from before the age of 2 years. Autobiographical memory begins to manifest itself in the third and fourth year of life as young children begin to form simple memories about events that have happened to them. Parents, siblings, and teachers often provide considerable assistance in the development of early autobiographical memory. They will ask young children to recall recent events (yesterday’s trip to the park, Sarah’s birthday party) and encourage them to relate the event as a story. By the age of 5, most children are able to tell coherent stories about events in their lives, complete with setting, characters, plot, and a sense of beginning, middle, and end. As children move through elementary school, their autobiographical memories become more complex and nuanced.

In adolescence and young adulthood, people begin to organize memories of particular personal events into larger, integrative life stories. These internalized and developing life stories may serve as expressions of narrative identity. In other words, people’s life stories— their autobiographical understandings of their lives as a whole—help to provide their lives with meaning and direction, explaining in story form how they believe they came to be who they are today and where they believe their life may be headed in the future. Life stories continue to develop as people move through their adulthood years, reflecting new experiences and challenges as well as their ever-changing understanding of the past. An adult’s life story may contain many key scenes, such as especially important early memories, high points, low points, and turning points. While these important scenes may originate from almost any point in the life span, research shows that people tend to have an especially large number of emotionally vivid autobiographical recollections from their late-adolescent and early-adult years—memories of events that took place between the ages of about 15 and 25.

People often share their stories of important personal events with friends and acquaintances. Personal storytelling, therefore, often promotes interpersonal intimacy. Parents often tell their children stories from their own past, teachers often employ autobiographical narratives to promote learning in the classroom, and many adults see personal narratives as effective vehicles for socialization and imparting moral lessons for young people. The stories people tell about their own lives, furthermore, reflect the values and norms of their culture. For example, research suggests that American children tend to develop more elaborate personal memories than do Japanese and Chinese children, arguably reflecting a Western emphasis on the full expression of the individual self (over and against an East Asian emphasis on the collective). Stories are shaped by social class and gender: Working-class people prefer certain kinds of stories about the self while upper-middle-class people may prefer others; women and men are expected to tell different stories about their lives. In important ways, autobiographical memories reflect what has actually happened in a person’s life. But they are also strongly shaped by a person’s values and goals; the people with whom, and the occasions wherein, personal stories are told; and the broad forces of social class, gender, religion, society, and culture.


  1. McAdams, D. P. (2001). The psychology of life stories. Review of General Psychology, 5, 100-122.
  2. Thorne, A. (2000). Personal memory telling and personality development. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 4, 45-56.

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