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Monday, February 8, 2016

The Reminiscence Bump: Your Identity -- How It Forms

If you ask someone over the age of thirty to tell you their life story, they’ll over-emphasize some portions and under-emphasize others. Most likely they’ll recall incidents in their late teens and early twenties much more vividly than other periods of their lives. What happens in our thirties stays in our thirties. What happens in our formative years stays with us forever.”

--Dan McAdams, professor and chair of the Department of Psychology at Northwestern University

Did you ever wonder why forming your own personal identity was vital to your existence? In other words, why “who you are” is so important? And, perhaps just as meaningfully introspective, have you ever considered exactly when you largely became “who you are”?

Ego Identity Relates to Unity and Purpose

Developmental psychologists such as the noted Erik Erikson (1902-1994), who, by the way, coined the phrase identity crisis, say in late adolescence and young adulthood (the fifth of eight stages in the developmental scheme) you first “seek to integrate your disparate (different) roles, talents, proclivities, and social involvements into a patterned configuration of thought and activity that provides life with some semblance of psychosocial unity and purpose.”

(E.H. Erikson. Childhood and society. 1963.)

Erikson maintained that people in their late adolescence and young adulthood develop an ego identity as they first confront the problem of identity versus role confusion. He concluded at this time in the human life course you “first explore ideological and occupational options available in society and experiment with a wide range of social roles, with the aim of eventually consolidating their beliefs and values into a personal ideology and making provisional commitments to life plans and projects that promise to situate them meaningfully into new societal niches.”


The Important “Bump”

Dr. Dan McAdams calls the tendency to remember more events from your teens and twenties the “reminiscence bump.” And, following Erikson's findings, McAdams believes this period looms so large because it’s when you are most preoccupied with forming an identity.

McAdams acknowledges that “developmental precursors to life story making can be traced all the way back to the 1-year-old's emergent understanding of intentionality, the development of the agential 'I' and the objective 'me' in the 2nd year of life, the mat-uration of a theory of mind in Years 3 and 4, and the early conversations that children enjoy with their parents, siblings, and friends as they co-construct the remembered past.” And, he says “life story making continues well beyond the early adult years, as midlife and older men and women continue to refashion themselves and renarrate their lives in the wake of predictable and unpredictable life changes.”

(Dan P. McAdams. “The Psychology of Life Stories.” Review of General Psychology. Volume 5. 2001.)

Yet …

The intriguing reminiscence bump is an important reminder that many understandings in your life were formed in some very important, early years. Activities and events that occur in late adolescence and early adulthood leave an indelible mark on your memories. Some might remember first becoming nerds, or athletes, or scholars … or even criminals in these years.

Still, how can your “self” be a single entity and yet have different, even contradictory parts. William James, American philosopher and psychologist (1842-1910) called this the “one-in-many-selves paradox” and likened the self to a stream.

It seems many psychologists believe you generally emerge form adolescence with one more-or-less integrated identity. You want that identity to be coherent. Still, there are multiple types of coherent, including biographical coherence, causal coherence, thematic coherence, and temporal coherence.

James' had a conception of "self as knower and self as known."

He writes that you simply cannot be all possible selves in all possible ways because the actions that arise from differing selves differ and are basically incompatible (hence the conflict of the different Me's).

Consequently, he urges that "the seeker of his truest, strongest, deepest self must review the list [of selves that he wishes to be] carefully, and pick out the one on which to stake his salvation." So is there, indeed, a self inside each of us that is truest and strongest and deepest? I'll leave the answer to that question up to you and moralists who study such matters.

(William James on the Self. Division of Educational Studies. Emory University)

McAdams thinks that the reminiscence bump is universal. An important question then becomes “Does the fact that you remember your formative years better than other years affect your behavior in later life?” In a life where you are the “self as knower and the self as known,” it does seem a coherent identity forms your beliefs, your biases, and your ego.

Consider the events from your early life that are easy to recall. If you, like me, vividly remember so many events from adolescence and early adulthood, McAdams contends that the availability bias suggests that you “will overestimate the probability that similar events will happen in the future. You can recall them easily. Therefore, you assume they’re highly probable to recur.”

In other words, you may stay consistent with understandings developed during your
reminiscence bump. What kind of decisions did you make that early in life? I can hear many of you sighing and letting out a big “uh-oh.”

We know neuroscientists have discovered that the frontal cortex of the brain, the section responsible for critical thinking and responsible decision making does not develop fully until as late as the mid-20s. While this part of the brain is still under construction in your early years, you tend to engage in many risky, even stupid behaviors. Yep.

And, following this reasoning, here is where McAdams will scare the hell out of you. He says…

What do we disproportionately remember about our lives? The risky and thoughtless behaviors of our formative years. If the availability bias is correct, we will overestimate the probability that these same behaviors will occur again, perhaps in our children. Could this be the root cause of the helicopter parenting that we seem so worried about today? It’s a complicated question but it’s certainly worth a good research project.”

(Dan McAdams. “Reminiscence Bumps and Helicopter Parents.” October 01, 2015.)

I yam what I yam.”

--Popeye, 1933

So, let me consider this for you (and me, of course). If you truly acknowledge you are formed in a large part by the reminiscence bump, and if you recognize that your ego identity was formed predominately in your teens and twenties when your critical thinking skills were incomplete and when you were taking significant risks, you may need to adopt an open mind, be open to change, and dedicate yourself to lifelong learning and to all the understandings you can obtain through increased study and research.

Let me be blunt: It is dangerous to stagnate in a “bump” that may continue to negatively affect you and your loved ones, those who are influenced by your beliefs and actions. We must acknowledge that no one is perfect, yet we also must understand that everyone must accept needed change. If you do “helicopter,” perhaps you should do so by advancing life theory more than by demanding results with rigid compliance.

I love to reminisce, and I admit that I often long for past times when I was younger, physically stronger, and more carefree. Still, I recognize that the “truest me” has changed significantly since those times because I am still learning, dealing with my shortcomings, and trying hard to be a better work – a work still in progress. Oh, you can bet I still have my biases, it's just that now I see how a life lived without giving concessions and without having regrets is foolish.

Those who assert “nothing can make me change” are probably right. By now, you consider spending even ten minutes reading this blog entry as wasted time and counterproductive to your life. To you I say, “Hang on and enjoy your 'bumpy' ride as the planet continues to go through its obligatory changes.” Meanwhile, I'll be reconsidering my youthful memories and, undoubtedly, readjusting more than a few of my old understandings. No one said this was going to be easy.

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