Traits and Stories: Links Between Dispositional and Narrative Features of Personality


  • The research reported in this manuscript was supported by a grant from the Foley Family Foundation to establish the Foley Center for the Study of Lives at Northwestern University. The authors would like to thank Jeff McCrae and two anonymous reviewers for comments on earlier drafts of this paper.

Address correspondence concerning the manuscript to Dan P. McAdams, Foley Center for the Study of Lives, Northwestern University, 2120 Campus Drive, Evanston, IL 60208,


Abstract Dispositional traits and life narratives represent two different levels of personality that have not previously been empirically linked. The current study tested five hypotheses connecting Big-Five traits to life-narrative indices of emotional tone, theme, and structure. Students (Study 1) and adults (Study 2) completed a self-report measure of the Big-Five traits and provided extended written accounts of either ten (students) or eight (adults) key life-narrative scenes, including life high points, low points, and turning points. Content analysis of the narrative data revealed that for both samples Neuroticism was positively associated with an emotionally negative life-narrative tone, Agreeableness was correlated with narrative themes of communion (e.g., friendship, caring for others), and Openness was strongly associated with the structural complexity of life narrative accounts. Contrary to prediction, however, Conscientiousness was not consistently associated with themes of agency (e.g., achievement, self-mastery) and Extraversion was unrelated to positive narrative tone. The results are discussed in the context of contemporary research and theorizing on the narrative study of lives and the relation of narrative research in personality to more conventional, trait-based approaches.