Themes of Agency and Communion In Significant Autobiographical Scenes


  • Study 1 employs data collected by Barry J. Hoffman for a Ph.D. dissertation in clinical psychology at Loyola University of Chicago. Study 2 draws on data used by Elizabeth D. Mansfield for a Ph.D. dissertation in counseling psychology at Northwestern University. Studies 2 and 3 were supported by a grant to the first author from the Spencer Foundation. The authors would like to thank Ed de St. Aubin, Karen Dicke, Holly Hart, Gina Logan, Joy Natividad, Jeffrey Raischel, Janet Shlaes, David Shor, and Carol Anne Stowe for their assistance in data collection, coding, and analysis. Thanks are also extended to Bill Peterson and Avril Thorne and to two anonymous reviewers for comments on an early draft of this manuscript and to Phebe Cramer for her careful and patient editorial guidance.

should be addressed to Dan P. McAdams, Program in Human Development and Social Policy, Northwestern University, 2115 North Campus Drive, Evanston, IL 60208-2610. E-mail:


ABSTRACT In three studies employing over 350 community adults and college students, participants wrote or told narratives of personally important scenes in their lives. The autobiographical accounts were coded for themes of agency and communion, the two general content dimensions in lives and life stories that have been identified by many theorists and researchers. The four agentic themes of self-mastery, status, achievement/responsibility, and empowerment were positively associated with Thematic Apperception Test (TAT) measures of achievement and power motivation, self-report scales of dominance and achievement, and personal strivings concerning being successful and feeling strong. Similarly, the four communal themes of love/friendship, dialogue, care/help, and community were positively associated with intimacy motivation, needs for affiliation and nurturance, and personal strivings concerned with warm and close relationships. The results suggest a thematic coherence in personality across the arenas of key autobiographical memories, social motives, and daily goals.