This research examined how instructions to focus on the concrete details (experience focus) versus broader life significance (coherence focus) influence present perceptions of transitional impact and self-relevance for past and future transitional events.
Participants (Study 1, N = 119; Study 2, N = 251) selected a past or future transition and wrote about it using either an experiential or coherence focus. Participants then rated the event on transitional impact, self-relevance, and other phenomenological characteristics.
Individuals instructed to use a coherence focus on a past transition reported higher levels of material and psychological impact and rated the event as more self-relevant, compared to those instructed to use an experiential focus. The manipulation did not influence ratings for future events. Controlling for temporal distance and emotional valence did not alter the findings. Future transitions were regarded as more personally important than past transitions.
Appraisals of the impact and self-relevance of transformative past events (but not future events) are affected by the mental focus adopted at retrieval. The findings are considered in light of essential differences between remembering and forecasting and support the notion that a coherence focus promotes adaptive self-reflection by affording people the cognitive means with which to reconcile transitional experiences.