Article at a Glance
- Autobiographical reasoning is the continuous drafting of our many life stories.
- Who you are and your emotional experience is shaped by autobiographical reasoning.
- Autobiographical reasoning occurs every day and you will learn how so.
- Lastly, we look into some tactics for taking control of your autobiographical reasoning.
In my research on life stories, I recently came across the concept of autobiographical reasoning.
The concept is fascinating, and it is essential to understand if you want to know how identity is shaped. This is of course why it is an important part of Caleon and life story journaling.
To me, it felt like a revelation to realize how this phenomenon occurs every single day in each and everyone’s life.
The goal of this article is to elaborate on what it is, how it occurs, and how you can use it in your own life. I hope you will enjoy it.
What is it and where does it come from?
Alright… to be blunt, autobiographical reasoning sounds frighteningly academic at first glance. However, despite its name, it is actually not as convoluted as it seems.
A simple way to think of autobiographical reasoning is as the continuous drafting of our many life stories. Although, you probably wouldn’t say that you walk around telling life stories. When it happens, it is usually more subtle than that.
When we try to navigate our lives, we spend time trying to figure out who we are, what we stand for, and who we want to become. We talk to people around us, friends, family, colleagues, to try to make sense of our lives.
In these conversations, we often implicitly tell life stories. We tell stories about what is going on in our lives, our experiences, and our origins.
We explain the current situation by connecting past events. We then use this trajectory to explain our aspirations for the future.
These small stories give some indication of who we are.
As we go about our daily lives, we edit our stories, tell new stories or create more nuanced stories.
All of that is autobiographical reasoning.
In psychological literature, autobiographical reasoning is a fairly recent concept. It was developed by Tilmann Habermas & Susan Bluck in 2000.1
Their first article came out of work on life stories. Since then, both have made it their primary research topic.
At this moment, we already have a pretty good idea about what it is and how it works. Yet, researchers continue to develop the nuances of the concept as well as derive implications. It is an exciting topic that keeps expanding, and there is still much left to be looked into.
So, what is it?
If we try to break the concept apart, we can start with the word ‘autobiographical’.
‘Auto’ stems from the Greek word ‘autos’ and means ‘self’.
‘Biographical’ is from the Greek words ‘bios’, which means life, and ‘graphia’, which means ‘written’. Biography is thus the written account of a life.
Today, however, the word is used in a broader context to describe ‘the history of individual lives’, i.e. independently of the medium.
Autobiographical therefore means the history of one’s own life – one’s personal life story.
‘Reasoning’ can be considered the activity of thinking about something in a logical, sensible way. At Caleon, we emphasize sensible because our life stories are not always logical, but rather a way to make sense of our lives and ourselves.
That makes reasoning a continuous process of constructing arguments and making sense of things.
If we put the two words together, we get that autobiographical reasoning is about remembering one’s own history and transforming one’s memories into a sensible story.
This story we then use to understand who we are.
In the literature, it is defined as “the activity of creating relations between different parts of one’s past, present, and future life and one’s personality and development.” 2
This definition sounds well and neat. We simply produce compelling and complete life stories, right?
In practice, autobiographical reasoning is a messy process, and we are mostly not deliberate about it. Because of this, Habermas argues that autobiographical reasoning is constructive & interpretative, cognitive & communicative and normative.2
My gosh, that is a mouthful. So, what does that mean?
The normative aspect, we have already covered. That is the appeal to reason and logic. We create stories that make sense and are somewhat coherent.
Cognitive & communicative
Cognitive means that it is a mental process. For example, creating a story includes perception, memory, and judgment.
It is also communicative because we are constantly communicating our autobiographical reasoning in conversations or express it via our actions.
Often we reason and communicate on the spot. For example, let’s say you talk to somebody at a party and you are about to present yourself. In this case, you may respond, “I am a mother and a wife. I live with my husband and two children here, in the neighborhood. We just love being close to nature.”
That is a simple example (and perhaps a strange way to present oneself, so excuse the example). Nonetheless, the point is that sometimes you are forced to make up an answer in medias res.
Also, your conversation partner influenced your autobiographical reasoning. When she asked you a question, you were prompted to create a story, which is why it is a socio-cognitive process. Your reasoning is influenced by other people.
People around you may even tell stories about you that you adopt as your own autobiographical reasoning. Let’s say, you did something spectacular as a kid, and ever since you have been known as the person who did that.
Or, imagine a famous person who is being featured in media. These stories influence how that person thinks about herself. That is the communicative and socio-cognitive aspect of autobiographical reasoning.
Constructive & interpretative
Everyday remembering of single events involves varying degrees of linking, contextualizing, and interpreting.2
– Tilmann Habermas
The last and perhaps most interesting part is its constructive and interpretative nature. This is the idea that our life stories are not given facts. Our memories are interwoven with the meaning we attach to our stories.
Let’s imagine a different scenario where you are asked to present yourself in a job interview. Here you might present yourself by saying, “I am a graphical designer. I have always loved to be creative. I have a bachelor’s degree in graphical design and two years of experience from a marketing agency.”
The fictional person didn’t change, but her interpretation of who she is was different. This meant that she reasoned about who she is in a different manner, in this case by emphasizing her profession over her family life.
Autobiographical reasoning occurs all the time, and its constructive nature means that we use our stories for specific purposes. In this instance, the story was used to present yourself in a formal and professional setting.
Patterns of reasoning
You could also answer a question about what you have been up to today. That is almost arbitrarily simple, but it is nonetheless a form of autobiographical reasoning.
The point is that our stories are not predefined, but rather pop up as they are needed. Moreover, we can be very selective about the memories we use in our stories, and our memories are not always very accurate.
Most importantly, we establish patterns of reasoning, and our interpretations of our past can profoundly diverge. This makes autobiographical a complex process that produces different outcomes for different people.
Over time, these patterns become our understanding of ourselves and significantly impact our lives.
Linking the events of our lives
If we go back to our original definition, autobiographical reasoning is about creating relations. This linking of events happens in a recursive process. There are two categories of relations.
The first is about the temporal dimensions, i.e. our past, present, and future. The second concerns personality and development, i.e. who we are, who we are becoming and how we became who are.
In other words, we connect past, present & future by recalling memories from our lives and projecting them into the current moment and our future plans.
The role of memories
In the process of autobiographical reasoning, past events may be remembered and are then interpreted by putting them in a biographical context.2
– Tilmann Habermas
Memories are how we have stored experiences and events from our lives. When we create connections between our memories and who we are, we learn a little more about ourselves. More specifically, we identify “lessons learned or insights gained in life experiences, marking development or growth […] showing how specific life episodes illustrate enduring truths about the self.”3
Therefore, any time you engage in autobiographical reasoning, you recall memories. These memories are used to tell a life story and give some indication of who you are.
It is about “explicating the biographical relevance of memories.”2
Linking memories and self-understanding
You can think of autobiographical reasoning as a dialectic between autobiographical memory and self-understanding.
Try to imagine a pendulum swinging. On the one side, you have your memories where you think of events from your life. On the other side, you have your understanding of who you are.
Autobiographical reasoning is the pendulum swinging from one side to the other and back in order to create links between them.
Our Partial & Incomplete Life Stories
Another way of understanding autobiographical reasoning is by contrasting it with life narratives.
You can think of life narratives as the entirety of your life, your whole life story. Much like you would read in a biographical book, you go through from childhood all the way until the current moment.
In comparison, autobiographical reasoning is partial and evolving bits and pieces of one’s life story – a rudimentary understanding of who you are.
Your story may change. It may become more nuanced, or you may forget parts of your story.
What’s important about this continuous drafting of your life stories is that when you repeat them, they become part of your life narrative. In other words, your rudimentary stories become part of an enduring knowledge structure. We make them part of our internalized model, part of the way we understand ourselves.
Simply put, we tell stories all the time, and some of these stories stick.
Why Autobiographical Reasoning Matters
Okay, so we tell stories, so what? Why does that matter? Why should we care about autobiographical reasoning?
There are two major implications.
First of all, your autobiographical reasoning shapes your identity, and identity influences every decision you make.
Secondly, it influences the meaning you attach to your experiences. The meaning you attach to your life events affects your emotional experience of life.
Shaping your identity
So, how does autobiographical reasoning shape identity?
A school of thought in identity literature is called ‘narrative identity’. The idea is that your understanding of who you are, your identity, has a narrative structure. We understand ourselves as stories.
Your narrative identity is an internalized and evolving story with you starring as the main character.
Now, your story does not just come out of nowhere. It is constructed over time.
Your narrative identity is the enduring knowledge structure that was mentioned before, and autobiographical reasoning is how small stories become part of your larger narrative.
Every situation you encounter that makes you engage in autobiographical reasoning influences your understanding of yourself. That is how autobiographical reasoning shapes your narrative identity.
Living our stories
Why should you care about your identity, you may ask?
In essence, you should care because people live their identities.
Your narrative is your model of yourself that guides your decision-making. Whenever you are about to make a decision, your subconsciousness is automatically referencing your internalized story in order to make a decision that is consistent with who you think you are.
In a sense, identity is an underlying force that influences every decision you make.
We all try very hard to stay consistent with the story we have created about who we are.
The bodyweight metaphor
You can think of your identity as an interval that you really want to stay within. In fact, it works a lot like the bodyweight set-point theory.
This theory says that your weight will rarely fluctuate outside of a certain range because your body will start to regulate itself once you get either below or above a certain threshold.
If you gain too much weight, you will fall back into the interval, and if you lose too much weight, you will start to gain it again. This is both due to biological and mental processes.
The same goes for your identity. If you are acting in discordance with the story you tell yourself about yourself, you will subconsciously revert back to your old identity.
It is a way to provide stability and continuity in our lives.
Just like your weight, that does not mean that your identity is fixed. You can gain weight, and you can lose weight. Your identity is constructed rather than given.
It is, however, rather stubborn, and the way to change it is to alter the narrative you have created. As you can imagine, the course of your life will be very different depending on the narrative you create.
Therefore, being deliberate about your autobiographical reasoning provides some control over your stories and thus your identity.
Creating meaning in life
The other important reason why autobiographical reasoning is relevant for you concerns meaning-making. Meaning is how we understand and make sense of life’s events.
Meaning-making and interpretation are deeply entangled concepts. Autobiographical reasoning is interpretative in its nature, and meaning is the outcome of how you interpret your life stories. Or rather, the meaning emerges from your reasoning.
When we interpret our life stories, we tell ourselves, ‘This thing happened. Therefore, it must mean that.’ For example, ‘I got a salary raise at work. Therefore, I must be good at my job.’ Or, ‘My girlfriend left me so I guess I am not good at relationships.’
You interpret what an event signifies, what the implications are, and how important it is. In this sense, autobiographical reasoning helps you cope with life events.
Meaning creates emotion
Now, the meaning you associate to life events becomes your emotional experience of life. You will feel quite differently depending on how you interpret your life events as the two examples above show.
So, since the meaning you attach to your life stories determines how you feel about them, autobiographical reasoning is rather important for emotional well-being.
Creating a sense of purpose
There is also another, more specific element to how meaning-making is influenced. This concerns whether or not we feel that our lives are meaningful, i.e. it is about an underlying sense of purpose.
Autobiographical reasoning can be a source for a sense of purpose.
This is particularly true when we contextualize our lives in their social and historical circumstances.
Imagine someone who is part of a social rights movement. That is how she identifies herself. She feels like she is part of a bigger narrative. She does what she believes in, which endows her with a sense of purpose. Her story is part of the bigger narrative of the movement.
It could also be a story about what you were ‘meant’ to do with your life, or it can be as simple as being there for your family.
A purpose can become an underlying source of meaning in one’s life. Just like your identity and the meaning you associate with events, a purpose is not predestined. Instead, a sense of purpose emerges from your autobiographical reasoning.
Prototypical Autobiographical Arguments
Understanding autobiographical reasoning in the abstract is well and nice, but in order to make use of the concept, it is important to understand how it occurs in everyday life.
Therefore, let’s look at some examples of autobiographical reasoning – called prototypical autobiographical arguments2 – and see if you recognize any from your own life.
Prototypical autobiographical arguments are divided into two categories that concern respectively biographical change and biographical continuity.
Naturally, there are endless arguments that can be constructed, but to provide some overview we can try to organize and categorize the most common ones.
The first category contains arguments that try to bridge some form of change in life. Typically, these arguments explain why a change occurred and what the outcome was.
The outcome can be considered the consequences of your biographical background. Biographical consequences are how specific events influence your patterns of decision-making. This often involves a past-present comparison where a difference has been occurring ever since some event happened.
Let’s have a look at some examples.
Developmental status concerns the ‘stage’ you were at in life, which explains your development. E.g. ‘I was just a child so I did not know what I was doing.’
Formative influence is when you use people or circumstances in your explanation of your development. I.e. my development was influenced by a role model.
Events causing personality change
Personality-altering events are significant life events that somehow changed you. E.g. ‘The divorce of my parents made me distrusting of romantic partners.’
It can also be simple, specific events. E.g. if you once cut yourself with a knife, you may have become uncomfortable with knives ever since.
Change in knowledge
Arguments of this character concern some form of increase in knowledge. I.e. by finding out or not yet knowing something. There are several subarguments to this category.
If an event ‘reveals’ something about one’s personality, it is assumed that it was always there. E.g. a homosexual who is ‘coming out’.
Learning a lesson
Learning a lesson is a more acute form of knowledge increase. I.e. from this particular event or episode I learned so and so.
Lastly, change in knowledge can occur as generalization. This is when you derive general insights from a single or few events. E.g. when an experience in a romantic relationship shapes how you think about yourself as a partner.
Biographical Change Arguments
This category of prototypical autobiographical arguments aims to establish some form of continuity in life. Continuity in your life stories is the backbone for feeling a sense of coherence and stability.
Typically, continuity is established by creating broader themes and general truths that highlight enduring characteristics. These broader themes are then used in conjunction with the following prototypical arguments.
This argument goes from a general theme to specific behavior. I.e. making a general statement about one’s personality based on an episode or event where this is the case. ‘He is such a person, which is exemplified by this event.’
Explanation goes from specific to general by comparing specific behavior with personality traits. I.e. she did so and so because she is such a person.
It can also occur by negating the event. I.e. ‘He is acting out of character. He is not that type of person.’ This protects the continuity of the story by making the event an exception to the rule.
Still the same today
This argument happens when you highlight similarities between the current state of affairs and how things used to be.
This last prototypical argument is similar to the previous one. However, drawing parallels means highlighting similarities between specific episodes. These episodes may be quite different yet have a common theme.
Biographical Continuity Arguments
Using prototypical arguments
These prototypical arguments are useful to keep in mind when you try to recognize autobiographical reasoning in your own life.
Change is a chance
Biographical change arguments are particularly useful for reinterpreting who you are. Change means that things are unsettled. Therefore, change is a chance to redefine yourself in the direction you want.
For example, you may look back and think of episodes or events in your life that significantly impacted who you are or the direction your life has taken. In those moments, everything probably felt a bit insecure because things could have gone differently. That is exactly when you have an opportunity to take control of the direction things are moving.
Purpose lies in the past
Biographical continuity arguments are useful if you struggle to find a common thread in your life. Continuity provides stability, and it can also be a great source of purpose. You often hear people finding their career paths somewhat randomly. Later, they make a connection back to something they enjoyed when they were younger.
Imagine a blogger for example. ‘I just started the blog because I did not know what to do. Recently, my parents reminded me that I always liked to write as a kid. I wrote for the school newspaper, and it was always a lot of fun. I realized that I needed an outlet for my creativity – a way to express myself. That is what blogging is to me.’
In this example, the career choice was somewhat random, but she found a parallel between this choice and an earlier episode in life.
How to use autobiographical reasoning
Alright… armed with this knowledge, how may we then take action in our lives? Take control of our identities and emotional well-being?
Simply recognizing autobiographical reasoning and being aware of it is a good start. Awareness means that you will start noticing your own stories, and this is essential for your ability to alter your story.
Think about how autobiographical reasoning occurs in your life.
- What stories do you tell yourself about yourself?
- Do your stories change based on the people you are with?
- Are the stories serving you?
Such questions are great starting points.
If you start to feel more comfortable with the idea of reinterpreting your stories, you can become more deliberate about it.
For example, you may choose a topic in your life that is important to you and reflect upon the stories you tell in that regard.
You may think of your stories in terms of areas of your life, e.g. family-life, friendships, romantics, career, finances, hobbies & sports or whatever fits your life best.
You can also think of personality traits of yours, and where you think those traits come from. You can think of formative episodes of your life. Or, you can think of your emotional life and try to understand what stories that create those emotions. Remember, emotion comes from meaning.
There are lots of options for engaging in deliberate autobiographical reasoning.
Life Story Journaling
At Caleon, we are in favor of life story journaling where you write down your reflections. Writing down your stories is a great way to structure your thoughts and ‘calm the monkey mind’. It will also make your story more visible to you.
It can feel a bit foreign to think of your life stories at first. You might be thinking, ‘What is a story in the first place? I don’t tell stories…’ However, by writing your reflections down, it can become a lot more clear to you. Also, you will be able to revisit your stories later on.
Make it social
Other ways to go about autobiographical reasoning is to talk to friends and family. It is great to have the support of loved ones when it comes to sensitive topics. Moreover, an outsider perspective can often help you clarify things.
Try to explain to them what autobiographical reasoning is and ask them to help you redefine what your story means to you. It can be a great way to show courage and vulnerability to the people you care about, and it is a great way to connect.
These are just some of my own thoughts on how to be deliberate about autobiographical reasoning. Feel free to think of your own and share them in a comment below or in our forum.
One last thing, there is one important caveat to be aware of when taking control of your autobiographical reasoning.
A study by McLean & Mansfield shows that if you are not able to create a redemptive story – a story that goes from bad to good – autobiographical reasoning may have a negative effect on your mental well-being.4
I believe that is true because in a sense that means your meaning-making is not empowering you.
On the other hand, reflecting upon your life stories takes practice. Therefore, try to start out simple and small. This will help you become familiar with the process and better at reinterpreting your stories so you can take on bigger challenges. It is not a quick-fix, but a continuous practice.
Lastly, I want to wish you all the best of luck. I hope you learned something from this article. I definitely did while researching the topic. I find it exceptionally useful, and I believe it will become an important part of Caleon.
I suppose, in essence, life story journaling is about making autobiographical reasoning a deliberate practice so that you can take control of your life.
We don’t really want to call it that, though, because let’s be frank… autobiographical reasoning sounds daunting and complicated.
If you want to learn more, I encourage you to check out the literature which is linked below. This article is merely my interpretation of autobiographical reasoning, and the original sources are the most accurate.
Also, get in touch. I would be happy to direct you towards interesting articles.
- Habermas, T. & Bluck, S. (2000). Getting a life: The emergence of the life story in adolescence. Psychological Bulletin. 126. 748-769.
- Habermas, T. (2010). Autobiographical reasoning: Arguing and narrating from a biographical perspective. In T. Habermas (Ed.) The development of autobiographical reasoning in adolescence and beyond. New Directions for Child and Adolescent Development, 131, 1–17.
- Beck, J. (2015) [referring to McAdams & Manczak – however, I was unable to find the source]. Life’s Stories. In The Atlantic.
- McLean, K. C., & Mansfi eld, C. D. (2010). To reason or not to reason: Is autobiographical reasoning always beneficial? In T. Habermas (Ed.), The development of autobiographical reasoning in adolescence and beyond. New Directions for Child and Adolescent Development,