Memory & Cognition

, Volume 47, Issue 1, pp 63–75 | Cite as

Self-narrative focus in autobiographical events: The effect of time, emotion, and individual differences

  • David C. RubinEmail author
  • Dorthe Berntsen
  • Samantha A. Deffler
  • Kaitlyn Brodar


Individuals may take a self-narrative focus on the meaning of personal events in their life story, rather than viewing the events in isolation. Using the Centrality of Event Scale (CES; Berntsen & Rubin in Behaviour Research and Therapy, 44, 219–231, 2006) as our measure, we investigated self-narrative focus as an individual differences variable in addition to its established role as a measure of individual events. Three studies, with 169, 182, and 190 participants had 11, 10, and 11 different events varied across the dimensions of remembered past versus imagined future, distance from the present, and valence. Imagined future events, events more distant from the present, and positive events all had increased self-narrative focus, in agreement with published theories and findings. Nonetheless, CES ratings for individual events correlated positively with each other within individuals (r ~ .30) and supported a single factor solution. These results are consistent with a stable individual differences tendency toward self-narrative focus that transcends single events. Thus, self-narrative focus is both a response whereby people relate individual events to their life story and identity and an individual differences variable that is stable over a range of events. The findings are discussed in relation to narrative measures of autobiographical reasoning.


Autobiographical memory Individual differences Episodic future thinking Centrality of Event Scale Self-continuity 


Author note

We wish to thank Rick Hoyle for statistical advice.


The authors disclosed receipt of the following financial support for the research, authorship, and/or publication of this article: Preparation of this manuscript was supported by Grant DNRF89 from the Danish National Research Foundation and Grant R01 MH066079 from the National Institute of Mental Health.

Compliance with ethical standards

Conflict interest

The authors declared no potential conflicts of interest with respect to the research, authorship, and/or publication of this article.


  1. Addis, D. R., Wong, A. T., & Schacter, D. L. (2008). Age-related changes in the episodic simulation of future events. Psychological Science, 19, 33–41.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. Adler, J. M., Lodi-Smith, J., Philippe, F. L., & Houle, I. (2016). The incremental validity of narrative identity in predicting well-being: A review of the field and recommendations for the future. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 20, 142–175.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. Adler, J. M., Waters, T. E. A., Poh, J., & Seitz, S. (2018). The nature of narrative coherence: An empirical approach. Journal of Research in Personality, 74, 30–34.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. Allé, M. C., D’Argembeau, A., Schneider, P., Potheegadoo, J., Coutelle, R., Danion, J.-M., & Berna, F. (2016). Self-continuity across time in schizophrenia: An exploration of phenomenological and narrative continuity in the past and future. Comprehensive Psychiatry, 69, 53–61.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th ed.).. Washington, DC: Author.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. Berntsen, D., & Bohn, A. (2010). Remembering and forecasting: The relation between autobiographical memory and episodic future thinking. Memory & Cognition, 38, 265–278.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. Berntsen, D., & Jacobsen, A. S. (2008). Involuntary (spontaneous) mental time travel into the past and future. Consciousness and Cognition, 17, 1093–1104.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. Berntsen, D., & Rubin, D. C. (2004). Cultural life scripts structure recall from autobiographical memory. Memory & Cognition, 32, 427–442.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. Berntsen, D., & Rubin, D. C. (2006). Centrality of Event Scale: A measure of integrating a trauma into one’s identity and its relation to post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms. Behaviour Research and Therapy, 44, 219–231.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. Berntsen, D., Rubin, D. C., & Siegler, I. C. (2011). Two versions of life: Emotionally negative and positive life events have different roles in the organization of life story and identity. Emotion, 11, 1190–1201.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  11. Boucher, C. M., & Scoboria, A. (2014). Reappraising past and future transitional events: The effects of mental focus on present perceptions of personal impact and self-relevance. Journal of Personality, 83, 361–375.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. Cole, S. N., Staugaard, S. R., & Berntsen, D. (2016). Inducing involuntary and voluntary mental time travel using a laboratory paradigm. Memory & Cognition, 44, 376–389.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. Conway, M. A., Singer, J. A., & Tagini, A. (2004). The self and autobiographical memory: Correspondence and coherence. Social Cognition, 22, 491–529.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  14. D’Argembeau, A. (2012). Autobiographical memeory and future thinking. In D. Berntsen & D. C. Rubin (Eds.), Understanding autobiographical memory: Theories and approaches. (pp. 311–330). Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University PressCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  15. D’Argembeau, A., & Van der Linden, M. (2004). Phenomenal characteristics associated with projecting oneself back into the past and forward into the future: Influences of valence and temporal distances. Consciousness and Cognition, 13, 844–858.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. D’Argembeau, A., & Van der Linden, M. (2006). Individual differences in the phenomenology of mental time travel: The effect of vivid visual imagery and emotion regulation strategies. Consciousness and Cognition, 15, 342–350.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  17. Finnbogadóttir, H., & Berntsen, D. (2011). Involuntary mental time travel in high and low worriers. Memory, 19, 625–640.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  18. Finnbogadóttir, H., & Berntsen, D. (2013). Involuntary future projections are as frequent as involuntary memories, but more positive. Consciousness and Cognition, 22, 272–280.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. Grysman, A., Prabhakar, J., Anglin, S. M., & Hudson, J. A. (2013). The time travelling self: Comparing self and other in narratives of past and future events. Consciousness and Cognition, 22, 742–755.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  20. Habermas, T., & Bluck, S. (2000). Getting a life: The emergence of the life story in adolescence. Psychological Bulletin, 126, 748–769.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  21. Holm, T., Thomsen, D. K., & Bliksted, V. (2016). Life story chapters and narrative self-continuity in patients with schizophrenia. Consciousness and Cognition, 45, 60–74.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  22. Libby, L. K., & Eibach, R. P. (2011). Self-enhancement or self-coherence? Why people shift visual perspective in mental images of the personal past and future. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 37, 714–726.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  23. McLean, K. C., Pasupathi, M., Greenhoot, A. F., & Fivush, R. (2017). Does intra-individual variability in narration matter and for what? Journal of Research in Personality, 69, 55–66.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  24. Newby-Clark, I. R., & Ross, M. (2003). Conceiving the past and future. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 29, 807–818.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  25. Ottsen, C. L., & Berntsen, D. (2015). Prescribed journeys through life: Cultural differences in mental time travel between Middle Easterners and Scandinavians. Consciousness and Cognition, 37, 180–193.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  26. Özbek, M., Bohn, A., & Berntsen, D. (2017). Imagining the personal past: Episodic counterfactuals compared to episodic memories and episodic future projections. Memory & Cognition, 45, 375–389.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  27. Prebble, S. C., Addis, D. R., & Tippett, L. J. (2013). Autobiographical memory and sense of self. Psychological Bulletin, 139, 815–840.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  28. Rasmussen, A. S., & Berntsen, D. (2013). The reality of the past versus the ideality of the future: Emotional valence and functional differences between past and future mental time travel. Memory & Cognition, 41, 187–200.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  29. Ritchie, T. D., Sedikides, C., & Skowronski, J. J. (2015). Emotions experienced at event recall and the self: Implications for the regulation of self-esteem, self-continuity, and meaningfulness. Memory, 24, 577–591.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  30. Ritchie, T. D., Skowronski, J. J., Wood, S. E., Walker, W. R., Vogl, R. J., & Gibbons, J. A. (2006). Event self-importance, event rehearsal, and the fading affect bias in autobiographical memory. Self and Identity, 5, 172–195.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  31. Ross, M., & Wilson, A. E. (2002). It feels like yesterday: Self-esteem, valence of personal past experiences, and judgments of subjective distance. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 82, 792-803.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  32. Rubin, D. C. (2006). The basic-systems model of episodic memory. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 1, 277–311.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  33. Rubin, D. C. (2014). Schema driven construction of future autobiographical traumatic events: The future is much more troubling than the past. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 143(2), 612–630.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  34. Rubin, D. C., Boals, A., & Berntsen, D. (2008). Memory in posttraumatic stress disorder: Properties of voluntary and involuntary, traumatic and non-traumatic autobiographical memories in people with and without PTSD symptoms. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 137, 591–614.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  35. Rubin, D. C, Deffler, S. A., Ogle, C. M., Dowell, N., Graesser, A. C., & Beckham, J. C. (2016). Participant, rater, and computer measures of coherence in posttraumatic stress disorder. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 125, 11–25.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  36. Rubin, D. C., Dennis, M. F., & Beckham, J. C. (2011). Autobiographical memory for stressful events: The role of autobiographical memory in posttraumatic stress disorder. Consciousness and Cognition, 20, 840–856.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  37. Rubin, D. C., Schrauf, R. W., & Greenberg, D. L. (2004). Stability in autobiographical memories. Memory, 12, 712–721.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  38. Schacter, D. L., Addis, D. R., Hassabis, D., Martin, V. C., Spreng, R. N., & Szpunar, K. K. (2012). The future of memory: Remembering, imagining, and the brain. Neuron, 76, 677–694.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  39. Sedikides, C., & Gregg, A. P. (2008). Self-enhancement: Food for thought. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 3, 102–116.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  40. Singer, J. A., Blagov, P., Berry, M., & Oost, K. M. (2013). Self-defining memories, scripts, and the life story: Narrative identity in personality and psychotherapy. Journal of Personality, 81, 569–582.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  41. Spreng, R. N., & Levine, B. (2006). The temporal distribution of past and future autobiographical events across the lifespan. Memory & Cognition, 34, 1644–1651.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  42. Szpunar, K. K. (2010). Episodic future thought: An emerging concept. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 5, 142–162.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  43. Szpunar, K. K., & McDermott, K. B. (2008). Episodic future thought and its relation to remembering: Evidence from ratings of subjective experience. Consciousness and Cognition, 17, 330–334.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  44. Trope, Y., & Liberman, N. (2003). Temporal construal. Psychological Review, 110, 403–421.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  45. Tulving, E. (1985). Memory and consciousness. Canadian Psychology, 26, 1–26.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  46. Tulving, E. (2002). Episodic memory: From mind to brain. Annual Review of Psychology, 53, 1–25.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  47. Weathers, F. W., Litz, B. T., Keane, T. M., Palmieri, P. A., Marx, B. P., & Schnurr, P. P. (2013). The PTSD Checklist for DSM-5 (PCL-5). Scale available from the National Center for PTSD:
  48. Wilson, A. E., & Ross, M. (2001). From chump to champ: People’s appraisals of their earlier and present selves. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 80, 572–584.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  49. Zaragoza Scherman, A., Salgado, S., Shao, Z., & Berntsen, D. (2015). Event centrality of positive and negative autobiographical memories to identity and life story across cultures. Memory, 23, 1152–1171.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© The Psychonomic Society, Inc. 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  • David C. Rubin
    • 1
    • 2
    Email author
  • Dorthe Berntsen
    • 2
  • Samantha A. Deffler
    • 3
  • Kaitlyn Brodar
    • 4
  1. 1.Department of Psychology and NeuroscienceDuke UniversityDurhamUSA
  2. 2.Center on Autobiographical Memory ResearchAarhus UniversityAarhusDenmark
  3. 3.Department of Behavioral SciencesYork College of PennsylvaniaYorkUSA
  4. 4.Department of PsychologyUniversity of MiamiCoral GablesUSA

Personalised recommendations