Development of the life story, MainLife

The life story is a concept grounded in the literary genre of autobiography. It is used as a research method by sociology and anthropology and as a diagnostic tool by psychoanalytic psychotherapy. We attempt to establish life narratives as an object of psychological study, referring to Erik Erikson’s and Dan McAdams conceptualizations of the life story and analyzing the life story as a narrative. We conceive the ability to construct life narratives as building upon, but distinct from the development of the basic ability to narrate events as conceived of by Katherine Nelson and Robyn Fivush. We believe that the life story and autobiographical and heterobiographical reasoning are cognitive formats which open new horizons in adolescence.

  • Fivush, R., Habermas, T., & Reese, E. (2019). Retelling lives: Narrative style and stability of highly emotional events over time. Qualitative Psychology, 6, 156-166. 10.1037/qup0000150

Frankfurt am Main Longitudinal Study of Life Narratives (MainLife)

Tilmann Habermas, Christine Paha (pilot study), Cybèle de Silveira (1st wave), Alexa Negele and  Verena Diel (2nd wave), Christin Köber (3rd wave)), Barbara Redlich and Isabel Peters (4th wave), Nina Kemper and Theresa Martin (5th wave)
Supported by DFG (2002-04, 2011-14) and Lotte Köhler Stiftung (2007-09)


Since 2002, we are engaged in a longitudinal study of brief life narratives, which is projected to continue until 2020. Every four years, brief life narratives lasting about 15 minutes are elicited from four groups who were 8, 12, 16 and 20 years old in 2003. In 2007 we added two adult age groups, then aged about 40 and 65 years. To date we have collected four waves for the four younger and three waves for the two older cohorts, including a total of 171 initial participants, of whom 135 participated in the
fourth wave in 2015. We are collecting a final wave in 2019/20.

Research questions:

  • A basic interest is to describe the narrative architecture of brief life narratives. Is there a normative structure to them in a given culture (Cultural concept of biography)? Another interest is methodological – how can global coherence of life narratives be measured? We have developed a series of local autobiographical arguments that contribute to global coherence, three global rating scales of coherence, and measures of the temporal macrostructure (beginnings, endings, chronological linearity). Some manuals have been translated into English.
  • The original main research question was developmental: When do adolescents learn to narrate a globally coherent life narrative? How stable are life narratives? What influences the stability of life narratives? How does autobiographical narrating develop across the life span?
  • As the study spans more and more waves, we increasingly also ask for correlations of global coherence and specific components of life narratives with measures of well-being and life adaptation, i.e. how helpful is it to narrate  coherently one's life?
  •  An additional question is whether in older adulthood autobiographical narrating is characterized by a decrease in narratives of specific events and an increase of attempts to embed specific evens in the life.
  • We have begun to study the presence and influence of central motives in life narratives. Also we have begun to analyze correlates of personality traits with Sonja Rohrmann and Ana Tibubos.

Main Publications:

Pilot study:

  • Habermas, T., & Paha, C. (2001).The development of coherence in adolescents’ life narratives. Narrative Inquiry, 11, 35-54.

Wave 1:

  • De Silveira, C., & Habermas, T. (2011). Narrative means to manage responsibility in life narratives across adolescence. Journal of Genetic Psychology, 172, 1-20.

  • Habermas, T., Ehlert-Lerche, S., & de Silveira, C. (2009).The development of the temporal macrostructure of life narratives across adolescence: Beginnings, linear narrative form, and endings. Journal of Personality, 77, 527-560.

  • Habermas, T., & de Silveira, C. (2008).The development of global coherence in life narratives across adolescence: Temporal, causal, and thematic aspects. Developmental Psychology, 44, 707-721.

  • Habermas, T. (2007). How to tell a life: The development of the cultural concept of biography across the lifespan. Journal of Cognition and Development, 8, 1-31.

  • Habermas, T. (2006). „Kann ich auch ganz, ganz am Anfang anfangen?“ Wie Jugendliche lernen, Lebenserzählungen zu eröffnen und beenden. In H. Welzer & H. J. Markowitsch (Eds.), Warum Menschen sich erinnern: Fortschritte der interdisziplinären Gedächtnisforschung (pp. 256-275).Stuttgart: Klett-Cotta.

Wave 2:

  • Negele, A., & Habermas, T. (2010).Self-continuity across developmental change in and of repeated life narratives.In K. McLean & M. Pasupathi (Eds.), Narrative development in adolescence (pp. 1-22). New York: Springer.

  • Habermas, T., & Diel, V. (2013). The episodicity of verbal reports of personally significant autobiographical memories: Vividness correlates with narrative text quality more than with detailedness or memory specificity. Frontiers in Behavioral Neuroscience, 7, 110. 10.3389/fnbeh.2013.00110

  • Habermas, T., Diel, V., & Welzer, H. (2013). Lifespan trends of autobiographical remembering: Episodicity and search for meaning. Consciousness & Cognition, 22, 1061-1072. 10.1016/j.concog.2013.07.0

Wave 3:

  • Köber, C., Kuhn, M., Peters, I., & Habermas, T. (2019). Mentalizing oneself: Detecting reflective functioning in life narratives. Attachment & Human Development, 21, 313-331. Doi 10.1080/14616734.2018.1473886

  • Waters, T. E., Köber, C., Raby, K. L., Habermas, T., & Fivush, R. (2019). Consistency and stability of narrative coherence: An examination of personal narrative as feature of adult personality. Journal of Personality, 87, 151-162. Doi 10.1111/jopy.12377
  • Köber, C., & Habermas, T. (2018). Parents’ traces:  When and how parents are presented in life narratives of a lifespan sample. Journal of Personality, 83, 679-697. 10.1111/jopy.12350

  • Köber, C., & Habermas, T. (2017). How stable is the personal past? Stability of most important autobiographical memories and life narratives across eight years in a lifespan sample. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 113, 608-626 , 10.1037/pspp0000145

  • Köber, C., & Habermas, T. (2017). The development of temporal macrostructure in life narratives across the lifespan. Discourse Processes, 54, 143-162. 10.1080/0163853X.2015.110561

  • Habermas, T., & Köber, C. (2015). Autobiographical reasoning in life narratives buffers the effect of biographical disruptions on the sense of self-continuity. Memory, 23, 564-574. doi: 10.1080/09658211.2014.920885
  • Köber, C., Schmiedek, F., & Habermas, T. (2015). Characterizing lifespan development of three aspects of coherence in life narratives: A cohort-sequential study. Developmental Psychology, 51, 260-275. doi: 10.1037/a0038668

Wave 4:

  • Tibubos, A., Köber, C., Habermas, T., & Rohrmann, S. (2019). Does self-acceptance captured by life narratives and self-report predict mental health? A longitudinal multi-method approach. Journal of Research in Personality, 79, 13-23. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jrp.2019.01.003

Cross-cultural differences in narrative identity  (2012-16)

Neşe Hatiboğlu, dissertation

We studied life narratives and life scripts in four different cultural groups: Turks living in provincial center and a metropolis in Turkey, Turkish-Germans and native Germans living in Frankfurt am Main. Life scripts tend to be more normative in provincial compared to urban areas as well as in Turks compared to Germans. Entire life narratives turned out to be more other-centered, more negative, and less coherent in Turks in provincial Turkey than in Metropolitan Turkey and 2nd generation Turkish-Germans than in native Germans in urban Germany.

Development of parental scaffolding of life narrating (2008-11)

Tilmann Habermas, Alexa Negele, supported by the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation (transcoop grant to Tilmann Habermas and Robyn Fivush, 2008-11)

In four groups aged 8, 12, 16 and 20 we explored the ways in which mothers support their offspring in narrating their life and compared these co-narrations to monological life narratives by mother and child/adolescent. Mothers adapted to the developmental competence of the child by supporting those kinds of coherence the child was about to acquire (zone of proximal development).

  • Habermas, T., Negele, A., & Brenneisen Mayer, F. (2010).„Honey, you’re jumping about“ – Mothers’ scaffolding of their children’s and adolescents’ life narration. Cognitive Development, 25, 339-351.

Variations of life narratives in psychopathology

Tilmann Habermas, diploma theses by Lisa Ott, Merve Schubert, Beatrix Schneider (1998-2005)

We compared life narratives of clinically depressed in-patients with those of a matched control group, finding not only more negative life events and a more depressed explanatory style, but also less linear narratives and constructions of developmental change.

  • Habermas, T., Ott, L. M., Schubert, M., Schneider, B., & Pate, A. (2008).Stuck in the past: Negative bias, explanatory style, temporal order, and evaluative perspectives in life narratives of clinically depressed individuals. Depression and Anxiety, 25, E121-E132.


Co-operation with Mélissa Allé, Fabrice Berna und Jean-Marie Danion (University of Strasbourg) (2012-2015)

These colleagues studied life narratives of schizophrenic patients and measured various aspects of their global coherence with measure developed by our group.

  • Allé, M., Potheegadoo, J., Köber, C., Schneider, P., Coutelle, R., Habermas, T., Danion, J.-M., & Berna, F. (2015). Impaired coherence of life narratives of patients with schizophrenia. Scientific Reports, 5, 12934. 10.1038/srep12934.
  • Allé, M. C., Gandolphe, M.-C., Doba, K., Köber, C., Potheegadoo, J., Coutelle, R., Habermas, T., Nandrino, J.-L., Danion, J.-M., & Berna, F. (2016). Grasping the mechanisms of narratives’ incoherence in schizophrenia: An analysis of the temporal structure of patients’ life story. Comprehensive Psychiatry, 69, 20-29. doi:10.1016/j.comppsych.2016.04.015

Autobiographical uses of personal objects (1996)

Tilmann Habermas, Christine Paha (diploma thesis)

In a study of the uses of personal objects (cherished possessions) in the transition to university, we analyzed the kinds of autobiographical memories elicited by personal objects. Often they referred not only to past experiences, but also as symbolic ties to biographically significant others.

  • Habermas, T., & Paha, C. (2002.). Souvenirs and other personal objects: Reminding of past events and significant others in the transition to university.In J. D. Webster & B. K. Haight (Eds.),Critical Advances in Reminiscence Work(p.123-138). New York: Springer.
  • Habermas, T. (2011). Diamonds are a girl’s best friend? The psychology of jewellery as beloved objects. In W. Lindemann (Hg.), Thinking jewellery - Towards a theory of jewellery (pp. 95-108). Stuttgart: Arnoldsche Verlagsanstalt.