Funded Grants

How Transformative Experiences Shape Adult Identity Development

Transformative experiences can lead to profound identity shifts by changing what we know and care about. Examples of transformative experiences include the gain or loss of sensory capacities, emigrating to a country with a culture very different from one’s own, or becoming a parent for the first time. Having a stable sense of self is crucial for well-being, but transformative experiences can radically disrupt identity in adulthood, well after identity is assumed to be stabilized. It is therefore surprising that transformative experiences have received little attention in identity development research. Here, we seek to close this gap by studying how transformative experiences impact identity and well-being in adulthood. We focus on a canonical and common transformative experience -- becoming a parent for the first time – and address four key questions. First, how do cognitive representations of the self (i.e., self-representations) change during the transition to parenthood? Second, during this transition, do people mold their self-representations to become more closely aligned with their stereotypes of how parents ought to be? Third, how do changes in self-representations during the transition to parenthood relate to well-being? Finally, how do self-representations relate to the stories people tell about meaningful events in their lives, like the transition to parenthood? To address these questions, we combine cutting-edge computational techniques for modeling the content of self-representations with new smartphone-based “experience sampling” technology that can measure people’s cognitive processes as they go about their daily lives in naturalistic social environments. We will longitudinally measure self-representations in three groups of adults: people who are about to become parents for the first time (transformation group), and two control groups (people who want children at some point in the future but are not currently expecting, and current parents who are not expecting more children). Participants in the transformation group will complete the study before and after the arrival of their new child, and participants in control groups will complete the study at matched timepoints to control for any effects of the mere passage of time. Across the study timeline, we will probe identity in three different ways: (1) with a measure of commitment to an identity as a parent; (2) with stories people tell about key moments in their lives; and (3) with a novel task that measures how people represent core dimensions of themselves (like “warmth” and “competence”) and how these dimensions are related over time. The result will be a rich, longitudinal dataset capturing stability and change adult identity over time that has potential to serve as a “Rosetta Stone” for identity research, bridging multiple methods for measuring identity in the same set of participants. This work has potential to break new ground in our understanding of how one of the most common and profound human experiences can shape identity and well-being in adulthood, and can serve as a springboard for future work exploring transformative experiences as noteworthy developmental phenomenon.