Whitbourne’s Identity Theory
A second and related approach to understanding identity formation in adulthood is Whitbourne’s (1987, 1996c) idea that people build their own conceptions of how their lives should proceed. The result of this process is the life-span construct, the person’s unified sense of the past, present, and future.
There are many influences on the development of a life-span construct: identity, values, and social context are a few. Together, they shape the lifespan construct and the ways in which it is manifested. The life-span construct has two structural components, which in turn are the ways in which it is manifested. The first of these components is the scenario, which consists of expectations about the future. The scenario translates aspects of our identity that are particularly important at a specific point into a plan for the future. The scenario is strongly influenced by age norms that define key transition points; for example, graduating from college is a transition that is normally associated with the early 20s. In short, a scenario is a game plan for how we want our lives to go.
Kim, a typical college sophomore, may have the following scenario: She expects that her course of study in nursing will be difficult but that she will finish on time. She hopes to meet a nice guy along the way whom she will marry shortly after graduation. She imagines she will get a good job at a major medical center that will offer her opportunities for advancement. She and her husband will probably have a child, but she expects to keep working. Because she feels she will want to advance, she assumes that at some point she will earn a master’s degree. In the more distant future she hopes to be a department head and to be well respected for her administrative skills.
Tagging certain expected events with a particular age or time by which we expect to complete them creates a social clock (see Chapter 1). Kim will use her scenario to evaluate her progress toward her goals. With each major transition she will check how she is doing against where her scenario says she should be. If she has achieved her goals earlier than she expected, she will be proud of being ahead of the game. If things work out more slowly than she planned, she may chastise herself for being slow. If she begins to criticize herself a great deal, she may end up changing her scenario altogether; for example, if she does not get a good job and makes no progress, she may change her scenario to one that says she should stay home with her child.
As Kim starts moving into the positions laid out in her scenario, she begins to create the second component of her life-span construct, her life story. The life story is a personal narrative history that organizes past events into a coherent sequence. The life story gives events personal meaning and a sense of continuity; it becomes our autobiography. Because the life story is what we tell others when they ask about our past, it eventually becomes somewhat over-rehearsed and stylized. An interesting aspect of the life story, and autobiographical memory in general, is that distortions will occur with time and retelling (Fitzgerald, 1999; Pasupathi, 2001). In life stories, distortions allow the person to feel that he or she was on time, rather than off time, in terms of past events in the scenario. In this way, people feel better about their plans and goals and are less likely to feel a sense of failure.
Whitbourne (1986) conducted a fascinating cross-sectional study of 94 adults ranging in age from 24 to 61. They came from all walks of life and represented a wide range of occupations and life situations. Using data from very detailed interviews, Whitbourne was able to identify what she believes is the process of adult identity development based on equilibrium between identity and experience.
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Figure 9.2 Whitbourne’s model of adult identity processes.
Source: Whitbourne, S. K. (1986). The psychological construction of the life span. In J. E. Birren & K. W. Schaie (Eds.), Handbook of the Psychology of Aging (pp. 594-619). New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold. All rights reserved. Reproduced by permission of the author.
Her model is presented in Figure 9.2. As the figure shows, there is continuous feedback between identity and experience; this explains why we may evaluate ourselves positively at one point in time, yet appear defensive and self-protective at another.
As you can see, the processes of equilibrium are based on Piaget’s concepts of assimilation and accommodation (see Chapter 7). Whitbourne has explicitly attempted to integrate concepts from cognitive development with identity development to understand how identity is formed and revised across adulthood. The assimilation process involves using already existing aspects of identity to handle present situations. Over-reliance on assimilation makes the person resistant to change. Accommodation, in contrast, reflects the willingness of the individual to let the situation determine what he or she will do. This often occurs when the person does not have a well-developed identity around a certain issue.
Not surprisingly, Whitbourne (1986) found that the vast majority of adults listed family as the most important aspect of their lives. Clearly, adults’
identity as loving constitutes the major part of the answer to the question “Who am I?” Consequently, a major theme in adults’ identity development is trying to refine their belief that “I am a loving person.” Much of this development is in acquiring and refining deep, emotional relationships.
A second major source of identity for Whit – bourne’s participants was work. In this case, the key seemed to be keeping work interesting. As long as i ndividuals had an interesting occupation that enabled them to become personally invested, their work identity was more central to their overall personal identity. This is a topic we will pursue in Chapter 12.
Although Whitbourne found evidence of life transitions, overall she found scant evidence that these transitions occurred in a stagelike fashion or were tied to specific ages. Rather, she found that people tended to go through transitions when they felt they needed to and to do so on their own time line. More recently, Whitbourne (1996a) has developed the Identity and Experiences Scale-General
to measure identity processes in adults. Her model has been expanded to incorporate how people adapt more generally to middle age and the aging process (Whitbourne, 1996b; Whitbourne & Connolly, 1999). This scale assesses an individual’s use of assimilation and accommodation in forming identity in a general sense, and is based on her earlier work (Whitbourne, 1986).
In a recent study, Sneed and Whitbourne (2003) did find that identity assimilation and identity accommodation change with age. Whereas identity assimilation was higher in older adulthood, identity accommodation was higher in younger adulthood. Furthermore, identity assimilation in older adulthood was associated with maintaining and enhancing positive self-regard through the minimization of negativity. In contrast, a changing identity (e. g., through accommodation) in older adulthood was associated more with poor psychological health. The ability to integrate age-related changes into one’s identity and maintain a positive view of oneself is crucial to aging successfully (Holahan, 2003; Sneed & Whitbourne, 2003). This suggests that people may make behavioral adjustments to promote healthy adaptation to the aging process (see Chapter 3).