Thursday, 10 December 2015

Your life story is made up of transitions and turning points – do you know the difference?

When you take a look back at the year just gone, do you see any times of real change? A turning point, perhaps – or maybe a transition? No, I’m not repeating myself: although many of us, including those who research our autobiographical memories, use them interchangeably, these two kinds of important life events are distinct, and as new research in Applied Cognitive Psychology shows, both have their own role in helping us organise our past.

Consider first a time in your life where your circumstances visibly changed: arriving at college, or when your first paychecks began tumbling in. Working with participants between 30 and 64, researchers Karalyn Enz and Jennifer Talarico demonstrate that these are the sorts of things people come up with when asked to describe a transition they have experienced in their life. They involve a change in external circumstances, something you and others can easily point to at the time.

In contrast, people asked to recall turning points give examples like meeting their partner or deciding to apply to grad school. Because it can be an internal decision or change of emotion or attitude, the turning point may not be immediately obvious to others, or even to ourselves at the time. These examples point up another difference: the 36 participants were twice as likely to see turning points as being a single event rather than a period, and twice as likely to see transitions as an extended period rather than an event. True, sometimes a turning-point type event would be suggested as a transition and vice versa, but the two appeared reasonably distinct. But for this to be really meaningful, we’d want to see them function differently. And they do.

Firstly, consider how past autobiographical memory work shows that if you want to find a narrative thread to tie your past into a coherent whole, you shouldn’t focus on the crashing highs and lows – Disneyworld! The time I was mugged! – but on the critical decisions or forks in the road, however muted. Sounds pretty similar to turning points, doesn’t it? In the current study, participants were asked to rate how central the remembered events were to the person’s life to date. Turning points received significantly higher ratings than transitions, which seem to be less important on their own terms.

Luckily, transitions appear to have another, practical, function: providing a context for organising other events. After generating a specific memory (e.g. a transition or turning point), Enz and Talarico asked participants to use this as a trigger for further memories, which were then rated for similarity to the trigger. When the trigger was a transition, the memories immediately produced were more similar and more likely to share a location with the transition. In other words, transitions provide a backdrop against which related memories may be organised; prior work (including my own) has suggested that by carving out distinct periods of a life, transitions may also supply temporal landmarks – who forgets the date they finished high school? – that help us organise in terms of time as well as space.

Two ways in which our life changes: a fresh environment or lifestyle, and the little moments with a deep impact. Researchers can do better work by distinguishing the two. What does this research mean for the rest of us? If you want to catalogue your life, you could do worse than cast your mind to the big transitions. But if you want to make sense of it, reflect on the turning points where you chose your own adventure.


Enz, K., & Talarico, J. (2015). Forks in the Road: Memories of Turning Points and Transitions Applied Cognitive Psychology DOI: 10.1002/acp.3176

--further reading--
Remembering together - How long-term couples develop interconnected memory systems
How is autobiographical memory divided into chapters?
Story envy: When we borrow other people's personal anecdotes
Some perfectly healthy people can't remember their own lives
How thinking about the future can cause us to forget the past

 Post written by Alex Fradera (@alexfradera) for the BPS Research Digest.

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