Jack Bauer, Ph.D. (PI)
Professor of Psychology
University of Dayton, Dayton, OH
Peggy DesAutels, Ph.D. (PI)
Professor of Philosophy
University of Dayton, Dayton, OH
This project aims to produce a psychologically grounded, philosophically normative theory of virtuous self-development. The project brings together psychology and philosophy along three approaches to virtue: the narrative self (McAdams, 1993; Taylor, 1989), eudaimonia (Flanagan, 2007; Ryan & Deci, 2001), and feminism (Nussbaum, 1998; Tessman, 2005). The project addresses the constructs of self, motivation, and virtue in a tradition of philosophers and psychologists looking to scientific methods to arrive at a psychologically plausible understanding of normative ethics (e.g., Bauer, 2016; DesAutels, 2012; Flanagan, 1991, 2007; Haybron, 2008; Nussbaum, 1998; Ryan & Deci, 2000; Snow, 2008; Tiberius, 2008; Waterman, 2013). The project features studies of individuals’ life stories and the family stories of those individuals. These narratives are examined qualitatively and quantitatively. Qualitative analysis allows for a critical examination of virtues in the context of actual lives in terms of theories of virtue ethics (e.g., Bauer & DesAutels, in press). Quantitative analysis allows for the scientific study of how the various virtues in personal stories statistically predict an array of measures of related phenomena, such as demonstrated wisdom, moral virtues, and well-being.
In other words, this project is about the life story and how it fosters human flourishing in a world of others. In creating their own life stories, people create a sense of what’s personally meaningful in their lives and a sense of who they are as a person—all as part of their narrative self-identity. Like any story, the life story has themes—such as power or love—that give the story meaning. In life stories, themes convey what people value and what motivates them. Some of these values involve virtues like care, wisdom, compassion, and self-actualizing. Such virtue-based themes allow researchers to study how virtues serve as motives and primary sources of meaning in people’s self-identity (Bauer, 2016).
Neither virtues nor life stories function in a social vacuum. Life stories draw from cultural master narratives of a good life (Hammack & Toolis, 2016)—in novels, films, religious texts, etc.—as well as master narratives from smaller social groups like families (McLean, 2015). Through life stories and family stories, researchers can learn how virtuous self-development ensues within family dynamics and then in contexts of culturally sanctioned virtues. We are especially interested in how virtues function under non-ideal circumstances: How do family stories support or not support flourishing in the individual’s life story? How do the social structures, understood through cultural master narratives, thwart individuals who have less power in society—for example, women and those of oppressed ethnicities—from living out the idealized virtues of cultural master narratives? While everyone has exposure to master narratives, not everyone has the same opportunity to live out the ideals of those master narratives (Nussbaum, 1998; Tessman, 2005). Even in middle-class life, society imposes values based on gender and ethnicity that can hamper eudaimonic growth, which life stories and family stories make palpable.
Innovations in this project include the identification of virtues as themes, statistical tests of how these virtuous themes compete internally within the person and between family members in relation to the target person’s development, the qualitative-and-quantitative mixed methods for studying virtues, and the qualitative analysis of life and family stories in terms of cultural master narratives from the perspective of critical social inquiry.
The research team completed the primary objectives of their original proposal. Their primary aims were to collect narrative and non-narrative data over the course of two years, to begin analyses, and to begin dissemination in the form of manuscripts and presentations.
The team recruited 100 participants who completed face-to-face life story interviews and an online survey of personality (traits, virtues, motives, self-identity, ideological attitudes, and well-being) and life conditions (demographics and life events like changes in marital status, family members, work life, and location). Life story interviews took two-to-three hours each and included 20 questions that were organized into five sections (A-E):
Next, the team recruited 25 participants from the life-story sample along with their family members (two to three siblings and/or parents per target participant). They had originally planned for 50 family story interviews, but ultimately only 25 had family members who could participate, despite extensive contact between them and the project PI, Dr. Bauer. Each family completed a face-to-face family story interview together, and each family member (including the target participant) completed an online survey of personality and life conditions. Family story interviews took 1-2 hours each and included six questions: an enjoyable family event, a difficult family event, a turning point for the family, the role of gender in the family, becoming an individual in this family (individual family members responded serially, but typically with comments from others), the role of gender in the family, and main characteristics of the family.
The team also conducted a follow-up survey of personality characteristics and life conditions with the life-story participants at the end of the project. Of the original 100 participants, 90 participated in the follow-up.
Overall this project extended past research on life stories by including a subset of family stories, and extended past research on family stories by including in-depth life stories of a target family member plus extensive survey measures of all family members.
The research team began their analysis of narratives in the first year for the purpose of specific publications and presentations. As expected, they generated an enormous amount of data. Most of the data analyses will occur in the current and following year. The scientific, quantitative analysis of narratives is an extremely time-consuming endeavor. Sufficient inter-rater reliability is essential: Two or more researchers must independently code narratives in the same way, which demonstrates that a narrative in fact conveys this or that theme of virtue (or any other element of the narrative). The project research team has formed a larger team of 12 researchers (including graduate students and undergraduates), which is currently in the process of coding 2,000 individual narratives from the life story interview (individuals’ transcripts averaged approximately 35-40 pages), 150 dialogical narratives from the family story interview, and approximately 350 written narratives from the online surveys. Each narrative is being coded for positive affectivity, negative affectivity, changes in affectivity (e.g., from bad to good, i.e., a redemption sequence), four themes of agency (which include the virtue of courage and skill mastery), four themes of communion (which include virtues like care and compassion), four themes of eudaimonic growth (which include virtues like reflective wisdom and contributing to future generations), and themes of several other individual virtues tied to reflective and human living. In addition, for the family story interviews, these themes will be coded for individual family members and combinations of individuals who agree or disagree with particular reasons (i.e., motives, values, virtues) that underlie the importance or meaning of particular events. Although this is a time-consuming, researcher-intensive process, the results will be extremely valuable, as no study to our knowledge has so much data on conjoined life stories and family stories, let alone on the topic of self, motivation, virtue, and their development.
Where quantitative coding involves independent researchers making assessments before talking with other researchers, the qualitative coding is more dialogical. The team is continuing read interview transcripts, make notes, and then meet to discuss the various themes, scripts, and illustrations that support or contradict theories of virtue ethics and personality development.
Furthermore, the life-story participants are part of a larger study that Dr. Bauer directs on personality development over the years, so the team plans to track the life-story participants for years to come.