Dan McAdams


principal investigator

Dan McAdams
Professor, Psychology
School of Education and Social Policy
Northwestern University

Dan P. McAdams is Professor of Human Development and Social Policy, Professor of Psychology, and Chairman of the Department of Psychology at Northwestern University. He is also Director of the Foley Center for the Study of Lives, an interdisciplinary research center dedicated to the study of personality and social development in the adult years. Professor McAdams received his Ph.D. in Psychology and Social Relations from Harvard University in 1979; he received a B.A. from Valparaiso University in 1976. Professor McAdams has published nearly 200 scientific articles and chapters and 13 books on the topics of human identity and intimacy, the development of generativity in adulthood, biography and culture, themes of redemption and contamination in American life stories, human motivation, and psychological development across the life course. His 2006 book – The Redemptive Self: Stories Americans Live By – won the American Psychological Association’s William James Prize for the best general-interest book in psychology, across all subfields. He is also the winner of the 1989 Henry A. Murray Award for excellence in personality research and the study of lives, the 2006 Theodore Sarbin Award for contributions to theoretical and philosophical psychology, and the 1995-98 Charles Deering professorship for teaching excellence at Northwestern University.


The Good Story: Generativity and the Construct ion of Virtue Across Generations
Virtues live (and die) in the stories of our lives. Moral philosophers such as Alasdair MacIntyre and Charles Taylor have argued that living a good and purposeful life in the modern world involves constructing a life narrative that translates virtues into meaningful action. Adults make moral sense of their lives through stories. As parents, teachers, mentors, and leaders, furthermore, many adults draw upon those stories to convey moral meanings and articulate virtues for their children, students, and others who, they hope, may benefit from their accumulated wisdom. In their efforts to pass on virtues to others, many men and women are expressing what the psychologist Erik Erikson first described as generativity – the midlife adult’s concern for and commitment to promoting the well-being of future generations. In a sense, generativity is itself a virtue, for if adults refused to care for the next generation and pass on their wisdom, then how would virtues ever survive? The proposed research aims to examine precisely how generative adults draw upon the stories of their own lives to construct and convey virtues for young people –virtues that might, in principle, range from courage to caring– and, reciprocally, how young people respond to those storytelling efforts as they construct their own selfdefining life narratives.

Adults make moral sense of their lives through stories. As parents, teachers, mentors, and leaders, many adults draw upon personal stories to articulate virtues for their children, students, and others who, they hope, may benefit from their accumulated wisdom. The current project examines the different ways in which adults transmit virtue to younger people via stories and how, in a reciprocal fashion, young people respond to those efforts. Furthermore, the project assesses the role of generativity in the intergenerational transmission of virtue. Generativity is an adult’s concern for and commitment to promoting the well-being of future generations. Psychological theory and research suggest that generativity itself is a central virtue of adulthood, which may link to other virtues through life storytelling.

The project encompasses two empirical studies. In the first, 63 midlife adults completed a series of psychological measures and then described in detail 4-5 episodes in their lives wherein they aimed to convey a virtue to a younger person. Adults who scored high on self-report measures of generativity tended to recall scenes in which they drew upon personal experiences to tailor a virtue message to the idiosyncratic needs of a young person. Compared to the accounts given by less generative adults, the episodes described by adults high in generativity suggested a determined effort to adopt the unique perspective of the targeted young person while searching for something relevant from their own lives that might connect to the young person’s situation. Their efforts typically met with success, in that the young person tended to be receptive to the virtue message, leading in many cases to the establishment or intensification of a long-term, positive relationship with the younger person. Finally, compared to their less generative counterparts, highly generative adults tended to construct their accounts of virtue transmission as redemption sequences, whereby initial suffering led to a strikingly positive resolution. The latter finding is consistent with the PI’s past research showing that highly generative adults tend to construct redemptive self-narratives.

In the second study, 96 young people, between the ages of 18 and 25, completed a short battery of psychological measures and then described 4-5 scenes from their lives in which older adults tried to convey virtues to them. Those young people who scored higher on self-report measures of psychological well-being, compared to those scoring lower, tended to describe scenes in which they responded in receptive ways to highly personalized virtue messages passed on to them by adults whom they deemed to be particularly caring or wise. By contrast, young people low in psychological health reported more resistance to virtue messages and described efforts by older adults that were less vivid and less suggestive of generativity.

The researchers are continuing to examine the data from both studies to identify the specific types of virtues appearing in the scenarios and the role of other psychological variables in the intergenerational transmission of virtue.

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