My research focuses on the interface between adult identity development and clinical psychology. Broadly conceived, my research interests revolve around the reciprocal and dynamic relationships between self/identity processes and psychological functioning. I am especially interested in the most productive ways people make sense of the difficult things that happen to them and how that personal meaning facilitates changes in well-being. In other words, I am interested in how the process of making sense of negative experiences influences important life outcomes, including physical and mental health, personality maturity, and the process and outcome of psychotherapy treatment.
I am currently working on several research projects that all focus on related issues of identity development and psychological functioning.
Towards a Theory of Embodied Identity: The Our Selves, Our Bodies Project
Grounded in a series of in-depth case studies, I am in the early stages of developing a theory of embodied identity. The theory grapples with the psychological consequences of body-identity asynchrony and seeks to determine the conditions under which an individual deems one – their body or their identity – to be more essential or more malleable than the other. The theory will both elucidate the inflexibilities in different configurations of physical selfhood and explain opportunities for navigating the inevitable challenges of bodily change. This project is grounded in the psychology of narrative identity, but reaches far beyond it, to literatures in critical disability studies, queer studies, and others.
The Nature of Narrative Coherence: Empirical Answers
Narrative coherence, the structural configuration of personal stories, has been referred to as the foundational element of narrative identity. Indeed, if a story isn’t told coherently, it is hard to examine many of the other narrative characteristics that are the focus of the literature on narrative identity. There is a proliferation of theory about the nature of narrative coherence, but surprisingly little empirical data about this topic. In collaboration with Theo Waters of NYU, I am working on a project that will subject a large set of narratives to coding using several widely-used coding systems for operationalizing narrative coherence and subject the results to a principle components analysis in order to determine the latent structure of narrative coherence.
Personality and Egg Donation
In recent years there has been a dramatic rise in the rates of gamete donation, especially oocytes (eggs), as assisted reproduction becomes more commonplace and less stigmatized. The American Society for Reproductive Medicine and the Society for Assisted Reproductive Technology have authored extensive guidelines for screening prospective donor candidates, but these recommendations largely overlook psychological factors. Research that has examined the personality characteristics of egg (and sperm) donors has largely focused on criteria by which candidates ought to be screened out. Yet decades of research on dispositional personality traits suggest that it is substantially heritable. In collaboration with Adele Kauffman and Samuel Pang of IVF New England, I am investigating the personality trait profiles of prospective egg donors to determine which trait profiles predict being screened out or selected and which trait profiles are ultimately commonly selected by recipient intended parents.
Two recent studies (Adler et al., 2015) focused on narrative meaning-making as a foundation for future psychological well-being. These two studies, in collaboration with Dan P. McAdams (Chair and Professor of Psychology and Professor of Human Development) and Tom Oltmanns (Edgar James Swift Professor of Psychology in Arts and Sciences and Professor of Psychiatry at Washington University in St. Louis), examined individual differences in narrative identity as a predictor of variability in individual trajectories of mental health over several years. In one of the two studies this relationship was examined in a select sample of mid-life adults who received major physical illness diagnoses. Both studies suggested that different ways of narrating one's life have significantly different impacts on the trajectory of one's mental health, both under normal conditions and in the wake of a major negative life experience.
Talking About The Talking Cure: Making Sense of Psychotherapy
In seeking to understand the ways in which the process of responding to life's challenges fuels identity development, I have conducted a series of studies focused on people’s reconstructions of their experiences in psychotherapy, with special attention to those narratives that accompany optimal functioning. Psychotherapy provides an opportunity to study the evolution of identity over a significant change experience while simultaneously investigating the process of clinical improvement. As a result, I have conducted a range of studies focused on understanding the ways in which the therapeutic experience is narrated and incorporated into identity. One major thread of this work began with two cross-sectional studies (one qualitative and one quantitative) focused on the therapy narratives of people who had recently completed treatment. This pair of studies (published in Narrative Inquiry and Psychotherapy Research) helped identify key elements of people's therapy stories that relate to mental health and lay the groundwork for a major longitudinal investigation of identity development over the course of psychotherapy. The two research questions that framed this study were: (1) How do clients' personal narratives change over the course of therapy? and (2) How do these narrative changes relate to symptom changes (i.e., which comes first, feeling better or telling a new story)? The study (published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology in February, 2012) is the largest investigation of clients' narratives over the course of treatment, with over 500 narratives having been collected and studied. Analyses combined the thematic coding of narratives with growth curve modeling techniques. A substantially different re-analysis of the data (in press at the Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology) revealed meaningful spikes in both mental health and clients' narratives.
I have also worked in collaboration with Hal E. Hershfield of the Stern School of Management at New York University to examine the role of describing mixed emotions (simultaneously experiencing positive and negative feelings) in one's therapy narratives as a vehicle for predicting positive therapeutic outcome. That study was published in April, 2012 in the journal Public Library of Science (PLoS ONE).
Making Sense of Troubled Lives: The Life Stories of People with Borderline Personality Disorder
I recently completed a study in collaboration with Tom Oltmanns (Edgar James Swift Professor of Psychology in Arts and Sciences and Professor of Psychiatry at Washington University in St. Louis) focused on identifying the unique ways people diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) make sense of their lives (published in the Journal of Personality Disorders in 2012). BPD is one of the most debilitating psychiatric disorders, characterized by extreme emotional lability and relationship dysfunction. The task of creating a successful sense of self may be especially challenging for individuals suffering with BPD. In this study we are working to identify the key thematic characteristics that differentiate the life stories of people with BPD from their non-BPD peers.
Enhancing Coherence in the Stories of People with Schizophrenia
In collaboration with Peter Weiden (Professor of Psychiatry, Director of the Psychotic Disorders Program) and Margret Harris (Clinical Research Fellow) at the University of Illinois at Chicago College of Medicine, I am working to understand the ways in which psychological treatment for schizophrenia (specifically Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy) enhances the coherence in these individuals' sense of self. By following a set of people with schizophrenia over the course of treatment in a randomized-controlled psychotherapy trial, we hope to identify the nature of the unfolding relationship between identity-level shifts and clinical improvement.
In addition to the active studies described above, I have published papers on adult development, epistemology and identity, the teaching of psychology, and psychological responses following the 9/11 terrorist attacks. You can find the relevant publications on the Publications page of this website.