Home

Back to
Psychology of Change & Transformation

Article Summary:
Personal Accounts of Successful Versus Failed Attempts at Life Change

James Neill
Last updated:
03 Aug 2004

Citation: Heatherton, T. F., & Nichols, P. A. (1994). Personal accounts of successful versus failed attempts at life change. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 20, 664-675.

Abstract

Subjects (N = 119) wrote stories about successful or failed life change experiences.  Stories reporting successful change attempts were more likely than stories reporting failed attempts to mention intense emotional experiences, external threats, and focal events that often culminate in crystallizations of discontent.  These events were related to reevaluations of goals and life meaning and increased motivation to change.  Social support, attributions of internal control, blaming external events for failure, and the development of a new sense of identity that incorporated the changed behavior were strongly associated with reports of successful change.  Failure narratives more likely than success narratives to describe change in terms of will power and to indicate an active participation in maintaining the status quo. These results provide a glimpse at the phenomenology of life change attempts.


Summary

  • Subjects were asked to write stories about a failed attempt at life change and a successful attempt at life change, including descriptions of the strategies they use to change and how those strategies helped / didn't help.
  • Successful changes characterized by:
    • intense emotional experiences
    • external threats
    • focal events that often culminate in crystallizations of discontent
    • reevaluations of goals and life meaning
    • increased motivation to change
    • social support
    • attributions of internal control
    • blaming external events for failure
    • development of a new sense of identity
    • changing more than one element of one's circumstances
  • Failed attempts characterized by:
    • attempt to change through will power
    • actively participate in maintaining status quo
    • aiming to change only one element of one's circumstances