Questionnaire

University of Virginia psychologist Timothy D. Wilson, PhD, is fascinated by the stories people tell themselves to make sense of the world. Those personal narratives, he says, can make the difference between living a healthy, productive life—or not.

But the question is: How can we alter those narratives to enact positive, lasting change?

Wilson—co-author of the bestselling textbook Social Psychology, now in its seventh edition—has some answers. In his 2011 book "Redirect: The Surprising New Science of Psychological Change," Wilson takes aim at a number of conventional behavior-change programs, from abstinence-only sex education to Critical Incident Stress Debriefing, which aims to prevent post-traumatic stress disorder after distressing events. Too often, such programs are implemented before they've been adequately tested, he says, and many don't work as intended.

In their place, he offers a surprisingly simple approach for behavior change. Wilson calls this process "story editing," and he recently spoke with the Monitor about how it can change lives for the better.

In your book, you describe numerous social programs that turned out to do more harm than good. Can you give an example?

There are several to choose from. One of the best examples is the Scared Straight program, in which at-risk teens are taken to prisons and harangued by hardened inmates to avoid a life of crime. Many communities adopted this program before it was properly tested. It turns out that not only do Scared Straight programs not work, they backfire: Teens who participate are more likely to commit crimes than a randomly assigned control group of kids who do not participate. The kids seem to be getting the message that they must be at risk of becoming criminals if convicts are going to such extreme measures to talk them out of it. And indeed, in a cheating study I did with college students, I found that strong external threats at one point in time can actually increase interest in a forbidden activity at a later point in time (Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 1982).

You suggest that behavior change by "story editing" is a better way forward. What is story editing and how does it work?

The idea is that if we want to change people's behaviors, we need to try to get inside their heads and understand how they see the world—the stories and narratives they tell themselves about who they are and why they do what they do. Social and clinical psychologists have known this for decades. The surprising part is that it may be easier than we thought to get people to edit their stories in ways that lead to sustained changes in behavior.

How so? Can you describe the techniques involved?

There are three general approaches. I call the first "story prompting," whereby people are given information that prompts them to change the way they view themselves and the causes of their behavior. An example is a study I did with college students many years ago (Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 1982). The participants were first-year students who weren't doing well academically. As part of what they thought was a survey, they read information suggesting that many college students do poorly at first but improve over time. We also showed the students videotaped interviews of juniors and seniors who reinforced this message. In other words, we prompted students to reinterpret their academic problems from a belief that they couldn't cut it in college to the view that they simply needed to learn the ropes. The students who got this prompt—compared to a control group that didn't—got better grades the next year and were less likely to drop out.

The second approach involves writing exercises that people can do on their own to revise their narratives. For example, James Pennebaker, at the University of Texas, has pioneered an expressive writing technique that helps people recover from past traumas by helping them reframe and reinterpret those events. Ethan Kross, at the University of Michigan, and Ozlem Ayduk, at the University of California, Berkeley, have also demonstrated that writing about negative events is helpful, particularly if people take a third-person perspective on those events and think about why they occurred.

The third approach is the "do good, be good" method. It capitalizes on the tried-and-true psychological principle that our attitudes and beliefs often follow from our behaviors, rather than precede them. As Kurt Vonnegut famously wrote, "We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be." People who do volunteer work, for example, often change their narratives of who they are, coming to view themselves as caring, helpful people. Well-designed studies have shown that teen girls who participate in community service programs do better in school and are less likely to become pregnant.

Was there an "aha moment" when you realized how effective the story-editing approach is?

There was such a moment early in my career when I did the academic performance intervention with first-year college students. We included some short-term measures in that study that worked as we'd predicted: The students who got the intervention did better on sample items from the Graduate Record Examination. This was nice but not all that surprising; after all, the students had just gotten the story-editing prompt. We included the long-term measures, grades over the next year and dropout rates as kind of a lark, not really believing that our intervention would change behavior over the long run. I'll never forget the moment I got the results showing it did—all from attending a session that lasted about 30 minutes.

In the book, you describe how story editing can tackle some major social problems such as child abuse, substance abuse and racial prejudice. Can you talk about that?

These problems have multiple causes, of course, and are notoriously hard to solve. But sometimes a little story editing goes a long way. One of my favorite examples is the research of Daphne Bugental, [a psychologist at the University of California, Santa Barbara] who works with parents at risk of abusing their children. One of the most common approaches to preventing child abuse, the Healthy Families America program, involves screening parents with newborns before they leave the hospital. Those deemed at risk for child abuse are given counseling and home visits. But studies that have randomly assigned parents to take part in the program or to an untreated control group have found that the intervention has no effect on the likelihood that the parents will abuse their children. Bugental and her colleagues added a seemingly small story-editing intervention to the home visits. The prompt involved getting parents to reinterpret why their babies were cranky or difficult. Often, the parents would blame their babies (for instance, "He's trying to provoke me."). The home visitor would ask parents if they could think of any other reasons, prompting them to attribute their babies' behavior to situational factors that were easy to solve (such as, "Maybe I didn't burp him enough."). These story prompts had a dramatic effect. Among both a control group and those who participated in the traditional Healthy Families America program, about 24 percent of the parents physically abused their children. In the group that got the story prompt, this percentage dropped to 4 percent.

How do the story-editing strategies you've described differ from what goes on in psychotherapy?

Story editing is well known to psychotherapists; indeed, it is what good therapists do. Various therapeutic techniques approach it a little differently, but I think the goal is the same. But the kind of story editing I discuss differs from psychotherapy. For one thing, most of the interventions social psychologists have devised are used with general populations, not just those who have reached the point where they're seeking mental-health services. We try to catch people when they are at a narrative fork in the road, so that they can be directed down the healthier path before their problems become severe. Also, the story-editing techniques I discuss address a wide range of behaviors in addition to personal adjustment problems. They have been used to close the achievement gap in education, reduce stereotyping and prejudice, and to get young people to drink less. Parents can also use these techniques to help their kids develop healthy narratives.

How are such findings changing the field?

This is an exciting time in social psychology. Since its inception, the field has focused largely on developing basic knowledge about human cognition, motivation, affect and behavior, primarily by conducting laboratory studies. More and more, however, social psychologists are translating this basic theoretical knowledge into interventions that have powerful effects in the real world. Many of these interventions involve story editing, in that they change people's self-views in ways that have long-term beneficial consequences. We need to keep doing the basic research, but it is exciting to see many of these findings turned into interventions that work.


Kirsten Weir is a writer in Minneapolis.