“Redirect” By Timothy D. Wilson: Changing Our Stories

We all have personal stories about who we are and what the world is like. These stories aren’t necessarily conscious, but they are the narratives by which we live our lives. Many of us have healthy, optimistic stories that serve us well. But sometimes, people develop pessimistic stories and get caught in self-defeating thinking cycles, whereby they assume the worst and, as a result, cope poorly. The question then becomes how to help people revise their negative stories. Timothy D. Wilson, author of Redirect, as quoted in Scientific American

Redirect: The Surprising New Science of Psychological Change by psychology prof Timothy D. Wilson debunks the effectiveness of certain widely used social and psychological programs. As indicated in an article on the APA site, these include abstinence-only sex education, Critical Incident Stress Debriefing, and Scared Straight. Of the latter, for example, Wilson has this to say:

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.

Wilson prefers strategies for change that he calls story editing, something he notes that “good therapists,” by the way, already do while not necessarily calling it that. What do social psychologists like Wilson do, though, that’s somewhat different from therapy? He explains:

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.

Some of the methods that fall under the heading of story editing:

  • Story-prompting: can redirect people to a particular narrative path
  • Do good, be good: changing one’s behavior can lead to a positive change in self-perception
  • Writing exercises: useful for guiding people to put a different spin on things

A big believer in scientific testing, Wilson claims that story editing techniques have been “shown to lower the rate of teenage pregnancy, reduce teenage violence, lower the use of alcohol and drugs, improve relationships between members of different ethnic groups, and reduce the achievement gap.”

Selected Reviews

Sonja Lyubomirsky, Ph.D., psychology professor: “…Wilson proposes an idea that many readers will find revolutionary – namely, that the most effective methods are often deceptively simple. What matters most is not pressuring the people that we want to change, but subtly helping them to shift the stories that they tell about themselves. Whether you are a parent, educator, employer, or simply someone who cares about making the world a better place, you should read this book.”

Evening Standard: “Accessible, engaging and consistently WTF-worthy…an instant classic of popular science.”

Science: “In clear prose that does not trivialize the science, Wilson reviews the many success stories in social psychology….As the scientist Paul C. Stern once wrote, a policy objective of science is to ‘separate common sense from common nonsense and make uncommon sense more common.’ Wilson’s book does science and society a great service by accomplishing precisely this.”

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