Monitor on Psychology - March 2012 - (Page 28)

Questionnaire Revising your story Social psychologist Timothy D. Wilson argues that behavior change may be easier than we think. By KiRSTEN WEiR niversity 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? 28 u 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 M o n i to r o n p s yc h o l o g y • M a rc h 2 0 1 2

Table of Contents for the Digital Edition of Monitor on Psychology - March 2012

Monitor on Psychology - March 2012
President’s column
From the CEO
Supreme Court rejects eyewitness protections
New member benefit: prevention screenings
A psychodynamic treatment for PTSD shows promise for soldiers
Was ‘Little Albert’ ill during the famed conditioning study?
New research identifies ways to improve eyewitness identifications
In Brief
‘Our health at risk’
Perspective on Practice
APA endorses higher education guidelines
Random Sample
Judicial Notebook
Help for struggling veterans
Driving out cancer disparities
In the Public Interest
Practice, virtually
The legal and ethical issues of virtual therapy
Psychologist PROFILE
Bringing life into focus
Pay attention to me
Division Spotlight

Monitor on Psychology - March 2012