September 9, 2011

Redirect: terrific book about story-editing

I have finished reading Redirect: The Surprising New Science of Psychological Change by Timothy Wilson (who is also the author of the book Strangers to Ourselves: Discovering the Adaptive Unconscious). Wilson a professor of psychology at the University of Virginia and has been a leading researcher in social psychology for many years. Among other things, he has done research on self-knowledge and affective forecasting.

The book Redirect is a very well written book about a concept called story-editing.
The basic idea about it is that we could solve a lot of problems if we could get people to redirect their interpretations in healthier directions. Story-editing is a set of techniques designed to redirect people's narratives about themselves and the social world in a way that leads to lasting changes in behavior. As the book shows, this set of techniques has been used to make people happier, improve parenting, solve adolescent behavior problems, and reduce the racial achievement gap in schools. A fundamental assumption of the story-editing approach is that small interventions can reap huge benefit, if they succeed in redirecting a key element of people's narratives about themselves and their situations.

An important element in Wilson's approach is his strong emphasis on testing methodically whether interventions actually work. The way to do this is through the experimental method in which people are randomly assigned to (the) experimental condition(s) or the control group. This is much better than just asking people whether an intervention or a program has helped them. Wilson advocates a "don't ask, can't tell" policy. Human beings simply are not very accurate at assessing the causes of their own feelings, attitudes, and behavior. People often don't know how much a program has helped them. One reason they don't know is because they don't know how well-off they would be if they hadn't participated in it.

The experimental method reveals that many massive programs directed at solving a variety of societal problems and  which appeal to common sense (like Scared Straight) are actually not effective and, in several cases do more harm than good. It also shows that many story-editing approach, although they may seem simple and perhaps counter-intuitive, are often very effective. In my previous post Brief attributional interventions I have described some fascinating research he did together with Patricia Linville which is a fine example of the power of story-editing.