Interview with Greg Walton

- Coert Visser 

Gregory M. Walton, associate professor of psychology at Stanford University, does research and teaching focused on wise interventions which target psychological processes involved in individual and major social problems. These wise interventions may shift how people think about themselves and their situations and may help them flourish, even over long periods of time. Recently he co-edited, with Alia Crum, the Handbook of Wise Interventions. How Social Psychology Can Help People Change. We talk about what these wise interventions are. Why use the word ‘wise’ to describe them? What are some examples of these interventions? How can it be that these brief and simple interventions sometimes have such long term benefits? 

Coert: How would you explain to a non-psychologist what wise psychological interventions are and why they are important? 

Wise interventions are wise to the ways that we make sense of ourselves, other people, and social situations. They recognize that sometimes how we make sense of things doesn’t serve us well. Sometimes we have what I call “toxic” questions. Those get in the way. Wise interventions give us a good basis for understanding things in a new way that will be adaptive and help us succeed. 

Let me back up and make this more concrete. All the time in life we face setbacks, challenges, and general screwups. And when we do, we can be vulnerable to toxic thoughts. For example, you might be a new mother struggling to get your baby to take a bottle or to sleep through the night. You wonder, “Am I a bad mother? Is my baby a bad baby?” That’s a toxic question. And it’s happening at a critical cross-road, just as the mother is developing her relationship with her new baby. Wise interventions anticipate the predictable toxic questions that can race through our heads at key junctures. And then they help people to answer these questions in ways that are satisfying and help people move forward. 

One of my favorite interventions addressed just this circumstance. A team led by psychologist Daphne Bugental had social workers visiting homes of new mothers who were demographically at risk of committing child abuse. She taught the social workers to ask moms a series of simple questions. They asked moms what the biggest challenge they had with their baby was. The mother might say, “I can’t get my baby to fall asleep.” Then they asked, “Why do you think you are having this problem?” Mothers might say (or imply) all sorts of self- or baby-blaming reasons, reasons that amounted to “I’m a bad mom” or “My baby is a bad baby.” The social workers didn’t contradict that. Instead, they just kept asking, “Could it be something else?”, until the mother gave a reason that didn’t blame themselves or the baby. Then they asked, “How can you work on that?” The next visit, a few weeks later, they checked in, and asked how the mother’s strategy had worked. The goal was to help mothers to see challenges in parenting as normal and things they could work on and get better at. As compared to visits without those key questions (or to no moms who got no visits), the Bugental intervention had a series of wonderful effects, including reducing kids’ risk of child abuse, improving children’s health and reducing mothers’ depression when the child turned one and, by the time kids turned three, reducing their stress levels (as assessed by cortisol) and aggression and improving their cognitive functioning. You can see a description of this work here and here, at our online compendium of wise interventions

That’s just one example. But think about all the times something bad happens and a toxic question bounces around in your head. You might try to suppress it, to push it away, but until you can give that question a satisfying answer it’s going to reverberate and cause you harm. 
  • You might be a teenager excluded by peers from a party. You wonder, “Will it always be like this? Am I a loser?” (see here on theory of personality interventions) 
  • You might be a student and fail an important test. You wonder, “Am I just dumb?” (see the Handbook chapter by Carol Dweck and David Yeager on growth mindset of intelligence) 
  • You might be prepping for an important presentation, and feel your heart starting to beat, your hands sweat, and paralyzing stress. You wonder, “Does this mean I’m going to make a fool of myself?” (see the Handbook chapters by Alia Crum and Jeremy Jamieson and colleagues on stress mindset and appraisal interventions) 
Wise interventions help people to satisfying answers at key crossroads to help them succeed in their lives. And that can shift people’s lives years into the future. 

Coert: I did not know that study by Daphne Bugental. It is fascinating! My next question is about 5 principles for representing bad events effectively, which you wrote about with Shannon Brady. Could you briefly explain what they are, how you came to this selection of principles and what their positive effects are? 

Sure. The basic insight is that many of the things that we think of as “bad” are bad, at least in part, because of the inferences we draw from them. They make us think bad thoughts about ourselves, other people, or a social situation. If you are a new parent struggling with a baby, it is exhausting to be up all night, to struggle with feeding the baby, to not be able to take a shower. I’ve been there and I know how hard that is. But if you are having creeping doubts in the back of your mind that those challenges mean you might be a bad parent, that your baby might be a bad baby, that it will never get better—well that is all the more upsetting. That’s what Bugental’s intervention focused on—the meaning implied to new moms about their difficulties. They might still struggle to get the baby to take a bottle, for example, but it might no longer seem to them to mean they are a bad mom. 

We can even define events as “bad” because they lead to toxic questions. Consider a quiet Friday night home alone. Maybe you take a bath, read a book, or watch a movie. If you are a busy adult, the prospect might be relaxing, a welcome respite from a long week. It might even be wonderful. But if you are in the first-year of college, and you think that that means that you haven’t been invited to anything, that you’ve been excluded, and that maybe you’ll never make friends in college—well, that would be threatening. And it might make it harder for you to stay motivated and engaged in college. 

In thinking about problems in many different spaces, Shannon Brady (who is now a professor at Wake Forest University) and I developed these 5 principles—really narrative strategies for changing how we think about challenges in our lives. Here’s how we introduced them (you can see the full paper here). 
  1. Prevent negative labels. When people experience negative events, they risk labeling themselves in fixed, negative ways or perceiving that others could label them as such. Effective reframings forestall negative labels, and encourage a fundamentally positive view of the self, of factors that led to the bad news (e.g., normal, malleable), and of the person’s future prospects. 
  2. Communicate “You’re not the only one”. People can think that they are the only one facing a particular challenge. Effective reframings recognize others who have faced the same challenge and describe how they addressed that challenge productively. 
  3. Recognize specific nonpejorative causes. People can fear that bad things reflect, or could be seen as reflecting, their own deficiency (e.g., laziness, stupidity, immorality). Effective reframings acknowledge specific, nonpejorative causes of challenges or setbacks and legitimize these as normal obstacles that arise for many people. 
  4. Forecast improvement. People can fear that negative events forecast a fixed, negative future. Effective reframings emphasize the possibility of improvement, focus on process, and often represent this process collectively (we’re on the same team/I’m not judging you). 
  5. Recognize opportunities. In some cases, it is possible to represent aspects of the “bad” event as positive, meaningful, or useful, and thus not just as something to be overcome but as a harbinger of or opportunity for growth and improvement. 
These principles come together in different ways in different contexts. They are useful because, in any context, you can look at the problem and ask yourself which of these principles might be most useful and practical. In the Bugental intervention, for instance, Principles #1-4 are most relevant. By leading new mothers to see difficulties as normal challenges to be solved in parenting, Bugental (1) prevents negative labels (“I’m a bad mom,” “This is a bad baby”), (2) implies that other people have challenges too, (3) implies that these challenges come from specific, pragmatic reasons, and (4) forecasts the possibility of improvement. 

Coert: On your website four intervention techniques are mentioned: direct labeling. prompting new meanings, increasing commitment through action, and active reflection exercises. Could you briefly explain them and say something about how and when they can be best applied? 

Wise interventions are all about how we make sense of ourselves, other people, and social situations. But how do you shift that, when it would be productive? These are techniques to accomplish this. 

Direct labeling is the most overt approach. It is what it sounds like, just directly labeling something in a new way. It could be someone’s identity. For example, a classic study found that telling school children that they are clean and don’t litter increased the likelihood they put candy wrappers in the trashcan, rather than littering the classroom, several weeks later. That’s fast and efficient. But it might be more effective with kids than adults, whose self-identity is more clearly formed. Generally, adults don’t like messages that seem coercive and sometimes react against them. But direct labeling doesn’t have to be about a person’s identity. It could also involve an aspect of the situation. Many social norm interventions have this quality. They simply state a positive norm, such as that people tend to reuse their towels in a hotel bathroom (here, and described in the Handbook chapter by Jessica Nolan and colleagues on social norm interventions), or that people are increasingly forgoing meat at lunch (here, and in the Handbook chapter by Gregg Sparkman on dynamic norm interventions), both of which can increase sustainable behaviors. 

Prompting new meanings means giving people a reasonable basis upon which to think about themselves, other people, or a situation in a new way, but not directly telling them this. For example, classic “broken windows” policing doesn’t involve putting signs up saying that crime is low (that would be direct labeling). Instead, it involves cleaning up the streets, removing litter and debris, fixing broken windows. By fixing the signs of disorder, people are more likely to infer that the neighborhood is a “nice” one where people follow rules. In some cases, that can reduce crime (here). Putting up signs saying that crime is low in a neighborhood that’s been trashed probably wouldn’t be very effective. It would seem false. 

Bugental’s intervention to prevent child abuse uses another prompting technique—leading questions. Here the strategy is to formulate a question that assumes an adaptive way of thinking and then let people elaborate on that train of thought for themselves. By posing it as a question, you can induce a new way of thinking powerfully and in a way that feels less controlling, and is less likely to be resisted, than telling people the same thing. In Bugental’s case, the intervention was delivered by a careful, repeated question, “Could it be something else?”, a question that prompted new moms to consider non-pejorative reasons for challenges with their baby, normal problems that they could work on. That way moms could come up with a new way of thinking themselves. I doubt it would have been as effective if the social worker had just told moms, “This problem is normal. Here’s how you should think about it. Here’s what you should do about it.” 

Increasing commitment through action relies on the fact that often we shift how we think about things because of how we behave. Beliefs follow actions. So, if we can get people to act in a certain way, then a new way of thinking may follow. One of the most powerful approaches is what are called “saying-is-believing” techniques. For example, if you want to get students to see intelligence as something that can grow and develop with effort (aka a growth mindset of intelligence), then it helps to get them to advocate for this idea to others. The very first growth-mindset intervention was done with college students. But the intervention didn’t just tell students that intelligence can grow. It also invited them to be pen pals with a struggling middle school student. The college students were told that the middle school student might benefit from learning from them about how about how intelligence can grow with hard work, effective strategies, and help from others. College students gave this advice in a series of letters. But in doing so, their own beliefs changed—and their grades the next term rose. 

That approach has been used ever since in other growth-mindset interventions (here); in interventions to change college students’ beliefs about their belonging in college, which can reduce racial inequality in achievement (here, and in my and Shannon Brady’s Handbook chapter on belonging interventions); in interventions to change teachers’ beliefs about how to discipline children when they misbehave, which can reduce kids’ risk of being suspended in school (here, and Jason Okonofua and Michael Ruiz’s Handbook chapter on the empathic discipline intervention); and in many other cases. 

Active reflection exercises don’t give people new information. They just offer people a helpful structure with which to reflect on something important. For instance, classic studies find that just taking a few minutes every day for a few days to write down one’s “deepest thoughts and feelings” about experiences of trauma can improve immune function, health, and academic achievement (e.g., here). That seems to work in part because the experience of writing helps people tell a story, with a beginning, middle, and an end, a story that then helps them put bounds on an experience and draw it to a close. 

Reflecting on positive things can help too. One approach is called value-affirmation. For example, when students face psychological threats in school, such as threats that come up because of negative stereotypes that imply that their racial or gender group isn’t as capable as others, they can feel that all they are in the classroom is someone contending with that stereotype. Then, inviting students to reflect on important, valued aspects of their identity in class can help them restore a broader sense of self, strengthen their relationships in school, and raise achievement (e.g., here and David Sherman and colleagues’ Handbook Chapter). 

All of these techniques are described more fully in a review paper with Tim Wilson, here

Coert: Recently, the Handbook of Wise Interventions, which you already mentioned, was published which you co-edited with Alia Crum. Could you say a bit more about that book and perhaps some of the types of interventions which are described in the book? 

The Handbook features 19 interventions, grouped into four clusters: education, health and well-being, conflict and relationships, and sustainability. Each chapter is written by the leading researchers who developed the intervention. They’re designed to invite readers into the work, to understand how the intervention developed, how it has been used in relevant practice spaces, the evidence for it, how it works, what we have learned from it, and what more we need to learn. All of the chapters identify a way in which people are not flourishing, where people are stuck in patterns of thinking and feeling about themselves, other people, or a situation that are not optimal. They show creative ways we can unstick people to help them accomplish their goals and advance their lives. 

Coert: That book, to me, seems like essential reading for many students of psychology. Finally, is there anything you would like to add about psychological intervention research, for instance about some very recent insights or things you are working on, now? 

Thank you! I’ve struggled over the years to find the right verbs to use to describe what we are doing when we do psychological interventions. Sometimes we talk about “delivering” interventions to people. But I don’t think that’s quite right. It disregards the agency of the people we are working with and the unique circumstances they are in. 

Instead, I think it’s useful to think of “offering” a new way of thinking to people. People can then accept and take up that way of thinking, or not, depending on whether they see it as legitimate and useful in their context. From this perspective, interventions are done with people not on people. 

My thinking about this has been informed by increasingly large-scale growth-mindset and social-belonging interventions we have conducted with tens-of-thousands of people. One of the key questions in this work has been: With whom, and in what contexts, can we expect a brief, targeted psychological exercise to cause benefits? For instance, we have found that growth-mindset of intelligence interventions are less effective in raising grades in school contexts where the local peer culture makes acting on a growth mindset, such as seeking out challenges in school, counternormative (here). They’re also less effective in math classes in which the teacher holds the contrary view, seeing intelligence as fixed. In these settings, students can receive a growth-mindset message and might even initially endorse that belief. But it might hard for them to act on this belief in school. 

So David Yeager and I have theorized that brief psychological interventions require planting an adaptive seed in fertile soil (here). You need a way of thinking that will be helpful for people, and help them flourish and achieve their goals, such as the idea that intelligence can grow with hard work and effective strategies. But you also need that belief to seem legitimate and tenable by people in the context they are in. They have to see it as something they can use and that can form the basis of their behaviors. Otherwise, they’ll let it go. 

In turn, a very important implication is that we need to focus on the psychological context people are in. Sometimes we need to do interventions that help people navigate the challenges they face. Classic growth-mindset and social belonging and many other direct-to-student interventions both do this. But sometimes we need to change the context too. If we can make the context more supportive of a new belief system, we can give people room to act on those beliefs (e.g., here).