Timothy D. Wilson: Editing our stories
Changing our interpretations of events -- the stories we tell ourselves -- can lead people to lasting change, says the author of the book “Redirect.”
June 19, 2012 | Success is often more than talent and opportunity combined. It may also be influenced by the stories we tell ourselves about our lives, says social psychologist Timothy D. Wilson, the author of “Redirect: The Surprising New Science of Psychological Change.”
In the book, Wilson lays out his research-backed theory that success, happiness and self-esteem are often tied to personal narratives, and that altering -- or “redirecting” -- that narrative can be the key to lasting change.
“Some books suggest that just thinking something positive will make it happen, but it’s a little deeper than that,” Wilson said. “People really have to revise their specific thoughts in a way that leads to behavior change.”
Wilson is the Sherrell J. Aston Professor of Psychology at the University of Virginia, where he has earned accolades for his research and his teaching.
He spoke with Faith & Leadership about redirecting, and how it can be applied to leadership and organizational change. The following is an edited transcript.
Q: What is the concept of redirecting?
An awful lot of human behavior stems from the way we interpret the world and the narratives we tell. If we want to get people to improve their lives, one approach is to try to get them to edit these stories.
One way to do that, of course, is through psychotherapy. Psychotherapy is all about narrative changes to get people to view their lives differently and change the kinds of stories they tell themselves. Cognitive behavioral therapy is another approach that does that.
But social psychologists such as myself are trying to catch people before they need psychotherapy, where maybe they’re kind of at a narrative fork in the road.
Something’s happened to them that they’re unsure about. They could explain it one way, which perhaps is not beneficial, or another way, which would be much better for them in terms of motivating them to change.
We have developed interventions that try to redirect them down that healthier path.
Q: Could you explain a little bit about “story editing” and what the effect is?
In saying that people have stories and narratives, I don’t mean that we all sit down like novelists and write out a narrative. It’s more the implicit kinds of assumptions we make about ourselves and our place in the world.
In a study I did years ago, when I was a professor at Duke, we were struck by the fact that some students got caught in what seemed like a negative way of thinking about their academic performance. It would spiral downwards if they had an initial academic setback. They would see that as a sign that somehow they weren’t fit for college.
So we tried to catch people in the beginning of their first year to redirect those thoughts. We identified students who weren’t doing very well academically and were worried about it, and we brought them in.
They didn’t know this was an attempt to help them in any way. They just thought they were taking part in a psychology survey.
In our intervention group, we simply gave them some statistics indicating that many students do poorly at first but then improve their grades as the years go by. We reinforced that with some videotaped interviews of upperclass students who said things like, “Yeah, I didn’t do very well my first semester, but I’m doing just fine now.”
A control group of people did not get that message. But the students who got our redirect -- our story-editing -- message got better grades about a year later, and they also, to our surprise, were more likely to stay in college. There was a pretty high dropout rate among the people in the control group.
Our little 30-minute intervention seemed to succeed in keeping some people in college.
I think the reason a small tweak of people’s stories can have such long-term effects is that it’s self-sustaining. It may have made some students study a little harder for their next test or reduced their anxiety a little bit.
If that paid off, it reinforced the message and made them study harder for the next test. If you can just push them a little bit down the healthier road, that can sometimes be self-sustaining.
Q: How is this different from the power of positive thinking?
What really does separate the optimist from the pessimist is not just positive thoughts but actually persevering when failures occur. If they have a setback, the optimist is more likely to say, “Okay, how can I surmount that barrier?” The pessimist is more likely just to give up.
Q: In this story-editing process, how do friends and larger communities play a role?
We all grow up in a cultural and family context, and our stories and narratives are shaped by that. I suppose one could say that a big reason some families are healthier than others is that they’re promoting healthier stories.
But when it comes to change, I do think it has to be kind of self-initiated, and that we can’t just rely on others to do it for us.