Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Timothy Wilson's "Redirect: The Surprising New Science of Psychological Change"

Timothy D. Wilson is the Sherrell J. Aston Professor of Psychology at the University of Virginia. He has written for Science and the New York Times, among other publications and journals, and is the author of Strangers to Ourselves, which was named by the New York Times Magazine as one of the Best 100 Ideas of 2002. Wilson is also the coauthor of the best-selling social psychology textbook, now in its seventh edition.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Redirect: The Surprising New Science of Psychological Change, and reported the following:
I’m afraid that the Page 99 Test didn’t fare very well with Redirect: The Surprising New Science of Psychological Change. That’s because it lands the reader right in the middle of a story—in this case, the description of a psychological study on the value of labeling kids’ feelings, which won’t make much sense unless you read the lead-up to the study on p. 98.

I think my book can be browsed profitably, however, by opening it at different points (perhaps after reading Chapter 1). The book covers disparate topics—personal happiness, parenting skills, adolescent behavior problems, and reducing prejudice between groups—but with a common theme.

Redirect is about stories in a couple of different meanings of that term. First, it is full of stories about real people and how they live their lives. Second, it is about psychological stories, the narratives that people tell themselves about who they are and why they do what they do. Often these stories serve people well. A major reason why people are unhappy or get into trouble, though, is because their stories have taken a negative turn--people are too pessimistic or make unflattering assumptions about themselves and the people around them.

The question then becomes, how can we help people out of these negative thinking patterns? How can we redirect their thinking so that they tell better stories about themselves?

One way is through psychotherapy. Cognitive behavioral therapy, for example, is an effective way of helping people develop better thinking patterns, especially those with serious problems such as depression or anxiety disorders.

But social psychologists have discovered another approach that I call story editing. It is a family of techniques that help people redirect their stories in beneficial ways, leading to sustained change. It involves giving people prompts about how to interpret their behavior in healthier ways, getting people to change their behavior first as a way of changing their stories, and writing exercises that people perform on their own. These techniques have been shown to improve people’s lives in all of the aforementioned ways, such as making people happier, improving parenting skills, and reducing adolescent behavior problems.

How do we know? Because each of these techniques have been tested with rigorous scientific experiments (such as the one described on p. 99). Indeed, another theme of the book is that any intervention must be tested empirically; too often, policy makers put programs into place before they are tested, only to discover that they are ineffective or worse, do harm. Fortunately, there are many proven story-editing interventions that work. Pick up the book and turn to a random page, and you will see how—though you may have to back up a page or two to get to the beginning of the story.
Learn more about Redirect: The Surprising New Science of Psychological Change at the Little, Brown website.

--Marshal Zeringue