People can change — but how? This is the central concern of “Redirect,” a new book by Timothy D. Wilson, a professor of psychology at the University of Virginia. Wilson offers a tour of recent scientific work on psychological change, with a focus on techniques that help a person who is struggling — bad behavior, bad grades, bad attitudes — find a new, better path. Again and again, Wilson asks: What actually works? The answers can be surprising. He spoke recently with Mind Matters editor Gareth Cook.
COOK: A central concept in your book is “story editing.” Can you please explain what you mean by this?
WILSON: We all have personal stories about who we are and what the world is like. These stories aren’t necessarily conscious, but they are the narratives by which we live our lives. Many of us have healthy, optimistic stories that serve us well. But sometimes, people develop pessimistic stories and get caught in self-defeating thinking cycles, whereby they assume the worst and, as a result, cope poorly. The question then becomes how to help people revise their negative stories.
One approach is psychotherapy. Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), for example, which is designed to identify and change people’s negative thinking patterns about themselves and the social world. CBT is an effective way of helping people, especially those with serious problems such as depression or anxiety disorders.
But social psychologists have discovered another approach that is simpler and can help people with less serious problems. I call this “story editing,” because people are encouraged to edit their personal stories in beneficial ways. There are a variety of ways of doing this. In one, called “story prompting,” people are given information that suggests a new way of interpreting their situation. This is particularly effective when people haven’t settled on the narrative they will tell about what is happening to them.
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