Imagine you were given the task of reducing alcohol and drug use, preventing teenage pregnancies, reducing prejudice, closing the achievement gap, transforming people into better parents, and helping students adjust to college. What the heck, let's throw in increasing personal happiness as well. What would you do?
It might seem easier to start a colony on Mars than to solve all of these problems, which are some of the thorniest ones facing us today. But social psychologists have come up with a technique called story editing that can help with them all.
This approach assumes that if we want to change people's behavior, we need to get inside their heads and understand the way they view the world — the stories they tell themselves. Consider this example: A few years ago a day care center in Israel had a rash of late pick ups, whereby parents would often miss the 4 p.m. deadline to collect their children. The center consulted some economists about how to solve this problem, and the economists recommended imposing a system of fines, whereby parents would pay a fine of $3 each time they were more than 10 minutes late. This makes perfect sense from the perspective of economic theory, which argues that people do what they do because of incentives (usually money). Surely parents will want to save money and thus will change their habits and get there by 4 p.m.
To the economists' surprise, however, their plan backfired. Before the fines were imposed parents were late an average of 8 times per week; after the fines were imposed parents were late an average of 20 times per week. The problem was that the economists failed to view the fines through the eyes of the parents. When there were no fines, parents viewed late pick ups as guilt-inducing transgressions that they could commit on occasion but not too often — kind of like being late to meet a friend for lunch; you can do it once in awhile if something important comes up, but you wouldn't make a habit of it. But once the fines were imposed, the parents viewed late pick ups as an economic exchange. If they were running behind they didn't need to worry, because they could pay a fee for the privilege of picking their child up at 4:30 p.m. instead of 4:00 p.m. — with no guilt.
As this example shows, it is crucial to consider how people interpret the world and the stories they tell themselves. Doing so will help us understand not only when parents will pick up their children, but all sorts of other behaviors as well. Consider two college students who each get a bad grade on their first college test. One interprets this as a wake up call, a sign that she needs to work harder and learn new study skills in college. The other interprets it as a sign that he really isn't very smart and that the admissions office made a mistake when they admitted him. For the sake of the argument, let's suppose that both students are equally intelligent and capable of doing well. But the stories they tell themselves send them down different paths. Student 1 studies even harder for the next test and regularly stops by the professor's office hours. Student 2 starts skipping class and doesn't study for the next test — why bother when he doesn't have what it takes to succeed in college? This leads to another poor grade, thereby confirming his initial interpretation. "See, I really don't have what it takes," he concludes. Student 2 is caught in a self-defeating cycle of thinking that feeds on itself and becomes self-fulfilling. Such negative thinking patterns have been found to contribute to poor academic performance, depression, adolescent behavioral issues, and many other problems.
Is there some way that we can get Student 2 to think like Student 1, such that he applies himself harder and studies more for the next test? More generally, how can we get people to edit their stories in a healthier direction? One approach is psychotherapy. Student 2 might benefit from 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 the story-editing approach is designed to help people before they get to that debilitating point. Often people are at a narrative fork in the road, as were our two college students, whereby they can go down the self-defeating path ("I'm a hopeless failure") or a more optimistic path ("I'm fine, I just need to work harder"). Story-editing is a family of techniques that encourages people to take the healthier narrative path.
For example, we did a study in which we took a group of struggling college students and randomly divided them into two groups. One group got information indicating that many people do poorly their first year but do better after they learn the ropes, and watched videotaped interviews of upper-class students who reinforced this message. The idea was to encourage students to change how they interpreted their own academic difficulties, redirecting away from the negative, self-defeating idea that they weren't cut out for college. It worked: This group of students, compared to the control group (who got no information), achieved better grades the next semester and were more likely to remain in college.
Similar story-editing interventions have been shown to improve the performance of minority middle school children, prevent child abuse, and lower alcohol consumption. In each case, people are given a new way to think about themselves and why they are doing what they are doing. Often, these interventions take a few hours or less. They succeed because they are self-reinforcing. A college student who entertains the idea that hard work will pay off is likely to study more for his next test, and when that does pays off, he becomes more confident that he is not an admission failure and can succeed college, which makes him even more likely to study hard for future tests.
Another way to change people's stories is counterintuitive: get them to change their behavior first. This "do good, be good" approach was well-known to Aristotle, who said, "We become just by the practice of just actions, self-controlling by exercising self-control, and courageous by performing acts of courage." One of the best ways of preventing teenage pregnancies, for example, is to get teens to do volunteer work in their communities. Doing so can change them from alienated kids into ones who feel like they have a stake in their communities and that they matter to someone.
Can we change our own stories for the better? A number of writing exercises have been developed to do just that. If there is something in your life that is troubling you, writing about it for 15 minutes, on three or four consecutive nights, can work wonders. It is best to wait until you have achieved some distance from the event; don't, for example, write about a failed relationship the day your partner changes the locks on the door and deposits your belongings on the curb. Let some time pass, and then adopt a third-person perspective whereby you think about the event like an outside observer, analyzing why it happened. Doing so will help you restructure the event and find new meaning in it — to change your story — in ways that make it easier to put it behind you.
Story-editing is not the answer to everything that ails us, of course. Many problems require large-scale structural changes to society. But there is a lot to be said to redirecting people's stories away from self-defeating cycles of thinking and onto healthier paths.
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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 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.
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