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.

For example, I did a study with first-year college students who were not doing well academically. They were at risk of adopting a negative, self-defeating thinking pattern in which they blamed themselves and concluded that they weren’t “college material.” We randomly divided the students 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 upperclass students who reinforced this message. The idea was to encourage students to change how they interpreted their own academic difficulties, redirecting them away from the negative, self-defeating idea that they weren’t cut out for college, to a more positive interpretation that they needed to learn how to do better. It worked: This group of students, compared to the control group (who got no information), achieved better grades the next semester and were less likely to drop out of college.

There are other ways to help people edit their stories. A variety of writing exercises have been developed that help people reinterpret troubling events from their past in ways that speed recovery from these events. Another approach is to get people 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 changes them from alienated kids who don’t care about the adult world to kids who feel like they have a stake in their communities.

What all of these approaches have in common is that people are encouraged to edit their personal stories in ways that lead to sustained changes in their behavior and well-being.

COOK: Why does story editing work better than other approaches to changing behavior?

WILSON: Some approaches go wrong by trying to change people’s behavior without considering what this is doing to their personal stories. For example, economists are fond of trying to change people’s behavior by giving them incentives, such as paying kids to do well in school, or fining parents who are late to pick up their children from day care. But these approaches can backfire by changing people’s stories in unintended ways. Rewarding kids can actually undermine their intrinsic interest in academic work by convincing them that they are “doing it for the money,” not because they like it. As for fining parents, well, one study found that doing so actually increased the number of times they were late picking up their kids, because it changed their interpretation of the situation from, “It would be rude to be late too often” to “This is a fair exchange—I can stay at work for another 30 minutes and pay the day care center for that privilege.” It’s what’s inside people’s heads that really matters.

COOK: How can parents use this?

WILSON: One of the most important things parents do is to shape their kids’ narratives about the world, and there is a chapter in the book on how parents can use story-editing techniques to do this well. For example, parents should use “minimally sufficient” rewards and punishments—ones that are strong enough to shape their kids’ behaviors but not so strong that the kids attribute their behavior to the rewards and punishments.

COOK: What implications do you think this has for government as it tries to fix social ills?

WILSON: I certainly don’t claim that story-editing techniques are the answer to all of society’s ills. These techniques have, however, been shown to lower the rate of teenage pregnancy, reduce teenage violence, lower the use of alcohol and drugs, improve relationships between members of different ethnic groups, and reduce the achievement gap.

A theme of the book is that whatever approach we take to address these and other problems, we should test the effectiveness of interventions scientifically with the experimental method. All of the story-editing techniques I review have been shown to work in rigorous experimental trials. Too often, government-backed programs are widely adopted before they are adequately tested. One example is the D.A.R.E. drug abuse resistance program, which is used in 75 percent of school districts in the United States and in more than 40 countries, but has never been shown to work (a new version of D.A.R.E. is being tested now). Another example is Healthy Families America, which is a home visitation program designed to prevent child abuse in at-risk families. This program has been widely implemented throughout the United States, even though rigorous studies show that it doesn’t work. What is especially galling about these examples is that there are well-tested, effective, story-editing interventions that work to reduce alcohol and drug use and  prevent child abuse.

COOK: Can you please give an example of how you have used the book’s techniques in your own life?

WILSON: Well, I have two adult children who have turned out wonderfully, and while I am certainly not the perfect father, I like to think that my knowledge of story-editing techniques made me a better parent than I otherwise would have been.

I also think that my knowledge of social psychological research has made me more tolerant of people who have different points of view than I do, or disagree with me about something. As much as I want to believe that I am right and they are wrong, it helps to try to get inside their heads and understand how they are viewing things—how their story differs from mine. That gives us a common place to start in working out our differences.

Are you a scientist who specializes in neuroscience, cognitive science, or psychology? And have you read a recent peer-reviewed paper that you would like to write about? Please send suggestions to Mind Matters editor Gareth Cook, a Pulitzer prize-winning journalist at the Boston Globe. He can be reached at garethideas AT or Twitter @garethideas.