Tuesday, October 18, 2011

The science of psychological change

In the Oct 14 issue of Science Magazine
Geoffrey L. Cohen reviews Timothy Wilson's new book "Redirect: The Surprising New Science of Psychological Change." The book reviews success stories in social psychology, and I thought it would be worthwhile to pass on a few clips from that review:
There are interventions that harness the power of expressive writing and volunteerism to improve happiness and health and to lessen rates of teen pregnancy. There are interventions that reduce student failure and close gaps between minority and nonminority students by inculcating in them core positive beliefs that sustain them through hardship, such as the belief that intelligence is not a fixed entity but rather like a muscle that grows with effort. There are interventions that improve intertribal trust in Rwanda by modeling cooperative intergroup relations through radio soap operas. In the United States, interventions that defuse blacks' and whites' fear of interracial rejection increase their likelihood of becoming friends. And...there are studies that cleverly manipulate social norms to reduce teen alcohol use and encourage energy conservation.
And notes:
What these interventions share is that they are grounded in science, found effective in randomized experiments, have surprisingly large and durable effects—and, by and large, aren't used. Over and over, Wilson writes, schools, government agencies, and workplaces opt for interventions that not only have never been subjected to experimental test but also, when they finally are, often yield null and even negative effects. These interventions are usually based on a combination of intuition, ideology, and good intentions. Wilson critiques several popular but unwise interventions: Drug Abuse Resistance Education (D.A.R.E., implemented in 75% of the school districts in the United States), “scared straight,” certain forms of posttraumatic grief counseling, many commonplace diversity training programs, and the self-help and positive thinking industry in general ["The Secret" book receives sustained criticism]. These are analogous, Wilson writes, to the practices of leeching and blood-letting before the scientific method took hold in medicine.

Wilson uses the thought-provoking metaphor of “story editing” to describe the ingredient common to many of the successful interventions he reviews. They alter the narratives people tell themselves about their world and their place in it: Is it safe or threatening? Do I belong or not? Am I capable or not? During sensitive periods, people's storytelling can be redirected and the change can build on itself over time. Amend the opening sentence of the story of your transition to college, or to a new job, and the arc of your story may be entirely different from what it would have been otherwise. This helps explain why seemingly simple interventions, such as writing about a traumatic experience, or volunteering for a humanitarian cause, improve health and well-being. They give people an organizing narrative that puts their lives in an optimistic context.

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