Mind Matters — Common Sense May Need Some Redirection

What we may deem as based on common sense may need to be revised—or at least redirected. Psychologist Timothy Wilson, in his book Redirect, takes to task many sacred cows, not with the bravado of “opinion,” but with the diligent work of collating the scientific research that proves or disproves certain social programs as well as personal ingrained attitudes. His basic point is that we form subjective interpretations “quickly and unconsciously,” so that we not so much observe our world as interpret it. Kurt Lewin, a social psychologist of the 1930’s and 1940’s, recognized this and wanted to not only “view a problem through other people’s eyes,” but also wanted to change viewpoints with simple interventions. Wilson transforms Lewin’s theories into an approach he calls “story editing,” a way to “redirect people’s narratives about themselves and the social world in a way that leads to lasting changes in behavior.”

Wilson cites the work of James Pennebaker who has shown in his research that writing and re-writing one’s stressful or traumatic narrative can be healing. People in Pennebaker’s studies may start out with incoherent stories, seemingly random and meaningless. But with each successive day of the writing of the events, the narrators gain distance and can reframe what occurred and find meaning in their stories.

Not so with CISD (Critical Incident Stress Debriefing), which was once touted as the most common sense way to treat traumatic stress. CISD was often used with police and fire fighters, until research showed that it was often more harmful than helpful. It turns out that CISD may have been too much, too soon, and may have hindered the natural process of healing by leaving people stuck in their traumatic stories.

Beyond writing ourselves out of traumatic events, we may also need “story prompting.” Wilson notes that there are situations in which we may need a little nudge. He gives the example of students who were doing poorly beginning college. The simple “prompt” they needed to get out of a negative defeatist spiral was to hear a talk on how many students struggle at first and then improved their grades. In Wilson’s study, this was enough to help reverse the negative thinking of “I don’t belong here” or “I’m not good enough,” etc.

Another redirect technique is the “do good, be good” approach which involves changing people’s behavior first. In Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), people refer to this as “Fake it ‘til you make it.” In other words, do the behavior you want to be. Our behaviors shape our personal narratives. So practicing random acts of kindness is more than a bumper sticker!

While these redirect techniques work, Wilson debunks another acronym that doesn’t: D.A.R.E. (Drug Abuse Resistance Education). He notes that research studies have shown that the program is ineffective. What does work is Life Skills Training (LST). LST teaches assertiveness (so kids will know how to say “No”), and engenders a general sense of well-being and self-efficacy, which diminishes interest in drugs or alcohol.

Wilson covers many relevant topics: how to be better parents by shaping our kids’ narratives; how volunteering can prevent teen pregnancies and teen violence; the efficacy of the Big Brother and Big Sister programs; stereotypes and prejudices.

His book is a hopeful read based on solid evidence for what works and what doesn’t. There is something to be gleaned from it for practically everyone. However, for parents, teachers, school administrators, and legislators, it should be required reading.