Today I talk to University of Virginia professor of psychology Dr. Tim Wilson about his book Redirect: The Surprising New Science of Psychological Change. The thesis of Redirect is this: if you want to change unwanted behaviors and mindsets that are holding you back, you simply need to edit the story you tell about yourself. We can edit our cognitive story by taking part in some simple, scientifically proven writing exercises on a regular basis. Dr. Wilson shares how to do these exercises in our podcast.
- Why talking to a counselor immediately after a traumatic event can actually increase the chance of getting PTSD
- The different ways we can edit the story inside of our head
- The writing exercise that you can do to change unwanted mindsets
- How “fake it until you make it” is another useful story editing tool
- What George Bailey from It’s a Wonderful Life can teach us about the power of cognitive story editing
- How college students can use cognitive story editing to improve their grades
- What parents can do to provide useful stories to their children that will help them be resilient
- And much more!
I’ve used story editing with some great success in my own life. It’s definitely not a silver bullet, but it’s helped me with some peevishness and general grumpiness I’ve experienced in the past few years. If you’re interested in learning more about story editing, pick up a copy of Redirect and check out Tim’s Facebook page.
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Brett McKay here. Welcome to another edition of The Art of Manliness podcast. There are tons and tons of self-help books, blogs, magazines, articles that tell you that if you do X things that you’ll be happier, richer, more attractive, fitter, more awesome. I mean, whatever. And you follow the stuff. It’s kind of motivating, but then you find that it sort of wears off. You fall off the bandwagon and you’re back to where you started. And it’s frustrating, right?
Well, our guest today makes the argument that all these self-help advice, while well intended, doesn’t actually work in the long run. What we need to do is edit or change the stories that we tell about ourselves to ourselves.
Our guest is Timothy Wilson. He’s a professor of psychology at the University of Virginia, and he’s the author of the book “Redirect: The Surprising New Science of Psychological Change.”
In this podcast we’re going to discuss his research that he’s found about what’s called story editing, which is the stories that we have in our head about ourselves, about our circumstances. That if we can edit these stories, change what they are, the parts of them, that we can fundamentally change our life trajectory and we can become happier, healthier, et cetera, et cetera, and it’s change that can be long lasting.
So, a really fascinating discussion. In fact, his book, “Redirect”, inspired one of my favorite posts that we’ve wrote on the site, which is about the George Bailey effect. We’re going to talk about how George Bailey from “It’s a Wonderful Life” can help you become a better, happier man. So, great discussion here. Let’s get on with the show.
Brett McKay: Dr. Timothy Wilson, welcome to the show.
Tim Wilson: Great to be here, Brett.
Brett McKay: Your book, “Redirect”, a fascinating book. We’re going to get really, we’re going to delve deep into it, but you start off with describing what’s called CSID or Critical Incidence Stress Debriefing. This is where therapists are sent in to the location of a traumatic event so they can talk to people about it immediately.
If there was a mass shooting, for example, or … They would send in therapists to talk to the students right away. At first blush, this sounds like a great idea. When I read about that, I was like, “Oh, that’s a good idea. That should help people,” but you present research that suggests otherwise. Can you talk about what the researchers have found on the effectiveness of CSID?
Tim Wilson: Sure. The reason I open the book with that example is to illustrate that as valuable as common sense can be, sometimes it doesn’t lead to the best interventions and it’s for more non-obvious things that work. You’re right, CISD really, it makes sense that if you get people to purge their feelings, instead of bottling them up, talking about them, that that should be helpful. In fact, as you mentioned, this technique has been used across the country with first responders and many people who have experienced trauma.
Researchers didn’t get around to really testing it vigorously until relatively recently. Unfortunately, it turns out not only not to work, but some people argue it can actually backfire. That by getting people to verbalize a traumatic event it actually imprints it in our memories more and we find it more difficult to get beyond an event.
In fact, sometimes distraction can be a good thing if something horrible has happened to us, to take our mind of it. Go spend time with our family, our loved ones, absorb yourself in a book or a movie, but the more you dwell on it right away the more you’re going to remember it.
Brett McKay: Interesting. Besides distraction, what have they found that’s helpful to help individuals who’ve undergone a very traumatic event?
Tim Wilson: One thing researchers are finding is that people are amazingly resilient. That these things can be terrible to experience, but if we just let the natural healing process take place people will kind of follow their instincts as to how much to think about it versus distract themselves that they’re going to get over it sooner if not later.
Now, if in many cases or some cases that that doesn’t work and a few weeks go by and people find that they can’t get an event out of their minds, then that’s where there are some writing exercises that psychologists have developed that turned out to be remarkably helpful.
So, just taking out a piece of paper before you go to bed at night and writing about your deepest thoughts and feelings about this, a thing is troubling you, and doing that, say, three or four nights in a row is painful, but it can help people move beyond these events by getting them to restructure it and think about it in a way that gives it some meaning and allows them to move on.
Brett McKay: Why is it that writing as opposed to talking about it right away more beneficial? What’s the difference there?
Tim Wilson: I think a real key is the timing, that these writing exercises are typically done after a few weeks [inaudible 00:07:47] have gone by, so that people have had time to … their natural resilience processes have kicked in perhaps, and the event isn’t quite as vivid in their minds. There’s less risk that writing about it or talking about it will imprint it in their memories.
I think gaining some perspective, think of the example of all of us have probably undergone a romantic breakup where someone has told us, “Look, uh, this isn’t working,” and you know, is it best to sort of wallow in your feelings right away and write about it, or maybe go spend time with your friends, let some time go by and then revisit it. It’s getting that perspective over time which can really be helpful.
Brett McKay: Okay. You started with talking about this CSID as a way to introduce story editing. Can you explain what story editing is? It’s a relatively … I guess not new idea in psychology or social psychology, but it’s gaining more and more, I guess, attention. What is story editing and how does it affect the way we think about the world and think about ourselves?
Tim Wilson: Sure. It’s a metaphor that we all have stories that we tell ourselves about who we are and what’s happening to us in life, and it does capitalize on an age-old phenomenon and philosophy that the world is not something objective that we look at like a movie. Rather, we are always interpreting and making sense of the world around us, and weaving that into some sort of narrative about what’s happening to us and who we are, and so on.
Often, these stories or narratives are quite healthy and help us deal with traumatic events. We have a lot of self-confidence and strength, but sometimes these stories go wrong and people end up with pessimistic views of themselves or interpretations that lead to rumination and negative feelings.
This metaphor of story editing is if we can somehow get inside people’s heads and just get them to redirect that story to a healthier direction that can have big benefits down the road.
Brett McKay: Okay. You highlight research that was done with college students on the power of story editing about their grades. Can you briefly describe that research?
Tim Wilson: Sure. This is kind of how I got interested many years ago in this whole area. It’s a study I did with college students, as you said, who were in their first year and struggling, and not performing as well as they thought they should be or could be. If you think about that, there’s lots of ways we might try to help such a student who is struggling. We could maybe give them a study skills intervention or maybe give them some medication to calm them down, but we decided to intervene at this level of the story.
Our hunch was that there’s a kind of a vicious cycle of thinking that people can get in where they’re questioning whether they have what it takes to go well in college, and that leads to some worry and anxiety, and that makes it even harder to study and to actually do well. The story in this case is, “Maybe I don’t fit in here, maybe I don’t have what it takes,” which leads to this vicious cycle of it spirals downward.
We did a really simple intervention where we brought students in. We didn’t tell them that the goal was to help them, we just told then they were taking part in a survey. As part of the survey we gave them some information that challenged this view that they couldn’t do it, and tried to reinforce the view that lots of people struggle in the first year, and it’s not a sign that they are failures, it’s a sign that college is a time of adjustment and they need to try a little harder.
We gave them some statistics showing that grades often improve after the first year and showed them some video tapes of older students who reinforced this message that, “Yeah, you know, it was tough my first semester, but it got better over time.”
So, pretty simple. This took about half an hour where they learned this message. We had a controlled group of students who were randomly assigned to not get this message. Then we followed the two groups, those who got the story of this intervention and those who didn’t.
I have to say even we were surprised at the effects that this little half-hour message seemed to redirect people stories in ways that led to better grades over the next year. They, in fact, were even more likely to stay in college. Our control group, a fairly significant portion of them dropped out, but in this intervention group many fewer didn’t.
Brett McKay: Interesting. How can someone apply story editing to their own life? Because there in the research, unbeknownst to them they were getting this message that was kind of helping them redirect their stories about themselves. Are there some methods that people can use to implement story editing in their own life?
Tim Wilson: That’s a really good question, Brett, because I think sometimes it does a take a third party to do this. We can get caught in cycles of rumination where it’s just hard to work it around circumstances objectively, and sometimes it does take someone else to kind of nudge our story in a better direction.
There are some things we can do, and that writing exercise I mentioned earlier where people can just on their own decide to write about traumatic events, there’s been a number of those writing exercises that have been developed.
One that has gotten some recent attention is to write about some negative event from a third-person perspective as if you were a fly on the wall and to try to explain why this thing happened to you. Rather than re-immersing yourself in something negative, say you had a problem at work where you had a fight with your boss or something, rather than kind of reliving those feelings, imagine that you are a fly on the wall looking at you and your boss interacting with a particular goal of trying to explain it better than you have before.
Often, you know, it sounds simple, but that little writing exercise of becoming more objective often leads people to revise their thinking about it to attach new meaning and ways that actually helps them move on.
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Brett McKay: You also mentioned, I guess, behave to feel like I guess cognitive dissonance, reverse cognitive dissonance where if you want to feel like you’re a run … a runner person, like just start running?
Tim Wilson: Yeah. That’s a really important one, too. I refer to it as the do-good-be-good principle. It’s a real mantra in social psychology that if we want to change ourselves, often the first step is to change our behavior.
If we want to view ourselves as more caring, helpful people, then do some volunteer work. A better family person, then do the dishes more in your house or spend more time with your kids. Because what happens is, once our behavior changes, the story often follows after that and that reinforces this new self-identity of, “Yes, I am a helpful person because look what I’m doing.”
Brett McKay: Interesting. What do you tell to the person who, they listen to this, like they sound like, “Oh, this is great. I’m really pessimistic. I’m sort of a curmudgeon. I’m not very resilient and I want to change my narrative about myself”? I can there’d be points of frustration where you try doing the story editing, but change doesn’t happen all the way and you get frustrated like, “Oh, this doesn’t work,” and you begin that vicious cycle of thinking that, “I can’t change my story.”
Is there any hope for the curmudgeon that wants to change themselves with story editing?
Tim Wilson: Yeah. I will put in a plug for psychotherapy, but I do think [inaudible 00:18:19] hands. One way I think of psychotherapy as a bigger dose of story editing where you have someone else to help you with it then. There’s a lot of good evidence that psychotherapy works for a lot of problems. If you’re a curmudgeon who’s really getting seriously depressed, for example, seek some help.
Short of that, I think there’s always some room to maneuver. I don’t mean to suggest that these techniques will change us overnight from a curmudgeon to the most optimistic person in the world, but through these writing exercises and changing our behavior piece by piece, I think, over time, it can help at least some.
Brett McKay: Okay. You had one section in your book that it actually inspired a blog post on our site, about the George Bailey effect. It’s sort of, I guess, a technique that people can use to edit their story to be happier. Can you talk about the George Bailey effect and how people can implement it in their own life?
Tim Wilson: Sure. This was inspired by some research in the positive psychology movement which suggests to people that they keep gratitude journals. Each night, maybe spend a little time writing about things in your life that you are thankful for. I’ve tried that myself and, you know, it’s fine. I find that we’ve already thought a lot about those things and not that we’ve taken then for granted, but we’ve kind of accepted these things are in our life and just reminding us I’m not sure always delivers that much of a bang.
We, in some research, tried a slightly different approach where instead of asking people what they were thankful for we said imagine something really good in your life like your relationship, say, with a spouse or partner, and imagine that it never happened. Really go into some detail about why you might not have ever met your partner, or once you met him or her you didn’t start a relationship.
The George Bailey name comes from the movie “It’s a Wonderful Life” where many people know that Jimmy Stewart had this angel come and show him what life would have been like had he not lived. In a way, that’s what people do in this writing exercise. They imagine what their life would be like if this good thing had not happened to them. We found in some studies that that actually was better than gratitude journals at improving people’s mood and making them appreciate things that they have.
Brett McKay: Interesting. It sounds very similar to some stoic philosophy of sort of subtracting the good and focusing on the negative to make you happier in a weird paradoxical way.
Tim Wilson: Yeah. No, I think that’s a good comparison.
Brett McKay: Okay. Moving beyond to helping just ourselves redirect our stories, I know a lot of our listeners are parents, are dads. What can we do to help our children develop positive self-narratives that make them resilient and effective in the world? Is there any research out there that talks about what we can do to help internalize desired values in our kids?
Tim Wilson: Sure. I do have a chapter in the book specifically on parenting, and I do think there are some lessons here that, you know, one way of describing what our job is as a parent is to help our kids develop good, healthy stories that where they paint themselves as kids who are autonomous and have a purpose and are effective. The danger with overdoing some parenting techniques is that we’re too controlling and it prevents our kids from acquiring that identity as someone who is autonomous in themselves.
For example, I think all parents I know, I’ve certainly been there when my kids were younger, we all use rewards and punishments of some form or another, like time out or something, and sometimes we need to. Our kids are doing something dangerous sort of, or misbehaving, but the real key is to do it with a light hand. Rather, if we go overboard either with rewards or punishment it conveys the view to our kids that they’re doing something to satisfy us or to avoid punishment, and they don’t internalize this idea that this is something they should value in and of themselves.
It’s tricky, but the goal is to use the smallest amount of reward you can to induce your child to behave the way you want them to, and if you have to use punishment, rewards tend to work better than punishment, but if you have to, do it with a very light hand so that your child doesn’t end up thinking, “I’m doing this just to avoid the wrath of dad,” and that helps a child internalize the values that you want them to.
Brett McKay: Excellent. I imagine just this plain positive story editing in your own life would be a good … like it rubs off on them, right? If you react to a setback and just sort of remunerate about it, your kids would probably pick up on that, I imagine.
Tim Wilson: They will, and it does remind me too that kids are excellent observers of adults, and imitating, and learning just from watching. It suggests that we need to be really good role models for our kids, that if we want them to grow up to be helpful people, we need to exhibit helpfulness ourselves and so on. They can really observe us very acutely.
Brett McKay: Okay. One chapter that was really fascinating, and I think it really showcases the power of story editing, is in the way it can help underachieving children in school close the achievement gap. Can you talk about the research that’s been done with that on how just redirecting these student stories about themselves can help them excel in school?
Tim Wilson: Sure. There’s some really exciting research going on this area. As everyone knows, there are problems that seem so hard to fix. They’re rooted in decades of poverty and so on. [Inaudible 00:24:41]. It had been reduced a little bit over the past few decades, but it still persists at alarming rates where minority kids are not doing as well in school.
Some social psychologists got the idea to, “Well, maybe this is a story problem in a sense.” That the kids, minority kids, they’re in school and they work, but they quickly learn that this is a place where their identity is at risk, that there’s a stereotype that they’re not going to do as well, and that puts pressure on them.
If they’re taking a test, not only do they have to worry about doing well for their own sake, they have to worry about confirming a stereotype if they’re not going to do well, and this can be debilitating.
Some researchers went into a middle school and they randomly assigned some kids, black and white, to do a writing exercise where they just picked a value other than academics that was really important to them and write about why it was important. Kids, they had a list they could choose from, and they were things like their family, their religion, a sport, a hobby.
The kids did this, and as it turns out, this little what’s called a self-affirmation exercise, had no effect on the white kids because presumably, they were already … felt their identity was safe in school.
For the black kids, it helped them reduce the threat. By reminding them that they were valuable kids who had relationships and hobbies, and things that they valued, it kind of lowered the heat a little bit about their identity at school. Ironically, that made them actually do better. There was less concern that all their eggs were in this one basket, in a sense. The kids who got this little writing intervention, it basically closed the achievement gap by 40% in this one school.
Brett McKay: Fascinating. I think there was similar research done on that, just the power of stereotype in a child’s life is where … Even if you don’t have the child identify their race or gender, they actually performed better.
Tim Wilson: Yes. Yes, that’s fascinating that that just having kids check the box, even college students, can remind them of that what’s called stereotype threat and make them do worse.
Brett McKay: Yeah, okay. I always try to end these podcasts with just one thing that people … some actionable things that people can do. I know story editing is sort of a lifelong thing you need to implement, but what’s one thing that a person can start doing today to implement story editing and redirect how they think about themselves today?
Tim Wilson: I guess what I’d say, Brett, was just remind themselves that change is possible. That we’re not fixed beings that are stuck in one way that we have to be stuck in forever. That just by adopting this metaphor of the story, I think it empowers us to change it.
I’m not suggesting it’s easy and that every problem will magically disappear, but I think just beginning to view whatever is troubling us as, “Well, it’s a story. One extreme, if I really need help I can get psychotherapy, but short of that there’s a lot of little things I can do to change my behavior or these writing exercises that can send me on the road to a better story.”
Brett McKay: Excellent. Where can people go to find out more about your work? You’re also a musician, what I gathered from your website.
Tim Wilson: Well, yes and no. I do on my website have links to some other people with the name Tim Wilson.
Brett McKay: Oh, is that what that is? Okay.
Tim Wilson: Both of them are musicians. Now, I do play the guitar, but not in a way that people in public would want to hear me. Let me put it that way. No, I’m amused myself. I sometimes get calls for the other Tim Wilson and say, “Hey, show up at this bar and play,” and maybe some time I’ll do it, but we’ll see.
Brett McKay: We’ll see.
Tim Wilson: To answer your question, I do have this book, “Redirect”, which is coming out in paperback in the next couple of months but is available now in hardback. There’s a Facebook page for it where I post things occasionally that are in the news that people can like as well.
Brett McKay: Fantastic. Tim Wilson, thank you so much for your time. It’s been a pleasure.
Tim Wilson: Been a lot of fun for me, too. Thanks, Brett.
Brett McKay: Thank you. Our guest today was Timothy Wilson. He is the author of the book “Redirect: The Surprising New Science of Psychological Change.” You can find that on amazon.com.
That wraps up another edition of The Art of Manliness podcast. For more manly tips and advise, make sure to check out The Art of Manliness website at artofmanliness.com.
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