Are stories the secret to changing our lives for the better?



Timothy Wilson, author of Redirect: The Surprising New Science of Psychological Change and the excellent Strangers to Ourselves: Discovering the Adaptive Unconscioustalks about how the process of “story-editing” can help us improve our lives:

The idea is that if we want to change people’s behaviors, we need to try to get inside their heads and understand how they see the world—the stories and narratives they tell themselves about who they are and why they do what they do. Social and clinical psychologists have known this for decades. The surprising part is that it may be easier than we thought to get people to edit their stories in ways that lead to sustained changes in behavior.

How so? Can you describe the techniques involved?

There are three general approaches. I call the first “story prompting,” whereby people are given information that prompts them to change the way they view themselves and the causes of their behavior. An example is a study I did with college students many years ago (Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 1982). The participants were first-year students who weren’t doing well academically. As part of what they thought was a survey, they read information suggesting that many college students do poorly at first but improve over time. We also showed the students videotaped interviews of juniors and seniors who reinforced this message. In other words, we prompted students to reinterpret their academic problems from a belief that they couldn’t cut it in college to the view that they simply needed to learn the ropes. The students who got this prompt—compared to a control group that didn’t—got better grades the next year and were less likely to drop out.

The second approach involves writing exercises that people can do on their own to revise their narratives. For example, James Pennebaker, at the University of Texas, has pioneered an expressive writing technique that helps people recover from past traumas by helping them reframe and reinterpret those events. Ethan Kross, at the University of Michigan, and Ozlem Ayduk, at the University of California, Berkeley, have also demonstrated that writing about negative events is helpful, particularly if people take a third-person perspective on those events and think about why they occurred.

The third approach is the “do good, be good” method. It capitalizes on the tried-and-true psychological principle that our attitudes and beliefs often follow from our behaviors, rather than precede them. As Kurt Vonnegut famously wrote, “We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.” People who do volunteer work, for example, often change their narratives of who they are, coming to view themselves as caring, helpful people. Well-designed studies have shown that teen girls who participate in community service programs do better in school and are less likely to become pregnant.

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