Redirecting Personal Narratives

This is the third post that reviews Wilson’s new book REDIRECT.  First of all it it important to realize that we all have personal narratives.  We might not even realize that we have them, but basically they are stories that inform us what we think about things, people, and most importantly, ourselves.  Consider a student preparing to take an exam.  This student thinks she is smart and expects to do well on the examination.  But supposes she fails the examination.  Then what becomes of her personal narrative.  She might decide that she was really wrong about herself and that actually she is stupid.  She might even drop out of school.  But suppose she decides that she did not study hard enough.  So now she can still think of herself as being smart, but as being a smart person who needs to study more and work harder.  So there are two ways of redirecting her personal narrative.  One that informs her to give up.  And the other that informs her to study more and work harder.

This approach began with the theorizing of Kurt Lewin, who helped found the field of social psychology in the 1930s and 1940s.  Lewin thought that to understand why people do what they do we have to view he world through their eyes and understand how they make sense of things.  Moreover, he had the radical insight that not only do we need to view a problem through other people’s eyes, we can also change they way they view i through relatively simple interventions.

New generations of social psychologists have refined Lewin’s ideas into an approach that Wilson calls story editing.  Storing editing is a set of techniques designed to redirect people’s narratives about themselves and the social world in a way that leads to lasting changes in behavior.  There are core narratives that help people understand some of the most basic questions in life.  At other times, people’s quick initial spin on events, such as the interpretation of the reason for failing a test that was described earlier, is changed.  Story editing in its simplest form induces people to make sense of an event that has gotten under their skin.  This is what Pennebaker’s writing exercise accomplishes (see previous post). This writing techniques is not a magic cure for all psychological problems.  Sometimes we can’t construct a coherent narrative on our own, and in such cases, cognitive-behavioral therapy is specifically designed to teach people how to turn negative thinking patterns into healthier ones.  But the writing technique has proved to be remarkable beneficial for people with a wide range of traumatic experiences.

Sometimes the goal is to provide people with a better interpretation of their  behavior, by spoon feeding them. For example  labeling children as “helpful people” encourages them to internalize this view of themselves.  Research has shown that  having this in their personal narrative has many beneficial effects.  The majority of the book shows how this approach works in a wide range of areas.  All of the research is based on sound experimental methods.  As was shown in the previous post, approaches that are highly appealing, do not necessarily work, and can have adverse consequences.   And this research must be based on actual behavior.  Asking people if it works, does not work.  Wilson has a section under the Testing chapter titled, Don’t Ask, Can’t Tell.

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