OK, the headline is a little simplistic. But only a little.
Thanks to our colleagues at Duke University for giving us a head’s up on this interview that Duke-based Faith and Leadership (Where Christian leaders reflect, connect and learn”) conducted with U.Va. psychology professor Timothy Wilson about his new book, “Redirect: The Surprising New Science of Psychological Change.” In it, he argues that the stories people tell themselves (and others) about their lives can be altered to lead to happier endings.
Here’s an example, from the interview:
In a study I did years ago, when I was a professor at Duke, we were struck by the fact that some students got caught in what seemed like a negative way of thinking about their academic performance. It would spiral downwards if they had an initial academic setback. They would see that as a sign that somehow they weren’t fit for college.
So we tried to catch people in the beginning of their first year to redirect those thoughts. We identified students who weren’t doing very well academically and were worried about it, and we brought them in.
They didn’t know this was an attempt to help them in any way. They just thought they were taking part in a psychology survey.
In our intervention group, we simply gave them some statistics indicating that many students do poorly at first but then improve their grades as the years go by. We reinforced that with some videotaped interviews of upperclass students who said things like, “Yeah, I didn’t do very well my first semester, but I’m doing just fine now.”
A control group of people did not get that message. But the students who got our redirect — our story-editing — message got better grades about a year later, and they also, to our surprise, were more likely to stay in college. There was a pretty high dropout rate among the people in the control group.
Our little 30-minute intervention seemed to succeed in keeping some people in college.
I think the reason a small tweak of people’s stories can have such long-term effects is that it’s self-sustaining. It may have made some students study a little harder for their next test or reduced their anxiety a little bit.
If that paid off, it reinforced the message and made them study harder for the next test. If you can just push them a little bit down the healthier road, that can sometimes be self-sustaining.
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