Saturday, August 20, 2011

Redirect: The Surprising New Science of Psychological Change, by Timothy D. Wilson

Little, Brown, and Company, ISBN 9780316051880, September 2011

Wilson gives us a highly readable account of what we do and don't know about psychological and social psychological interventions--what works, what doesn't, why, and how we tell the difference.

A major concern of Wilson's is many popular, widely accepted approaches to solving, reducing, or preventing problems, such as Critical Incident Stress Debriefing (CISD) counseling for police and firefighters after a traumatic on-the-job incident, or popular and widely-respected anti-drug programs for the schools, have been implemented on a large scale without being scientifically tested first. In some cases, once broadly accepted, these approaches remain unchanged even after scientific testing demonstrates that they are ineffective or even counter-productive.

A recurring theme is that good intentions and common sense don't always produce the expected results, while controlled scientific experimentation can often identify more effective methods--and that often these better methods are also simpler, easier, and less expensive. One example is the CISD mentioned above. It seems quite sensible to encourage someone who's had a traumatic experience to talk about, get the feelings out, and avoid having lasting post-traumatic stress disorder effects from it. Unfortunately, experiments with survivors of traumatic incidents randomly assigned to either undergo CISD or not show that it actually increases the likelihood of PTSD symptoms. What does work? Having the trauma survivor wait a few weeks, and then spend fifteen minutes writing about the incident, for three or four days running. Why does CISD make things worse, while the writing exercise makes things better? Because CISD forces the trauma survivor to focus on the events before he or she is prepared to make sense of them, and gets them trapped in the initial emotional response to what happened. The writing exercise allows the mind time to process the event, and then write about it, in private, when ready to do so and without having to deal with another person's expectations.

Another recurring theme is "story editing." We all have narratives we tell ourselves that explain our lives and who we are. Some of those stories are not helpful to us, to say the least. A student who gets a bad grade on a test and concludes that he's not smart enough for the class is likely to keep doing badly in it. A student who gets the same bad grade and concludes that he needs to spend more time studying likely to do better on the next test, and be reinforced in his belief that working harder will bring success. It's clear which one of these reactions is more useful. What's really valuable to know is that with a fairly simple intervention of having students listen to stories of upperclassmen who did badly at first and then improved in the class work, you can change the first reaction to the second one.

Wilson gives an excellent overview of the current state of social psychology, explaining what works and what doesn't, and why. Examples range from students having academic problems to major social problems such as teen pregnancy, delinquency, and drug use, showing why some popular "common sense" programs have failed while seemingly simple interventions succeed. He also gives pointers to the effective use of these principles in our personal lives, while making clear that there are mental and emotional health problems that do require professional help and more complex intervention.

Highly recommended.

I received a free electronic galley of this book from the publisher via NetGalley.

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