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We’ve Got a Story for You

22 February 2012

Michelle read Redirect: The Surprising New Science of Psychological Change by Timothy D. Wilson. This self-described non-self-help book reminded her that life is all about stories, and that it might be time for many of us to start telling some new ones.

Tags: change, happiness, michelle read, recent release

In the spirit of transparency: Tim Wilson is one of my all-time favorite professors at UVA. I happened to be one of the very few first year students able to get into his Social Psychology class, and I still remember every bit of it. There’s something to be said about a professor who manages to persuade 500 college students to come to class every day.

So on to the book… Redirect is written with all of the wit and wisdom that kept us engaged everyday, with plenty of practical advice for applying Wilson’s theories. The book covers seemingly disparate topics from personal happiness to parenting to reducing prejudice to preventing teen pregnancies, but all come back to a central theme: stories. Our experience of the world is shaped by interpretations (aka stories). But sometimes these stories become so distorted or destructive that they keep us from living balanced, healthy lives. And herein lies the need for redirection—tactics designed to change people’s stories from the self-effacing or self-destructive to the self-enhancing. 

The specific tactics Wilson describes all fall in the category of story-editing—a set of techniques designed to reshape people’s narratives about themselves and the world in a way that results in lasting behavioral change. The bright-eyed college student in me (often accused of being an idealistic optimist) was inspired by his discussion of story-editing tactics applied to larger societal issues. Meanwhile, my media studies brain is constantly thinking about the ‘frames’ through which we view the world, and I found myself nodding incessantly as I read the scientific evidence behind the importance of the stories we tell ourselves (or that are told to us) about the events that shape and influence us.

Self-perception theory is another important theme explained in the book, specifically through the do good, be good principle. Whereas conventional wisdom would say that good people volunteer, Wilson says that it’s often the other way around. If we do something good without being forced, we must be good people, and since we are good people, we must continue to do good things. For example, doing something good, like volunteering, makes us come up with a personal story that explains why we did good. Wilson posits that as long as we can attribute this good behavior to our own character and not to some mandate, then this has the ability to change behavior for the long-term. So simple.

As I read, I couldn’t help but think about Rachel’s Happiness workshop. One of Wilson’s main points is that we have far more control over what we think and feel than we previously thought – something that Rachel never forgets to mention. Happiness is often all about the story we tell ourselves about ourselves and the experiences we have, and these core narratives shape how we understand who we are.

Redirect is about changing long-standing negative personal narratives as well as our rapid-fire reactions to events. An example that hit home with me was Wilson’s experiment regarding changing the ways in which first year students interpreted their less-than-stellar grades during their first semester. Students who participated in a 30-minute session during which they viewed survey results and narrative videos about grade improvements were more likely to achieve improved grades than those who didn’t. Rather than signaling a failure of their personal intelligence, or showing that they weren’t smart enough to make it in college, Wilson provided students with an alternate explanation that helped them to rewrite their stories, demonstrating the positive effects of self-enhancing versus self-defeating stories.

As a UVA fourth year, I sadly don’t have much time for reading outside of classes, but I’m so happy that I found the time to read Redirect. It has reminded me to actively think about the way I think about events in my life, no matter how large or how small. For example: it’s not terrifying that I’m about to enter the real world in a few short months, it’s incredibly exciting!

Do you have anything you’d like to change about the stories you tell yourself? Or perhaps any do good, be good advice? We’d love to hear it!


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