The way people think about their lives can have profound effects on the way they behave. Timothy Wilson explains how to reap the benefits of story-editing.
Two groups of US students sit down to take a maths test. The groups are similar and the questions they are asked are identical, but there is one difference between the groups. At the top of the test, students in one group are asked to indicate their sex, male or female; the students in the other group are not.
It seems like a trivial difference, but it’s not. Boys aren’t affected, but girls are: the girls who are asked to indicate their sex before the test do worse. This is an example of a stereotype threat: bringing to consciousness a stereotype, in this case that girls aren’t good at maths, harms their performance.
What is going on? Being reminded of being female stimulates mental effort to deal with the stereotype, and this is mental energy that can’t be used to focus on the maths problems.
This is one of numerous examples of how beliefs about ourselves can affect how we behave and perform. There’s a large amount of social and psychological research about this phenomenon. A really valuable overview of the research and its implications for policy and practice is Timothy D. Wilson’s book Redirect.
Wilson makes two main points. The first is that social interventions need to be carefully tested, preferably with a design in which individuals are randomly assigned to a control group and an experimental group. It is not good enough to undertake interventions that seem like they should work because they are obvious and sensible.
Wilson’s second main point is that the story-editing approach, namely getting people to change the narratives they use to understand themselves, can be far more powerful than other methods.
There is a popular programme in the US to discourage teenage delinquency. At-risk youngsters are brought together to hear lectures from prisoners, who tell them about what is in store for them should they make the wrong decisions about their lives. This programme is well-meaning and seems plausible: scare these kids with warnings about their possible fate and they’ll be more likely to go straight. There’s one major problem: it doesn’t work.
Wilson uses this example as one of many in which a well-meaning intervention was rolled out across the US before it had been adequately tested. When controlled trials were finally undertaken, it turned out that the lectures intended to scare the kids out of trouble were actually making things worse. These kids were more likely to drop out of school, be arrested and go to prison. Wilson provides example after example of plausible interventions that have no benefit or even make things worse. He assigns the “bloodletting” award to counterproductive interventions: doctors used to treat many illnesses by drawing blood, thereby making the patient more likely to die.
What was wrong with the scaring-kids intervention? Thinking in terms of stories people tell about themselves, an explanation goes like this. Some supposedly at-risk kids previously thought of themselves as regular, honest and well-intentioned. They did the right thing because that is how they thought of themselves. But then they were put into a group labelled “at risk” and given lectures about the dangers of crime. Some of them started thinking their reason for avoiding crime was to avoid the consequences: their motivation, previously internal, became external, and this is not as effective a deterrent when the circumstances are less favourable. Furthermore, these kids were put in a group of others considered at risk, and this is truly a risk, because they are influenced by peers setting a bad example.
Wilson’s main attention is on interventions to address social problems in the US including poverty, low education, crime, sexism and racism. The bottom line is that all interventions should be tested before being used on a wide scale, and that story-editing approaches are often extremely effective.
It’s possible to use the insights from the story-editing approach to look at some other sorts of issues, including ones where interventions cannot be readily tested.
When a worker speaks out about a problem in their workplace, such as corruption or hazards to the public, they often suffer reprisals such as ostracism, petty harassment, reprimands, referral to psychiatrists, demotion and dismissal. This seems a harsh response to someone who is concerned about problems. What are the stories told about this common scenario?
From the employer’s point of view, the worker is out of line, challenging management and threatening the viability of the enterprise (not to mention seeking to expose management involvement in unethical and criminal activities). The worker is labelled a traitor, malcontent, snitch or dobber. The story provided is that the worker is in the wrong, due to personal failings. Rumours may be spread that the worker is a poor performer, has a mental illness or is involved in unsavoury sexual practices. Quite separately from the labels applied, the actions taken against the worker suggest their own meanings. Being referred to a psychiatrist is demeaning and signals to others that the worker is mentally unstable.
In some cases, the worker starts believing what is said about them, thinking “There must be something wrong with me.” The late Jean Lennane, former president of Whistleblowers Australia, worked as a psychiatrist, and treated quite a few such workers. After hearing their stories, she would say, “You’re not insane. You’re a whistleblower.” This is a story-editing intervention. Jean changed her patient’s script from “There’s something wrong with me” to “There’s something wrong with the organisation.” She changed the label from “dobber” to “whistleblower.”
Back in the 1990s, the NSW branch of Whistleblowers Australia held weekly meetings. Some people who attended for the first time said, “I’m not a whistleblower, but …” and went on to describe experiences that perfectly fitted the usual idea of a whistleblower. At that time, the term “whistleblower” had a negative connotation and many workers were reluctant to accept the label.
In the following years, the label “whistleblower” gained in status in Australia, in part through media stories that used the term in stories portraying gallant individuals challenging abuses of power. Workers were less likely to acquiesce in labels applied by bosses and more likely to take pride in calling themselves whistleblowers. Employers are more often losing the story-editing struggle, though reprisals against whistleblowers remain all too common.
Another arena for story-editing struggles is war. A familiar example is what to call a fighter challenging a repressive government: a terrorist or a freedom fighter. Governments have far more power to label than do their opponents, as shown by the ubiquity of the label “terrorism” applied solely to challengers, not to governments themselves, even though many government actions fit standard definitions of terrorism.
By labelling opponents as terrorists, governments might in some cases actually be assisting their enemies in recruitment, especially when entire groups are stigmatised. It is useful to remember that the South African apartheid government called its armed opponents “terrorists,” that the US government, during the Vietnam war, called the National Liberation Front “terrorists,” and the Philippines government calls armed opponents “terrorists.” Commentators in the US have called some environmentalists “eco-terrorists.” The aim in such labelling is to stigmatise, but is this effective? It is possible that it may cause some activists — even ones who had not considered the use of violence in resistance — to identify with the government’s opponents.
A related story-editing struggle concerns what to call those who refuse to fight, by refusing conscription or by deserting from the army. Military leaders typically call them “traitors” or “cowards.” Within the peace movement, they might be called conscientious objectors or war resisters and be seen courageous or even as true patriots.
What should a parent be called who has reservations about vaccination, or who declines some or all vaccinations for their children? They can be called conscientious objectors or, more pejoratively, vaccination refusers or deniers. Some campaigners who raise concerns about vaccination are called baby-killers.
Does this sort of labelling help promote vaccination? From a story-editing perspective, derogatory labelling of people with concerns about vaccination could be ineffective or even counterproductive, by alienating some parents who had cautiously expressed concerns and found themselves grouped with more vociferous critics. In addition, hostile labelling may drive some parents towards vaccine-critical groups as a source of identity.
A different approach to vaccination critics is to label them concerned parents and to provide information about how their concerns relate to vaccination. The story promoted with this sort of intervention is that it is legitimate for parents to have concerns about their children’s health and that choosing to vaccinate is one possible resolution for their concerns.
In this case, the story-editing struggle occurs mainly between advocates of vaccination, namely between those who stigmatise parents reluctant to vaccinate and those who respond to their concerns with sensitivity and sympathy. From a story-editing perspective, the latter approach is more likely to be effective, though designing a way to rigorously compare the two approaches would be extremely difficult.
Redirect provides a powerful summary of a body of research showing that the way people think about themselves makes an enormous difference to their behaviour. Seemingly trivial interventions that change self-perspectives can have long-lasting impacts.
Wilson has two main aims in Redirect. The first is to show the power of story-editing and the second is to emphasise the importance of careful studies of social interventions. Research shows that all too many well-intentioned interventions appear to be ineffective or, even worse, counterproductive.
Yet in some areas it can be difficult or almost impossible to carry out controlled tests. I’ve outlined three areas where story-editing struggles take place: whistleblowing, war and vaccination. Based on the evidence provided in Redirect, the preliminary hypothesis in each case is that a key in such struggles is changing the way people think about themselves. It might even be possible that derogatory labelling is ineffective or counterproductive. Read Redirect and decide for yourself.
Timothy D. Wilson, Redirect: changing the stories we live by (Penguin, 2013)
Thanks to Jørgen Johansen and Cynthia Kardell for useful comments on a draft.