Changing the Stories We Live By

Little, Brown US, 2015 more...

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Psychologist Timothy D. Wilson surveys the array of “psychological intervention” programs designed to foster workforce harmony, help people recover from trauma and keep teens drug free. Sadly, he says, some plans are ineffective and others do more harm than good. He advocates programs based on social psychologist Kurt Lewin’s findings that people develop internal narratives about themselves and their place in the world, and that getting them to change their story is pivotal. This calls for a process of “story editing” which Wilson says works effectively to address a full range of psychological problems.


Many popular “psychological intervention” programs are ineffective; some do more harm than good.

Many “psychological intervention” programs take a commonsense approach to dealing with problems like traumatic stress, teenage drug use or discrimination. These counseling programs, training workshops and school curricula appeal to those who need help precisely because of their common sense approach. It seems obvious that you can help people deal with trauma by getting them to talk about it, or that you can scare teens away from dabbling in drugs and crime by showing them the reality of prison life.

But when psychologists test these approaches, they find that many of them, including some programs with good reputations, don’t work at all. Some do more harm than good. That happens because human behavior is not a response to an objective reality, so common sense isn’t always the best guide for formulating treatments for psychological and social problems.

An individual’s behavior is, instead, a response to his or her “interpretation” of reality. Your interpretation of events draws heavily on your “personal narrative,” the internal view of...

About the Author

Timothy D. Wilson, a professor of psychology at the University of Virginia, also wrote Strangers to Ourselves and has written for Science and The New York Times.

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