Changing the Stories We Live By


By Timothy D. Wilson

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What if there were a magic pill that could make you happier, turn you into a better parent, solve a number of your teenager’s behavior problems, reduce racial prejudice, and close the achievement gap in education? There is no such pill, but story editing — the scientifically based approach described in Redirect — can accomplish all of this.

The world-renowned psychologist Timothy Wilson shows us how to redirect the stories we tell about ourselves and the world around us, with subtle prompts, in ways that lead to lasting change. Fascinating, groundbreaking, and practical, Redirect demonstrates the remarkable power small changes can have on the ways we see ourselves and our environment, and how we can use this in our everyday lives.

“There are few academics who write with as much grace and wisdom as Timothy Wilson. Redirect is a masterpiece.” — Malcolm Gladwell


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Go to your local drugstore and you will find a wide range of medications that promise to dry a runny nose, reduce a fever, and quiet a cough. Every one of these medications will work exactly as promised, and every one will have its dangers clearly labeled. Now wander down to the local bookstore. You will find an aisle filled with self-help books that offer a wide range of techniques for becoming happier and more successful, thinner and richer, smarter and sexier, a better parent, a better partner, a better friend. As it turns out, many if not most of these techniques are utterly worthless, and some may actually harm you. What's the difference between the drugstore and the bookstore?

Tim Wilson knows. He's a scientist, and he's spent the majority of his life studying human behavior by randomly assigning people to experimental or control conditions in the laboratory and the field, objectively measuring their cognitive, emotional, and behavioral responses, using sophisticated mathematical techniques to analyze his data, and subjecting his findings to peer review and public scrutiny. So he is more than a little impatient with all the self-appointed experts in the self-help aisle who have skipped right over the hard work and gone directly to making grand claims about the best ways to improve our lives and our world.

Did I say impatient? Okay, he's downright annoyed—but his pique is your prize.

Redirect is the result of three decades of head-shaking and head-scratching—a wise and wonderful book about changing human behavior that explains what works, what doesn't, and how we can tell the difference between the two. Like Wilson, you will be annoyed when you discover that among the many things that do not work are governmental programs to which millions of your tax dollars flow, psychological treatments that are standard practice in many hospitals, and the advice that Oprah dispenses to a legion of followers. And like Wilson, you will be delighted—and probably surprised—when you discover what does work: a simple set of psychological techniques that are as effective as anything you will find on the pharmacy shelves.

We all want our lives and our world to be better. That's what we're doing here in the self-help aisle. Wilson understands and he's right here with us. But he sees us reaching for How to Have It All in Ten Easy Steps and he asks us to pause—just long enough to go on a journey with him and see what can happen when we approach behavior change with the same scientific sensibilities that got antibiotics into our drugstores and snake oils out. It's a once-in-a-lifetime invitation from an accomplished and insightful scientist who thinks deeply, writes beautifully, and cares about the truth.

My advice? Accept it, and prepare to be redirected.

—Daniel Gilbert



Small Edits, Lasting Changes

Police officers Gary Felice and Prince Jones were the first to respond to a house fire on De Leon Street in Tampa, Florida. When they arrived, they heard what every emergency worker dreads—screams for help from inside a house engulfed in flames. Through a window, they could barely make out the silhouette of a man stumbling and falling, just short of escape. Felice and Jones frantically tried to break down the door, which was secured with burglar bars. It took five minutes of tugging, pulling, and smashing before the door finally gave way, but by then it was too late. The man was "curled up like a baby in his mother's womb," said Jones. "That's what someone burned to death looks like."1

The next day Gary Felice saw a picture of the victim in the paper and realized that, to his horror, he had known him—it was Tommy Schuppel, forty-two, a popular X-ray technician at a local hospital. The fact that Felice had seen his friend die haunted the officer, so much so that he had trouble eating and sleeping. His bosses sympathized and wanted to help, so they did what many police departments do: they scheduled a Critical Incident Stress Debriefing (CISD) session for Felice.

The premise of CISD is that when people have experienced a traumatic event they should air their feelings as soon as possible, so that they don't bottle up these feelings and develop post-traumatic stress disorder. In a typical CISD session, which lasts three to four hours, participants are asked to describe the traumatic event from their own perspective, express their thoughts and feelings about the event, and relate any physical or psychological symptoms they are experiencing. A facilitator emphasizes that it is normal to have stressful reactions to traumatic events, gives stress management advice, answers questions, and assesses whether participants need any additional services. Numerous fire and police departments have made CISD the treatment of choice for officers who, like Gary Felice, witness horrific events—indeed, some departments require it. It is also widely used with civilians who undergo traumatic experiences. Following the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, more than nine thousand counselors rushed to New York City to help survivors deal with the trauma and prevent post-traumatic stress disorder, and many of these counselors employed psychological debriefing techniques.2

Psychological debriefing sounds like an effective intervention, doesn't it? An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, and surely getting people to talk about their feelings, instead of bottling them up, is a good thing. Or is it?

Let's put CISD aside for a moment and consider another approach. Instead of asking Officer Felice to relive the trauma of Tommy Schuppel's death, suppose we let a few weeks go by and see if he is still traumatized by the tragic event. If so, we could ask him to complete, on four consecutive nights, a simple exercise in which he writes down his deepest thoughts and emotions about the experience and how it relates to the rest of his life. That's it—no meetings with trained facilitators, no stress management advice—just a writing exercise that Felice does on his own four nights in a row.

Which approach do you think would be more effective—CISD, in which people express their thoughts and feelings right after a traumatic event with the help of a trained facilitator, or the writing technique, which people do in private weeks after the event? If you are like me (and the hundreds of police and fire departments that use it), you would put your money on CISD. Surely early interventions are better than later ones, and offering people the services of a trained professional is better than asking them to sit and write by themselves. But we would be wrong.

It took research psychologists a while to test CISD properly, in part because it seemed so obvious that it was beneficial. When they did, they found something unexpected: not only is CISD ineffective, it may cause psychological problems. In one study, people who had been severely burned in a fire were randomly assigned either to receive CISD or not. Over the next several months, participants completed a battery of measures of psychological adjustment and were interviewed at home by a researcher who was unaware whether they had received CISD. Thirteen months after the intervention, people in the CISD group had a significantly higher incidence of post-traumatic stress disorder, were more anxious and depressed, and were less content with their lives. Similar results have been found in studies testing the effectiveness of CISD among emergency workers. It turns out that making people undergo CISD right after a trauma impedes the natural healing process and might even "freeze" memories of the event. (This may have been the case with Gary Felice—according to a journalist who interviewed him four years after the fire, Felice seemed unable to get rid of the mental image of Tommy Schuppel lying dead on the floor.)

In 2003, after reviewing all tests of the effectiveness of psychological debriefing techniques, Harvard psychologist Richard McNally and his colleagues recommended that "for scientific and ethical reasons, professionals should cease compulsory debriefing of trauma-exposed people." Unfortunately, this message has not been widely disseminated or heeded. In 2007, after a disturbed student at Virginia Tech University killed thirty-two students and faculty, students and emergency workers underwent stress-debriefing techniques similar to CISD.3

What about the writing exercise? This technique, pioneered by social psychologist James Pennebaker, has been tested in dozens of experiments in which people were randomly assigned to write about personal traumas or mundane topics such as what they did that day. In the short run, people typically find it painful to express their feelings about traumatic experiences. But as time goes by, those who do so are better off in a number of respects. They show improvements in immune-system functioning, are less likely to visit physicians, get better grades in college, and miss fewer days of work.4


Why does CISD fail to work, and why is the writing exercise so powerful? It has to do with people's interpretations of what happens to them—as we will see shortly, the writing exercise helps people redirect those interpretations in healthier ways than CISD does. But first, some words about the importance of personal interpretations.

For centuries, philosophers have recognized that it is not the objective world that influences us but how we represent and interpret the world. Social psychologists have added the important proviso that these subjective interpretations are formed quickly and unconsciously. When something happens to us, our brains kick into gear and try to make sense of it as best we can—so rapidly that we don't even know that we are interpreting rather than observing the world. For example, take a look at the picture opposite. What do you see? A duck looking to the right? Or is it a bunny looking to the left? Which is it, anyway? It is not objectively either one; it depends on how your mind interprets it. What's more, we often don't know that we are interpreting as we observe. When you first looked at the picture, it probably just appeared to you as either a duck or a bunny—you didn't realize that you were making sense of the drawing in a particular way.

How do our minds know how to interpret something? One way is by relying on past experience. If you have a pet rabbit, you probably saw a bunny in the picture. Another way is by using the context in which we experience something. When people were shown a picture similar to the one above on Easter Sunday, 82 percent of them identified it as a bunny. When people were shown the same picture on a Sunday in October, 90 percent identified it as a duck or similar bird.5

As another example, look at the two words printed below in large type. Did you have any trouble reading them? "Duh," you think, "the first word is obviously 'THE' and the second word is obviously 'MAT.' " But look closely at the second letter in each word. That letter is actually a drawing of something that looks like a football goalpost with the tops bent inward. When you saw this drawing between the letters T and E, your mind instantly interpreted it as the letter H. But when you saw that same drawing flanked by the letters M and T, your mind instantly interpreted it as the letter A.

Such instant interpretation happens not only with pictures but also with our understanding of what other people do and say. When your boss says in a grave voice that times are tough for the company and that she is going to have to give you a pink slip, you know to start packing up your office and not to thank her for her thoughtful gift of lingerie.

But events are often more ambiguous than in that example. Suppose that, after a staff meeting, your boss tells Jack, a longtime employee, to take the rest of the afternoon off. What do you make of this? Maybe your boss is rewarding Jack for his hard work; he has been putting in long hours of late. Or maybe she has decided to fire him and is interviewing his replacement that afternoon. The reasons why people do what they do are often mysterious, and we have to fill in the blanks. The interpretation we come up with matters, because it dictates how we feel and act (e.g., whether we are envious of Jack or feel sorry for him).

Nowhere is this truer than in interpreting what happens to us. Suppose you are a student in your first semester of college, sitting in a calculus class waiting for the professor to hand back the first test. You are a little nervous, because the test was difficult, but you got good grades in high-school math and you're confident that you did okay. When the professor hands back your test, you are thus shocked to see that you got a D.

Your personal interpreter will immediately kick into action, trying to make sense of why you did so poorly—and the answer you come up with will be a crucial determinant of what happens next. Maybe you conclude that you didn't study hard enough for the test and view this setback as a wake-up call to try harder. Or maybe you interpret the D as a sign that you aren't college material after all, a confirmation of your worst fears about your abilities (or lack thereof). You start skipping class and missing homework assignments; after all, why knock your head against the wall when you clearly don't have what it takes?

Many of us would adopt the first interpretation, viewing the bad grade in a way that motivates us to try harder. Research shows that most people have an optimistic outlook on life, believing that they have good prospects in the future and that they are masters of their fates—even if this involves some exaggeration and "spin." Seeing the world through rose-colored glasses makes people happier and motivates them to try harder when they encounter obstacles in their way. This doesn't mean that we are blind to reality—convincing ourselves that we have what it takes to be a famous opera singer when we can't carry a tune will lead to failure and heartache. But putting as positive a spin as we can on events—such as viewing one bad grade as an indication that we need to work harder, rather than as a sign that we should give up—serves us well.6

Unfortunately, we don't always succeed in adopting such rosy views. As much as we might try to make sense of things in ways that assuage our feelings and motivate us to do better, sometimes we get bogged down in a pessimistic frame of mind. Our interpretations are rooted in personal narratives about ourselves, and these narratives aren't always so positive, as is the case with teenagers who feel like rebels without a cause, college students who are convinced they were admissions errors, and adults who always seem to assume the worst about their relationships. As we will see in chapter 4, people have core narratives about relationships that are rooted in their early interactions with their primary caregivers, and these narratives act as filters, influencing interpretations of their adult relationships—sometimes in unhealthy ways.

In short, the way in which we interpret the world is extremely important. Our interpretations are rooted in the narratives we construct about ourselves and the social world, and sometimes, like the pessimistic calculus student, we interpret things in unhealthy ways that have negative consequences. We could solve a lot of problems if we could get people to redirect their interpretations in healthier directions.

Well, this all sounds good, you might think, but it's hardly news. Of course some people have maladaptive ways of thinking about themselves and the social world, and of course it would help to get them to construct better stories. Further, there is a well-known form of psychotherapy designed to do just that, namely, cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT). CBT assumes that maladaptive interpretations—negative thought patterns—are responsible for many mental health problems, and that the best way to treat those problems is to make people aware of their thought patterns and learn how to change them. The student who immediately assumes the worst about one bad grade, for example, is at risk for depression and might benefit from cognitive-behavioral therapy, in which he would learn to recognize and change his negative assumptions about himself.7

Psychotherapy is great for people who need it, especially those with serious problems such as depression or debilitating anxiety. But there is a new way to redirect people's personal interpretations that is quick, does not require one-on-one sessions, and can address a wide array of personal and social problems. It can help people like Gary Felice, who have witnessed traumatic events; people like our hypothetical student, who assume the worst about their abilities; teenagers experiencing problems of adolescence; and people like you and me who want to find ways to be a little happier. It sounds like magic, but in this book we will see how and why it works.


The new approach began with the theorizing of Kurt Lewin, who helped found the field of social psychology in the 1930s and 1940s. Lewin championed the subjectivist view we have already articulated, namely, that in order to understand why people do what they do, we have to view the world through their eyes and understand how they make sense of things. But he had a more radical insight: not only do we need to view a problem through other people's eyes, we can also change the way they view it with relatively simple interventions. True, people's self-views are often embedded in years of family dynamics, personal relationships, and cultural forces, and we can't always expect people to revise these views overnight. If a teenager is a rebel without a cause, it doesn't do much good for his parents to implore, "Please change your view of yourself" any more than it would to say, "I would appreciate it if you would lay off the crystal meth, lose the lip piercing, and take flute lessons." Narratives are often like an oil painting to which we add a little daub each day. Revising that narrative would mean scraping away layers of paint and starting over again with a fresh canvas—a daunting task, to say the least.

But, as Lewin noted, sometimes it is possible to change people's interpretations fairly easily if we find just the right approach. During World War II, Lewin demonstrated this by getting people to change what seemed like an intractable food preference—namely, an aversion to organ meats (e.g., kidneys and hearts), which were in greater supply at the time than traditional cuts of meat. Simply lecturing people about the importance of this alternative food source didn't work. Instead, Lewin convened groups of homemakers to discuss the issue. During the meetings, a trained leader skillfully steered the conversation to the ways in which obstacles to serving organ meats could be overcome (e.g., how to deal with complaints from one's family). Women who took part in these groups were much more likely to serve organ meats, in the following week, than were those who simply listened to the lecture.8

Since then, new generations of social psychologists have refined Lewin's idea into an approach that I call story editing, which is a set of techniques designed to redirect people's narratives about themselves and the social world in a way that leads to lasting changes in behavior. In this chapter, I introduce the basics of the approach; then we will see how it has been used to advantage in specific areas. In later chapters, for example, we will see how story editing has been used to make people happier, improve parenting, solve adolescent behavior problems, and reduce the racial achievement gap in schools.

Let's first be clear about what it is we are trying to change. The term "story editing" implies that we are targeting long-standing personal narratives that people have constructed about themselves and the social world, and, indeed, we often are. In chapter 3, for example, we will discuss core narratives that help people understand some of the most basic questions in life. But at other times, we are targeting people's quick, initial spin on events, such as the student's explanation for his poor grade on the calculus test. Editing people's initial interpretations of events is an important way of redirecting their narratives, just as altering a few key details at the beginning of a novel changes the story yet to come.

How does story editing work? One way is to get people to redirect their own narratives, as they do in the Pennebaker writing exercise. This approach is most useful for people who have failed to come up with a coherent interpretation of an important event in their lives. Something has happened that doesn't make sense and is unpleasant to think about. They try to put it out of their minds, which makes it even less likely that they will succeed in explaining or coming to terms with it. The writing exercise, it turns out, is an effective way to get people to reinterpret such episodes. The traumas that cause prolonged stress are usually the ones that we can't make sense of; they are profoundly troubling because they seem like meaningless, random acts that don't fit into our view of the world as a predictable, safe place. Furthermore, we often spend a lot of psychic energy trying to banish the events from our minds, rather than taking the time to dissect the events and find some meaning in them. This is exactly what the writing exercise does—it allows us to take a step back and reframe what happened. In fact, the people who benefit the most from the exercise are those who begin by writing a jumbled, incoherent account of the traumatic event, but in the end tell a coherent story that explains the event and gives it meaning. At this point, the event is less likely to intrude into people's thoughts, and they don't have to spend psychic energy trying to suppress it.9

This is story editing in its simplest form: inducing people to make sense of an event that has gotten under their skin. As Susan Sontag said in her journal, "I write to define myself—an act of self-creation—part of [the] process of becoming." To be sure, the writing technique is not a magic cure for all psychological problems. Sometimes we can't construct a coherent narrative on our own, and in such cases psychotherapy can be a big help. As we saw, cognitive-behavioral therapy is specifically designed to teach people how to turn negative thinking patterns into healthier ones. But the writing technique has proved to be remarkably beneficial for people with a wide range of traumatic experiences.10

Why doesn't CISD accomplish the same thing? One reason is the timing. As anyone who has ever been unexpectedly left by a lover knows, the worst moment to work through the loss is right after we find the Dear John note taped to the bathroom mirror. Time does indeed heal at least some wounds; once we are done throwing furniture or sobbing into our pillows, we can take a step back and put as good a spin as we can on what happened. ("We were never really suited for each other, and besides, it's great to have more closet space.") If time goes by and we are still bothered by a traumatic event, we probably haven't succeeded in making sense of it and we might need the extra boost the writing exercise can give us. In short, one reason CISD fails is that it makes it harder for people to take that step back and gain some perspective on what happened. Forcing people to talk about the traumatic event right after it happened can even solidify memories of it, which makes it harder for people to reinterpret the event as time goes by.

Sometimes, though, people need more of a nudge than simply writing about their problems. They may be barreling down a particularly destructive narrative track, as was the case with the calculus student who got the bad grade. Like a railroad worker operating a switch, we need to redirect him onto a healthier track. One way to do this is to spoon-feed people a better interpretation of their behavior. As we will see in chapter 4, this works particularly well with children. Labeling kids as "helpful people," for example, encourages them to internalize this view of themselves. We have to be more subtle with adults; rather than simply giving them a label for their behavior, we need to get them to reach that conclusion themselves. I call this approach story prompting, because it involves redirecting people down a particular narrative path with subtle prompts.

To understand story prompting, let's take a closer look at our hypothetical college students, whom I will call Bob and Sarah. "I guess I'm just not smart enough to make it here," Bob thinks after getting the D on the calculus test. "I don't know why I ever thought college was a place I could succeed." As we saw, Bob skips several classes and studies only halfheartedly for the next test. "Why try," he thinks, "when I clearly don't have what it takes?" Bob does even worse on the next test, which comes as no surprise to him—after all, he already knows that he's not college material. Bob is caught in a self-defeating cycle. His assumption that he has low ability causes him to give up on studying, which of course guarantees that he will do poorly on the next test, thereby confirming his low opinion of himself, leading to even less effort.

Sarah reacts quite differently after getting a D. "I guess the kind of studying I did in high school won't work for this class," she concludes. "I'll need to get in gear for the next test." She attends every class, sits in the first row, and raises her hand to ask questions when she doesn't understand something. She reads and rereads every chapter in the text and pores over her notes. Her hard work pays off with an A on the next test. This gives her new confidence in her ability to make it at college, which increases her efforts in her other classes. She develops a self-enhancing cycle of thinking, which makes her study harder, improves her grades, and reinforces her belief in the value of hard work, leading to further academic successes.

How might we redirect Bob's thinking to mimic Sarah's? Again, this might seem like a daunting task. Bob's negative thinking could be rooted in chronic low self-esteem, parents who conveyed the wrong message about his academic successes, or even some sort of genetic predisposition toward self-defeating patterns of thinking. Wouldn't it take years to undo such a long-standing pattern of thought? Is it even possible? Not only is it possible, according to the story-editing approach, it might not be that hard, if we catch people at the right time. Students who get a bad grade early in college are at a key fork in the road in terms of how they explain academic setbacks, and it might be possible to redirect them down Sarah's path. After all, most college students did well in high school, and it shouldn't take much to convince them that lots of people struggle at first but do better when they learn the ropes and figure out how to study for college courses.


  • "There are few academics who write with as much grace and wisdom as Timothy Wilson. Redirect is a masterpiece."—Malcolm Gladwell
  • "Accessible, engaging and consistently instant classic of popular science."—Evening Standard
  • "This presents a fascinating argument for how humans make sense of the world."—Library Journal
  • "[In Redirect], a keen observer of the human condition explains how tweaking our personal narratives can have a huge effect on our lives."—Kirkus Reviews
  • "For those...who find in social psychology a viable vehicle for leading us more surely on the path towards what is true, right and good, Redirect is likely to be a stimulating, valuable read."—New Scientist Culture Lab
  • "With a deft narrative touch, an engaging metaphor for bringing about psychological change (personal story editing), and a ferocious commitment to scientific evidence, Timothy Wilson has made a remarkable contribution to knowledge."—Robert Cialdini, author of Influence
  • "Whether you are a parent, educator, employer, or simply someone who cares about making the world a better place, you should read this book."—Sonja Lyubomirsky, Ph.D., author of The How of Happiness
  • "Redirect is a great book!"—Carol Dweck, PhD, author of Mindset
  • "Wouldn't it be amazing if a very smart scientist could write a book on happiness, crime, violence, drug and alcohol abuse, parenting, and teenage pregnancy--and sum up all the research in clear and surprising lessons on how we should live our lives? Well, Timothy Wilson is the scientist and Redirect is the book, and it is in fact amazing."—Daniel M. Wegner, Harvard University, author of The Illusion of Conscious Will
  • "Redirect reveals the hidden meanings we assume in our everyday lives, how these meanings shape our behavior, and how we can change our assumptions and the world. Extraordinary."—Greg Walton, PhD, Department of Psychology, Stanford University
  • "This should be required reading for any well-intentioned person who wants to make the world a better place."—James W. Pennebaker, author of The Secret Life of Pronouns
  • "This glorious book shimmers with insights. Timothy Wilson has distilled the field's wisdom and shown us how to use it to change ourselves and the world. This may well be the single most important psychology book ever written."—Daniel Gilbert

On Sale
Sep 8, 2011
Page Count
288 pages
Little Brown Spark

Timothy D. Wilson

About the Author

Timothy D. Wilson is the Sherrell J. Aston Professor of Psychology at the University of Virginia. He has written for Science and the New York Times, among other publications, and is the author of Strangers to Ourselves, He lives in Charlottesville, Virginia.

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