Timothy D. Wilson on The Social Psychological Narrative: ‘It’s not the objective environment that influences people, but their constructs of the world’
“In the mid 1970’s, Tim Wilson and Dick Nisbett opened the basement door with their landmark paper entitled “Telling More Than We Can Know,” [pdf] in which they reported a series of experiments showing that people are often unaware of the true causes of their own actions, and that when they are asked to explain those actions, they simply make stuff up. People don’t realize they are making stuff up, of course; they truly believe the stories they are telling about why they did what they did. But as the experiments showed, people are telling more than they can know. The basement door was opened by experimental evidence, and the unconscious took up permanent residence in the living room. Today, psychological science is rife with research showing the extraordinary power of unconscious mental processes. (…)
At the center of all his work lies a single enigmatic insight: we seem to know less about the worlds inside our heads than about the world our heads are inside.
The Torah asks this question: “Is not a flower a mystery no flower can explain?” Some scholars have said yes, some scholars have said no. Wilson has said, “Let’s go find out.” He has always worn two professional hats — the hat of the psychologist and the hat of the methodologist. He has written extensively about the importance of using experimental methods to solve real world problems, and in his work on the science of psychological change — he uses a scientific flashlight to chase away a whole host of shadows by examining the many ways in which human beings try to change themselves — from self-help to psychotherapy — and asking whether these things really work, and if so, why? His answers will surprise many people and piss off the rest. I predict that this new work will be the center of a very interesting storm.”
— Daniel Gilbert, Harvard College Professor of Psychology at Harvard University; Director of Harvard’s Hedonic Psychology Laboratory; Author, Stumbling on Happiness.
“It’s not the objective environment that influences people, but their constructs of the world. You have to get inside people’s heads and see the world the way they do. You have to look at the kinds of narratives and stories people tell themselves as to why they’re doing what they’re doing. What can get people into trouble sometimes in their personal lives, or for more societal problems, is that these stories go wrong. People end up with narratives that are dysfunctional in some way.
We know from cognitive behavioral therapy and clinical psychology that one way to change people’s narratives is through fairly intensive psychotherapy. But social psychologists have suggested that, for less severe problems, there are ways to redirect narratives more easily that can have amazingly powerful long-term effects. This is an approach that I’ve come to call story editing. By giving people little prompts, suggestions about the ways they might reframe a situation, or think of it in a slightly different way, we can send them down a narrative path that is much healthier than the one they were on previously. (…)
This little message that maybe it’s not me, it’s the situation I’m in, and that that can change, seemed to alter people’s stories in ways that had dramatic effects down the road. Namely, people who got this message, as compared to a control group that did not, got better grades over the next couple of years and were less likely to drop out of college. Since then, there have been many other demonstrations of this sort that show that little ways of getting people to redirect their narrative from one path down another is a powerful tool to help people live better lives. (…)
Think back to the story editing metaphor: What these writing exercises do is make us address problems that we haven’t been able to make sense of and put us through a sense-making process of reworking it in such a way that we gain a new perspective and find some meaning, so that we basically come up with a better story that allows us to put that problem behind us. This is a great example of a story editing technique that can be quite powerful. (…)
Social psychology is a branch of psychology that began in the 1950s, mostly by immigrants from Germany who were escaping the Nazi regime — Kurt Lewin being the most influential ones. What they had to offer at that time was largely an alternative to behaviorism. Instead of looking at behavior as solely the product of our objective reinforcement environment, Lewin and others said you have to get inside people’s heads and look at the world as they perceive it. These psychologists were very influenced by Gestalt psychologists who were saying the same thing about perception, and they applied this lesson to the way the mind works in general. (…) But to be honest, the field is a little hard to define. What is social psychology? Well, the social part is about interactions with other people, and topics such as conformity are active areas of research. (…)
Most economists don’t take the social psychological approach of trying to get inside the heads of people and understanding how they interpret the world. (…)
My dream is that policymakers will become more familiar with this approach and be as likely to call upon a social psychologist as an economist to address social issues. (…)
Another interesting question is the role of evolutionary theory in psychology, and social psychology in particular. (…)
Evolutionary psychology has become a dominant force in the field. There are many who use it as their primary theoretical perspective, as a way to understand why we do what we do. (…)
There are some striking parallels between psychoanalytic theory and evolutionary theory. Both theories, at some general level are true. Evolutionary theory, of course, shows how the forces of natural selection operated on human beings. Psychoanalytic theory argues that our childhood experiences mold us in certain ways and give us outlooks on the world. Our early relationships with our parents lead to unconscious structures that can be very powerful. (…)
One example where evolutionary psychology led to some interesting testable hypotheses is work by Jon Haidt, my colleague at the University of Virginia. He has developed a theory of moral foundations that says that all human beings endorse the same list of moral values, but that people of different political stripes believe some of these values are more important than others. In other words, liberals may have somewhat different moral foundations than conservatives. Jon has persuasively argued that one reason that political discourse has become so heated and divisive in our country is that there is a lack of understanding in one camp of the moral foundations that the other camp is using to interpret and evaluate the world. If we can increase that understanding, we might lower the heat and improve the dialogue between people on opposite ends of the political spectrum.
Another way in which evolutionary theory has been used is to address questions about the origins of religion. This is not a literature I have followed that closely, to be honest, but there’s obviously a very interesting discourse going on about group selection and the origins and purpose of religion. The only thing I’ll add is, back to what I’ve said before about the importance of having narratives and stories to give people a sense of meaning and purpose, well, religion is obviously one very important source of such narratives. Religion gives us a sense that there is a purpose and a meaning to life, the sense that we are important in the universe, and that our lives aren’t meaningless specks like a piece of sand on a beach. That can be very powerful for our well-being. I don’t think religion is the only way to accomplish that; there are many belief systems that can give us a sense of meaning and purpose other than religion. But religion can fill that void.”
— Timothy D. Wilson, is the Sherrell J. Aston Professor of Psychology at the University of Virginia and a researcher of self-knowledge and affective forecasting., The Social Psychological Narrative — or — What Is Social Psychology, Anyway?, Edge, 6 July 2011 (video and full transcript) (Illustration: Hope Kroll, Psychological 3-D narrative)
☞ Daniel Kahneman: The Marvels and the Flaws of Intuitive Thinking
☞ Iain McGilchrist on The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World
☞ Dean Buonomano on ‘Brain Bugs’ - Cognitive Flaws That ‘Shape Our Lives’
☞ David Eagleman on how we constructs reality, time perception, and The Secret Lives of the Brain
☞ David Deutsch: A new way to explain explanation
☞ Cognition, perception, relativity tag on Lapidarium notes