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The Surprising New Science of Psychological Change

Timothy Wilson

Lots of programs which sound like a good idea but which turn out to make things worse. Example of Stress Debriefing, where someone who has endured trauma is encouraged to talk through it with a therapist. Turns out that people who've done this often wind up more anxious and distressed. Making them relive event freezes it in their mins and impedes normal healing process. But a better way turns out to be - wait and see if person van get over it by himself. If still troubled, get him to write down, on four consecutive nights, his thoughts and feelings about the event and how it relates to the rest of his life.

Many are pessimistic, so a poor exam grade, for example, will be interpreted as a signal that you can't make the grade. You tell yourself a story that they aren't good enough. So pulled in struggling students and told them they were to do a survey of first-year student's life, but first please watch these videos of students from earlier years describing how they struggled in first year but found that things gradually got better. That's all they did - didn't directly convey any sermon, just let them get idea. This is called story prompting - pointing them down an alternative path. Interesting thing is that this small edit had long-lasting effect. Seems that self-sustaining - new story that encourages them to try just a bit more work produces better results and so try again next time.

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Two hundred years ago doctors used things like 'blistering' (apply hot instrument to your arm) or 'bloodletting' (take some of your blood). Today most medical treatments are tested before they are used, eliminating the useless or harmful. But same isn't true for many treatments for modern social or behavioural problems like racial prejudice, adolescent behaviour, drug abuse, post traumatic stress. Some diversity training programs are like blistering - painful to sit through, and of no benefit. Some well-known programs to attack drug use or juvenile crime are like bloodletting - they actually harm.

Another example of 'common sense' not working - lots of remedies sound like a good idea, until they're tested.

Suggest that the massive self-help industry has actually done more harm than good. leads you to blame yourself for failure and miss the programs which actually work. Few of the things advised have ever been scientifically tested, despite there being ways to do so.

We are so unsettled by the contemplation of the universe and the knowledge that we will one day die, that we have developed core narratives - stories that explain creation, the purpose of life, and what happens after death. These stories make people happier, but only if they are shared by your friends and family. And those who believe in Satan and hell are even less happy than atheists, apparently because they worry about their fate.

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What would you do if you found that a genetic disease such as Huntington's ran in your family? Would you get tested to discover whether you carried the mutation, or would you prefer not to know? Research shows clearly that it's better to know - those who got bad news were initially devastated, but at 6 month and one-year marks they had same happiness levels as ones who got good news. But those who's test was inconclusive, or who chose not to take the test were significantly more depressed. Having the knowledge lets you incorporate it into your life story, and deal with the issues arising.

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The important thing in life is to pursue goals that give a sense of autonomy, effectiveness and mastery. If we can do this in a way that draws us closer to other people, so much the better.

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Child intervention program in US called Healthy Families America which targeted families believed to be in danger of child abuse, and provided visits for support, parenting help and anger management. Millions have been spent on program, but unfortunately it doesn't work. On just about every measurement (documented child abuse, children taken to emergency ward of hospital etc) there was no difference between supported group and control groups. Partly because it ignored the main causes of child abuse, which is spousal violence and substance abuse. But also did nothing to change way parents interpret their children's behaviour. Experts have noticed that parents who abuse, blame their kids: "He's cranky, or he's born bad, or he's trying to upset me", whereas those who don't abuse look for things which are easily addressed, such as "He's hungry, he's tired, or he needs a hug." And turns out you can get abusive parents to change their story if you get them to rethink what is causing the problem, and to try other ways of dealing with it. More books on Children

We know that abstinence programs don't work as a way of reducing teen pregnancy. But advocating contraceptive use is a political hot potato in America. So what other intervention might work? When you dig a bit deeper find that a common denominator of teen girls who get pregnant is a disconnect from their community - they don't feel it gives them anything and they don't feel they owe it anything - "I don't fit in here." Turns out that an effective intervention is simply to get the teens to do volunteer work in the community. Takes advantage of the 'do good, be good' principle - the idea that one of the best ways of changing someone's self-image is to change their behaviour first. Helping at soup kitchen or old people's home fosters idea that they are worthwhile and that they are valued by the community.

'Scared straight' programs - take potential JD's to local prisons to talk to crims who tell them how bad it is. Lots of anecdotes that seemed to confirm that the idea worked, but when they actually measured results, they found the opposite. Those who'd been through the program were more likely to commit crimes. An average 13% increase in criminal activity in the two years after. The original program has been running for 30 years and has served more than 50,000 kids. So we can calculate that the program has caused an extra 6500 kids to commit crimes they otherwise would not have committed. They thus qualify as 'bloodletting' treatments.

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The reason for this counter-intuitive result seems to be tied up to the difference between internal and external motivations. Internal motivations are when you do something because you believe you are a 'good' person. External ones are things such as fear of punishment. The message that at least some of the kids are getting is "maybe I am tempted to a life of crime if these guys are going to so much trouble to talk me out of it."

Other things have been tried for JD's. One is Boot Camp - military style discipline for short while. But the (scanty) evidence suggests that the discipline is external and doesn't last. And have tried buddy/mentor approach - 10 yo kids taken under wing for 5 years, addressing every problem they faced as well as trying to help their family. But again, this turns out to be a 'bloodletting' program. A long term follow up showed that men who'd been through the program were more likely to have died young, more likely to have become repeat offenders, more likely to become alcoholics and more likely to develop mental illness. And, the longer they'd been in the program, the more likely they were to have these negative outcomes. Suggest that part of reason may have been that by being chosen for the program they were labelled as 'problem kids'. Plus, they did a lot of group work together, such as going off to summer camp, and teenage boys love to impress each other with negative behaviour.

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