The Social Psychological Narrative, or, What Is Social Psychology, Anyway?

The Social Psychological Narrative, or, What Is Social Psychology, Anyway?

Timothy D. Wilson [6.7.11]


One of the basic assumptions of the field is that 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.

[33:25 minutes]


TIMOTHY D. WILSON, the Sherrell J. Aston Professor of Psychology at the University of Virginia, is author of Strangers To Ourselves("the most influential book I've ever read",  Malcolm Gladwell), which was named by The New York Times Magazine as one of the Best 100 Ideas of 2002 He is also the coauthor of the best-selling social psychology textbook, Social Psychology, now in its seventh edition. His latest trade book is Redirect: The Surprising New Science of Psychological Change. 

Timothy D Wilson's Edge Bio Page

THE REALITY CLUB: Steven PinkerDaniel Gilbert, Timothy Wilson, Hugo Mercier


by Daniel Gilbert

Psychology has always had a love-hate relationship with the unconscious, but mainly hate. The unconscious was the cornerstone of Freud’s theories about the mind, but William James expressed the views of many early 20th century scientists when he referred to it as "the sovereign means for believing what one likes in psychology, and for turning what might become a science into a tumbling-ground for whimsies." James’s antipathy was contagious and his arguments won the day. The unconscious was banished to psychology’s basement for more than half a century.

But 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," 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.

If liberating the unconscious had been Wilson’s only contribution to psychological science, it would have been enough. But it was just the start. Wilson has since discovered and documented a variety of fascinating ways in which all of us are "strangers to ourselves" (which also happens to be the title of his last book—a book that Malcolm Gladwell, writing in the New Yorker, correctly called the best popular psychology book published in the last twenty years). He has done brilliant research on topics ranging from "reasons analysis" (it turns out that when people are asked to generate reasons for their decisions, they typically make bad ones) to "affective forecasting" (it turns out that people can’t predict how future events will make them feel), but 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.


[TIMOTHY D. WILSON:] Questions that I have asked myself throughout my career are largely ones about self-knowledge and the role of the conscious mind versus unconsciousness; the limits of introspection; and the problems of introspection. For example, how it can sometimes get us into trouble to think too much about why we're doing what we’re doing. These are questions I began asking in graduate school with my graduate advisor, Dick Nisbett, and they have concerned me ever since.

There has been a question lurking in the back of my mind for all those years, which is how can we take this basic knowledge and use it to solve problems of today? I grew up in the turbulent 1960s, in an era where it seemed like the whole world was changing, and that we could have a hand in changing it. Part of my reason for studying psychology in the first place was because I felt that this was something that could help solve social problems. In graduate school and beyond I fell in love with basic research, which is still my first love.  It is thrilling to investigate basic questions of self-knowledge and consciousness and unconsciousness. But those other, more applied questions have continued to rattle around and recently come to the fore, the more I realized how much social psychology has to offer.

One of the basic assumptions of the field is that 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.

One of the first studies I did after graduate school tested a story-editing intervention of this kind. We recruited a sample of college students who were caught in a self-defeating thought cycle, where they were not doing well academically (these were first-year students) and were quite worried. They seemed to be blaming themselves and thinking that maybe they were one of those admissions errors that just couldn't cut it at college, which of course made it all the more difficult to study.

We did a brief intervention where, in about 30 minutes, we gave them some facts and some testimonials from other students that suggested that their problems might have a different cause; namely, that it's hard to learn the ropes in college at first, but that people do better as the college years go on, when they learn to adjust and to study differently than they did in high school and so on.

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.

Another issue that interests me is that a lot of the existing interventions out there to help people are not based on theory, and even worse, haven't been tested. If there's one thing social psychologists do know how to do, it's how to do experiments and how to test whether an intervention is working, and with good control groups and statistical analyses, seeing whether something works or not. Yet, a lot of the current programs in a wide variety of areas have never been vetted in that way, and are just based on common sense.

There are lots of famous examples, for example the D.A.R.E. anti-drug program, which my two kids went through when they were in school. In fact, 70 percent of schools in America use this program. It was not tested until fairly recently, and the results showed that not only does it not work, but there is a hint of evidence that it actually increases alcohol and tobacco use in students. I find it shocking that something that turns out to have a negative effect, or at best, no effect, has been implemented in 70 percent of our schools before we even tested it.

There are lots of other examples. Scared Straight programs to scare at-risk kids out of a life of crime turn out to increase the likelihood they will commit crimes. Yet scared straight programs are still in use in many communities in the United States. There is a program intended  to prevent child abuse, called Healthy Families America, that has been implemented throughout the United States at a cost of millions of dollars. It turns out to have no effect.

Then there's the whole self-help industry, which is interesting because it's not that all of their messages are wrong; it's that they're packaged in a way that give people hope that isn't backed up by science. I tend to think of the self-help industry as kind of like playing the lottery. That is, if we buy a lottery ticket, we're buying hope. We don't really think we're going to win, but for the week before the drawing, we can dream that we're going to suddenly have millions of dollars.

Self-help books are a little bit like that, where we buy them with a promise that our lives will suddenly be better, and all our problems will be solved. We kind of know that's probably not true. But we have a little bit of hope that it will come about.

In fact, there's something in that industry called the 18-Month Rule, that the person most likely to buy a self-help book is one who's bought one 18 months earlier. All of this a little galling to a social psychologist: there actually is some pretty good research on how to become happier and how to overcome personal difficulties that can be done relatively simply but which the self-help industry ignores.  For example, my friend and colleague, Jamie Pennebaker, has developed a writing exercise that is typically done three or four nights in a row, where you write about a problem for about 15 minutes each time.  Doing so has remarkable long-term benefits on people’s health and well-being. 

Researchers such as Ethan Kross and Ozlem Ayduk have honed this method and, along with Pennebaker, have shown how it works. 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.

Let’s go back to a basic question that often comes up is, namely what is social psychology? It's a good question because it's something the public doesn't really understand. For example, there's a recent article in The New York Times by an economist who referred to me and my friend, Dan Gilbert, as economists. Those are fighting words! But in a way it is our field's own fault that we haven't succeeded making social psychology more a part of the public discourse.

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.

The other big contribution of these early social psychologists was a methodological one. There were experiments at the time, but largely on things such as perception and memory. The idea that you could also do experiments on more complex issues about social interaction and social influence was quite novel at the time. Lewin and his students and colleagues, such as Leon Festinger, Hal Kelley, Stanley Schachter, and others, showed that you use rigorous scientific methods to study how the mind works more broadly in a social context.

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.  Everyone knows the famous Milgram studies on obedience to authority, which showed that a strong authority figure can lead others to shock people to the point of death, in their minds.

There's also a branch called cognitive social psychology, which overlaps with cognitive psychology and research on judgment and decision-making, focusing on mental processes that occur in a social context.  How does the mind work and how does it make decisions? How do people think about themselves and the social world? Social psychologists have a unique way of looking at the mind, doing so very broadly and considering the role of emotion, instead of focusing solely on cold cognition. People like me, Dan Gilbert, and many others, are investigating social cognition as a way of understanding how people think about themselves and the social world and how this influences their behavior.  For example, Dan and I have been looking at the topic of Affective Forecasting, which is concerned with the way in which people think about the future and how they think they will react emotionally to a specific event that might befall them.

How will we feel and how long will we feel that way if we become ill, or if we have a windfall of money or if we take this career path, or if we marry this person instead of that person? Many of our most important decisions in life are based on these affective forecasts, whereby we try to gauge how we will feel about an event in the future, especially over the long run. We are by no means terrible at this; obviously we have a pretty good sense of what will lead to positive feelings and what will lead to negative feelings.  But, there are systematic mistakes to which people are prone when making affective forecasts.

Perhaps the most common is what we call the Impact Bias, which is that people overestimate the emotional impact of many events on their lives. We think that if we win the lottery we'll be happy forever. The research on that suggests that not only is that not true, but if anything, lottery winners become less happy, often, because their lives are disrupted in any number of ways. On the negative side, we tend to think that those things that we dread, that would be awful, the death of loved ones, the loss of a job, and so on, will make us unhappy forever.  Although they are terrible things to endure, we are more resilient than we anticipate and often get over these events more quickly than we anticipate.

This research has been picked up by medical researchers looking at treatment decisions that often are very difficult choices to make, such as how to treat a disease when there are various options available.  People often choose treatments that they think will lead to the best overall well-being and quality of life, but they are not necessarily correct. Physicians struggle with how to educate people that, in their experience, option A may be better than B, but people are convinced that B is better than A, in terms of quality of life.

Legal scholars have begun to look at affective forecasting in terms of decision-making by juries and others, when the goal is to try to gauge the impact of events on a plaintiff's overall well-being, as is often done in civil suits.  

But research on affective forecasting has some life lessons for all of us. I have to confess that I come from a family of worriers; my family was one of those that always imagined the worst scenario that could happen, and ruminating on the fact that gee, you know, that's going to be terrible. Research on affective forecasting has been a solace because I know that yes, terrible things might happen, and if they do, it will be terrible at first, but then life goes on. We are pretty resilient creatures, and sooner rather than later, we'll find a way to deal with life’s worst blows.

Social psychologists think they have something to offer in terms of the discourse on how to solve problems, how to think about many of the issues facing us today. But we haven't done a very good job of making our field part of that discourse with policy makers. Many policy makers, if they're thinking about a problem, such as how to increase condom use in Africa, how to reduce poverty in the United States, or how to reduce prejudice and stereotyping, turn to economists. Some of my best friends are economists; I don't mean to disparage the field, but they think differently about these problems than do social psychologists. They think of human behavior as largely governed by external incentives. 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.

I'll give one example. When economists think about how to solve a problem such as closing the achievement gap in education, or reducing teenage pregnancy, their inclination is to use incentives. What if we pay people to do well in school, give kids money to study and to get good grades? Or what if we take girls who are at-risk for becoming pregnant and pay them a dollar for each day they are not pregnant?

To a social psychologist, it is a little naïve to think that adding external incentives is all you have to do. Not to say that incentives can't work, but they can sometimes backfire if you look at it through the eyes of the person who is getting that incentive. There's some research in social psychology suggesting that external incentives can undermine intrinsic interest in an activity because people begin to think that the only reason they're doing it is for the money. That erodes any interest in that activity there was to start with.

Now, in defense of economists, they do think big. They think of systems at large, and they are increasingly doing experimental interventions to try to see what works. I'm envious, in many ways, of the scale at which they are able to attempt to solve problems. One limitation of social psychology is that we have concentrated mostly on basic issues about the mind in laboratory studies, many of them done with college students. There's an issue in how to scale up those interventions to see if they work with society at large. That's a gap we need to fill, and people are increasingly doing so. Taking some of these basic social psychological principles and seeing if they can be scaled up to work more generally, not just in the laboratory with a college student, is an exciting prospect, and there have been some spectacular successes in doing just that.

I'll give one example that I'm very fond of, that was done by Geoffrey Cohen and his colleagues. Geoff is a social psychologist who trained with Claude Steele, and was very well-versed in Steele’s self-affirmation theory, which is the idea that when we feel a threat to our self-esteem that's difficult to deal with, sometimes the best thing we can do is to affirm ourselves in some completely different domain. If I am concerned that I can't make it in academics, it can take the heat off that concern if I think of something I'm very good at and I care about in some other domain, such as I'm a family man or interested in politics or what-have-you.  Research on self-affirmation theory was done mostly with college students in the laboratory, showing that affirming oneself in an unrelated domain is a powerful way to restore self-esteem.

Well, Cohen had the insight that maybe this can be used in middle schools with minority kids, African-American kids in this case, who are facing challenges to their self-esteem in the academic realm.  The negative stereotype that African-Americans are not as smart as whites has very damaging effects on African-American students, because when they are in academic achievement situations, not only do they have to worry about doing well for their own sake, they have this extra baggage of, gee, if I don't do well, I'm also confirming a negative stereotype about my group. This is what Claude Steele has referred to as stereotype threat.

Well, Cohen thought, maybe we can take the research on self-affirmation and use it to reduce stereotype threat in middle school kids. If we can get African-American middle school kids to affirm themselves in some domain unrelated to the academic realm, he hypothesized, this will take the heat off and make it actual easier for them to do well academically. He did an intervention in which middle school kids wrote about a value that they cared about in their lives, other than academics. They did this for 15 minutes, three to five times during the semester, depending on the version of the study. That was it: write about something you care about in your life other than academics.

This was a good experiment, because there was a randomly-assigned control group of kids who did not do this exercise.  The intervention had remarkably long-term effects:  The African American kids who did the writing exercise, compared to the control group, did better academically for the next couple of years.  In fact, the intervention closed the achievement gap between the black and white students by 40 percent. It had no effect on the white kids because they weren't at-risk for stereotype threat in academic domains. It seems to have lowered the heat for the black kids when they were in an achievement situation, enabling them to do better.

That's one of many examples in which a social psychological principle discovered in the laboratory with basic research can be scaled up to solve a problem more generally in education or other domains. 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. Now, again, my field deserves some of the blame for this; historically we haven't always met policy makers halfway and tried to do more of this kind of work. But that's changing, and social psychological interventions are becoming more and more common.

In addition to using social psychological research to inform policy, it can be used to change the way we live our own lives. Something I think about a lot is how my life has changed as a student in this field. The importance of how we frame things and the idea that we have to look at our construals of the world, well, it's a little unsettling, personally, because it does suggest that the way we view the world isn't necessarily the correct way or the best way. Or that what we're seeing isn't necessarily reality. And that can lead to a little less confidence or certainty about the world and our place in it. But it's not such a bad thing to have a little humility that our view may not be the only one, or even the best one.

Another interesting question is the role of evolutionary theory in psychology, and social psychology in particular.  I can trace the history of that a little bit. I got my PhD in 1977, and that was just around the time that evolutionary theory was being applied to social behavior, through E.O. Wilson's work in sociobiology, and others. But it really, at least right away, did not make inroads into social psychology. In fact, in the late '70s, if a social psychologist were to say I'm an evolutionary theorist, that would have been a really taboo thing to say.  It would have struck people as overly deterministic, and perhaps even sexist, to look at gender differences in social behavior as somehow inherent in the human condition.

But things sure have things changed. 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. I'll get myself in trouble with some of my colleagues for saying this, but I am not a fan.

Evolutionary theory has its use. Of course, evolution is true, as a general theory of how the human species evolved. As an explanation for current social behavior, it can be a useful heuristic, if it can generate hypotheses that we would not have come up with otherwise that can then be tested with rigorous methods. But too often, there's a very loose kind of theorization that goes on, where people just tell a story and assume that it's true because it kind of makes sense.

I've been writing this paper in my head for many years, that maybe I'll put on paper at some point, called “Evolutionary Theory, The New Psychoanalysis.” 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.

But both theories led to a lot of absurd conclusions, and both are very hard to test rigorously. The influence of psychoanalysis waned in research psychology because it was too broad. It made too many assumptions that were very hard to test, and basically it explained everything. That said, it did actually lead to some interesting hypotheses that were tested rigorously.  One example is Susan Andersen's work on transference, which shows that, indeed, we do have blueprints about relationships that form and influence our perceptions of new relationships.

Evolutionary theory, in a way, has the same status. It can explain virtually anything. It can be a useful heuristic, as I mentioned. But at the same time, I think it is way too broad. Another parallel between the two theories is they both seem obsessed with gender differences. There are many ways that we could think about human behavior, but zeroing in on why women are different from men is something both theories were obsessed with, and both theories have gotten wrong, to some extent, in attributing differences in social behavior to genetic hardwired influences.

The storytelling method is a real problem. In one of Steve Pinker's books he gave the example that not everything is an adaptation. For example, the fact that blood is red, he says, isn't necessarily a result of natural selection. Well, I could make up a story as to why it is. What if in our very early mammalian history, blood was more brown, but there was a mutation that made it more red, and that turned out to have survival value because if an animals were bleeding, those with red blood would be more likely to notice it, and then they'd lick it. Because licking has healing properties, this conveyed a survival advantage, and so red blood was selected for, and blood became red. Am I right?  Or is Steve right, that the color of blood is not an adaptation?  Who knows.  The plausibility of a story is not a good way to settle a question scientifically. Now again, in fairness, there are some very interesting hypotheses that we would not have come up with if it were not for evolutionary principles that have led to some interesting lines of research. But there are not that many of them.

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. 


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Eighteen original essays by:

Kevin P. Hand: "On the Coming Age of Ocean Exploration" Felix Warneken: "Children's Helping Hands" William McEwan: "Molecular Cut and Paste" Anthony Aguirre: "Next Step Infinity" Daniela Kaufer and Darlene Francis: "Nurture, Nature, and the Stress That Is Life" Jon Kleinberg: "What Can Huge Data Sets Teach Us About Society and Ourselves?" Coren Apicella: "On the Universality of Attractiveness" Laurie R. Santos: "To Err Is Primate" Samuel M. McLure: "Our Brains Know Why We Do What We Do" Jennifer Jacquet: "Is Shame Necessary?"  Kirsten Bomblies: "Plant Immunity in a Changing World" Asif A. Ghazanfar: "The Emergence of Human Audiovisual Communication" Naomi I. Eisenberger: "Why Rejection Hurts" Joshua Knobe: "Finding the Mind in the Body" Fiery Cushman: "Should the Law Depend on Luck?" Liane Young: "How We Read People's Moral Minds" Daniel Haun: "How Odd I Am!" Joan Y. Chiao: "Where Does Human Diversity Come From?"

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