Mind tricks that can break down your brain’s barrier to success / 9 March 2016
“During the second world war, the US government found itself wrestling with a meaty problem. It was trying to encourage citizens to eat offal so that better cuts of meat could be shipped to the troops abroad. But the message wasn’t getting through. So the government recruited some serious brainpower: renowned anthropologist Margaret Mead and the father of social psychology, Kurt Lewin. Instead of telling people that eating offal was a patriotic duty, Mead and Lewin tried to understand their psychological resistance to eating it in the first place. They found that offal was stigmatised as the food of the poor, and also that people were unsure how to cook it. And so they launched a new campaign to rebrand offal “variety meat” and teach the public how to prepare it. As more people experimented with it, offal lost its stigma and became a dietary mainstay. It may sound like a straightforward marketing campaign, but for today’s psychologists the initiative has gained near-legendary status. Many cite it as a forerunner to something they call “wise psychological interventions” – apparently simple actions that produce long-lasting changes in behaviour.
Psychologists now believe that WPIs could be the solution to all sorts of problems, from educational underachievement to obesity. Over the past few years they have been quietly assembling a toolkit, and could soon be trying them out on us all. At the heart of WPIs is the idea of “mental unblocking” – removing psychological barriers that keep people stuck in damaging patterns of behaviour. Simplistic though this may seem, it is actually surprisingly hard to achieve. “Some people think that if it’s just about psychology, people should be able to do it for themselves,” says Greg Walton, a psychologist at Stanford University in California. “But it’s not that easy.” Just because it would be beneficial for you to un-think something doesn’t mean you can just do it, he says. That is where wise interventions come in. The use of psychology to make us better people may sound familiar. Superficially WPIs are a lot like “nudges” – external interventions designed to guide people towards better choices (New Scientist, 22 June 2013, p 32). That might mean placing fruit at eye level in a canteen, for example, or making people opt out of a pension scheme rather than opt in.
However, wise interventions are different in a number of ways. Nudges are usually specific to a given choice at a given time, whereas WPIs aim to alter behaviour in a lasting way. More significantly, nudges tend to rely on environmental cues, whereas WPIs are rooted in theories about basic human psychology. Another early demonstration of their potential was provided by Timothy Wilson of the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. Back in 1982, he was trying to find a way to help new college students cope better with worries about their academic performance. Wilson’s solution was inspired by attribution theory, which describes how people account for events – say, whether they blame failures and setbacks on enduring facts about themselves, or on external factors. When people look inward for the causes of their problems, it can puncture self-esteem and create a barrier to solving them. Wilson wondered whether getting students to attribute their struggles to their current situation, rather than facts about themselves, would unblock them. So he presented them with statistics showing that the majority of new students start with disappointing grades but do better over time. He also showed them videos of older students talking about their improving academic performance. Wilson found that the group’s grades got better more quickly than those of students who did not receive these messages. They were also less likely to have dropped out by the end of the second year.
Laying the foundations
For a long time, this remained an isolated success. “Tim did this amazing study in the early 80s, then everybody forgot about it,” says Dave Yeager of the University of Texas at Austin. “No one was doing field experiments.” Instead, researchers focused on the basic psychological processes that govern our behaviour – work which laid the foundation for today’s WPI research. Some of the most influential work was done by Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck. Since the 1970s, she has been studying what drives people to persist in the face of difficulties. She found that much depends on whether people have what she calls a “fixed” or a “growth” mindset – that is, whether they see their abilities and personality as set in stone, or malleable. When people with a fixed mindset encounter challenges such as a difficult maths puzzle, they often conclude that they have reached the limit of their abilities and give up. “But if you think, ‘hey, intelligence and skill can develop’, then your whole attitude changes,” says Dweck. “You want to take on the challenges that help you grow.” In other words, a fixed mindset is a mental block that stops us from achieving something. And it can be reinforced or removed. Dweck’s work also showed that praising successful children for being bright or talented nurtures the fixed mindset, whereas focusing on their hard work and perseverance fosters a growth mindset.
During the 2000s, Dweck began to explore whether promoting a growth mindset might help kids in school. In an influential 2007 study, she tested this idea among low-achieving 12 and 13-year-olds. Half of them were told about how the brain changes and learns, and how intelligence can be boosted; the rest learned about the brain, too, but with the emphasis on memory. It worked. The “growth” group showed increased motivation in class and got better test scores. Significantly, those who endorsed a fixed mindset most strongly beforehand benefited the most. Fixed and growth mindsets are now a common starting point for WPIs. For example, Yeager has applied them to bullying – not so much to stop the bullies, but to help victims cope better. Understandably, bullied kids often retaliate aggressively. In studies of students aged 10 to 14, Yeager showed that an intervention similar to Dweck’s, in which kids learned about how the brain and personality change over time, reduced aggressive retaliation. “By teaching teenagers that people can change, it makes them feel less like they need to escalate things if they’re bullied,” says Yeager.
Another type of WPI has been pioneered by Stanford psychologist Geoffrey Cohen, this time aimed at reducing the achievement gap between white and black university students. Many social and economic factors underlie this gap, but there is also a powerful psychological driver: the stereotype that black people are less academically able than their white peers. For black students this can become a self-fulfilling prophecy: they often do worse on maths tests when surrounded by white students. This has been attributed to “stereotype threat”, which creates anxiety and harms performance. (White students are at risk too, often underperforming in the presence of East Asians, who are often stereotyped as maths whizzes.) Cohen set out to design an intervention to close the gap. One proven strategy against stereotype threat is to get people to write about values that are important to them, a process called self-affirmation. When Cohen asked middle-school students to do this, he found that even a short session improved the grades of black students relative to controls, closing the achievement gap by 40 per cent. And two years later, after a few top-up sessions, the intervention was still having a clear effect. Cohen has since applied the same approach to the achievement gap between men and women in university science courses.
Yet another kind of intervention boosts the sense of social belonging. When people go through big transitions in life – going to university, say, or moving to a new city – there’s often a period when they are not sure they fit in. Members of minority groups are especially vulnerable. Cohen and Walton got first-year students to read a report summarising a survey of older students’ experiences at university. The report described how they felt out of place at first, and how these feelings passed as they settled in and made new friends. Reading it not only improved the grades of black students, halving the racial achievement gap, but also increased their self-reported happiness and health. Remarkably, these effects persisted three years on, and much larger studies have replicated them.
All of this is evidence that WPIs offer a new and powerful way to approach difficult social problems, Walton says. “We typically approach such problems with the assumption that there’s a lack of capacity, and we try to bolster that capacity. So we might think, schools are failing, we need to invest more in schools. But in many situations we actually have adequate capacity. And yet that capacity goes unrealised, as people are psychologically not in a position to take advantage.” Although many WPIs focus on academic performance, there have been experiments in applying them to criminality, teenage pregnancy, relationship problems – even international conflict. Eran Halperin of the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya, Israel, has been developing WPIs to reduce tensions in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He has shown that nurturing a growth mindset makes people on both sides more open to listening, more willing to compromise for peace, and more likely to forgive.
Not surprisingly, WPIs are attracting attention outside academia. In the UK, the Behavioural Insights Team (BIT) – a partly government-owned firm sometimes dubbed the “Nudge Unit” – is exploring their potential. “Nudges have been very successful in a number of areas,” says Jessica Barnes, a senior adviser at BIT, “but we recognise there are a lot of complex issues that nudges are not necessarily going to address, so we’re also interested in more intensive psychological interventions.” In September last year, President Obama launched the US Social and Behavioral Sciences Team, which is exploring ways to use nudges and WPIs. Similar units have been set up in Germany, Australia, Singapore, Finland and the Netherlands.
So when can you expect to be wised up? Even advocates of intervention admit that some questions need to be answered before WPIs can be widely rolled out. For starters, we need to know how easy they are to scale up so that it’s not just a select few that can benefit. Early research suggests that WPIs delivered as online modules can reach a mass audience, but it’s early days yet. Researchers are also keen to avoid the hype and controversy that has surrounded nudges. They are at pains to point out that WPIs are not magic, and cannot help all the people all the time. “They address specific psychological sticking points, and if a person isn’t stuck, then the intervention isn’t necessary,” says Yeager. These caveats aside, psychologists are increasingly optimistic that WPIs can tackle any problem with a psychological component – in other words, nearly every significant social or personal challenge you can think of. “There are many problems that people have struggled with for generations,” says Walton. “This is a new way to approach them.”
Wise interventions – when your brain needs a stronger nudge
“Six years ago, the UK’s new prime minister, David Cameron, began a groundbreaking experiment in evidence-based policymaking. Inspired by a book written by two US social scientists, he set up the Behavioural Insights Team and asked them to set about changing the way government worked. The team’s job was to apply the discoveries of behavioural science to the practical problems of running a country. Its go-to tool was the “nudge” – a subtle way of encouraging people to do the right thing. The US and many other countries followed suit. Nudges are now commonplace, and have made numerous small but positive impacts on a range of problems. For example, asking people renewing their car tax online if they would like to become organ donors has added hundreds of thousands of people to the UK register.
The nudge revolution is controversial, however. Politicians like nudges because they solve difficult problems without legislation. But ordinary people are suspicious of them. We instinctively dislike the idea of being manipulated without our knowledge or permission, and recoil at the prospect of faceless wonks being entitled to decide what is good for us, and propelling us, zombie-like, towards it. These are legitimate concerns, but in the real world nudging has not proved intrusive or coercive. But we can’t afford to be complacent. As the UK nudge unit’s director David Halpern told New Scientist in 2013: “There’s a great deal of scope for more.” Now we have a clearer idea of what “more” might entail: more of the same, yes, but also a dose of something different. For many years, psychologists have been developing what they call “wise psychological interventions” (WPIs). These direct and often deceptively simple psychological tools can help people to overcome the mental blocks that are holding them back.
Though similar to nudges in spirit, WPIs are quite different in practice, based on making long-lasting changes to a person’s thought processes rather than short-term changes to their environment. Done right, they may be an even more potent tool for positive social change. Not surprisingly, the UK nudge unit and its counterparts elsewhere have expressed keen interest in using them. They should tread carefully. WPIs inevitably revive the fears that were expressed about nudges. Who decides who needs to be wised up? Will we be told what is happening to us, how it is supposed to work, and how we might benefit? Most importantly, can we opt out?
The UK’s nudge unit has already dealt with many of these objections. All of its interventions are tested in controlled trials before being rolled out, and Halpern recently advocated that people should be empowered to “nudge the nudgers”. With citizen juries, say, members of the public could give a steer on what might be acceptable. This model of transparency and informed consent must be maintained if and when WPIs are applied to the real world. Evidence-based policymaking is always a good idea – and often in scandalously short supply in Cameron’s majority-conservative government. Nudge is an example of what is possible when you apply science to policymaking. WPIs offer a similar opportunity. But the well-intentioned politicians who want to use them should always remember: never let nudge turn to shove.”
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