The Situationist

Posts Tagged ‘Timothy Wilson’

Redirect

Posted by The Situationist Staff on September 15, 2011

From the Atlantic, here is a review of Situationist Contributor Tim Wilson’s latest book:

In our ceaseless quest for self-improvement and our relentless pursuit of happiness, most of us have had some brush with the world that lives on the spectrum between self-help books and legitimate clinical psychotherapy. But a compelling new (non-self-help) book suggests many of these methods might be derailing rather than propelling our progress. In Redirect: The Surprising New Science of Psychological Change, social psychologist Timothy Wilson reveals insights from three decades of empirical evidence indicating that what is true of culture is also true of individuals: Our experience of the world is shaped by our interpretations of it, the stories we tell ourselves, and these stories can often become so distorted and destructive that they completely hinder our ability to live balanced, purposeful, happy lives, so the key to personal transformation is story transformation.

Let’s pause here and observe that this seems pretty commonsensical. What’s more, most of us believe that our character and circumstances are so unique that the universal human psychological flaws, biases, and shortcomings we are keenly aware of simply don’t befall us personally. Yet, in one domain of life or another, we find ourselves stuck in thought patterns and behavioral cycles we lack the tools to escape. This, Wilson demonstrates, is a pathological storytelling problem based on the stories we’ve led ourselves to believe and the behaviors that stem from them.

Of course, this isn’t news to anyone who has ever dabbled in cognitive-behavioral therapy — an entire branch of psychotherapy designed to address precisely that. But Wilson argues that there’s a new way to redirect people’s personal interpretations, one that doesn’t require one-on-one sessions and can address a wide array of personal and social problems, from severe trauma to everyday distress.

This new approach is based on the work of Kurt Lewin, who helped found the field of social psychology in the 1930s and 40s, and is rooted in three specific psychological interventions: story-editing — a set of techniques designed to reshape people’s narratives about themselves and the world in a way that results in lasting behavioral change (cue in the famous words of Susan Sontag, one of my big heroes: “I write to define myself — an act of self-creation — part of my process of becoming.”); story-prompting — redirecting people down a particular narrative path with subtle prompts; and do good, be good — an approach that dates back to Aristotle, premised on changing people’s behavior first, which in turn changes their self-perception of the kind of person they are based on the kinds of things they do. Wilson shows how these story-editing techniques have been used to make people happier, improve parenting, solve adolescent behavioral problems, and even reduce the racial achievement gap in schools.

More.

Here is a related video of Timothy Wilson speaking (in an RSA talk) about Redirect.

Related Situationist posts:

Posted in Book, Positive Psychology, Situationist Contributors, Social Psychology, Video | Tagged: , , | Leave a Comment »

The Situation of Confabulation

Posted by The Situationist Staff on April 13, 2009

El Alma del EbroHelen Philips had a nice article  titled “Mind fiction: Why your brain tells tall tales,” in the October 2006 issue of New Scientist.  Here are some excerpts.

* * *

The kind of storytelling my grandmother did after a series of strokes . . . [n]eurologists call . . . confabulation. It isn’t fibbing, as there is no intent to deceive and people seem to believe what they are saying. Until fairly recently it was seen simply as a neurological deficiency – a sign of something gone wrong. Now, however, it has become apparent that healthy people confabulate too.

Confabulation is clearly far more than a result of a deficit in our memory, says William Hirstein, a neurologist and philosopher at Elmhurst College in Chicago and author of a book on the subject entitled Brain Fiction . . . . Children and many adults confabulate when pressed to talk about something they have no knowledge of, and people do it during and after hypnosis. . . . In fact, we may all confabulate routinely as we try to rationalise decisions or justify opinions. Why do you love me? Why did you buy that outfit? Why did you choose that career? At the extreme, some experts argue that we can never be sure about what is actually real and so must confabulate all the time to try to make sense of the world around us.

Confabulation was first mentioned in the medical literature in the late 1880s, applied to patients of the Russian psychiatrist Sergei Korsakoff. He described a distinctive type of memory deficit in people who had abused alcohol for many years. These people had no recollection of recent events, yet filled in the blanks spontaneously with sometimes fantastical and impossible stories.

Neurologist Oliver Sacks of the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York wrote about a man with Korsakoff’s syndrome in his 1985 book The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat. Mr Thompson had no memory from moment to moment about where he was or why, or to whom he was speaking, but would invent elaborate explanations for the situations he found himself in. If someone entered the room, he might greet them as a customer of the shop he used to own. A doctor wearing a white coat might become the local butcher. To Mr Thompson, these fictions seemed plausible and he never seemed to notice that they kept changing. He behaved as though his improvised world was a perfectly normal and stable place.

* * *

So confabulation can result from an inability to recognise whether or not memories are relevant, real and current. But that’s not the only time people make up stories, says Hirstein. He has found that those with delusions or false beliefs about their illnesses are among the most common confabulators. He thinks these cases reveal how we build up and interpret knowledge about ourselves and other people.

It is surprisingly common for stroke patients with paralysed limbs or even blindness to deny they have anything wrong with them, even if only for a couple of days after the event. They often make up elaborate tales to explain away their problems. One of Hirstein’s patients, for example, had a paralysed arm, but believed it was normal, telling him that the dead arm lying in the bed beside her was not in fact her own. When he pointed out her wedding ring, she said with horror that someone had taken it. When asked to prove her arm was fine, by moving it, she made up an excuse about her arthritis being painful. It seems amazing that she could believe such an impossible story. Yet when Vilayanur Ramachandran of the University of California, San Diego, offered cash to patients with this kind of delusion, promising higher rewards for tasks they couldn’t possibly do – such as clapping or changing a light bulb – and lower rewards for tasks they could, they would always attempt the high pay-off task, as if they genuinely had no idea they would fail.

* * *

What all these conditions have in common is an apparent discrepancy between the patient’s internal knowledge or feelings and the external information they are getting from what they see. In all these cases “confabulation is a knowledge problem”, says Hirstein. Whether it is a lost memory, emotional response or body image, if the knowledge isn’t there, something fills the gap.

Helping to plug that gap may well be a part of the brain called the orbitofrontal cortex, which lies in the frontal lobes behind the eye sockets. The OFC is best known as part of the brain’s reward system, which guides us to do pleasurable things or seek what we need, but Hirstein . . . suggest that the system has an even more basic role. It and other frontal brain regions are busy monitoring all the information generated by our senses, memory and imagination, suppressing what is not needed and sorting out what is real and relevant. According to Morten Kringelbach, a neuroscientist at the University of Oxford who studies pleasure, reward and the role of the OFC, this tracking of ongoing reality allows us to rate everything subjectively to help us work out our priorities and preferences.

* * *

Kringelbach goes even further. He suspects that confabulation is not just something people do when the system goes wrong. We may all do it routinely. Children need little encouragement to make up stories when asked to talk about something they know little about. Adults, too, can be persuaded to confabulate, as [Situationist contributor] Timothy Wilson of the University of Virginia in Charlottesville and his colleague Richard Nisbett have shown. They laid out a display of four identical items of clothing and asked people to pick which they thought was the best quality. It is known that people tend to subconsciously prefer the rightmost object in a sequence if given no other choice criteria, and sure enough about four out of five participants did favour the garment on the right. Yet when asked why they made the choice they did, nobody gave position as a reason. It was always about the fineness of the weave, richer colour or superior texture. This suggests that while we may make our decisions subconsciously, we rationalise them in our consciousness, and the way we do so may be pure fiction, or confabulation.

More recent experiments by philosopher Lars Hall of Lund University in Sweden develop this idea further. People were shown pairs of cards with pictures of faces on them and asked to choose the most attractive. Unbeknown to the subject, the person showing the cards was a magician and routinely swapped the chosen card for the rejected one. The subject was then asked why they picked this face. Often the swap went completely unnoticed, and the subjects came up with elaborate explanations about hair colour, the look of the eyes or the assumed personality of the substituted face. Clearly people routinely confabulate under conditions where they cannot know why they made a particular choice. Might confabulation be as routine in justifying our everyday choices?

* * *

Even when we think we are making rational choices and decisions, this may be illusory too. The intriguing possibility is that we simply do not have access to all of the unconscious information on which we base our decisions, so we create fictions upon which to rationalise them, says Kringelbach. That may well be a good thing, he adds. If we were aware of how we made every choice we would never get anything done – we cannot hold that much information in our consciousness. Wilson backs up this idea with some numbers: he says our senses may take in more than 11 million pieces of information each second, whereas even the most liberal estimates suggest that we are conscious of just 40 of these.

Nevertheless it is an unsettling thought that perhaps all our conscious mind ever does is dream up stories in an attempt to make sense of our world. “The possibility is left open that in the most extreme case all of the people may confabulate all of the time,” says Hall.

* * *

To read the entire article, including a discussion of the problem of relying on eyewitnesses, click here. To read some related Situationist posts, see “The Interior Situation of Complex Human Feelings,” “Magic is in the Mind,” “John Darley on “Justice as Intuitions” – Video,” “The Split Brain and the Interior Situation of Theories of the Self,” “Jonathan Haidt on the Situation of Moral Reasoning,” and “Vilayanur Ramachandran On Your Mind.”

Posted in Book, Choice Myth, Deep Capture, Illusions, Neuroscience | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

The Interior Situation of Undecided Voters

Posted by The Situationist Staff on August 23, 2008

From Anne McIlroy’s article, titled “You May Know How You’ll Vote Before You Know It,” in the Science section of the Globe and Mail:

Undecided about how you will vote if there is a federal election this fall? New research suggests you may not know your own mind.

Voters make decisions at an unconscious level before they deliberate about their options, University of Western Ontario psychologist Bertram Gawronski said.

In the latest edition of the journal Science, he and two Italian researchers report on a technique that may allow pollsters one day to read the minds of undecided voters and accurately predict whom they will end up supporting.

* * *

In the Science article, he and colleagues Luciano Arcuri and Silvia Galdi at the University of Padova describe an experiment conducted in Vicenza, Italy. They interviewed 129 residents about a proposed enlargement of a U.S. military base in their community and asked if they were if favour, opposed or undecided about the expansion.

The volunteers also took a computer-based test.

For those who were undecided, the speed at which they linked pictures of the military base to positive words such as “happy” or “luck,” compared with negative words such as “awful” or “pain,” proved to be predictive of the decision they eventually made about the expansion. The test revealed what Dr. Gawronski and his colleagues call positive or negative automatic mental associations.

Other researchers, including Harvard University psychologist [and Situationist contributor] Mahzarin Banaji, have used a similar technique to get at the subtle, ingrained biases that people are not aware of, but which may shape their behaviour.

* * *

From Stefan Lovgren’s article, “‘Undecided” Voters’ Minds Already Made Up, Study Says,” in National Geographic News:

* * *

[Situationist contributor] Timothy Wilson, . . . the author of the book Strangers to Ourselves: Discovering the Adaptive Unconscious [click on book's cover in right margin for more information], said there are two interpretations of the study results.

“It may be that participants really had made up their minds and just didn’t know it yet,” said Wilson, who was not involved with the study but wrote an accompanying article in this week’s Science.

“Or they may have been leaning in one direction unconsciously and that biased how they interpreted the information they got about the issue in subsequent days.”

Gawronski, the study co-author, says automatic mental associations play a particularly important role in a person’s decision-making when it comes to ambiguous situations, such as political debates.

“In a debate between Obama and McCain, it may not be entirely clear who showed the better performance,” he said.

“But undecided voters with more favorable associations with McCain may see him as the one who did the better job” and vice versa, Gawronski said.

“It’s this biased perception of events that then provide the basis of their future decisions,” he added.

* * *

To download a pdf of the Science article (Silvia Galdi, Luciano Arcuri, & Bertram Gawronski, Automatic mental associations predict future choices of undecided decision-makers, 321 Science 1100-1102 (2008)), click here.

To listen to an NPR Science Friday interview of Dr. Gawronski and discussion of the undecided-voter research, click here.

For a sample of related Situationist posts, see “Voting for a Face,” “The Situation of Swift-Boating,” On Being a Mindful Voter,” “Implicit Associations in the 2008 Presidential Election,” “The Situation of Political Animals,” and “Your Brain on Politics.” For other posts on the Situation of politics, click here.

Posted in Abstracts, Choice Myth, Implicit Associations, Politics, Social Psychology, Uncategorized | Tagged: , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

 
Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 827 other followers

%d bloggers like this: