The Society for the
Study of Social Issues

Interview with Professor Tim Wilson, Author of Redirect: The Surprising New Science of Psychological Change

4 November 2011

In the book Redirect: The Surprising New Science of Psychological Change, SPSSI member Tim Wilson, Sherrell J. Aston Professor of Psychology at the University of Virginia, draws together findings from social psychology that throw doubt on some common-sense intuitions about solutions to social problems. While exploding these assumptions, he also offers a promising new avenue for building positive behavior change in society.

Central to Wilson’s thesis is the idea of narrative. A narrative is a way that we make sense of the events that we experience in our lives. Why do certain things happen to us? Why is the world the way it is? These narratives can be deeply rooted but they are also shaped through time in a process Wilson calls “story editing.” In policy, when we approach the question does it work?, we should be thinking about how our narratives are changed for the better or worse. i.e., how they can be redirected.

I spoke to Professor Wilson about the book and particularly the way that social psychology can be improved as a tool for shaping social policy in future.

Q: What was your inspiration for writing Redirect?

The idea had been rattling around for a long time. When I was deliberating about what to pursue in grad school, social psychology seemed like a good option because it had interesting ideas that could be applied to society and was also based on the empirical method. The topics had always been very exciting to me and I had long planned to use my experience with theory-based lab research to contribute to our understanding of important topics such as happiness and social change.

Q: How can we overcome the problem of implementing science-based policy in the multi-layered, complex world of policy and politics?

Scaling up of experimental interventions for the challenges of program design is not a topic I explore specifically in the book. However, your question refers to the difficulty of attracting policymakers to the benefits of a science-based approach. I use an analogy to medical research, which is about how a new drug is tested before it is made available to the public. No one would dream of inventing a new drug and then distributing it to people before it was tested.  But this is what we do with many social policy interventions. One example in my book is the Scared Straight intervention where at-risk kids are taken to prisons to see what might happen to them if they live a life of crime. Intuitively it makes sense to warn youth who are at risk of delinquency by showing them how bad the consequences of criminal behavior can be, but this is a care where common sense is simply wrong.  Once Scared Straight programs were tested with random assignment studies, researchers found that kids who go through these programs were 13% more likely to engage in criminal activity later in life.

Q: Are we getting better at using empirical studies for social policy?

I think that many policy makers have a healthy respect for science, though perhaps less so for behavioral issues than for such topics as global warming.  And, as we know, some policymakers dismiss scientific evidence altogether.  Behavioral research is getting more attention, in part due to popular writes such as Malcolm Gladwell and David Brooks.  Social psychologists should not be shy about publicizing their findings as well.

Q: What can social psychologists do to improve the reliance of policymakers on tested approaches to policy?

More and more social psychologists are conducting research outside of the laboratory, showing how theory-based interventions can have important behavioral outcomes.  We don’t all need to be doing this kind of work; after all, it is important to keep doing the theoretical work on which interventions are based.  But I think our field has matured to the point where we can be taking our findings out of the lab more than we have in the past.  The more we do so, the more policy makers will pay attention.

Redirect: The Surprising New Science of Psychological Change by Timothy D. Wilson published by Little, Brown and Company.


Alex Ingrams
SPSSI Policy Coordinator


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Research that produces nothing but books will not suffice.
                                                                                                                    - Kurt Lewin