Wise Interventions [Wilson & Walton]

Oh, the joys of knowledge rabbit holes! One of my favorite experiences in my curious quest. Here’s how this one played out:

A few weeks back, I listened to an episode of Sam Harris’ Waking Up podcast in which he was having a conversation with Johann Hari. While the overall topic was super fascinating, and led me to listen to the audio version of Hari’s “Lost Connections”, one small reference made during the conversation truly caught my ear. Johann mentioned a book that he had read and Sam was intending to read called Strangers to Ourselves by Timothy Wilson, a social psychologist out of UVA. At a high level, Wilson’s book is making the case that the existence of our subconscious creates a limit to our ability to know ourselves through self-reflection. This thesis piqued my interest, since around the same time, I was having a conversation with a group of friends about what I now believe is the other pole in a polarity: the limits of feedback (more on that in a separate post).

But I wasn’t sure that I was willing to commit the time to read a 273-page book around this premise, so I did what every person in my position would do: check out Wilson’s academic publications and track down the paper that the book was based on. And while I did find that paper, I also found the collaborative work Wilson did with Gregory Walton which they’ve labeled “Wise Interventions”, and best summarized by this article:

The Science of “Wise Interventions”: Applying a Social Psychological Perspective to Address Problems and Help People Flourish

At its core, Wilson & Walton’s thesis is a new approach to designing interventions that will lead to positive behavior change in their target audience, supplementing two pre-existing approaches:

  • Situation-centric approaches — assume that to flourish people need to be in situations that help them succeed rather than hinder them. Situation-centric interventions aim to change that situation, for example, by increasing resources for schools, relocating families, changing incentive structures, or making better choices easier.
  • Person-centric approaches — attribute poor outcomes to a deficiency or lack of capacity (cognitive abilities, self-control, etc.) in people, and assume that the best way to improve outcomes is to build this capacity. Person-centric interventions tend to involve some capacity-building education.

Their new approach is based on the premise that people’s behavior is driven by the way they interpret a given situation — the way they make sense, or meaning out of it. And that meaning is often pliable and can be altered (leading to a different behavior) using a wise intervention.

Our meaning-making “engine” will interpret a given situation in a way that serves three underlying motives:

  1. The need to understand — make sense of things around us in a way that allows us to predict behavior and guide our own action effectively.
  2. The need for self-integrity — view ourselves positively and believe that we are adequate, moral, competent and coherent.
  3. The need for belonging — feel connected to others, accepted, included and valued.

This, in turn, yields four techniques for changing meaning by shifting people’s understanding, sense of personal adequacy and/or sense of connection to others:

  1. Direct labeling — provide a positive label that defines what might otherwise be an ambiguous aspect of themselves, a situation, or others: “this test is meant to help me, the teacher, assess my teaching style” (rather than assess the students’ performance).
  2. Prompting new meaning — provide the basis for a new way of thinking about the self, a situation, or others, but not offer or impose the meaning itself: asking questions, altering a situation or providing new information.
  3. Increasing commitment through action — create situations that encourage people to act in accordance with a new idea, thereby reinforcing that idea. For example a “saying-is-believing” intervention.
  4. Active reflection exercise — structured exercises, often writing exercises, that help people understand their personal experiences from a new perspective.

Wilson & Walton have gone a step further and structured the +300 interventions that they’ve reviewed in their research into a database, categorizing them by the meaning-making need they are meant to address, the domain in which they were applied and the type of intervention used.

Avid readers of this blog may see the same similarity I’ve picked up on between the overall intervention-type framing the Wilson & Waldon are using, and a framework I’ve covered about a year and a half ago in:

Situation-centric, person-centric and wise interventions map pretty neatly to the Path, the Rider and the Elephant respectively. And in many ways, they are making the same case for applying behavioral interventions that address all three components while making their own contribution to this body of work by offering a double-click into the Elephant box and the techniques that effectively engage it.

Wise Interventions [Wilson & Walton]

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