stormin's Reviews > Redirect: The Surprising New Science of Psychological Change

Redirect by Timothy D. Wilson
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really liked it
bookshelves: non-fiction

Redirect started strong, got weak enough in the middle that I was debating between 2 and 3 stars as I trudged through, and then got quite strong again at the end.

The initial argument of the book is twofold. First: a lot of the psychological interventions to help people (anything from helping first responder deal with traumatic events to keeping kids from getting pregnant) are either useless or counterproductie. We can't know without experimental testing. Second: a particular kind of approach called story-editing that depends on altering the way people construct their own narratives can be surprisingly helpful at solving psychological problem.

As far as story-editing goes, the results really are surprising. For example, if you take students who have done poorly on an early test in college and simply give them the information that lots of people struggle early on then--with that intervention alone--you can significantly improve their subsequent performance on tests, graduation rate, etc. The theory is that you're helping them embrace a growth-narrative ("if I work hard, I can get better") rather than a fixed-narrative ("I must not be good enough.") This research is not entirely new to me (it's one of the major elements of the book NurtureShock: New Thinking About Children), but Timothy Wilson goes into applications of the technique across a very wide range of fields.

As as the emphasis on experimental design goes: it's a valuable point but Wilson hangs too much from it. He consistently holds out the ideal of controlled drug experimentation without recognizing that human trials of drugs are based on earlier experiments with laboratory animals. There's no such phase with psychological testing; we can't run don't-do-drugs programs experimentally on rats first to make sure that there's no major danger before rolling the program out to high school kids. This makes psychological experimentation fundamentally different from medical experimentation, which complicates his persistent use of medical experiments as the goal standard to which all social psychology should be held. Furthermore, experiments just aren't as magically distinct from observational studies as he would like us to believe. For one thing, he consistently cites experimental studies that illustrate the effectiveness of a certain approach, and then claims credit for story-editing, despite the fact that that last leap (attributing the results to his pet theory) is actually not a necessary result of the science. It's just his interpretation.

This obsession on experimental design leads to the long, boring middle section of the book which is mostly just a literature review of various programs attempting to deal with problems like stopping child abuse, stopping drug abuse, stopping racism, etc. The theme is basically that if an intervention doesn't work it has nothing to do with story-editing, and if it does work Wilson claims it's a story-editing approach (no matter what the original designers may have thought) and claims credit for his "team". As you can imagine, this gets tedious.

The final sections were very interesting, however, because Wilson started talking about racial disparities in American culture, and suggested the first plausible explanation I've ever heard for the persistent discrepancy in achievement scores between white and blacks controversially outlined in The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life. The concept is stereotype threat, which is the idea that if a person is being tested and is aware of the fact that they belong to a group stereotypically expected to do poorly, they will do poorly. If black students take an IQ test, there's a gap between their performance and white performance, but if the same test is described as a "puzzle" (with no references to "test" or "IQ") the gap vanishes. Similarly: elderly adults do worse on memory tests if attention is drawn to their age. Women do worse on math tests if attention is drawn to their gender. Men do not, since there isn't a stereotype of men doing poorly at math, but if you take white men and give them a math test and tell them their scores will be compared with Asian men (stereotypically assumed to be superior at math) then the scores of the white men will fall.

This isn't a new discovery of Wilson (nor does he claim it), but it was news to me. As someone who has really been bothered by The Bell Curve since I studied it in my sophomore English class (we read an article-length treatment, not the whole book, and debated it at length under the guidance of our African American teacher), this was a huge revelation. The follow up is great as well: Wilson talks about a variety of different programs designed to erase the achievement gap along with experimental evidence for which ones are successful and which ones are not. Of course stereotype threat isn't a panacea for all educational problems, for example if you tell someone about stereotype threat it doesn't erase any lag in their ability to read or do math, but it really powerfully emphasizes:
1. That a lot of endemic problems in achievment have to do with perception rather than objective reality.
2. That perceptions can be changed for the better with carefully designed programs.

This section was so interesting and exciting for me, that I revised my ranking from 2 or 3 stars to 4 stars. For the first time in a long time, I feel like there are actually programs that may really help to combat some of the problems with education in our society. Quick fixes? Absolutely not. But practically achievable programs with real results? Yes.
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Reading Progress

Started Reading
July 19, 2013 – Finished Reading
July 20, 2013 – Shelved
July 20, 2013 – Shelved as: non-fiction

Comments Showing 1-3 of 3 (3 new)

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message 1: by Lisa (new)

Lisa Good review on an interesting sounding book.
Why is there a persistent achievement gap between blacks and whites?
I do agree that the author could be right about what he said, however I think there is more to consider. Did he test white children in poverty Vs black children in poverty? How about white children of young single moms Vs black children of young single moms.
Some black and white children are able to overcome their sad circumstances, but many cannot. Children that are left with little direction and over sight, generally do not improve themselves.
Recently I read an article in the paper about young children that frequently miss school. School administrators went door to door in the projects after school had started. They found children at home and parents that were filled with excuses. I'm sure some of those students were white, but from what I could tell, most were black.
Why to guys do better than girls in math? Guys tend to thrive on competition, many girls are somewhat intimidated. When I taught math, I found that girls tended to me more exact and thorough, and willing to go back and check their work. That is how they could overcome the gender gap.
Did you know that some parents do not talk much, if at all to their children? I bet you and Ro are constantly talking to and listening to your kids. Your kids will come out on top scholastically without a doubt!


Cathy Hasty Thank you for this thoughtful and thorough review.


message 3: by Sarah (new)

Sarah Hinkle Thank you for the fantastic outline and response to this book. I was plodding through the middle portion and saved me a fair bit of time, as I am more interested in reading about stereotype threats and the achievement gap. --with gratitude.


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