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ChangingMinds Blog! > Blog Archive > 01-Jul-18


Sunday 01-July-18

To change lives, change what people tell themselves about the world, others and (most of all) themselves

When you think about yourself, how often do you think about your past and things that have happened.

One of our deep needs is to explain. When we understand why things happened as they did, we can predict the future, avoid threats and take advantage of opportunities. When we think about events in our lives, this explanation comes in terms of cause and effect, with the effect being on ourselves.

The bigger question in attributing cause is in what is called 'locus of control'. If we blame other people or natural events, the cause is external. We are victims who deserve help, not punishment. We are fatalistic in thinking there is nothing we can do, and so we do nothing other than to perpetuate a 'poor me' pattern.

The alternative locus is internal, where we causally link our own thoughts and actions to what happens to us. Taking this path is not that easy. It means taking responsibility for one's own life. It means being adult as we leave behind the last vestiges of childhood. It means accepting failure as a natural step on the way to learning and improvement.

These two approaches can be found in many writings. In Petty and Caccioppo's Elaboration Likelihood Model, we may think peripherally, with heuristics, schema and other cognitive short-cuts, or we may think centrally and consciously. In Carol Dweck's 'Mindset' we are divided into fixed and growth mindsets. In fixed thinking, we assume we are who we are and cannot change, while the growth mindset assumes we can be who we want to be and achieve anything.

In his marvellous book 'Redirect', professor Tim Wilson investigates large-scale US social change programs aimed at such problems as teenage pregnancy and drug addiction. Notably, he finds that hard-hitting approaches fail. These include such as 'Scared Straight', where police officers and former offenders go into schools and tell it like it is. This seems puzzling as you might think in-your-face hard truths would make teenage realize the folly of such ways. The reality was the opposite. Seeing the short-term buzz above longer-term costs, offending rates actually rose. The teenage brain is designed to make risks attractive and their under-developed prefrontal cortex is not yet equipped to see far into the future.

What Wilson found did work, was simply to change the story that children told themselves about themselves. Our sense of identity is tied strongly to our self-narrative. Change the narrative and we make different decisions. This can work with adults, but is massively more powerful with conflicted teenagers who are still figuring out who they really are. Of course this is not always easy, but Wilson did find that it works.

So to create change that people will buy, it seems you should create and tell inclusive narratives that draw people in, connect themselves to the storyline and follow it to a new path.

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