We all have personal stories about who we are and what the world is like. These stories aren’t necessarily conscious, but they are the narratives by which we live our lives. Many of us have healthy, optimistic stories that serve us well. But sometimes, people develop pessimistic stories and get caught in self-defeating thinking cycles, whereby they assume the worst and, as a result, cope poorly. The question then becomes how to help people revise their negative stories.
One approach is psychotherapy. Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), for example, which is designed to identify and change people’s negative thinking patterns about themselves and the social world. CBT is an effective way of helping people, especially those with serious problems such as depression or anxiety disorders.
But social psychologists have discovered another approach that is simpler and can help people with less serious problems. I call this “story editing,” because people are encouraged to edit their personal stories in beneficial ways. There are a variety of ways of doing this. In one, called “story prompting,” people are given information that suggests a new way of interpreting their situation. This is particularly effective when people haven’t settled on the narrative they will tell about what is happening to them.
For example, I did a study with first-year college students who were not doing well academically. They were at risk of adopting a negative, self-defeating thinking pattern in which they blamed themselves and concluded that they weren’t “college material.” We randomly divided the students into two groups. One group got information indicating that many people do poorly their first year but do better after they learn the ropes, and watched videotaped interviews of upperclass students who reinforced this message. The idea was to encourage students to change how they interpreted their own academic difficulties, redirecting them away from the negative, self-defeating idea that they weren’t cut out for college, to a more positive interpretation that they needed to learn how to do better. It worked: This group of students, compared to the control group (who got no information), achieved better grades the next semester and were less likely to drop out of college.