Psychology’s archives are filled with well-meaning, well-funded endeavors that were meant to change lives for the better but that—alas—made no difference.
In one huge study, 500 Massachusetts boys deemed at risk for delinquency were, by the toss of a coin, assigned either to a no-intervention control condition or to a 5-year treatment program. In addition to twice-a-month visits from counselors, the boys in the treatment program received academic tutoring, medical attention, and family assistance and were involved in community programs, such as the Boy Scouts. When Joan McCord located 97 percent of the participants some 30 years later, many offered glowing testimonials: Were it not for the program, “I would probably be in jail”; “My life would have gone the other way”; or “I think I would have ended up in a life of crime.” Indeed, even among “difficult” predelinquent boys, 66 percent developed no juvenile crime record.
But the same was true of their control counterparts—70 percent of whom had no juvenile record. Alas, the glowing testimonials had been unintentionally deceiving. The program had no beneficial effect.
More recently, other endeavors—the national Scared Straight program to tame teenage violence, the police-promoted D.A.R.E. anti-drug effort, Critical Incident Debriefing for trauma victims, and numerous weight-reduction, pedophile rehabilitation, and sexual reorientation efforts—have also been found ineffectual or even harmful.
Is this because genetic influences fix our traits—minimizing our malleability? (Think of the dozens of identical twins who, though raised separately, are still amazingly similar.) To be sure, genes do matter. The most comprehensive review of twin studies—more than 3000 such, encompassing 14.6 million twins—found that “across all traits the reported heritability [individual differences attributable to genes] is 49 percent.” That is substantial, yet it leaves room for willpower, beliefs, and social influence as well. Body weight, for example, is genetically influenced, but diet and exercise also matter.
Given the guiding power of our heredity and the failure of many large-scale efforts to help people to flourish, I am stunned by the successes of brief “wise interventions”—“wise” in the sense of being savvy about how our beliefs and assumptions influence us, and “stunned” that a 1-hour intervention sometimes outperforms a 5-year intervention.
Two leading researchers, Gregory Walton and Timothy Wilson, recently reviewed 325 interventions. Their conclusion: Helping people reframe the meaning of their experiences can promote their long-term flourishing. As Walton explains at www.wiseinterventions.org, “Wise interventions focus on the meanings and inferences people draw about themselves, other people, or a situation they are in.” Three examples:
- At-risk middle school students given a “growth mindset”—being taught that the brain, like a muscle, grows with use—achieved better grades because they “saw effort as a virtue, because effort helps to develop ability.”
- Entering minority college students who experienced a 1-hour session explaining the normality of the worry that they didn’t belong (with reassuring stories from older peers) achieved higher grades over the next 3 years—and greater life and career satisfaction after college.
- A paraprofessional’s helping at-risk new mothers understand their baby’s fussing reduced the moms’ deciding they were bad mothers—and reduced first-year child abuse from 23 percent to 4 percent.
Thus, conclude Walton and Wilson, “exercises that seem minor can be transformational” when individuals address “a pressing psychological question, such as whether they belong at school, whether a romantic partner loves them, whether they can improve in math, whether they are a ‘bad mom,’ or whether groups can change in an ongoing conflict.”
So, genes matter. But we are all a mix of nature and nurture, of biology and beliefs. And that is why wisely changing people’s interpretations of their experiences and situations can support their flourishing.