The Big Impact of Small Interventions with Stanford’s Greg Walton -The Knowledge Project

Check out The Knowledge Project Episode Page & Show Notes

Key Takeaways

  • Changing the way a test is given (framed) can change the way people perform
    • If a test is given in which you know it’ll be evaluative of your abilities, you automatically call to mind certain stereotypes and thus are more likely to perform in accordance with them
  • The 4 types of intervention techniques one can use to create behavior change:
    • Direct Labeling – by labeling a group with an identity, the group is more likely to behave according to that identity
    • Prompting – asking someone a question that assumes an answer
    • Active Reflection (explained with an example) – A reliable way to increase someone’s well-being and happiness is to have them reflect on the gratitude they feel towards others
    • Increasing commitment through action – If you get people to advocate for an idea, they become more persuaded by that idea
  • Small interventions can act as solutions to big problems (child abuse, failing marriages, poor achievement in school, etc.)
  • Kids draw strong inference from the way their parents react to mistakes
    • If a parent’s reaction to a child’s mistake is negative, even if the parent has a growth mindset, this can be interpreted by the child as evidence that the parent believes in a fixed mindset (which the kid then embodies)
  • During a fight with your partner, always consider the following question – “How might a neutral third party, who wants the best for all, view this conflict?”

Intro

  • Host – Shane Parish (@ShaneAParrish)
  • Greg is an Associate Professor of Psychology at Stanford University and has been researching what he calls “wise interventions” for years
    • These “interventions” are small daily interactions that have the ability to reshape how people make sense of themselves and society
  • Shane calls Greg a “mindset master”

Let’s Dig In

  • Changing the way a test is represented/framed can change the way people perform. Greg recalls the following study which showed:
    • When given standard test, African American students tend to perform worse than whites
    • If you reframe the test the way the test is given by saying something like “we’re just a group of cognitive psychologists and we’re only interested in how people solve puzzles,the test isn’t indicative of your abilities” …. the differences disappear
  • Why does the above occur?
    • If a test is given in which you know it’ll be evaluative of your abilities, you automatically call to mind certain stereotypes (and are thus more likely to perform according to those stereotypes)
      • For example – As a woman, you might bring to mind the fact that “woman are bad at math/science”
        • This then leads to fear that a poor performance may indeed prove the stereotype to be true
      • In a way – “It’s actually the effort to suppress the thoughts about the stereotype that takes up cognitive resources and makes it harder for people to actually devote resources to performing well on the task.”

Beliefs That Get in the Way of Success

  • Examples:
    • Beliefs about whether or not you belong in a certain environment
    • Beliefs about whether or not intelligence is something that;s fixed
  • “The beliefs that we have are often implicit in the sense that we don’t directly interrogate them, but they come about from the social context we’re in as reasonable responses”
    • If you’re entering a setting where your group has historically been stereotyped negatively, it’s a reasonable thing to wonder whether a person with your group identity might belong
  • These limiting beliefs then serve as a narrative structure within which to interpret everyday events (i.e., getting a bad grade, not getting along with a roommate, feeling homesick, etc.)
  • These beliefs also change your actions
    • Examples:
      • If you don’t feel like you belong, you’re less likely to do things that would help support your belonging 
      • If you feel like you don’t belong with a group of friends in college, you might be less likely to engage with them in the future
      • If one has low self-esteem, it’s much harder to believe and be confident that a romantic partner views you positively
        • Therefore, people with low self-esteem tend to dismiss compliments from partners

The Intervention Guru

  • “Intervention” doesn’t mean what you might think
    • “I think of interventions as things we do every single day in every single interaction”
  • Greg expands:
    • “We’re always in the business of trying to shape how we and other people think and feel about things in order to help us do better and achieve the goals we have”
    • “The kinds of interventions I’m interested in are ones that originate from a basic understanding of social psychological processes and are then used to help people achieve their goals and major institutions in society achieve better outcomes”
  • Examples:
    • Think of a doctor trying to convince a patient they need to exercise more 
    • Marketers are constantly trying to change how we feel about a given product
    • Trying to get a child to go to bed on time or do their homework

The 4 Types of Intervention Techniques One Can Use to Instigate Behavior Change

  • Direct labeling 
    • By labeling a group with an identity, the group is more likely to behave according to that identity
    • Examples:
      • Telling a classroom they’re the “clean class” reduces the amount they litter more so than just encouraging them not to do so 
      • Having a belief along the lines of “people like me don’t do X” and then complying with that belief
  • Prompting (AKA Prompted intervention)
    • Asking someone a question that assumes an answer
    • Example: 
      • Having a low self-esteem person think about how or why a partner’s compliment might reflect the regard they have for them
  • Active Reflection
    • One example – A reliable way to increase people’s well-being and happiness is to have them reflect on the gratitude they feel towards others
      • Writing gratitude notes, even ones you don’t send, to those who’ve made a difference in your life can improve well-being
    • And another – By writing about traumatic experiences, it allows one to better process things and experience a sense of closure
  • Increasing Commitment Through Action
    • “People are really motivated to see their behaviors and attitudes as consistent”
      • If you get people to advocate for an idea, they become more persuaded by that idea
      • AKA – Saying is believing 
      • “Sometimes we persuade ourselves most when we try to persuade other people”

Greg’s Favorite Intervention

  • One study aiming to limit child abuse did the following with low-income, single, and Latina mothers, assigning them to one of three conditions:
    • A control group
    • A second group who received visits from social workers who then gave them tips about parenting
    • A third group in which the above social workers asked the mothers about the most difficult challenge they were experiencing with their baby
  • Here’s what the study found:
    • Many of the mothers in the third group believed that the problem they described was either the result of the fact that they themselves were a bad mother or the baby was a “bad baby”
      • The social workers didn’t contradict, but encouraged the mothers to consider other explanations for the problem to which the mothers would come up with a different answer (i.e. – Perhaps the baby cries a lot because of the type of bed they’re sleeping on, not because I’m a bad mother)
    • A few weeks after the above interaction, it was found that the above exercise reduced “harsh parenting” (like spanking)
      • Other effects – reduced rates of depression for the mother and improved child health
  • Greg adds:
    • “I think that one thing that’s true of psychologically wise interventions is that they can seem — when we think about big problems that society faces, when we think about problems like child abuse or problems like poor achievement in school or problems like failing marriages, we often have the intuition that we need commensurately big solutions to these big problems… one of the lessons from my own experience early on is that that’s not always true.”
      • All it may take is an intervention like the above

How might interventions apply in the realm of parenting?

  • “One important thing to understand is that when we do interventions, we do them with people not to people”
    • “You want to do things that help the people you’re working with understand and own the idea that will be adaptive for them”
  • How can you do the above?
    • Talk to your child about the idea of a growth mindset and ask them to articulate it for themselves
      • You might tell them – “How might you explain what I just said to your little brother?”
    • Think about what your everyday interactions are conveying to your kids
      • Kids draw strong inferences from the way their parents react to their mistakes
      • Related – The correlation between a parent’s vs. a child’s belief about the malleability of intelligence is quite weak
        • Why? – Parents tend to believe either mistakes are good or bad for growth/learning
          • So… if a parent’s reaction to a child’s mistake is negative, even if the parent has a growth mindset, this can be interpreted by the child as evidence that the parent believes in a fixed mindset (which the kid then embodies)
  • How should you respond to a child’s mistake (or something like a bad grade)? 
    • Engage the child in learning from their mistakes (see how they can learn from the bad grade)
  • A few practical tips:
    • “We have two kids who are 6 and 4. When the kids are bicycling and they say that they’re tired, we always say to them, it’s when you’re tired that your muscles are getting stronger. The idea is to reframe for them what it means to be tired. It’s not necessarily a reason to stop, but this is your opportunity to have that growth experience. It’s when things are difficult that you are learning.”
    • “I think it’s important for you to have empathy towards yourself as a parent. The standard of parenting is not going to be perfection. The standard of parenting is going to be commitment to a process.”
      • Commit to the process of trying to be the best parent you can be
    • If a child sees you handle an error or mistake in a positive way, they’re likely to mimic

Interventions in Relationships

  • During a fight with your partner, always consider the following question – “How might a neutral third party, who wants the best for all, view this conflict?”
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