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Changing the way people perceive problems in their lives will help society too, Stanford scholar says

Psychologist Gregory Walton is co-creator of a database of “wise interventions’’ to help individuals and the wider society with problems of education, health, parenting, relationships and intergroup conflict. (Image credit: L.A. Cicero)

Nov 5 2018

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Faculty, In the News

Drawing on an extensive body of research, Stanford psychologist Gregory Walton lays out a roadmap to positively influence the way people think about themselves and the world around them. These changes could improve society, too.

By Melissa De Witte

Every day, people try to make sense of challenges in their lives. But sometimes their explanations get in the way of solving them, said Stanford psychologist Gregory Walton in a new paper in Psychological Review.

Whether it is a college student feeling like he doesn’t belong at school, a partner concerned about a spat with a loved one or a parent worried about a crying baby – people often draw negative conclusions about situations they face.

These interpretations, Walton said, are critically important because they can lead to problematic behaviors, such as in the case of the student, poor performance at school.

That’s why for those who help shape environments for others – a college administrator, a psychologist or a social worker, for example – anticipating the questions people ask themselves is a crucial step when looking at why some of life’s most challenging issues arise, said Walton, who co-authored the paper with University of Virginia professor Timothy Wilson.

“These can be deeply personal questions that people might not even be aware of, such as: ‘Do I belong in school?’ or ‘Does my partner love me?’ or ‘Am I good parent?’’ said Walton, who is an associate professor of psychology at Stanford School of Humanities and Sciences. “Too often we lack definitive information about these issues, so we try to construct answers as best we can. Sometimes these answers are pejorative, and lead to more problems.”

Instead, Walton and Wilson suggest a new method that prioritizes both the individual and social contexts. They hope that this approach – what they call “wise interventions” – will be a useful starting point for people working in fields such as policy, health, psychology and education who want to facilitate behaviors and attitudes among people they work with that help them accomplish their goals.