Walton and Wilson (2018) identify four categories of intervention techniques. Click on each label to see how Walton and Wilson (2018) defined each category.
A classic study found that twice as many people cooperated when a prisoner’s dilemma activity was called “the Community Game” rather than “the Wall Street Game” (Liberman, Samuels, & Ross, 2004). A direct approach is to provide people a positive label that defines an otherwise ambiguous aspect of themselves, a social situation, or other people. This can motivate people to behave in accordance with the label (self-labeling: e.g., Miller, 1975; labeling of others: e.g., Rosenthal & Jacobson, 1968; situation-labeling: e.g., Goldstein et al., 2008). Directly labeling the self, however, can be more effective with children than with adolescents or adults, who may have more established self-views and may react against messages that appear coercive (Yeager, Dahl, & Dweck, 2017). Direct labels can also backfire if they imply that a personal quality is fixed, not an area in which people can grow. Thus, telling children “You’re so smart” can undermine their resilience to setbacks (Mueller & Dweck, 1998).
Prompting new meanings
Many interventions give people a basis for drawing a new inference but do not impose the inference itself. This can prompt people to reconsider how they think about themselves, others, or a situation—to revise their implicit “stories”—without directly telling them what to think (Wilson, 2011). For example, cleaning up a neighborhood implies that rule-breaking is inappropriate—a meaning-relevant change in situation—and can reduce crime (Braga & Bond, 2008). Other studies provide new facts, such as about the malleability of intelligence, altering how students make sense of their own struggles in school (Blackwell et al., 2007). Third, as any good lawyer knows, well-targeted questions can introduce new ways of thinking (Loftus & Palmer, 1974). Leading questions assume an idea and encourage people to elaborate on its significance, such as to understand how a compliment has a global meaning (Marigold et al., 2007). Moreover, as compared to direct appeals or the provision of overtly relevant information, questions may seem less controlling.
Increasing commitment through action
As research on cognitive dissonance shows, people are motivated to see their behaviors and attitudes as consistent (Aronson, 1968; Festinger, 1957). Thus, creating situations that inspire people to freely act in line with a new idea can cement psychological change. An especially powerful technique is saying-is-believing (Aronson, 1999; Higgins & Rholes, 1978). People are provided new information in a way that implies the idea is intuitive and one they already endorse. They are then asked to explain the idea to other people, often in the form of advice to younger or less experienced people than themselves, using examples from their own experience. Compared to simply providing information, this (1) encourages people to think about an idea actively rather than to just receive it passively, promoting learning; (2) treats people as helping others, leveraging prosocial motivations (Yeager, Henderson, et al., 2014), rather than as recipients of an intervention, a potentially stigmatizing role (Alvarez & van Leeuwen, 2015; see Yeager, Romero, et al., 2016), or of a persuasive appeal, which could be rejected; (3) encourages people to advocate for an idea, increasing its persuasive appeal (Festinger & Carlsmith, 1959); and (4) helps people connect the idea to their own lives and thus personalize and take ownership of it, allowing standardized materials to speak to diverse people. Saying-is-believing procedures have contributed to some of the largest gains in the literature (Aronson et al., 2002; Okonofua, Paunesku, & Walton, 2016; Paunesku et al., 2015; Walton & Cohen, 2011; Wilson & Linville, 1985; Yeager, Henderson, et al., 2014; Yeager, Johnson, et al., 2014: Yeager, Purdie-Vaughns et al., 2014, Experiment 3). Later, we will also discuss other commitment techniques based in dissonance theory.
Active reflection exercises
A variety of exercises help people reframe their experiences, often through writing. People do not receive new information and are not asked to change their behavior in any way. Instead, they write in open-ended ways in response to structured prompts that help them reinterpret events on their own. Some exercises focus on positive qualities, such as positive ways to think about the self, connections with others, or ways to complete goals, so as to help people cultivate these qualities (e.g., Chen, Chavez, Ong, & Gunderson, 2017; Sheldon & Lyubomirsky, 2006). Others focus on negative experiences, which can give rise to unproductive cycles of negative thoughts and feelings, and aim to help people think more clearly and find resolution or positive meaning in them to improve functioning (e.g., Pennebaker, 1997). A third group, value-affirmation exercises, aims to mitigate psychological threat by reconnecting people with core personal values (Cohen et al., 2009).