What are wise interventions?


Wise Interventions

Psychologically “wise” interventions draw on the history and theoretical tradition of social psychology to address social problems and help people flourish. Their central feature is that they address what psychologists call “subjective construal”—or how people make sense of or interpret themselves, other people, or a social situation.

  • When a new parent struggles to calm a crying baby, does she worry that she might be a “bad mom” or that her child might be “a bad baby”?
  • When a student receives critical academic feedback, does he worry that his teacher may have judged him as unintelligent?
  • When a new college student feels lonely or isolated on campus, does she wonder, “Can people like me belong here?”
  • When groups are in conflict, do people may wonder, “Can groups ever change?”

People’s answers to psychological questions are important because they are a proximate driver of behavior. When people draw negative or pejorative inferences, they can behave in ways that compound challenges.

If the student infers that his teacher thinks he is dumb, he is less likely to talk with the teacher after school about something he doesn’t understand. He may even act out in class. And that could set in motion a negative cycle with the teacher—that prevents both him and his teacher from achieving their goals over time.

Yet increasingly, research shows that meanings can be shifted. They function like working hypotheses. As people try to figure things out (“Does my teacher think I’m dumb?”), they respond to even modest cues that imply different interpretations. This is particularly true in new situations or contexts.

That means that approaches well-tuned to the concerns or questions a person has in a context can have a significant effect on how they make sense of matters.

And yet, how people make sense of things readily becomes self-confirming. If a college student feels she does not belong on campus, she’s not likely to go to office hours and meet with a professor. But if she did feel that sense of belonging she might have met with the professor, who could have become a mentor to her and supported her and her feeling of belonging on campus going forward.

So, meanings often function like clay —they are malleable at key times (such as during a transition), yet they can become fixed— embedded in the structure of people’s lives—for better or for worse.

Thus, it is important to help people draw adaptive meanings at key times, interpretations that support better functioning, like improved achievement in school, better health, or greater well-being. Wise interventions use precise, theory- and research-based techniques to do just this.

In addressing subjective meanings, wise interventions complement other major approaches to social change, such as improving the objective quality of situations (e.g., greater learning opportunities in school) or the objective qualities of people (e.g., greater intelligence or self-control).

What does “wise” mean? It doesn’t mean “good” or “superior." It just means psychologically wisewise to the meanings people draw. To learn more, see Walton & Wilson (2018) or this research brief published by the Mindset Scholars Network.

Drawing on supplemental tables published in Walton & Wilson (2018), this website summarizes more than 325 wise interventions in diverse problem spaces, and organizes them to show how they relate to one another and to social psychological theory.

Most of the interventions in this database have not yet been designed for widespread adoption but they illustrate the applicability of this approach to a variety of social priorities and can inform future research questions and studies.

You can search for wise interventions:

  • by the family of psychological process the intervention targets,
  • by the specific psychological question people ask about themselves and the situation that the intervention addresses (e.g., “Does this event or experience mean that I don’t belong?”).
  • by the social problem area
  • by the intervention technique

If you are a researcher and would like to submit a new intervention for inclusion in the database, you can see instructions and criteria here.

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