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February 22, 2013

Save your teens, save your marriage: Stanford's brief interventions

Short psychological interventions can change preconceptions, altering how people interact with their world. Effects are potent, cumulative and long lasting. Recent Stanford research reveals the benefits of brief interventions in both aggressive teens and antagonistic spouses.

By Paul Gabrielsen

Teaching teens that people can change is key to helping them become less aggressive and more compassionate, says Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck. (Photo: Mark Estes / Courtesy of Stanford University)

In less than half an hour, a Stanford psychologist can improve your marriage. Another psychologist can decrease teen aggression in high school in just a few class periods.

It's not magic. It's the power of brief psychological interventions.

Although the word "intervention" conjures up images of last-ditch efforts to change a wayward loved one, psychological interventions are defined as any actions designed to bring about a change in behavior. Brief interventions, at the core of several Stanford psychologists' research, change a belief or idea that underlies a person's actions. Effects of that change can be cumulative over time and surprisingly long lasting. Applied in the right context, brief interventions can change a person's world.

People can change

Few worlds need change as badly as a bullied or excluded teen's. Recent Stanford PhD graduate David Yeager and psychology Professor Carol Dweck sought to understand why some teens respond to exclusion with violent revenge while others are resilient. The researchers hypothesized that aggression may arise from a belief that people's traits are fixed and their identities as a "good" or "bad" person can't change.

"If you live in a world where the kind of person someone is, is fixed, and then they treat you badly, then things like forgiveness and working it out with them don't seem like good investments of your time, while dreaming of revenge does," said Yeager, now at the University of Texas at Austin.

To test their theory, Yeager taught a group of 145 high school students a simple principle – that people can change. Peer surveys reinforced the message, and students expressed the concept to future students in a writing assignment.

"We don't teach them that people will change," Dweck said, "or that change is easy, or it's their job to change the bully, but rather that people are capable of change over time."

Eight months later, the teens faced a hypothetical peer-exclusion situation. Students who'd heard Yeager's message responded with less aggression and more compassion, and even passed up an opportunity to take revenge. The results were published online last week in the journal Child Development. In a second paper, also appearing in Child Development, teens at a low-income public school who learned that people can change reacted with 40 percent less actual aggressive behavior a month after the intervention.

An objective referee

In another recent paper, Stanford psychologists Greg Walton and James Gross used brief interventions to improve marital happiness. Their paper is forthcoming in Psychological Science. Eli Finkel of Northwestern University led the research team.

Happiness in marriage declines over time, they write, because of accumulated negative feelings from disagreements.

"One person says something nasty," Walton said. "The other person feels hurt and gets angry themselves. It goes back and forth."

Walton, Gross, and their colleagues sought to reverse the downward trend.

Over the course of a year, the team administered three writing exercises, each about seven minutes long, to 60 couples in a treatment group. The exercise asked couples to re-examine a recent major fight from the viewpoint of an imaginary impartial third party who wants the best for all – and then explore how they could adopt this perspective in future conflicts. While happiness in the control group's marriages continued its steady decline, happiness in the treatment group stabilized after the first intervention.

The effects of the intervention are cumulative, Walton said, as couples continue to interact with each other long after the actual intervention. The intervention didn't make couples fight less. But it broke the cycle of "nastiness," making conflict less distressing.

"When we think about social problems, often it's helpful to think in terms of a movie, not a snapshot," Walton said. "Psychological interventions can change the cycle of these interactions, and thus affect outcomes long into the future."

One of Walton's previous interventions helped dispel the worry among incoming college students that they don't belong in college. The one-hour intervention improved ethnic minority students' grades over the next three years.

"Those worries are normal, and they pass with time," Walton said. "They're not proof that you don't belong. Knowing that, it's easier to make friends, find mentors and gain traction – and then do better in college over time."

Scaling up

Brief interventions are potent and promising. But as with any powerful medicine, they're most effective under a doctor's – or psychologist's – specific prescription.

"These interventions feel like brief packages that pack a punch," Yeager said. "But in fact, they're built on a precise psychology, so we need to be as careful when scaling them as we were when we developed them."

In a 2011 paper, Yeager and Walton compared the seemingly miraculous effects of brief interventions to the marvel of a 75-ton airplane rising gracefully into the air – in both cases, multiple forces work together to produce the effects. Just as engineers design a plane with competing forces – gravity, lift, thrust and drag – in mind, psychologists need to be aware of the balance of social forces acting on a person to design an effective intervention.

Stanford doctoral students Dave Paunesku and Carissa Romero are already working with Dweck, Walton, Yeager and others to bring brief educational interventions to schools nationwide. Their website, perts.net (an acronym for Project for Education Research That Scales), recruits schools to participate in pilot web-based interventions. Preliminary results are encouraging.

Brief interventions are gaining traction in the psychology world.

"I think these interventions have the potential to be transformative," Walton said. "By changing how you interact with the social environment, a psychological intervention can put people in a different place in the world."

Paul Gabrielsen is an intern at the Stanford News Service.

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Contact

Carol Dweck, Psychology: (650) 725-2421, dweck@stanford.edu

Greg Walton, Psychology: (650) 498-4284, gwalton@stanford.edu

Dan Stober, Stanford News Service: (650) 721-6965, dstober@stanford.edu

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