A Story to Remember


From simple amusement to helping the world.
No matter if we are trying to help politicians understand the importance
of climate change mitigation or informing a broader audience about
consumer choices benefitting themselves and the planet, the goal is to
create behavior change.

Let’s assume, we manage to overcome the initial barriers. The next piece of the puzzle is to translate this openness into behavior change. Two of the best models for understanding behavior change are the “COM-B” framework (Capability, Opportunity, Motivation, Behavior) and BJ Fogg’s “B-MAP” (Behavior = Motivation, Ability and Prompt).

I don’t want to go into detail here but at the core of it, one needs the capability, opportunity, and motivation to create a behavior where capability and opportunity both positively impact motivation and the behavior, in turn, positively impacts all three. Opportunity includes a prompt or calls to action without which the behavior will not happen. Overall, a virtuous cycle in action. However, this assumes that our brain is at a point where it is willing to activate this cycle. It requires a lot of motivation to get to this point in the first place. We need to motivate the audience to work through the piece of media (i.e. finish consuming it) and then motivate them to take action based on the information provided. This is no small challenge.

In Psychic Numbing and Genocide, Paul Slovic explains that motivation is driven by complex emotions such as empathy and attention as well as affect. Affect, in turn, is highly influenced by images, visual or otherwise, to which positive and negative feelings become attached. As such, one of the most effective ways to generate motivation is storytelling, an art form combining all these drivers. There is just something wonderful about storytelling, an activity that is considered an intrinsic part of what makes us human. And let’s be honest, most of us prefer reading or watching a captivating thriller over a factual publication.

I love Dr. Paul Zak’s article How Stories Change The Brain (full disclosure Dr. Paul Zak and the equally brilliant Dr. Jorge Barazza as well as the amazing team at their venture Immersion Neuroscience are Hidden Worlds Entertainment affiliates). He investigated narrative arcs and their neurological impact and found that these have a major impact on empathy and decision making. The team at Immersion Neuroscience later extended these principles into the concept of Immersion but the mechanics remain valid: a properly structured narrative, through its peaks and valleys, creates an interplay of tension and release generating the emotional buy-in that ultimately drives action.

What does that mean? It means that more often than not we are awful at motivating people simply because we neglect the element of storytelling. Don’t believe that storytelling can open peoples’ minds to new ideas and thereby influence, even change, society?

Have you heard of the movie Philadelphia featuring Tom Hanks? One of the first mainstream movies acknowledging HIV/AIDS, it often comes up when discussing the impact of cinema. A good story captivates you and you don’t put down that book or switch off the TV until it’s over. Moreover, by framing the message through effective, and emotionally compelling, storytelling we significantly increase the odds of stimulating the brain to consider behavior change.

There is an ongoing debate in the conservation space on whether hope or fear is better at stimulating behavior change. Grist provides a solid overview here. There is good scientific support for both utilizing concepts of “Loss Aversion” and “Gain Frame”. Interestingly, while our own research concluded that upside-focused messaging is better at influencing people than purely loss-aversion-focused narratives, the same research supports the narrative argument. As such it increasingly appears that the message itself may be amplified or reduced depending on how the said message is communicated. Story is key. Interestingly, we see some movement in the scientific community. For example, Thomas Daum published an interesting thought piece on how the technological revolution in farming will shape our future, using science-fiction storytelling as a medium to lay out his thoughts.

With a compelling story in place, several tools can be used to further refine this stage of communication. For example, we know that shocking or fearful content can increase memory, recall, and positive behavior, presumably due to the tension it creates. Other tools include likeability and similarity, concepts that should be familiar from the initial discussion on attention.

For example, in Influence, Robert Cialdini highlights research analyzing subjects that were critical of Darwinian principles. Here, subjects displayed an improved attitude toward evolution when they learned that George Clooney endorsed a book that took a pro-evolutionary stance. Yes, Mr. Handsome himself isn’t just able to sell you coffee, but also convince you that you, in fact, originate from apelike ancestors. This is also relevant to climate change. Brandi Morris showed in Stories vs. Facts: Triggering Emotion And Action-Taking On Climate Change how a heightened risk perception of climate change was achieved in typically disengaged audiences when the messenger was politically conservative. This shows that the messenger matters as much, if not even more, than the message.

As a last tool, consider a powerful statement from Mother Theresa: “If I look at the mass I will never act. If I look at the one, I will.”

The aforementioned research by Paul Slovic and others has shown how statistics of mass murder or genocide, no matter how large the number, fail to spark the correct emotional response. The focus on an individual, however, achieves the necessary emotional connection and motivates action.

For example, what would you say is the first thing you recall when thinking about Afghanistan? The invasion 20 years ago? The nearly 111,000 civilians have been killed or injured? My guess is the majority of us would mention the image of a baby being passed over a wall into the safe hands of a US Marine. Who doesn’t get a weird feeling seeing this and thinking of their loved ones? Or perhaps the image posted by Major Sergeant Nicole Gee holding a baby in her hand stating that she loves her job, days before falling victim to a cowardly terrorist attack? Statistics vs stories. The Syrian Refugee Crisis is another perfect case study. When toddler Alan Kurdi died in September 2015, a cumulative 250,000 lives had already been lost as a result of the crisis. However, this one event managed to spark global outrage. I was contemplating including the picture in this article but ended up deciding against it as it is simply too heartbreaking.

And with that last memory of a truly shocking event, I want to close this chapter. Why? For two reasons: One, did you remember the Syrian Refugee Crisis before I brought it up? Most likely it was not top of mind. Memories fade so stories must be translated into actions that must be sustained through habits for them to matter long term. Secondly, we need to remember the suffering that our world is facing and that we, as professionals in the media and entertainment industry, don’t just have an opportunity to contribute to the world’s betterment but an absolute obligation to do so.

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