Storytelling for behaviour change

A few weeks ago, I found myself discussing the role of storytelling in behaviour change with Sarah Dillon, one of the lecturers in Cambridge University’s Department of English. As a “techie” by background, visiting the Department of English was new territory for me, and when I learnt that Sarah’s academic specialisation was in “poststructuralist philosophy” I wondered whether I was going to understand a word she said.

Nevertheless, I’d been tempted into the English Department because I find the topic of behaviour change quite fascinating. We all say we want things to change for the better, we call for innovation to solve our problems and know that innovation always involves change.   However, when we ourselves need to change what we do or believe, we often resist the change strongly, even if it’s neither rational nor in our best interests.

We’re particularly reluctant to accept the need to change if we feel it contradicts our deeply held beliefs. For example I’ve been told by one of his former colleagues that the 1980’s Chancellor of the Exchequer, Nigel Lawson, is so ardent in downplaying the risks of climate change because he genuinely thinks those responding to it are part of a conspiracy to stop free enterprise. For the many entrepreneurs and householders who’re busy exploiting the opportunities offered by a low carbon economy this sounds barmy. But given that Nigel Lawson thinks he’s fighting off a dangerous attack on his most fundamental values and beliefs, his resistance to change makes a bizarre kind of sense.

The classic techie approach to someone who seems to disregard factual evidence is to reemphasise the facts ever more strongly. The problem is that this can very easily just make the recipient’s resistance stronger, and the disagreement then escalates into an existential conflict. As we see in conflicts like the Gulf War, the spin-doctors then move in, spreading stories to demonise the other side, often with very little regard to the truth. The story about babies being tipped out of incubators by Saddam Hussein’s troops played a key role in mobilising public opinion behind the first Gulf War in 1991, but it was entirely fabricated.

Unsurprisingly the English department spends a lot of time thinking about storytelling. Sarah pointed out that facts don’t change hearts and minds, stories do.

There’s plenty of evidence of the power of stories in the world of organisational change. For example, Steve Denning’s book Springboard describes the way in which a simple 22 word story about a health worker in a tiny town in Zambia logging onto the website of the Centre for Disease Control in Atlanta, Georgia, galvanised change in the World Bank in 1996.

Sarah’s point however, was not just that stories change hearts and minds, but that fictional stories are even more effective than factual ones.

For a techie, the idea that a made up story is more effective than a real one is a surprising idea, but it makes a kind of sense. Most real life stories are often a bit boring, and you have to be very lucky if there’s an interesting true story to hand that conveys precisely the right message with real emotional punch.

Sarah points out that the most effective fiction for changing hearts and minds is ‘weird fiction’ particularly the whole class of dystopian speculative fiction like George Orwell’s 1984, Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale or Susanne Collins Hunger Games. These can be highly effective in subtly changing your worldview and beliefs, because the story takes you to an alternative version of the present from which you look back on your current world. When you come back, you see it differently.

For example, Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale is a quietly horrific tale of the life of one of the few fertile women in a world of catastrophically reduced fertility. As with all good speculative fiction, it describes a possible future, though not, I hope, a probable future. I first read it perhaps 20 years ago, and I think it still influences my underlying attitudes on fertility related issues.

For example, although Apple and Facebook’s recent offer to pay for their female staff to freeze their eggs may seem like a good offer to the ambitious female graduates they want to attract, in practice postponing children may well still mean childlessness. Preserving your youthful eggs doesn’t stop your body aging, and the success rate of IVF drops precipitously after 40. Will the next step be to offer aging senior executives the services of surrogate mothers to bear the children from their unused frozen eggs? This would be getting perilously close to the dystopia of The Handmaid’s Tale.

A good story, whether true or fictional, can help you think about and prepare for the future. Whether that future is good or bad, that has to be helpful.