Stories and societies: World Beliefs Survey, part two

Beliefs about the groups that we’re part of, like political and religious beliefs, inevitably involve stories. Many of these stories involve actions and consequences (things that happened), or relationships between groups, and many of them tell us what we ought to be doing. When they’re in simple form, such that we’re not even necessarily aware of them until someone points them out, these storylike beliefs about groups are called “metanarratives,” and that’s what I studied in my dissertation research.

Last time I wrote about patterns in these beliefs, common themes that statistically “clustered together” for the people who took my survey. I had planned this time to tell you about how certain kinds of metanarrative beliefs were more likely to inspire action among their believers, but now I’m thinking it would make more sense to talk first about the different ways these beliefs involve story elements. This will lay a better foundation for my next post, on beliefs and action.

Story Elements

What makes a story? In the very most basic terms, a story needs three things: a situation, a problem within that situational context, and a possible or realized outcome for that problem. Three little talking pigs living near each other (situation) are plagued by a talking wolf with mighty lungs (problem), and despite a few setbacks, they build adequate housing and the wolf is thwarted (outcome). Most stories aren’t very engaging without a greater level of detail than that, but metanarratives are a special case, because they are about ourselves. They can be very simple and still very powerful.

Many metanarratives are about how things came to be the way they are, like the Fall from Eden story, or the founding of a nation. Others are about a group’s purpose or destiny, like Woodrow Wilson’s 1917 speech telling us that America’s mission is to make the world safe for democracy. Of course, some can fit both of those categories, and others don’t fit either, like those that are more along the lines of “These are the things that always happen to us.”

So, we can say that metanarratives might fit the basic story structure (with a situation, a problem, and an outcome), and they might involve a goal for the group (“make the world safe for democracy” or “save us from global climate catastrophe”). My advisor and two other students helped me classify my list of metanarratives to see how well they met these criteria. Unfortunately, we didn’t agree at all on the first criteria, but we did well on recognizing goal presence.

Genre: Which Direction Are We Headed?

In literature, there are several classic genres, such as comedy, tragedy, and romance. We can think of metanarratives as having genres as well, based on an evaluation of how things are going over time. For example, in a Progress metanarrative, things have been getting better, and we expect this trend to continue into the future.

Check out Figure 1. This figure presents most of the main genres for metanarratives. The second one, Prior Fall, tells us that things were much better in the past, but they’ve gone downhill. The Fall from Eden story clearly fits this type, as do the many stories of a past golden age, whether we’re referring to the classical world, the time of the Prophet, primordial times when our ancestors were more proud and valiant, or past centuries or millennia when we lived in greater harmony with nature.

Figure 1:


The Looming Catastrophe genre tells us that unless we take action, things are going to fall apart. Examples include global climate change, an influx of needy immigrants, or a religious apocalypse. This genre applies to metanarratives where action can set matters right. I didn’t include metanarratives where nothing can be done (Tragedy), because I was interested in the relationship between genres and motivation, and if nothing can be done, what’s there to motivate us? I think now that this was an oversight. Derrick Jensen, for example, has written about people who think global warming is inevitable, and it would have been worthwhile to study this type of belief too.

In the Recovery or Restoration genre, things were wonderful in the past and not so great now, but it’s possible to get back to the way things were in the good old days. This genre essentially combines the Prior Fall and Progress metanarratives, although separately they may not imply the other part at all (Prior Falls may not all be resolvable, and Progress often arises out of disorder and ignorance, not a glorious past). The nationalist movements of the late 1800s and early 1900s often used this genre, revitalizing folklore to inspire people to identify with their ancestors, and suggesting that independence would lead to much greater happiness for the group. Our research on militant extremists (terrorists) showed that this storyline has been very popular in their worldviews as well.

In a Stability metanarrative, things don’t change, and this can lead to a sense of security and “rightness.” A Triumphalist metanarrative combines Progress in the past with Stability in the present and future (for example, “We brought civilization to the native people of our continent,” or “We won the Cold War, and now we’re the Lone Superpower”). Finally, in a Romantic Saga (like the “Perils of Pauline” in silent films), things get better, then worse, then better, then worse, without any long-term resolution. None of these three types would be expected to engender much of a sense of suspense, because if there’s a “problem,” we don’t expect that the “outcome” would resolve things, or else it already did and we’re just basking in the glory.

When selecting metanarratives for the survey, I took care to include metanarratives that might appeal to liberals and conservatives for each genre. In general, my coding team agreed with me about classifying most of the metanarratives, but we didn’t agree on all of them.

Selective Focus and Exceptional Circumstances

Stories always focus on one set of problems and characters, and sometimes one perspective, to the exclusion of others. They leave out extraneous details, and they try to convince us that the story we’re hearing is worth our attention. Metanarratives can do this too, using ideas about exceptional circumstances to try to convince us that one belief, rather than another, is especially important.

For example, some metanarratives tell us that the distant past, or some version of the distant future, could be described as an ideal state. Metanarratives can tell us that we’ve been chosen for a special mission. They can refer to unique or only opportunities and get us to think in extreme terms (“This is our last chance to save the world”). They can bring in sacred or divine elements, or they can try to evoke the same kind of feelings without religion, with “secular sacred” concepts like purity, righteousness, and absolutes, or conversely, evil.

My expectation was that when people believe in metanarratives with these exceptional elements, then they’ll be especially motivated to act accordingly. It was interesting to find, though, that people were much less likely to believe in metanarratives that had these elements. I haven’t separated out the ones that referenced religion versus those that didn’t, so we don’t know how to interpret this skepticism. Maybe people tend to be put off by exceptional claims in general, or maybe this finding just reflects the fraction of the survey respondents who rejected religious beliefs in general.

Whew! With this background, then, next time we’ll be better prepared to talk about the relationship between beliefs and action.

Which story elements and metanarrative genres are the most motivating? Tune in next time to find out!

About Laura Akers, Ph.D.

I'm a research psychologist at Oregon Research Institute, and I'm writing a book about meta-narratives, the powerful collective stories we share about who we are and where we're headed. My interests include beliefs and worldviews, ethics, motivation, and relationships, both among humans and between humans and the natural world.
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3 Responses to Stories and societies: World Beliefs Survey, part two

  1. Robin Turner says:

    Love the little diagrams! I note the Recovery one is very popular in the counter-cultural Left. “We are stardust, we are golden, and we’ve got to get ourselves back to the garden.”

    • Laura says:

      Nice example, Robin. I wonder, too, if our collective Tolkienphilia might be a gratification of this type of thinking on an individual, immersive level.

  2. Pingback: “And just how do we go about changing the world, anyway?”: World Beliefs Survey, part three « Living In Dialogue

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