Which types of beliefs about our world will motivate us to act? This question was at the heart of my dissertation research, and the answers are very important for those of us who care about the “big picture” and wonder how we can possibly be effective as citizens or advocates.
If you’ve been following along, you’ll remember that my study was about “metanarratives,” beliefs about the nature of our societies and our roles in the world that can be encapsulated into very brief statements, along the lines of “We used to live in harmony with nature but now we don’t,” or “If we don’t watch out, illegal aliens and freeloaders will destroy our way of life.” In my first post, I reported about the relationships between broad metanarrative themes and personal characteristics, like political affiliations and gender. In my second post, I wrote about the types of narrative elements (storylike features) in metanarratives, which included goals, techniques for creating a special focus, and especially the “genre” of the metanarrative, a kind of evaluative gist of how things are going over time, like “progress” or a “looming catastrophe.”
Translating Beliefs into Actions
For me, the big question in my dissertation was whether these narrative elements might be related to the degree that people are acting consistently with their metanarrative beliefs in their daily lives. For example, are Progress beliefs more motivating than Stability beliefs? Do Looming Catastrophes get us moving, or do we just give up?
To address these question, I had the survey software randomly identify, for each person, four of the metanarrative beliefs that they said they agreed strongly with, and then ask them how much this belief was reflected in their life for each of these categories of action:
• choice of career
• use of leisure time (like volunteering)
• spending money
• joining groups (like clubs or religious organizations)
• things one reads or watches
• things one talks or writes about
Honestly, there were a lot of metanarratives in the survey for which I thought some of these options made no sense. Career choice, especially – we can’t all be activists, politicians, soldiers, diplomats, and the like. Nevertheless, it turned out that people really did think their beliefs were reflected in each of these categories for each of the metanarratives. There were differences, though. The responses that people made for voting were often quite different from the others (“uncorrelated”), and the others all tended to go together (“correlated”). In my analyses, I decided to look at them separately, as voting vs. lifestyle choices.
How Belief Genres Influence Action
Combining the activity information from the survey with the metanarrative coding I described last time, we get several key results:
(1) Metanarratives that belonged to genres with a sense of suspense were more likely to inspire action than those that did not. By “sense of suspense,” I mean that there was an ongoing problem with no resolution yet, and people might take two possible paths, which could resolve the problem or not. These genres were Progress, Looming Catastrophe, Restoration, and even Prior Fall. The less inspiring ones were Stability, Triumphalist, and Romantic Saga. (Check out the prior post for definitions of those genres, if you’re wondering.)
(2) When people strongly believe in metanarratives about future improvements (Progress and Restoration), they’re more likely to make lifestyle choices consistent with those beliefs.
(3) When people strongly believe in metanarratives about declines, threats, and losses (Looming Catastrophe and Prior Fall), they’re less likely to organize their lives around the beliefs, but the beliefs are more strongly associated with deciding how to vote.
(4) And finally, it was also interesting to see that the older respondents (the web sample) were more likely to act consistently with beliefs that had a more historical reference (Restoration and Prior Fall) than were the students, who were more inspired by those that just referenced the future (Progress, Looming Catastrophe).
Caveats: If the survey were longer and included more metanarratives, then I could make these claims even more strongly… but the survey was plenty long as it was. Also, some metanarratives are clearly more easy to act consistently with in one’s personal life than others, and it’s possible that this could confound the finding about genres, if the easier or harder ones tended to group together in the same genres, but I don’t think that’s the case. And finally, for this part of the study I was again focusing on the data for the lifelong U.S. residents, and Americans have historically tended to be more optimistic about progress and being able to “change the world” than people from many other countries. Anyway…
What Does This Mean?
Any time in politics or social movements that someone makes a case that we should care about an issue, there will inevitably be a metanarrative somewhere in their message, telling us about potential directions and consequences, but their choice of metanarrative – the type of framing they use – could make a big difference in how or whether people will take action. In particular, this study shows that when it comes to the big issues, people would rather organize their lives around making improvements, not averting threats or staying put.
And that means if we think that individuals’ lifestyle choices are an important part of addressing global climate change (or any other big problem), we ought to stop talking about avoiding disaster (catastrophe) or even sustainability (stability). Rather, we should be finding ways to describe our changes as progress or restoration. What could this look like? Maybe we should focus on energy efficiency as a key indicator of progress, a sign that we’re becoming more responsible citizens of the Earth. And maybe healthy, simpler lifestyles could be described as regaining our ability to live compatibly with other species.
Bottom line: If we want people to act consistently with their beliefs about the world, we’ll be more effective if we stop talking about what we might lose. Instead, let’s make a point to stress all that we have to gain.