Stories-About-Us: How They Work

In my last few blog posts, I’ve been focusing on our “stories about us” (“metanarratives”) – the topic of the book I’m writing. I hope the book will reach a broad audience, because it’s vital information we all need to know, especially if we ever want to overcome the toxic polarization that prevails in the United States, the United Kingdom, and other struggling democracies.

This month, though, I’m writing about this topic for an academic journal, using more formal language and concepts. Today I made a figure for my article, and I thought, why not share it with everyone? So I made a new version with friendlier language, just for you. In my last few blog posts, I’ve talked a bit about “stories about us” (“metanarratives”) – the topic of the book I’m writing. I hope the book will reach a broad audience, because it’s vital information we all need to know, especially if we ever want to overcome the toxic polarization that prevails in the United States, the United Kingdom, and other struggling democracies. This month, though, I’m writing about this topic for an academic journal, using more formal language and concepts. Today I made a figure for my article, and I thought, why not share it with everyone? So I made a new version with friendlier language, just for you. (If you’d really rather see me using proper terminology, here’s the formal version.


This drawing shows how we process “stories about us,” like “Climate change could destroy our way of life,” or “We need to make America great again,” or “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,” or my favorite bumper sticker, “Visualize whirled peas.”

We start with the message, on the left. The big red arrows show what the message offers to its audience members, and then each of us is the person on the right, encountering the message and accepting or rejecting it.

The first element is the basic message. Let’s use the Statue of Liberty example. It says that the United States is a haven for the world’s oppressed. “We” are the welcoming country. Another important actor is involved, the “huddled masses” – at that time, mostly Europeans. The poem tells us that adding these people to our country makes it better, so it’s a story of Improvement.

However, just saying, “We want poor people to come to America” isn’t tremendously attention-getting. If we want people to heed this message, we need to make it a lot more interesting. And we did – the poem is carved on the base of the statue, which stands in New York’s harbor and welcomes new arrivals. The association of the message with this vivid image makes it far more emotionally resonant.

Now let’s take the example of climate change. The “basic story-of-us” is that if we don’t change our economy, the sea level will rise and humanity is going to suffer. It’s about a group we’re a part of, “Humanity,” both as the victim and the cause of the problem. Another important actor is involved, “Nature,” powerful and potentially beyond our control.

Here the message itself is dramatic – it’s about urgency and a last chance to act. We don’t have to work hard to make it attention-getting. It’s easy to pluck on our heart-strings with pictures of polar bears losing their homes, right now, and as we’ve all heard, many major cities could find themselves in serious trouble within our lifetimes.

As you can see, the interesting and exciting bits that tell us it’s really important to pay attention can be vivid and dramatic. Anything beyond the ordinary counts, and the more it captures our attention, the more powerful the message can be. As we’ll see later on, sometimes the drama is a turn-off, too. To avoid that happening, some messages are crafted with much more subtle “interesting bits,” like the “Morning again in America” campaign slogan for Ronald Reagan I mentioned in my recent post. In that one, the simple word “morning” is evocative without being dramatic.

So, a message is out there, and we’ve encountered it; we’re paying attention. The message is offering us three things: Emotion, Meaning, and Identity.

The emotion we feel from the message helps to solidify the importance of the message for us. If we accept the message, it means we care about it; we’ll remember it. We may feel pride in our welcoming country; it provided a home for our own ancestors, when they left the places they lived before. If we immigrated here recently, we’ll also feel gratitude and excitement that our families may be able to join us. We may feel alarmed about the prospect of climate change, and helpless or frustrated that we can’t do much on our own to prevent it. That’s the other thing emotion can do – motivate us to act, if we can.

Meaning has two, ahem, meanings. The first way we get meaning from these stories-about-us is that it helps us make sense of the world. Why are there so many people in my community who haven’t yet learned English? Right, America is a welcoming haven; maybe they left bad circumstances elsewhere. Why have we had so many more forest fires in the late summer in the Western U.S. lately? Part of climate change means the forests are a lot more dry, and a summer lightning storm can spark major wildfires.

The other type of meaning we can get from these group stories is the opportunity to make our lives more meaningful by participating in them. Anyone in the military has shown they value the American way of life, and their service to our country gives them a place of honor in the Stability story. Those of us with careers in science are contributing to a Progress story – we hope what we learn will make things better for others.

One of the most important things a message like this offers us is a way to connect our personal identity with other people. We’re social animals; we want to fit in well with the groups we’ve chosen to care about. Messages about who we are and where we’re headed are all about this “we” – if we accept one of these messages as true, we’re making a statement that we belong to the people for whom this message is true. (Even a conspiracy theorist who’s making a point of rejecting the general group wants to feel some connection with the supposedly more elite group of insiders who share their perspective.)

Accepting the message confirms our identity. It may also challenge our identity, if we believe one thing but other people we care about believe the opposite. We may find ourselves trying to convert these other people, or avoiding them, or sometimes changing our personal beliefs to match theirs if we value them highly enough. The messages can create new identities, too, as when a new country is born.

So a message is out there in our world, we’ve encountered it, and it’s offering us emotion, meaning, and identity. What happens?

People used to believe that when we’re faced with new information, we think rationally and carefully about it to make up our minds. Nope, that’s not practical, and that’s not what we do. All of us, even the most analytically minded, start off with mental shortcuts (heuristics) to decide how much of our time and effort the message is worth. First, is it plausible or just plain nuts? If someone told me that Canada was about to bomb my city, honestly, I can just dismiss that outright.

We also take into account who the source is – is it coming from someone we trust? Americans started taking the COVID-19 virus a lot more seriously when Tom Hanks was diagnosed with it – he’s the kind of celebrity people respect. On the other hand, Al Gore made a huge mistake when he started publicizing climate change without, for example, someone from the military by his side. Senior members of the U.S. Army and Navy have issued numerous reports on climate change as a serious risk and a national security threat (at least, they did until President Trump told them to stop). But it’s hard to imagine someone with a more partisan reputation than Al Gore, who’d served as a Democratic presidential candidate and vice president, and it was easy for Republicans without the military’s inside knowledge to dismiss Gore’s work.

Much of the time, we make up our minds about new “stories about us” very quickly, based on these mental shortcuts. If the message is something that makes sense, lets us feel good about ourselves, fits in well with the beliefs of people we respect, and comes from someone we trust, then we usually agree with it. And if it seems wacko, makes us feel unhappy or threatened, comes from someone we don’t value, and doesn’t fit what “people like us” believe, we usually disagree with it. It’s very simple.

Climate change is especially easy to dismiss. We have a source that roughly half of Americans don’t like because of his political party and whatever other information they’ve learned about him from their past experiences. We have a message that’s dramatic, which triggers skepticism in anyone disinclined to value strong emotions in such messages, and the associated emotion is negative, which motivates anyone who’d rather be happy to find ways to discredit it. There’s no clear villain, or rather, the villain is all of us, and that’s not ideal. And once one political party decided it didn’t believe in it, a strong incentive was created for all the individuals in that party to follow suit. imagine you’re thinking of putting all your retirement savings into a gorgeous tropical island property that’s barely a foot above sea level. Now you really need your beliefs to be accurate, and you’ll likely want to put some effort into knowing and verifying the facts behind the potential belief we’ve been offered – doing some actual thinking. You’ll listen to scientists, collect your own data, learn what you can about probabilities and risks, and try to overcome whatever natural biases we all have.

What happens if we believe a story-about-us that’s fit for a long time or has had a solid body of evidence behind it, but we suddenly we discover that our trusted leaders disagree with what we think? Then it gets more complicated. We can’t just go with our mental shortcut reactions, because they conflict with each other. The most common thing here is that we use what’s called “motivated reasoning” to internally argue away our old beliefs in favor of new ones that match the rest of the group we value belonging to. We’ll convince ourselves that times have changed, or that politicians are less biased than scientists – whatever it takes.

As Dan M. Kahan, a Yale professor of law and psychology, puts it,

“…what an ordinary citizen believes about the effect of private gun possession, the contribution of humans to climate change, and like facts will typically have no meaningful impact on the risks these states of affairs pose or on adoption of policies related to them. The reliable activation of affective stances that convey group allegiance will be the only use most citizens have for such beliefs. In such circumstances, politically motivated reasoning can be understood to be perfectly rational.”

In other words, if you don’t think you can make a difference, you may as well pick the side that lets you fit in with the people you want to fit in with.

That’s it for now. If you’d like to learn more about mental shortcuts versus serious thinking, I recommend the book Thinking, Fast and Slow by Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman. (He used to work at Oregon Research Institute!)

And if you’d like to learn more about what we can do with our concerns about climate change and its denial, I’m hoping to post soon about the work being done by my friend and colleague, Joe Brewer. Here’s a quick look at Joe’s ideas.

As Joe would say, “Onward, fellow humans.”

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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1 Response to Stories-About-Us: How They Work

  1. Pingback: A farewell to facts | Living In Dialogue

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