Why We Act

Tell a better story

We are able think rationally in the same way that we are able to sprint: for a short while, with great effort. Many prefer to do it as infrequently as possible. It is more accurate to say that we are storytellers. We interpret information narratively, rather than rationally. We infer cause. We aren’t satisfied with ‘what’, we demand ‘why’.

This is why we cannot defeat ideology with reason. Our political, ethical, and religious beliefs are guided by intuition, not evidence. Should we wish to change the behavior of an ideological faction, we must provide them with a narrative that better satisfies their emotional needs. Throughout history, populist narratives place groups of people as underdogs against an external threat: immigrants, capitalists, non-believers. These narratives wane only when they are replaced by more compelling narratives: innovation, opportunity, creative expression.

It works the same way internally. We attach narratives to our physiological senses. In doing so, we often miss the point.

Just as with groups, the most effective way to conquer a toxic narrative isn’t to repress it, but to replace it.

In a 2014 study, cognitive scientists asked participants to perform anxiety-inducing tasks like singing in front of a group.

The participants were then told to either say “I am anxious,” “I am excited,” or nothing before they broke into song. The “excited” participants not only felt more excited, and they also sang better, according to a computerized measurement of volume and pitch. Their on-and-on-and-ons were just more, well, on—perhaps because the participants themselves were.

The critical factor in reinterpreting the anxiety narrative was that excitement is “arousal congruent.” In other words, our heart races, our palms sweat, and we perform differently depending on the cause we attribute to that state. We cannot tell ourselves that we are calm in that moment, because it doesn’t fit with our biological state. The story doesn’t match the feeling.

If you are looking to understand your own behavior, don’t start with the facts. Your brain has not been using them. First, listen to how your body feels.

If you want to understand the behavior of a group, don’t look for a rationale. Find the person who is telling the best story.

And if you seek to change either, you must tell a better story.

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