How narratives can open up new ways of seeing and doing
There’s this experiment that the psychologist Ellen Langer ran that demonstrates the material effects of stories. Her team
asked 84 hotel cleaning staff whether or not they exercised; the majority answered ‘no.’
However, after the team explained to the staff that the labor they were doing each day—their
bathroom scrubbing, bedmaking, and vacuuming—was actually exercise, the hotel staff started to lose more weight and their blood pressure decreased. The act of mindfully changing the narrative had material effects on their days, their minds, and their bodies.
Narratives like this can be critical in shaping our understanding of something new. As a writer at IDEO.org, I focus on the role of stories in helping bring new solutions into existence—how they can breathe clarity, ease, wonder, and, in the best cases, empowerment into people’s lives. Over the past four years, I’ve learned that narrative can foster belonging, flip a damaging discourse, and open up new ways of seeing and doing.
Replacing harmful, outdated stories with new ones that unlock possibility.
When Ellen Langer worked with the hotel staff, she didn’t change anything about what they were actually doing; there was just a mindful shift in the story they were telling themselves. She basically said, “Hey, that thing you’ve been doing. That has been exercise all along.” Something along those lines happened with a three-year program we did with The Gates Foundation. The goal was to identify the barriers that women face in accessing digital financial services across six different contexts where it isn’t seen as their right or role to control money.
The financial sector has historically struggled to serve women in the same ways they are able to cater to men. Many solutions aim to ‘level women up’. The reality is that women have been displaying financial behaviors all along, but these behaviors simply aren’t the ones the sector was looking out for. Despite the societal and service barriers, women go to great lengths to budget and save for their families: matching household income with upcoming needs, stashing money away in case of emergencies, and joining savings groups to build financial and social resilience. These actions are often seen as a crutch, not as savvy work-arounds.
We decided to highlight this mismatch, creating a campaign and event for financial sector leaders that spotlighted the unique behaviors that had often gone unacknowledged. The narrative invited the financial sector to ‘design for her power’- to create services and digital tools that build off of the ways in which women take the lead, rather than fall behind. Changing the story around women’s behaviors opened up an expanse of creative possibilities and solutions.
Crafting stories that enable informed decision making.
Narratives can coerce. By making a product or service show up as ‘cool’ or aspirational, we can seduce people into wanting or doing certain things without properly informing them (think: a cigarette ad that hints at dating success or a pill that promises a healthy retirement). These kinds of messages skip the brain on the way to the heart, so to speak. When we’re on the receiving end of these, it often feels like we’re being impelled to act. In the best of cases, the stories we tell instill agency rather than a mindless compulsion to follow.