I am a User Experience Designer. My job is to understand the goals of the users of a system (in my case software), the elements of what might contribute to those users’ satisfaction, and then to suggest design solutions which enhance the usability and enjoyment of said system. All systems have design problems and design solutions, not just software, and all systems have design patterns that can be optimized.
This being my profession, I started looking at our culture from a similar perspective. I found it to be permeated with negative stories, with zero-sum game thinking in which one person’s gain means another person’s loss. There are lots of stories of winners and losers, us versus them, of this group taking that group’s resources. So much polarization exists in our political system and in our culture. Issues of civil and women’s rights seem to be moving backwards. How did this come to be? How can we change it, when it all seems so entrenched?
I began to despair, because I felt like our culture was fundamentally broken and I saw no way to change it. I didn’t have enough money to buy my way into modern politics, with its unlimited money cycles. I didn’t see a way to get through the noise of our increasingly empty consumerism.
The suggestions people make for fixing these problems are generally reactive, end-of-the line band-aids, like adding regulation or imposing penalties. That won’t create lasting or meaningful change—it’s like taking aspirin for a headache over and over again, instead of finding out what’s causing the headache and treating the illness. It reminded me of the classic problem of asking users what they want in a system: people can’t articulate, or even know, what they want. They tell you what they think you want to hear or what’s socially acceptable, and because of this, people rationalize their behavior.
In other words, they tell stories that fit their current worldview. What we need is to design a new worldview.
It starts with the stories we tell ourselves. Our thoughts become beliefs, our beliefs become actions, and our actions become our reality. If we don’t believe that we can change our own personal thought patterns and therefore our reality, how can we expect to change the world? We need to examine the beliefs we hold most closely, and how we describe and explain our world to each other.
We live by the stories we tell ourselves, and those we tell to others, and the stories we believe always feel real, whether they are false or true. People see narrative where there is none to give life meaning, because we are wired for pattern recognition. Stories are a way for us to feel like we have control over the world, to be part of a shared history.
As humans, our oldest art form is storytelling; it came before written language. Storytelling was how knowledge was transmitted, and how we understood our relationships with each other. Evolutionary psychologist Robin Dunbar found that social topics, especially gossip, account for 65 percent of all human conversations in public places.
Storytelling might have been what kept our ancestors alive. Jennifer Aaker, a professor at the Stanford Graduate School of Business, found that information embedded in narrative which contains both data and emotion is remembered up to 22 times more than just plain facts because the listener is much more engaged.
Humans are prone to what’s known as the “negativity bias,“ an evolutionary response that helps us react quickly to avoid potential threats. When the brain finds one, it will focus intensely on the threat and lose sight of the big picture; its primary goal is to ensure your survival. However, it’s not always helpful to be hyper-focused on the negative if most things in your life are neutral or even positive.
In his book Buddha’s Brain: The Practical Neuroscience of Happiness, Love, and Wisdom, Rick Hanson cites research which shows that the brain detects unpleasant information faster than favorable information. He likens the brain to Velcro for negative experiences and Teflon for positive or neutral ones. We can retrain the brain to focus less on the negative and more on the positive with conscious intention and practice. As Hanson says, “Look for good facts, and turn them into good experiences.”
In other words, look for good facts and turn them into productive, positive, constructive stories. Enter conscious storytelling.
Literature and philosophy are full of stories of hope for the human spirit. Entertainment and media spending worldwide is expected to reach almost 2 trillion dollars in 2015 according to analysts at PriceWaterhouseCoopers, proof that we believe a good story is a good investment. Most of the stories we will consume for entertainment will be uplifting. Yet still the “real” stories we see in the news are full of cynicism. And it’s tearing us apart.
How did we get so enmeshed in negative news? Starting with the golden age of newspapers in the early 1900s, to the age of information we live in today, news outlets have been extremely competitive, with razor-thin margins. Sensationalist and scary stories sold first papers, and now ad units. Because of negativity bias, we gravitate towards bad news, and the media just reinforces this pattern.
Additionally, story was lost in the modern world as a source of truth. We have come to believe that science tells the truth, and stories distract. Values like caring and compassion make little sense in a material universe that operates according to mathematically described scientific laws. Emotions can’t be charted and graphed, and therefore must be suspect. This has roots in the Renaissance, when the Cartesian division of everything as a carefully defined system emerged, and the desire to separate man from nature and for man to subjugate the natural world became preeminent.
It’s time to break that pattern, and consciously move towards a more productive and hopeful way of seeing the world, using a balance of critical thinking and hope. As Maria Popova says, critical thinking without hope is cynicism, yet hope without critical thinking is naïveté.
In the last few decades, psychology has started to seriously study the effects of story on the human mind, and they have found, unsurprisingly, that our attitudes, hopes and fears, and our values are strongly shaped by story. In fact, as seen in fMRI scans, stories are experienced almost exactly the same as lived experience. Gut-level instinctive response to hearing a story can drive changes to how we act in the physical world.
Fiction seems to be able to change beliefs more than straight analytical writing. When we read factual arguments, we read with our guard up because of confirmation bias, which is the tendency to search for and interpret information in a way that confirms the beliefs or hypotheses we already hold. Psychologists Melanie Green and Tim Brock found that the more engrossed readers were in a story, the more changes could be observed in the readers’ behavior. Even more interesting is that the highly-engrossed readers missed fewer inaccuracies or misinformation—they didn’t even see the false information.
Stories aren’t just information, they’re an expansion of how we understand the world we live in, a way of rising above our personal views.
Most of our stories are either unconsciously adopted from people we know or media sources we trust. We need to get more conscious about the stories we choose, and the stories we tell. Thoughts become stories, stories encourage actions, and our actions make up our reality. Our everyday stories are what make up our world.
There are a lot of experienced, professional storytellers out there, trying to persuade us of the reality they want us to live in, to get us to loose track of our values and to lull us into complacency. We need to get better at understanding the mechanisms of others’ stories in order to choose not only what, but why things matter. We need to get better at choosing the stories that define our lives and the world we live in.
In the 4 billion years of Earth’s evolution, all species, from the lowly bacteria to us humans, go through a process of maturation. It starts with individuation, of separating and defining ourselves through fierce competition. Eventually, as the species matures we find cooperation and coexistence. We reach maturity when we find that point when it is less costly to collaborate than to destroy each other. It’s time for us to evolve new stories in order to evolve our culture.
We can design and evolve our own user experience through the power of story. It’s up to each one of us to make this happen, one story at a time. There is no monolithic “they” who will magically make things better or worse. Society is made up of each one of us, and we alone have the power to change our world, one story at a time.