Avoiding Filter Bubbles, Tribes, and the Backfire Effect

One Saturday in 1983 I was out canvassing for Greenpeace. I knocked on the door of a mansion in Marblehead, Massachusetts and braced for the worst. I didn’t like the look of this place. Canvass long enough, and you’re able to do an instant visual demographic prediction of who is going to open the door, and how likely you are to get a donation. The indicators that I was going to walk away empty handed? The car in the driveway was a Mercedes rather than a Volvo. No bumperstickers. The dog was doberman rather than retriever. The newspaper tube at the end of the very long driveway, complete with marble lions, was for the Wall Street Journal. And sure enough, within seconds of the door opening my suspicions were confirmed: the owner was a Reagan Republican. Nevertheless, ten minutes later I was walking back up that drive with a check for $100 to help fight acid rain. Not to save forests or out of love of the planet, but because it was ruining the finish on those imported Carrara marble lions at the end of the drive — a point he raised, not me!

A few things strike me about this story. One, the 80s were a simpler time, when an environmental activist organisation could pull support in the US from a wider range of the political spectrum. I also had donations from right-wing conservatives who viewed the stance Greenpeace took against Russian whaling on the high seas as excellent work — because it aligned with their anti-soviet views. From Republican duck hunters who didn’t like chemicals pouring into the local rivers — because it poisoned the food source of their prey. From Daughters of the American Revolution who thought highly of work to save harp seals — because their little faces reminded them of their pet poodles. In every case, the story of why they should support Greenpeace was one which didn’t involve changing their minds, but reinforcing their own values.

These days, the idea of a US Republican of any stripe supporting environmental activism with a Greenpeace brand for any reason seems practically impossible to imagine — the lines have hardened, the tribes have congealed.

The second thing to remark is that that’s a shame.  Environmentalism and the survival of the planet’s life support systems really ought to be a cross-cutting issue, regardless of your view on economics or social issues. As environmentalists, we should be actively challenging any confines that limit people’s sense of agency or involvement or welcome or eligibility to our cause. If a right-wing conservative wants to buy an electric car for nationalist reasons of oil independence, that car’s contribution to the reduction in carbon footprint is no less valid than one bought explicitly for the sake of the planet. Action against climate change cannot continue to be a single-party issue, or a differentiator between left and right.

In part one of this series we talked about the backfire effect and how facts that contradict a core belief can actually reinforce that belief. We’ve seen decades now of evidence for this in the failure of climate data to convince the right in the US of the urgent need for climate action. So how do we, as environmentalists, convert all those conservative minds to progressive values?

Continue reading “Avoiding Filter Bubbles, Tribes, and the Backfire Effect”

Tribes, Filter Bubbles, and the Backfire Effect

Why do otherwise rational people, confronted with facts that contradict their deepest presumptions and world view, generally reject those facts rather than revise their world view? Hint: the answer has something to do with storytelling.

The latest US political clown-car adventure into the looking-glass world of “Alternative Facts” may have thrown a spotlight on how stubbornly Trumpaphiles can ignore data, but here’s a disturbing fact: we all think we’re the rational ones, adjusting the story we tell ourselves to the facts and morally reasoning our way to sound conclusions — but behavioural scientists know better.  And for those of us in the business of convincing people to change their minds, it’s surprising we don’t pay more attention to the science of this.

The environmental movement has spent decades spewing facts. Reports. Charts. Infographics. We generate Belgium-sized sets of facts every week, football fields of them a day.  Science facts. Political facts. All of them pointing to the big fact: that we’re exhausting the life support systems of planet Earth. We’ve published sage step-by-step manuals telling industry and government how they can evade disaster. We’ve issued starkly clear individual behaviour change mandates. And still we’re hurtling toward the mythic inferno in the proverbial hand-basket.

It’s because people are distracted by trivial things and you need to make them pay attention!” says Mister Fox, a bipedal figment of my trickster imagination, with a slightly sarcastic smirk and an index finger making an explanation point in the air. “You need to shout more. Put out another report! A longer one! With more graphs! If you can get them to listen, they’ll change their minds. And really, seriously, we both know it’s not the fault of the facts — they are perfectly clear. It’s the fault of those useless hipster “communications experts” drinking 5 Euro lattes and whining on Snapchat.”

Now I know Mister Fox pretty well, and I know when he’s setting me up.

And I also know it’s deeper than that. Continue reading “Tribes, Filter Bubbles, and the Backfire Effect”

Change the Story, Change the World: A day of training

I ran this day-long course last year twice, in Oxford and Berlin, and absolutely had a blast. It attracted a fine group of troublemakers from a  wide spectrum of world-changing organisations: the Bible Society (“Everyone backs away when I say who I work for…”), ActionAid, Four Paws, Campact, the Transnational Institute, Greenpeace, the World Future Council, Compassion in World Farming, Gyro London, HERA… world changers of every stripe.

There was a magic trick with a bit of rope.  There was some amazing, purpose-filled story telling. There was joy. There were tears. And I had the most rewarding experience when one of my students, a fundraising copywriter, wrote to thank me, saying she’d applied her learning at work the next day with unprecedented results.

All of us could use some better stories today. If we look around at the tales being told around our electronic campfires today, it’s obvious that the big overarching narratives that once explained the way the world works are breaking down.  Facts are not winning. To reach hearts and minds and change behaviours, all of us working for a more beautiful world need to up our game. The stories we tell need to be epic. Inspiring. Engaging. Compelling. They need to make people crave to be a part of them and act to propel them forward.

On 20 March I’ll be presenting a slightly abbreviated version of the training at Westminster University’s Masters in Media, Campaigning, and Social Change programme  — a rare academic programme for young activists. That session is for students only, but the session on 21st of March is open to all. Register today — space is limited, so quick as a fox, jump over that lazy dog.

The Moon Candy Rebellion

I was invited by storyteller Simon Hodges to share a story tonight at his extraordinary every-4-weeks gathering in Amsterdam. There were some wonderful tales, magical myths, and fabulous yarns. I read The Moon Candy Rebellion for the first time to an audience that wasn’t a roomful of activists, and I couldn’t have asked for a warmer crowd and setting. Simon’s created a glorious storytelling space, surrounded by art and full of odd, beautifully diverse seating from antiques to the surreal story teller’s chair to bean bags and blankets on the floor. It’s an event worth catching if your in Amsterdam for the next one on the 15th of December. Actually, it’s an event worth travelling to Amsterdam for. Have a listen to a tiny portion of Simon’s epic rendering of the Welsh tale of Lleu and Blodeuwedd.

As for me, this is the tale I told.

Every night, for many many years, I made up a bedtime story for my boys, Doon and Dylan. 

I populated those stories with some very odd heroes — kind of enlightened troublemakers who would act up and be very very naughty, though often for a very good reason. And one day it occurred to me: I wonder if this has anything to do with my profession?

I worked as an activist with Greenpeace for 35 years. I went to sea to save whales, I went to jail for stopping a nuclear weapons test. I was surrounded by enlightened troublemakers. And it occurred to me that I might be making up for a lack of stories about those kind of people and the values they championed. 

I was always jealous of parents who could pull a book down from the shelf about a teacher, or a firefighter, or a police officer, and point to it and say “That’s what I do. That’s what my friends do.” Because it can be really hard to tell a five year old that “when Daddy and his friends do a good job, sometimes they go to jail.”

Where were the bedtime stories that celebrated what Steve Jobs called “The Crazy Ones” — the ones crazy enough to think they could change the world? Not just the artists and inventors and entrepreneurs, but the activists? How many children’s books have you read that celebrate civil disobedience, or questioning authority, or challenging the status quo when it’s unkind, or unjust, or dangerous? When it tells little girls that they’re weak and can’t do all the things boys do?

There’s the Lorax, and the Butter Battle Book, and my great love, Pippi Longstockings. A few others, but not many choices for parents who want positive role models of boat-rockers. Of kids who meet conformity with creativity. Who conjure up beautiful disruptions to create a better world. 

So I took the thrilling advice of Toni Morrison, and thought about the bedtime story I most wanted to read to my kids, and wrote it. 

Now I promise this is a story not a lecture. So imagine you’re five. You’ve got your pajamas on. The pillows are plumped up behind you and you pull the duvet up to your chin. Are we sitting comfortably? Then we’ll begin…

Here’s a recording of the reading. But if you were there, skip down to the one below to see Iris Maerten’s awesome illustrations.

We want to release this story in a big way — creative commons, open source, skipping over the publishing industry, going people-power direct and using that magical art of asking for help.

We’ll be releasing an early reader/beta version of The Moon Candy Rebellion as an ePub shortly, and we’d love to have you in on the hijinks we’re hoping to get up to. We’ve just set up a Facebook page, a twitter feed, and a webpage where you can sign up as a Moon Candy Rebel to get a copy in exchange for your feedback, suggestions, and input into ideas for how we get our little book into as many little hands as possible through some beautiful disruption, and how we can use crowd-sourced, #newpower tools to turn it into a real book you can hold in your hands and read to your child. Or yourself. It’s all about how we make courage more contagious, and raise up a generation equipped to resist despotism and create the more beautiful world of joyful abundance we all know is possible.

 

 

Thanks, TEDx Amsterdam

I want to live in a world that’s more like the TEDx event in Amsterdam. A place bubbling with optimism and enthusiasm and good ideas and beautiful people and the buzz of human connection. I loved everything about this year’s event, from the theme of #NewPower (Hat Tip: Jeremy Heimans & Henry Timms) to the backstage assembly of the audience (we have all now officially been on a TEDx stage!) to the speakers to the gadgets to the vegan food served with edible spoons to the volunteers.

It’s hard to choose a top 3 among the brilliant ideas powerfully presented. Irene Rompa’s incredible reaffirmation of human kindness was the kind of spirit the world desperately needs more of: Continue reading “Thanks, TEDx Amsterdam”

The American election was a referendum on systems change.

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My heart breaks for my homeland. My heart goes out to friends who have felt the hate of bigotry and misogyny and now feel the sting of further marginalisation. My heart fears for a future in which America rolls back decades of progress on the environment and social justice. And my heart freezes at the prospect of the arsenal of armageddon and the apparatus of a surveillance state being in the hands of a petulant bully.

But here’s what pains my heart the most: Trump just out-played every one of us who stands for change at our own game. 

We were the ones pleading for systems change. We were the ones championing disruption. We called for the departure from the status quo.

Did any of us talk in the populist terms of a utopian vision like “Making America Great Again”? Did any of us really listen to the anger of rust belt white Americans and channel that anger toward upending a system that was crushing their futures? A system in which Democrats and Republicans were equally complicit?

We talk at them about climate change. We talk at them about dwindling resources. We talk at them about species loss. We talk at them with cautionary tales of the cost of failure.

We tried to sell people on a nightmare. We spoke in stories of denial, fear, loss, and guilt and wonder why people turn away.

Continue reading “The American election was a referendum on systems change.”

Add a cup of story, salt to taste.

Sometime back in the waning days of the last century, the Greenpeace information technology department was standardizing all staff’s email signatures to a horrible piece of text from a mission statement the organisation had written by committee, agreed by consensus, and promptly buried in that darkest recess of any NGO website, the governance section of the About Us page.

I was particularly aggrieved to see it dredged up into the light of day, as I’d written it.

Continue reading “Add a cup of story, salt to taste.”

Activism & Storytelling: Level 3

Mister Fox is a passionate believer in the power of story. And he will yammer on about it at any opportunity. This is the third and final part of his discourse on Activism & Storytelling, which he delivered from atop a small hill, silhouetted by a full moon, to a wily band of radical animals who believed a better forest was possible, and that brave individual and collective action could make it a reality.

Level 3: Change the story, change the world. Beyond strong motivational narrative, beyond consistent organisational stories, the real gold, and the real challenge, lies at the invisible layer of story as the operating system of society. Continue reading “Activism & Storytelling: Level 3″

Activism & Storytelling: Level 2

Mister Fox drops in regularly to visit with forest friends who run organisations dedicated to this and that. Mister Owl’s Wilderness Health Organisation, the Association of Unassociated Hedgehogs for Fewer Roads and More Hedges, and his favorite, the Henhouse Liberation Army. He likes to help them tell better stories so the entire forest understands who they are and what they do. Last week, he talked about how stories can help make for better communications. Today he’s talking about how story works at the level of their organisations.

 

Level 2: Consistent organisational storytelling solidifies your identity and makes social movements more efficient.

An organisation with a strong story can use that story to design and select its programme, to test its communications, and to be crystal clear to its audiences about who it is and what it stands for. Charity: Water’s founder Scott Harrison tells a beautiful story, of how he set out with the twin mission to bring safe clean drinking water to everyone on the planet and to reinvent charity for a new generation. That he managed to get that twin mission right into the organisation’s name is even more impressive.

Continue reading “Activism & Storytelling: Level 2″

Activism and Storytelling: Level 1

When Mister Fox talks about storytelling to activist organisations, he finds he needs to talk about stories at several different levels.

I like stories with the number 3” says Rabbit. (This may have to do with the fact that rabbits can only count to 4)

Very well,” says Mister Fox, “There are three levels of storytelling for change. Today we’ll talk about level 1” Continue reading “Activism and Storytelling: Level 1”

Activism and Storytelling

mister fox & little prince
The other day Mister Fox and I dropped in on the Little Prince’s planet to have a talk with Fox. You remember, the one that wanted to be tamed, became the Little Prince’s friend, but then became sad when the Little Prince went away. Fox reminded the Little Prince of his responsibility to all that he’d tamed, and memorably said:

It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.”

Mister Fox and I are interested in that, because it sometimes seems that a lot of people’s hearts are blind. I’m always surprised by how some people can see stories all around us and some can’t. How some see the opportunity in hacking at society’s stories and some don’t.

Continue reading “Activism and Storytelling”

The Wall. The Mug. The Door.

A long time ago, when the web was young, a mysterious box arrived at the secret mountain headquarters of Greenpeace International. I was working then as the director of what we called “New Media.” New Media was anything that involved a computer, and I and a team of freshly minted digital ninjas were ruboxnning around with our hair on fire telling anyone who would listen that this “World Wide Web thing” was going to be HUGE if we could all collectively get over the idea that it was just a new way to deliver press releases.

The box was addressed to Karen & Ludmilla, the inseparable duo who made up our Supporter Services team. Karen recognised the name on the return address: it was from “Grateful Child,” a frequent correspondent, contributor to our online bulletin board and commenter on our website. Wes, as we eventually came to know him, was one of those voices that was consistently positive and upbeat and helpful. He’d field questions about the organisation from other posters knowledgeably, bring context to a discussion with a nugget of activist history or eastern philosophy, provide a deep link into our website when someone wanted to know more, and post wonderful, hippy-themed promotions of our content and online actions at his own website. In short, he was one of those supporters who crossed over that weird imaginary barrier all of us who work for organisations draw up between “us” — the folks within the bricks and mortar of an organisation — and “them,” the audience and supporters that we speak to when we blog, create web content, send press releases, talk at from the other side of a lens.

Let’s call it The Wall.
Continue reading “The Wall. The Mug. The Door.”

2015: The Year the Carbon Beast Blinked.

For all of us working to stop global warming, 2015 will be looked back upon as the year we pushed Big Oil and King Coal hard enough that they at last took their first, inevitably fatal steps backwards. They have loomed large — mythologically large — as teflon-shielded, weaponised giants. Petroleum vampires towering over our capital cities, their teeth deep in the neck of our governments, feasting on blood and money. Mighty coal gorillas beating their chests atop mountains they’d decapitated, throwing boulders down upon the villages below. Governments bowed down before them and did their bidding. They smirked and threw fistfuls of gold at the feet of our cultural and scientific institutes and ordered them to sing their praises. And for three decades, they seemed unassailable; impervious to the forces of democracy and the liliputian non-violent armies that dared oppose them.
Personally, I see four major events in 2015 challenged that story.

Continue reading “2015: The Year the Carbon Beast Blinked.”

COP21: Celebrate, dammit, you worked hard for this

It’s not perfect. It doesn’t yet mean the end of the dig, burn, and dump consumer culture. And it will require difficult decisions by risk-averse politicians. But it spells the end of the era of fossil fuels, and let’s face it, people, we worked hard for decades to get this. So I’m disappointed when I search #Celebrate #Cop21 that I don’t see spontaneous celebrations in the streets of every city in the world. But it looks like there was a damn fine party in Paris, well deserved, and we can all virtually do low-carbon high fives. And while you’re at it, why not tip your favorite climate activist with BitCoin via ChangeTip, and let’s get the bankless future started. I’m sending tips called “Cop21 Toasts” to folks in Paris and around the world who propelled this day forward in so many ways. Pass it forward. So many people in so many places around the world were a part of the great slow tidal wave that brought this agreement forward. So many people have suffered and sacrificed and stood up. Let’s not let this escape notice: we’re changing the story of the future. This day was another scrap of evidence that the great ship, forest-masted and sun-soaked in its voyage through space, has a chance. 

Continue readingCOP21: Celebrate, dammit, you worked hard for this”