Made an Alexa skill to illustrate a cognitive magic trick

So here’s a nice lit­tle illus­tra­tion of one the rea­sons why we’re the planet’s most suc­cess­ful preda­tor  and yet are also capa­ble of believ­ing cli­mate change doesn’t exist or that the world is flat.

I’m a big fan of the  You Are Not So Smart pod­cast,  which deep dives into cog­ni­tive quirks and things like the Back­fire Effect, active infor­ma­tion avoid­anceCon­fir­ma­tion Bias and all kinds of essen­tial knowl­edge about human behav­iour for any­one look­ing to cre­ate social change.

David McRany, the pod­cast author (full dis­clo­sure, I’m a patre­on) did an epsiode on Desir­abil­i­ty Bias, a com­pan­ion bias to Con­fir­ma­tion bias — the phe­nom­e­na that accounts for how we select to hear pat­terns that con­firm our beliefs and dis­card those that don’t. Desir­abil­i­ty bias twists that bias even fur­ther, by mak­ing us fil­ter infor­ma­tion to provide evi­dence for futures we want to come true rather than ratio­nal­ly process the evi­dence of what future is actu­al­ly like­ly to come true.

Part of the way he illus­trat­ed our abil­i­ty to pick out pat­terns from chaos was a mag­ic trick. You lis­ten to what sounds like ran­dom noise, and try as you may, you can’t make any sense of it.

And then you hear the key, and sud­den­ly there’s no going back — it’s so obvi­ous, you feel some­what flab­ber­gast­ed you didn’t always hear it. What the trick demon­strates is a pret­ty star­tling exam­ple of how our brains present mean­ing and real­i­ty to us, and how eas­i­ly our per­cep­tion of real­i­ty can be changed when we have been exposed to a pat­tern.  Think about all the times you’ve heard a word for the first time, then heard it seem­ing­ly 4 times in the next week. Or think about how a repeat­ed phrase like “Fake News” starts to lift out of the back­ground of dai­ly noise to occu­py the cen­ter of our col­lec­tive atten­tion. This sim­ply lit­tle trick is a pret­ty potent demon­stra­tion of how selec­tive our lis­ten­ing can be. David McRany makes the case that it must have been a great sur­vival tool: the jun­gle is a noisy place, and those of us who could pick out the sound of a stalk­ing tiger would have been more like­ly to pass that skill down genet­i­cal­ly.

So why Alexa? I’ve been play­ing around with a great piece of labor-sav­ing soft­ware called Sto­ry­line, so I turned the audio mag­ic trick into an Alexa skill to try it out.  If you have an Alexa you can just enable the skill in the US, UK, India, Canada, or Aus­tralia or there’s a sim­u­la­tor ver­sion here for those who don’t.

Give it a lis­ten, either via the Alexa Skill or just lis­ten to the pod­cast: it’s total­ly freaky.

And for any­one look­ing for an easy way to build inter­ac­tive sto­ries for Alexa, Sto­ry­line rocks: I lit­er­al­ly built the Pat­tern Recog­ni­tion Mag­ic Trick in twen­ty min­utes.

The Power of Story

The forest is bathed in moon­light, thick with the scent of pine, and alive with the crack­le and ketchup smell of oak ablaze in a cir­cle of stones, the sparks fly­ing up into the night sky to cre­ate tem­po­rary con­stel­la­tions. 

Mis­ter Fox takes an apple, runs a stick through its core, and holds it out over the flames. “Once upon a time” he cre­ative­ly begins, “Zeus, Jeho­vah, and Odin walked into a bar. “Why the long faces?” asks the bar­tender, a tall skin­ny fel­low with white hair and an Irish brogue. Zeus orders a bot­tle of Ouzo and says “Human freak­ing beings. They stole my most pow­er­ful mag­ic — the abil­i­ty to make fire.”  “Oy, says Jeho­vah, you think you’ve got prob­lems,” as he ordered a bot­tle of wine. “To steal fire, they need­ed to know what fire was. And they know THAT because they stole my most pow­er­ful mag­ic: knowl­edge.” Odin orders a beer and stays qui­et. The bar­tender leans in and says “Uh, Odin, this is the part of the sto­ry where you one-up them and deliv­er the punch­line. Odin? Odin?” Mis­ter Fox gives us a nod, bites the apple, and pro­duces a very cold beer he has some­how con­jured out of noth­ing, and offers us a sip….

Prometheus stole fire from the Gods. Adam and Eve ate of the tree of knowl­edge. But in Norse mythol­o­gy, it was the Mead of Poet­ry — the abil­i­ty to tell sto­ries — which human­i­ty dis­tilled from a God’s stolen gift.

The Norse chose wise­ly.

Sto­ries are the invis­i­ble archi­tec­ture of the human world. Let me repeat that: Sto­ries are the invis­i­ble archi­tec­ture of the human world. Until you take the red pill and realise this sim­ple fact, Neo, you will nev­er be tru­ly free.

Most of the sto­ries that gov­ern our lives are so ancient, so burned-in to our psy­che, that we for­get they are sto­ries.

The days of the week are sto­ries — mon­keys are not hap­py on Fri­day, Giraffes don’t get the Mon­day blues. All of us accept, unques­tion­ing, the sto­ry that there are 7 days in a week and their cycle resets on Sun­day. And that sto­ry frames the way we think about an entire day, and even our sense of the pos­si­ble. What seems pos­si­ble on a Tues­day may be very dif­fer­ent from what seems pos­si­ble on a Sun­day.

But there are big­ger sto­ries that also shape our lives — the sto­ry of jus­tice, of equal­i­ty, the sto­ry of mon­ey, of cor­po­ra­tions, the sto­ry of Democ­ra­cy or the 6 major reli­gions. All of the­se sto­ries are what Yuval Har­rari calls “inter-sub­jec­tive imag­ined orders.” They have no phys­i­cal or bio­log­i­cal truth — they were all cre­at­ed and agreed by human beings and only exist as long as human beings keep believ­ing in them.

They are mytholo­gies: sto­ries kept alive by retelling, made stronger by rit­u­als, ampli­fied through social proof.

I’ve recent­ly read “Sapi­ens” — Harrari’s sweep­ing his­to­ry of the species, which might have been sub­ti­tled “A his­to­ry of sto­ry.” He cov­ers some of the same ground that Jonathan Haidt went over in The Right­eous Mind, but brings it to life in new ways. What made humans the most suc­cess­ful species on the plan­et was our abil­i­ty to uni­fy and organ­ise small groups around sto­ries that we made up to define a com­mon pur­pose — the sto­ry of the hunters of the tribe, the sto­ry of the gods of the sea­sons that helped us grow food, the sto­ry of a pyra­mid to pro­tect the pharaoh’s soul, the sto­ry of a nation, in which each of us is a char­ac­ter, in which each of us plays a role.

His retelling of the inven­tion of the lim­it­ed com­pa­ny in 19th cen­tu­ry is bril­liant. It was sor­cery — a pow­er­ful magi­cian, in this case, a lawyer, utters a mag­ic spell with pow­er­ful words he writes on paper and cre­ates an enti­ty from thin air and says this enti­ty is going to bor­row mon­ey. It’s not ME bor­row­ing mon­ey, it’s this thing I just cre­at­ed. And if it fails, I’m not liable for its debts, because it wasn’t me that bor­rowed the mon­ey — it’s this thing I call a com­pa­ny. How good a trick was that? Enough peo­ple believed that sor­cer­er to breathe life into that being. And to this day, cor­po­ra­tions exist because we accept the mag­i­cal pow­er of law that says they do, and that sto­ry has been rein­forced over and over by retellings that make it stronger, that give it a per­ma­nence. Yet a cor­po­ra­tion doesn’t exist. You can’t touch it. It exists nowhere but in our sto­ry­telling brains, just as every spire in the Man­hat­tan sky­line was once just a sto­ry on paper, just as the death of a mastodon was noth­ing but a sto­ry told around a fire in a cave that turned into a plan.

When I retell the sto­ry of Rosa Parks sit­ting in the front of a bus and so set­ting off a chain of events that cre­at­ed the civil rights act, I rein­force the sto­ry of pro­gress, the sto­ry of equal­i­ty, the sto­ry of jus­tice, the sto­ry of the long arc of his­to­ry. Every time a wom­an goes to the polls and tells some­one they’re vot­ing because they remem­ber the scorn heaped upon Eliz­a­beth Cady Stan­ton and her fel­low suf­fer­agettes, they par­tic­i­pate in a rit­u­al which rein­forces the sto­ry of democ­ra­cy.

Sto­ries are the oper­at­ing sys­tem of the human mind. They are the oper­at­ing sys­tem of civil­i­sa­tion. And here’s some good news: they can be hacked.

When Kumi Naidoo was a young stu­dent activist fight­ing again­st Apartheid, he was part of a 100-year-long sto­ry of resis­tance to South Africa’s sys­tem­ized dis­crim­i­na­tion.  He was told his cause was just, but it was hope­less. South Africa in those days had no demo­c­ra­t­ic sys­tem by which dis­sent could be open­ly expressed, no means of open­ly organ­is­ing. The gov­ern­ment com­mand­ed the largest mil­i­tary force on the African con­ti­nent. South Africa was a wealthy and sta­ble eco­nom­ic part­ner — no for­eign gov­ern­ment was going to inter­fere in their domes­tic poli­cies at the expense of bil­lions in trade.

But in the space of Kumi’s life­time, that sto­ry changed. It was hacked not just by Steven Biko and Nel­son Man­del­la and Desmond Tutu, but by Kumi’s white high school teacher, peer­ing from out her door to make sure no police or neigh­bors were watch­ing as she allowed a dis­si­dent stu­dent group to meet in her home. It was hacked by peo­ple in the west who start­ed show­ing up at South African embassies to protest. It was hacked by indi­vid­u­als who joined the boy­cott on South African goods. And at some point, some mag­i­cal point that every activist longs for, some­thing changed: enough peo­ple came to believe that change was pos­si­ble, that change BECAME pos­si­ble. That’s the sto­ry of activism. As Bob Hunter once said, “big change looks impos­si­ble when you start, and inevitable when you fin­ish.”

It’s because big change looks inevitable in hind­sight that we for­get the courage it once took to believe in it. To act for it. As we look back we think how prim­i­tive that any­one would for­bid wom­en from work­ing or vot­ing or seg­re­gate drink­ing foun­tains by the colour of someone’s skin or say with a straight face “all men are cre­at­ed equal” while exclud­ing half the human race. Sure­ly those cus­toms would have erod­ed even­tu­al­ly and we would arrive in this enlight­ened time as sure­ly as the sun ris­es and sets? No— change hap­pens in soci­ety when a soci­ety wrestles with a con­tra­dic­tion, a clash of sto­ries. How can we both believe that God cre­at­ed all men equal and yet also believe that African slaves are infe­ri­or? It’s then we enter the cul­tur­al thun­der­dome. Two sto­ries enter, one sto­ry leaves. FIGHT!

Kumi’s sto­ry has always given Mis­ter Fox hope. As we look out across the vast expanse of threats to human exis­tence today — from cli­mate change to nuclear war to an eco­nom­ic sys­tem that’s hun­gry enough to con­sume four times the Earth’s capac­i­ty … change seems impos­si­ble. And yet the moral of the sto­ry of activism is that noth­ing is impos­si­ble, and that indi­vid­u­al acts of courage, no mat­ter how fool­hardy and naive they may seem in the face of cer­tain defeat, can hack the sto­ry of the impos­si­ble into the sto­ry of the inevitable.

Want to learn more about the pow­er of sto­ry? This one day work­shop is an adven­ture in the­o­ry and prac­tice for change mak­ers who want to tell a bet­ter sto­ry, and sto­ry­tellers who want to change the world.

Activist communication traps: Reinforcing the “Descriptive Norm”

No way you humans ought to be the dom­i­nant species on this plan­et,” says Mis­ter Fox, siz­ing us up. “By forest stan­dards, you’re weak, you can’t see much or hear very well, your teeth are bet­ter suit­ed to cook­ies than com­bat, and your claws are a joke — oth­er than that Wolver­ine fel­low. But you’ve got one nice ace up your sleeve” he declar­es, pulling an ace from his sleeve, “You sure know how to tell sto­ries. And it’s through telling sto­ries that you learned the secret that made you the most dan­ger­ous ani­mal on earth: how to coop­er­ate. You learned a form of sto­ry­telling set in the future. The very first plan­ning meet­ing prob­a­bly went some­thing like ‘we’re going to hunt this mam­moth.’ You set the plot. Then you assigned roles and char­ac­ters and then played them out. ‘I’ll run at the mam­moth from behind scream­ing. He’ll run into that val­ley where you jump out from behind a rock with a spear and you and you will roll boul­ders down on him from above.’ Sud­den­ly, you were col­lec­tive­ly more pow­er­ful than a lion.”

Mis­ter Fox is right. But that coop­er­a­tion is hard to main­tain. It takes resources and ener­gy. So evo­lu­tion has made it resilient: we have all kinds of in-built men­tal mech­a­nisms that ensure we behave col­lec­tive­ly. And one of the strongest is the way we adjust our behav­iour to mod­el the behav­iour of those around us. The “descrip­tive norm” is what we per­ceive as “the thing every­one else does” and we’re hard-wired to con­form with it. Doing what every­one else does is easy, nat­u­ral, requires no cog­ni­tive pro­cess­ing what­so­ev­er. Watch any­one walk into a room where every­one is look­ing up at the ceil­ing, you’ll see them look up at the ceil­ing. Walk into a room full of tuxe­dos in your jeans? No mat­ter how com­fort­able those jeans felt on the street five min­utes ago, they feel uncom­fort­able now. You’re out of synch with the rest of the tribe. At a fes­ti­val where every­one is drop­ping their plas­tic cups on the ground? You’re extreme­ly like­ly to take that as per­mis­sion to drop yours.

Mis­ter Fox: “Most of your audi­ence just dis­agreed with you. They’re a bunch of gree­nies. They told them­selves they wouldn’t drop that cup. They don’t lit­ter.”

Ah, and Mis­ter Fox is right. When instead of doing what the crowd does, you seek out a recy­cle bin, you’re fol­low­ing the “Injunc­tive Norm” — the thing you per­ceive as what every­one OUGHT to do. And most of us who are social change mak­ers, pro­gres­sives, envi­ron­men­tal­ists, activists, what have you, do just that. But here’s the thing: it’s HARD. It requires buck­ing the descrip­tive norm, which comes nat­u­ral and requires no thought.

The injunc­tive norm is a rule that your brain eval­u­ates: you shouldn’t eat those cook­ies if you’re try­ing to lose weight; you shouldn’t fly when you can take the train to save car­bon; you should bring your water bot­tle with you when you go out so you don’t buy a sin­gle use plas­tic bot­tle.  And we run those rules through a cog­ni­tive maze that weighs the cost of com­pli­ance again­st the pre­ceived val­ue or ben­e­fit and, whether we know it or not, the essen­tial ques­tion: how dif­fer­ent will this make me from my group? How will this make me a bet­ter or worse match for the group I am in or aspire to be a part of? How will oth­ers per­ceive my suit­abil­i­ty for inclu­sion? What is every­one else in my group doing?

So, for exam­ple, if you’re eval­u­at­ing whether to put on a tie or not, you’re going to eval­u­ate the set­ting you’re head­ing into. Pic­nic? No tie — nobody else will be wear­ing one. Meet­ing at a For­tune 500 com­pa­ny? Tie. Now this may be hard to accept, but we run eth­i­cal injunc­tions through the same test — some­times con­scious­ly, some­times uncon­scious­ly. Some­one who would nev­er, ever drop a piece of lit­ter in a beau­ti­ful park might very hap­pi­ly toss their plas­tic beer cup on the ground at that fes­ti­val lit­tered with beer cups because the organiser’s haven’t pro­vid­ed con­ve­nient recy­cling loca­tions. It might be just as incon­ve­nient to not lit­ter the park, but that key excuse: “every­one else is doing it,” isn’t there in the park, it is in the sta­di­um. You won’t feel like a bad per­son, or look like a bad per­son, by doing what every­one else is doing and toss­ing your beer cup to the floor. You won’t even think of it as lit­ter­ing, you won’t put it through a cog­ni­tive maze. Doing as every­one else does requires no reflec­tion or effort: it’s the eas­i­est rule of social behav­iour and gets rein­forced every min­ute of our lives that we wear clothes like every­one else or imi­tate each oth­ers speech pat­terns or fol­low the rit­u­als of human or cul­tur­al behav­iour from what’s accept­able eye con­tact to how we express our emo­tions.

Now, let’s look at what hap­pens when we hear a piece of activist com­mu­ni­ca­tions like this:

Plas­tics dumped into the world’s oceans may out­weigh fish by the year 2050.

There’s a sim­ple state­ment of fact. For any of us con­cerned about this issue, it’s alarm­ing. It makes us want to do some­thing, to align with those who believe we’re using too much plas­tic as a soci­ety and not recy­cling respon­si­bly and wast­ing the earth’s resources. But it also rein­forces the Descrip­tive Norm: Every­one is throw­ing plas­tic away. Every­one is using lots of plas­tic. And while we may embrace the injunc­tive, there’s a total­ly unfair fight going on in our brains between sev­er­al mil­lion years of evo­lu­tion as a social ani­mal that eas­i­ly, with­out think­ing, wants to con­form to the norm, and that young, inex­pe­ri­enced moral brain, a few thou­sand years old, which sens­es that the group behav­iour needs to change.

At a macro lev­el, activism as usu­al says we need to to present the cur­rent norm as wrong, show how it con­flicts with our val­ues or threat­ens our long term inter­ests, and acti­vate the ratio­nal brain in decid­ing to change behav­iour away from that norm. But the moment we’ve pre­sent­ed the norm, we’ve dis­ad­van­taged our evo­lu­tion­ary pre­dis­po­si­tion to con­form. We’ve cho­sen between two ways of chang­ing behav­iour, and we’ve picked up the slow one.

Let’s say we organ­ise a beach clean up and col­lect all the plas­tic straws from miles of garbage. We build a giant mosaic made of the straws to show just how many straws peo­ple are using, how exces­sive it is, and to punch home the point that we should use less straws. But your work of art sends two sig­nals.  One is weak: “we should use less plas­tic.” It’s weak because it needs to go through the cog­ni­tive maze of group impact eval­u­a­tion, ben­e­fit and loss cal­cu­la­tions, and the weigh­ing of just how much we care about this pro­posed depar­ture from the norm before we embrace a behav­iour change.  But it also sends a strong sig­nal: “every­one uses plas­tic.” And for most of our audi­ences, that’s it, game over. Because when our brains are faced with a con­tra­dic­tion that requires us to make a choice, the eas­i­est option is to ignore the choice. To set aside the injunc­tive norm in favor of the “do like every­one else” norm.

What if, instead of ampli­fy­ing the sto­ry of how bad the oceans plas­tic prob­lem is, we build com­mu­ni­ca­tions around chang­ing people’s per­cep­tion of the norm? What if we change the nar­ra­tive to ampli­fy the rejec­tion of sin­gle use plas­tic? Instead of con­cen­trat­ing on how scary bad the prob­lem is, we ele­vate the coun­ter sto­ry of com­mu­ni­ties that have dras­ti­cal­ly reduced plas­tic use, restau­rants that have stopped pro­vid­ing straws, the world­wide awak­en­ing to the dan­ger of microbeads, the coun­ter­force of peo­ple declin­ing offered plas­tic straws, plas­tic ear­buds, and the thou­sand oth­er exam­ples of peo­ple actu­al­ly tak­ing action to reduce plas­tic pol­lu­tion?

Hack­ing the per­cep­tion of the norm is key to change. It’s only when peo­ple in suf­fi­cient num­bers come to believe change is pos­si­ble that change becomes pos­si­ble. And peo­ple only believe change is pos­si­ble when they per­ceive a crit­i­cal mass of their fel­low cit­i­zens act­ing in ways con­sis­tent with that change. So here we are back at the sto­ries we tell, and how they shape behav­iour.

Con­sid­er this exam­ple of using the descrip­tive norm to shape behav­iour instead of the injunc­tive norm. A com­pa­ny wants to encour­age employ­ees to ride bikes to work. They try telling employ­ees how much health­ier it is, how much it will help reduce the company’s car­bon foot­print, how it will low­er their insur­ance rates. They get a few tak­ers, and put a bike rack in the base­ment. But the num­ber of bik­ers stays steady at those few hard-core edge cas­es. Mis­ter Fox whis­pers in someone’s ear that they should put the bike rack out front, by the main door, so every­one sees the bikes on their way in to work. But the com­pa­ny had big ambi­tions for this pro­gram­me, and the bike rack is huge. Most days, it’s not even half full. Mis­ter Fox points out that doesn’t con­vey the right mes­sage — it says not many peo­ple are bik­ing. So one night he sneaks out and removes half the bike racks. Now when peo­ple walk in they see more bikes than the bike racks can accom­mo­date. Whoa. This bik­ing thing is get­ting big. If every­one else is bik­ing, I should too. The num­ber of bike rid­ers dou­bles.

There’s an impor­tant role for point­ing out prob­lems. But when it comes to try­ing to change people’s behav­iour all of us need to be aware of the need to mod­el solu­tions.

Mis­ter Fox says the Moral of the sto­ry is this: “The real trick of activism isn’t con­vinc­ing peo­ple there’s a prob­lem: it’s chang­ing their behav­iour toward a solu­tion. The eas­i­est way to make a behav­iour main­stream is not to tell peo­ple it should be, it’s to show them that it’s already on its way.”

Outfoxing Trump: A Story

Mister Fox
Cre­ative Com­mons image BY-SA by Karthikeyan K.

Mis­ter Fox popped a blue­ber­ry into the air and point­ed his whiskers sky­ward. I was try­ing to explain the US elec­tion to him.

So what was the hap­py end­ing that Occu­py, Clin­ton, and Bernie were promis­ing?” he asked, munch­ing on the caught blue­ber­ry.

What do you mean,” I respond­ed, grab­bing in midair the next blue­ber­ry he popped up, “Haven’t you been lis­ten­ing to a word I’ve said? Reduced eco­nom­ic inequal­i­ty, bet­ter access to health care and edu­ca­tion for more peo­ple, less dis­crim­i­na­tion, a con­cen­trat­ed effort again­st cli­mate change.”

Mis­ter Fox sniffed. “See, all I remem­ber was that one guy… what was his name? The one with the fab­u­lous orange colour­ing?” he asked, look­ing down momen­tary at his own flam­ing coat of auburn and gold, “the one who promised to “Make Amer­i­ca Great Again.”

I bet he won. He stole what should have been their line, and was the only one talk­ing about the most impor­tant part of the sto­ry.”



Are you telling the most impor­tant part of your sto­ry or are you being out­foxed and out-sto­ried by some­one else? I have three reduced-fee last-min­ute tick­ets to a day-long intro­duc­tion to Sto­ry as The­o­ry of Change, with prac­ti­cal exer­cis­es straight from Mis­ter Fox’s bag of sto­ry­telling tricks.  We will gath­er this com­ing Tues­day 21st of March, at the Four Paws office in Lon­don. PM me on Twit­ter, @Brianfit in the next 72 hours for a hap­py end­ing to this and future sto­ries!

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.




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”