Metahistory, (Narrativity) and the Persuasion Industry

We know that the effective telling of stories is a critical attribute of leadership, and of gaining and maintaining power. He who commands the public narrative, commands both the battlefield and then the rewards of peacetime.

But how do successful narratives actually work and how are they constructed in such a way that we agree to follow the leader’s wishes? Narrativity is the study not of the story itself, but the way the story is told, and its effect on audiences. Mood, as much as content, determines our response and therefore helps to shape new realities.

Once upon a time, the process of cause and effect was linear and transparent. Look at two cases of persuasion through public narrative on a truly grand scale.

France fell to Hitler in June 1940. In his 2.5 minute “finest hour” radio address, Britain’s new prime minister Winston Churchill promised to fight on alone to break Germany. But, he warned: “if we fail, then the whole world, including the United States, including all we have known and cared for, will sink into the abyss of a new Dark Age.” It took a while, but Churchill got what he wanted; invincible America on his side.

In October 1962, John F Kennedy wished to flex US muscles and contain the Soviets. He got Theodore Sorensen to write him a 3 minute TV speech that brought the world to the brink of nuclear war, compelling the Soviet leader to “abandon his course of world domination,” and proclaiming “our goal is not the victory of might, but the vindication of right.” Nikita Kruschev quit Cuba and backed off with his missiles.

No such heroic chain of cause and effect is visible in our postmodern world. Things happen in more opaque fashion nowadays. But leaders and influencers still shape and mould facts to conform to their preferences – and then set out in subliminal fashion the behaviour expected from the societies they command.

The sheer scale and ubiquity of the persuasion industry means we need forensic tools to follow its intentions, and gauge its effect upon us. If power runs through stories, then we should be analyzing how these stories work. From an academic perspective, analyzing stories and their effect on societies is a job already being done in universities.

It’s the core business of critical studies and cultural studies departments – parts of the liberal arts faculty often sneered at by businessmen and politicians. But what if we took the tools and forensic disciplines used by these critics, and put them to  work by applying them to the everyday narratives of those in the business of power and persuasion, to help show what’s really going on?

Metahistorian of Three Modes

Hayden White (now 84) is a slightly obscure American university professor and critical theorist of historical studies who made just about everyone else criticise him. Historians loathed him for showing their vaunted discipline was truly based on subjective storytelling. He described the discipline of History as living in the same era of “conceptual anarchy” that characterised 16th century science, when some still believed in alchemy.

Literary critics hated the way his studies showed that structure, as much as artistic content, drove readers’ emotions. Even the authorities hated him: in 1972 White won a US supreme court case against the LAPD chief for unlawfully sending detectives into the UCLA campus to secretly snoop on left-wing student activists.

White was influenced by Northrop Frye, a Canadian literary critic whose 1957 book Anatomy of Criticism delivered a conceptual framework showing how literature works by reinterpreting myth. Frye saw criticism as a science as well as an art and believed he was the Charles Darwin of his area. He plotted the social function of literature and identified the importance of the kind of story. White then applied these ideas to a new domain: history.

White was mainly an essayist, but in 1973 he produced Metahistory, a dense and near-impenetrable study of how four famous 19th European historians moulded and shaped just about everything we know today about “the way the world works.” He pinned the historians’ “true-life stories” about power, empire, struggle and cultural domination on a card — and then slashed them to bits.

To do so, White developed an analytical matrix that shows exactly how a random series of events is shaped into a history with a particular mood that in turn gets us to respond in ways that can be predicted and guided. In short: he had accidentally stumbled upon a route-map to the inner workings of the opinion-formation or persuasion industry.

White’s book identifies three “modes” or dominant approaches used by historians to make sense of events and to create the “official version” of our times. He shows how historians unconsciously follow very distinct scripts when they weave together storylines, arguments and ideological positions to create the “historical facts” we study in school and accept as “gospel truth”.

In a way, it’s another angle on my analysis of Christopher Booker’s approach to storytelling: once we know what label or archetype the story fits into, then we instinctively know what the “right” ending will be and what emotional response is expected of us. Well-told stories always end up the way we we’ve been trained to expect. From the labels used below, you can tell that the worlds of Seven Basic Plots and Metahistory are closely interlinked.

To my knowledge, White’s analytical framework for studying history has never before been applied to contemporary questions of everyday political economy. And I’m sure the patrician academic White would himself never have stooped to anything so messy as current affairs. But I’m going to try.

His work explains why, when Churchill’s “finest hour” speech presented the chivalrous image of Britain as “the sole champion now in arms,” he appealed to deep Romantic and Conservative instincts while placing a modern struggle in the Context of a glorious medieval past that could not be allowed to slip back into another Dark Age. Or why Kennedy’s Cuban missile speech with its call for Russia to help him “transform the history of man,” pressed deep behavior buttons at once Liberal and Romantic, while clearly setting up the Mechanistic process by which superpowers would one day bring to an end the long Cold War to deliver “peace and freedom.”

White himself produced a rudimentary table showing the underlying canvas upon which historians  apply their paints. I’ve added a column highlighting the probable behavioural effect of the story type.

 Modes of Narrative Creation

Probable Behavioural Effect of Story Plot (what kind of story is it?) Argument (What’s the point of this story?) Ideology(What should you believe?)
Aspirations to Galvanise Change  Romance Form Anarchist
Duty and Satisfied Acceptance of status quo Comedy Organic Conservative
Courageous  Acceptance of Change Tragedy Mechanistic Radical
Acceptance of Individual Responsibility Satire Context Liberal

Source: Metahistory, Hayden White, 1973 (adapted)

So how does the table work? White created three broad categories he defined as the basis of all storytelling – or history-telling which form the vertical columns:

Plot: (What kind of story is it?)

Argument: (What’s the point of this story?)

Ideology: (What should you believe?)

He then sliced each of these three categories into four subdivisions that show the way the story persuades people to respond by linking it to their own pre-existing beliefs or expectations. These are the horizontal rows.

Types of Plot: (What kind of story is it?)

Romance tells us the world is getting better. After many troubles we will celebrate the triumph of good and share a new and glorious beginning for our group or society.

Comedy tells us that despite threats of disharmony and disruption, we can work together to achieve a “happy ending” of shared human values in which everyone occupies his (or her) proper place in the world.

Satire tells us that human life is guided by meaningless factors such as folly, cruelty or mere chance. There seems to be no progress or real pattern to existence, and most of our ambitions are worthless vanity.

Tragedy tells us that human affairs are driven by irreconcilable and often-destructive forces hidden deep within us that we cannot master. Periodic  but inevitable clashes of values sweep away the good with the bad, leaving us humbler but wiser.

Types of Ideology: (What should you believe?)

Conservative tells us that established and proven values are better than the hollow promise of a better, yet unknown tomorrow. Patterns of duty and mutual responsibility nurture a fulfilling life, and protect society against disruptions caused by individual ambition and human failings.

Radical tells us mankind’s journey of moral and spiritual evolution continues: a better tomorrow can be achieved by breaking free of the past because man is fundamentally good and capable of building better societies.

Anarchist tells us there is no evolutionary progression towards a ‘great society’ – quite the reverse. It’s our duty to challenge established patterns and power systems to create some space for individual freedoms and fulfillment, regardless of the cost.

Liberal tells we are free individuals responsible both for our own destinies and respect for others. While we are tolerant of differences, we avoid interference in others’ affairs and reject the notion that collective action for collective good outweighs freedom.

Types of Argument: (What’s the point of this story?)

Form tells us that  “painting the picture” – variety, colour, vividness, and personalities – will best help us understand what’s going on. Form means setting out the beginning, middle and end of the story and letting the facts or persons speak for themselves.

Organic tells us the story is part of a zeitgeist or great chain of meaning that defines what’s going on as a huge process or goal with laws of its own. Individual events are moulded by a ‘spirit of the age’ that’s bigger than the sum of these individual parts.

Mechanistic tells us that the machinery of history is working itself out through big events. The laws of social structure and process governing Western civilization are more important than individual rights or freedoms.

Context tells us that events can only be understood by placing them against others happening around. The spectacle of events only gains meaning through ‘threads’ or relationships linking past, present and future; which allow us to trace the origins, impact and influence of everything that happens, big and small.

The left-hand column in the chart (Probable Behavioural Effect of Story) is my own addition. It’s designed to get us thinking about what might be the persuasive or opinion-forming effect if using these different modes, or combinations of them. If you deliberately picked the plot and argument, then  you use in a story, you can drive people to  understand  “how the world works” or even to react, according to a specific ideology.

Although White’s original matrix works well for academics, the rest of us may find the categories dull or rather hard to follow. There’s no point in being academic just for the fun (or otherwise) of it. But we are all familiar with the four basic plot types. So it makes sense to rework the whole package around these four to help popularize these ideas.

In the table below I’ve switched the axes around – and also included the case studies of mass opinion-formation or “meta-events” in current affairs, that I plan to analyze from the Metahistory perspective in subsequent chapters

Modes of Narrative Creation Revised

  Plot Type  Satire Plot Type Romance Plot Type Tragedy Plot Type Comedy
Ideology(What should I believe?) Liberal Radical Conservative Anarchist
Argument(What’s the  point of this story?) Form  Mechanistic Context Organic
Behavioural Effect of Story Acceptance of Individual Responsibility Courageous  Acceptance of Change for better tomorrow. Duty and Satisfied Acceptance of status quo Aspirations to Galvanise Society 
Case Study  “The Eurozone Financial Crisis.” “The Arab Spring.” “Afghan and Iraq Wars” “Occupy Wall Street 2011”

Source: Metahistory, Hayden White, 1973 (adapted).

In the middle of drafting this chapter, I was invited to deliver a 15-minute TED Talk in Utrecht, the Netherlands, and that required me to work on simplifying the underlying ideas. The recent posting on Moral Persuasion (the title of the TED conference) summarizes what I presented there. There’s also a TED video, in which you can see how the model works.

As in the TED Talk, my first case study (subject of next posting) will be Satire. As I have already taken a  cursory look at the Occupy Wall Street  Protests, I want also to dig behind the fabric to look at a second, related story on which to test the methodology. This is the 90 year-long “Battle of the Economists” which has led us directly to today’s economic world crisis.

I’ll profile the extraordinary opinion-formation struggle between the followers of John Maynard Keynes and the economic policies he inspired to beat the Great Recession of the 1920s and 1930s, and the followers of Friedrich Hayek, the Austrian prophet of privatization, small government, and unconstrained individualism who in the 1970’s and 1980s inspired The Chicago Boys, Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher.

Since 2006, the bitter clash between their two opposing narratives has all but destroyed the West’s economic prospects, has thrown tens of million out of work, and for a coming generation has undermined expectations of a “better society.”

And, I’ll postulate, it furnishes the stage on which the ideological battle between Wall Street and OWS, is today being played out. If so, there’s no better topic on which to road-test the hypothesis about the workings of the  horizontal or Narrativity Axis.

In closing I’ll add that using the word “Narrativity” is certainly not risk-free. Although its origins reach back over four decades into Critical Studies and Theory of Film, there are contemporary academics who today believe themselves the copyright owners of such concepts. The odd critical brick-bat has already been thrown at me, either for taking an unashamedly populist approach, or for meddling in PhD-only territory that supposedly belongs to those doing the criticising.

That’s all fine by me: As Chairman Mao might have said: “Let 100 stories blossom; let 100 narratives contend.” In a world of sharp pens and sharper-elbowed opinion formers, if someone isn’t actively trying to silence what you have to say, then your opinion is probably not worth hearing anyway.

Richard House


Moral Persuasion: Telling a Story – or Selling a Story?

One of the costs of living in society is that our minds are continually influenced by what goes on around us. We left free choice behind in the Garden of Eden.

The built environment we inhabit, the products we use, our concepts of how the exact sciences and social sciences work – and above all the stories or public-affairs narratives we are told about the “way the world works” – all these make up the universe of moral persuasion and mass opinion-formation.

The debate about how we respond to moral persuasion, how we separate the evils of social control from the benefits of  “the greater good,” has never been more timely as we dive into a new era of social turmoil and ever-more powerful online profiling. I’ve already written about how finely our private lives our being ground for the benefit of commerce in the vast marketing databases we know as Google and Facebook. See my blog on the battle of relational databases.

This week I took part in a TEDx symposium on Moral Persuasion held at Utrecht’s Hogeschool in the Netherlands. This brought together designers, social scientists, moral philosophers, social scientists, and scientific researchers in the field of moral psychology. Speakers came from the US and EU.

I found being a “reporter” at this event very difficult, because I was also involved, delivering the day’s kickoff address (of which later on) on the power of storytelling. That took most of my attention and develops ideas presented in my blogging throughout the year on the Seven Archetypal Stories and their power in business, public affairs, celebrity, entrepreneurship and employee engagement.

I also wrote the voiceover script for the tone-setting infographics video that started off the TEDx conference. Although busy, I focused enough on the other speakers to be certain a vast and fragmented body of work is developing across a broad front, whose goal is species development for humanity as a whole, and greater freedom for individuals.

We are witnessing one of those once-in-a-generation moments when the familiar floor of  “business as usual” breaks up beneath us, and the underlying beast of moral persuasion is visible to all. This brings hope – but there’s also cause for concern.

Here is a (necessarily brief) taste of the morning’s TEDx debate.

Pieter Desmet explained the roots of the “happiness gap” that prevails in our generation can be traced to design philosophy. Although our material conditions have increased dramatically in the last 30 years, happiness has not. One of the reasons is that the products cluttering our lives have generally been created to resolve a problem, an anxiety or fear. The handbag-sized Mace can for mugger protection, the iPhone or the designer jeans cease to satisfy, as soon as we master their use. We then need new products to solve new anxieties, under the moral persuasion logic of the “Consumer Society.”  Pieter showed that happiness actually comes from continuous and repeated practice, rather than repeated problem-solving or the law of  “diminishing emotional returns.”

His proposition was “design for love” and he gave some great examples of stuff created by his design students. A “Zorb” exercise ball for blind children, allowing  them to rush around naturally and frenetically without fear, just like sighted children. A key-ring based system of exchangeable tokens to nudge users into the daily practice of tiny acts of creativity or humanity or love. In such ways we can confront the monolithic world of  “design for everyone” in which products have become the everyday tools of moral persuasion.

Sebastian Deterding showed the extent to which gaming permeates online channels and has become a major tool for moral persuasion. We may regard status-enhancing games such as Foursquare — in which players gain points for marking on their Facebook pages all the restaurants, shops and other locations they visit — to be a passing and harmless fad (certainly the guys in my office have all stopped wasting time with it). And we might regard sites where points are awarded for shopping and recommending the purchase of consumer products to friends, as downright toxic. Yet at first blush, we applaud sites where individuals publicly “pledge” to lose weight, improve their diet or physical condition through healthy eating – and win bonus points for compliance.

Sebastian’s talk raises moral questions about the extent to which social scientists are being recruited (or corrupted) by industry to adapt online “play” situations that superficially appear benign, but whose motives are purely commercial. All iPhone 4 users carry the “Nike + iPod” app, whose function is not to make us go faster and so get healthier when we are jogging. It is to sell more high-cost sneakers made in low-cost economies.

Likewise, Philips is already tinkering with a cognitive behaviour therapy product called “DirectLife” whose objective is to allow companies to monitor the daily movements and health expectations of their employees. Will such tools allow companies in future to determine which compliant employees get their annual bonus, and which fat or lazy staff get kicked out?

Maurits Kaptein is one of a brilliant generation of young scientists who is questioning the intellectual laziness upon which many behaviour-related social science theories have so far been based. In the exact sciences, it’s possible to derive the value of gravitational force by timing the fall of a dropped ball. All readings will eventually converge on a single statistic which allows the underlying law of nature to be found. But it does not follow that social behaviour can be predicted through mass observation, because there is no single underlying law. Social scientists often get it wrong because they think everyone is “average.”

That means customising the moral persuasion business. So you will soon notice how this thinking is changing the way prods people to buy stuff. Some customers will get the prompt: “only two left: you have just 30 seconds to choose: Go,Go, Go!” Others will be told “people of your social status  and education who bought product X also bought product Y.” Watch out: Custom profiling of our vanities and weaknesses (based on our Facebook or Google + data) will be the new “killer app” for marketeers.

Moral psychologist Liane Young uses MRI scanners to pinpoint brain activity where people make moral judgements about  “bad” things – even accidents with unforeseen consequences.  She investigated the mystery of why, when former US vice President Dick Cheney peppered a friend while out shooting gamebirds, it was the victim who apologised profusely and publicly. Just how, and if, we forgive such accidents is an important guide to our mental states: psychopaths tend to be very lenient about accidents and don’t care much about the outcomes.

Other “big beasts” in the speaker line-up included respected  US philosophers Pete Singer, Don Norman, and Steve Denning (also a storytelling guru).

“Are they telling you a story, or selling you a story?”

Which brings me to the substance of my own TED Talk. (And because a youTube video of the 15 minute Talk is available on the TEDx site at

I’m not going to reprise the whole thing here).

It was more about public persuasion than moral persuasion. My point was simple. Stories are “sticky” and we need to understand their power over us.

We owe it to ourselves to understand how the public persuasion industry (which represents up to 25% of global GDP) affects our collective conduct and attitudes. My proposition is that the use of story is a fundamental driver of this process, which operates at a level just below our conscious thought.

I presented a simple twin-axis model to show how this works. The vertical axis is the Story Axis. This classifies seven archetypal stories, each of which awakens our shared expectation of certain outcomes – whether we hear that story in folklore, myth, children’s literature, public affairs, politics, the cinema, and of course business.

Every parent knows that if you skimp on the ending of Goldilocks and the Three Bears, your child will not sleep. Tell the story right, and you get peace.

For instance, we know that after a successful conclusion of  “Overcoming the Monster,” (archetypal Story number one), peace returns to the kingdom (whether that be in a James Bond film, in Little Red Riding Hood, or in “true life.”) So, only four days after the death of Moammar Ghadaffi, NATO’s Libya air operation was cancelled. And just weeks after the death of Osama Bin Laden, President Obama announced the return of 30,000 US troops from Afghanistan.

I profiled each of the seven archetypal stories, derived from the work of Christopher Booker in his Seven Basic Plots. For decades, these ideas have been going the rounds  with psychologists, anthropologists and Hollywood scriptwriters.

But just knowing how to classify which story we are living through isn’t everything: we need to know how certain types of story also set or determine our mood, which in turn guides how how we act, accept, engage, smile, or just raise a cynical eyebrow.

In my model this is the horizontal Narrative Axis, (or Narrativity axis).  I have just begun to present this detailed thought process in my blogging on the Narrative Process.

The starting point here is that if the vertical axis operates almost subconsciously, the narrative axis is the more deliberate “public affairs” branch of storytelling.

What is being presented to us as “the way the world works” by politicians, historians, economists and opinion-formers, is really no more or no less than a story. Opinion formers join up (often-unrelated) facts in politically-convenient sequences and sell their narrative to us.

By taking the postmodernist work of critical theorists from the liberal arts curriculum and applying this to the world of “would-be” empirical disciplines like economics or history, we can see how they are really just making it up too. Here I adapt the teachings of Hayden White in his Metahistory and apply them to contemporary public affairs.

White’s theory is numbingly complex, but in summary, the mood or wrapping which the story is consciously presented, predetermines our reaction.  He showed how the great dramatic tropes are used by historians to explain to us how the world works (in their terms, of course).

So I took the four Metahistory tropes and presented each in terms of a big public affairs event and showed how we are socially conditioned to react.

Give us a Satire, and we’ll shrug our shoulders and laugh at the folly and absurdity of human nature and our inability to change anything. Satire is Liberal, it demobilises us and makes us see we are not responsible for others

(The current Eurozone financial crisis can only be understood as a mega-budget satire starring Nicolas Sarkozy and Angela Merkel. We don’t understand the jokes or zany behaviour in Brussels, and are invited to shrug our shoulders, keep paying our taxes, shaking our heads at the folly of politicians and bankers as we witness new scenes in this slow-motion car-crash. But although the show is bombing at the box-office, the audience is responding nicely. We remain passive, don’t (much) protest, don’t threaten the players in Brussels and don’t show humanity to the Greeks who are being treated like they started and lost World War One.)

Gives us a Romance and we’ll get fired up to change the world and make it better. This drives revolutions, enlightenment, change. Romance is Radical.

(After decades of being told our access to oil depended on propping up ‘any son of a bitch so long as he’s our son of a bitch’ in the Islamic world, we are thrilled with the Arab Spring. We look on with approval as revolutions are tweeted, as whole new (and unknown) leaderships are crowdsourced through Facebook and youTube – and our own jaded  faith in the healing power of democracy is renewed and refreshed. We have faith in this radical adventure for a better tomorrow. Bring on the next revolution!) 

Give us a Tragedy, and we’ll come away sobered up, stripped down, but fundamentally passive in the face of repeated examples of flawed human nature and appalling suffering. Tragedy is Conservative, repetitive.

(At the same time as we spend our bombs and treasure to help crush old not-so-democratic leaders in the Arab Spring, we are stuck propping up just the same figures in Iraq and Afghanistan – a country where Britain lost three wars in the 19th Century and Russia one in the 20th century. And where Alexander the Great ran out of road. We accept suffering pain and death for NATO troops and Afghan civilians. We can do nothing to stop the pain and the shame of the hollow “peace with honour” we all know is coming).

Give us a Comedy and we engage collectively in the “working-out” of the community’s problem so that peace and happiness returns. We want a happy ending, a boy-meets-girl, a sense that society can heal its wrongs and put individuals back in their correct relationship through love and fairness. Comedy can be Anarchic, as we must question the folly of those in authority.

(The world’s biggest off-Broadway production is spreading faster than Cirque du Soleil! It’s the amazing Occupy Wall Street comedy blockbuster, showing now at a tent-site in your city. The story-line of this zany, anarchic comedy is no clearer than an old Monty Python episode. But even if the protagonists won’t (or can’t) tell us what they want, everyone knows they’re basically right that something has gone badly wrong and the status quo needs a kicking. The world is out of whack and it’s up to us to help put things – and people – back in their proper relationships, and use love to right the wrongs caused by greed and folly. Actors, celebrities, politicians; everyone who visits OWS/OLSX camps wants to share the community feeling.)

I ended with this plea:  if our collective reactions to great public events are driven by the mood of the story presented to us, and in turn the mood is defined by the way the pieces of the story are randomly fitted together by opinion-formers, then why shouldn’t we put those same pieces together in different ways? In better, more positive ways that promote human development, peace and progress.

We all have a voice. We can all be storytellers. We can question the established narrative. We can help turn demobilising Satire into engaging Romance; we can help turn passive Tragedy into active Comedy. Opinion-formers may believe they are selling us a story. But we can turn the tables on them by telling a story that’s our own positive form of moral persuasion.