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.



6 thoughts on “Moral Persuasion: Telling a Story – or Selling a Story?

  1. Richard,
    Thanks for a great article again. I think the way you relate the ‘storytelling’ axis and the ‘narrative’ axis contributes greatly to our understanding of the impact of stories. And relates it in its turn to ethics and leadership. It would be interesting to see how one story could be told from both the satire, romance, tragedy and comedy ‘angle’.
    Can ‘narrativity’ in the sense you use it, be seen as ‘intentional framing’?
    Annet Scheringa


    • Thanks Annet … and sorry I didn’t see you in Utrecht! Although Narrativity is a small space, it seems rather crowded with other people busy laying down their own dogmatic rules or copyrighted definitions in what many consider to be public space. Instead, I’ll just hang with the OWS “can’t say, won’t say” crowd and wait to see what people feel, rather than embark on my own moral persuasion crusade which would likely turn out as just as wrong as all the others.


  2. Crystal clear, provocative and exciting. Thank you. You’ve swept my wits with a simple broom of thoughts. What might we do to help hide-bound religions stop clinging to their own megastories unto death? As they have the greatest sway, how do we get sacred stories shake hands?


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