Put People in the Picture

Our minds make sense of situations by creating stories with protagonists

"The mind...appears to have a special aptitude for the construction and interpretation of stories about active agents, who have personalities, habits, and abilities." – "Thinking, Fast and Slow" by Nobel Prize-winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman

Psychological studies show that our minds are hard-wired to make sense of our world by creating stories, featuring protagonists who act with agency and intention to make things happen. In the chaos and complexity of real life, our brains seek coherence and simplicity through narrative.

We are wired to see causality in situations—to believe that things happen because someone or something made them happen, on purpose. Even when that isn’t true.

This is why we can be quick to place blame when something goes wrong, even if no one was really at fault. It's why leaders get credit or blame for things they don't actually control, like when the president's approval rating in surveys goes up or down with the country's economic performance.

Our tendency to imagine protagonists making things happen is one reason that narrative is such a powerful tool for persuasion. Putting people in the picture, as protagonists in a story, can help an audience understand a complex issue from your point of view.

This insight helped the Hattaway team create a narrative about the 2009 U.S. financial crisis that helped advocates promote sweeping financial reforms, which were enacted into law over fierce industry lobbying to kill them.

A major foundation asked our team to reframe the debate about the financial crisis at a time when political leaders and commentators were blaming the collapse of financial institutions on people who took out mortgages they couldn't afford. We changed the story to blame the crisis on mortgage brokers who tricked people into unsafe loans and financial speculators who passed on that debt, hiding the risk from investors.

Putting people in the picture made it easy for people to wrap their heads around a complex situation—and support reforms to protect consumers from the bad actors in the financial system.

Research shows the importance of attaching personal attributes or personality traits to the actor or protagonist. "Your mind is ready and even eager to identify agents, assign them personality traits and specific intentions, and view their actions as expressing individual propensities," according to "Thinking, Fast and Slow."

Ascribing intentions to the protagonist shapes people's judgments, in positive or negative ways. So, in our narrative about the economic crisis, the “fast-talking mortgage brokers” and "Wall Street speculators" were "looking to get rich quick."

In a similar vein, people understand a sentence more easily if it “describes what an agent does than if it describes what something is,” writes Kahneman. Putting people in the picture who are doing something to address a problem can help you explain complex issues and abstract ideas.

For example, the Harvard School of Public Health asked the Hattaway team to develop a message explaining the complex field of public health to non-experts. The school deals with donors, policymakers and partners in many fields who do not understand the multidisciplinary approach and specialized language of public health.

Our team suggested describing the field of public health as a “team of experts” in topics like disease, pollution, nutrition, economics and other areas, who work together to “diagnose” threats to our health and “prescribe” solutions to keep people healthy. Describing individuals with action verbs that explain their roles helps non-experts picture the people of public health at work.

It’s easy to put this principle to work in crafting messages about your cause. Think about the people served by your work, people who might be causing a problem, or people who are engaged in finding solutions. Putting people in the picture will promote comprehension and create human connections—which also helps others care about the cause.