Saturday, November 24, 2007

Narrative themes as driving factors in people's behavior

Dr. Hind Rassam Culhane, psychology professor and chair of the Social Sciences department at Mercy College (a.k.a. my mother) sent me an article from the New York Times (May 22, 2007) called "This is Your Life (and How You Tell It) by Benedict Carey. It has resonance for this course, so I thought I should link you to it and put its conclusions into perspective for "Environment and the Psychology of Behavior".

The upshot of the article (which draws for Dan McAdams 2006 book "The Redemptive Self" is that narrative themes (some of them claimed to be distinctly "American" such as narratives of "emancipation or atonement, of Horatio Alger advancement, of epiphany and second chances") have a profound effect on how we cope with our environments and their challenges. Narrative themes, suggests McAdams, "guide behavior in every moment, and frame not only how we see the past but how we see ourselves in the future".

The article quotes research that confirms something we have talked about in this course: that facts are better remembered when constructed into a storyline, and that the storyline imbues those facts with meaning that can drastically affect how we interpret and use the facts.
"Researchers have found that the human brain has a natural affinity for narrative construction" says Carey, echoing something we learned at Harvard freshman year when discussing Carl Sagan's "Dragon's of Eden": human brains are pattern generators. We see patterns in nature, even when they are technically absent (as in the constellations of the stars and the shapes we see in clouds); these patterns are organized into stories (Astrology is full of them) and we use these story narrative "tropes" (see Hayden White's 1978 "Tropics of Discourse" for more on this) to frame how we should behave.

None of this is new, but as usual in science, it is worth noting when research begins to statistically confirm our assumptions. (One might even lament the burden of the scientist in having to confirm what is to many obvious; Daniel Kehlmann has Alexander von Humboldt do exactly that on page 250 of his excellent docudramatic historical fiction "Measuring the World":

"Hastily Humboldt assured him that he had only said one should not overestimate the achievements of a scientist, a researcher was not a creator, he didn't invent anything, he didn't conquer lands, he didn't produce bounty, he neither sowed nor did he reap, and he would be followed by others, and still others, who would know more and then even more until finally everything was just swallowed up again..." )

I often reflect on this irritating and ego-demolishing truth as I continue my survey on hot water demand and use in historic and informal poor communities in Cairo -- how many hundreds of rat infested, crumbling, garbage filled households must I interview simply to prove with statistical rigor that the urban poor are suffering from the lack of environmental amenities that every human should have to be able to progress? But this is how science works -- relentless, slow and exacting.

And here I can link the two projects together -- my thesis and the article by Benedict Carey:
I think that a large part of the problem in development, and a crucial explanatory factor as to why the urban poor are suffering so much, is that they are victims of a debilitating narrative trope. While my own research is too limited to take note of the stories my subjects tell of themselves (I am doing a micro-economic survey in Urban Planning, not a psychological study of the participants), I am quite sure that if somebody were to follow up on my research they would find that many among the urban poor, particularly in Cairo and generally in third world countries, lack a coherent story that points toward victory in their struggle for well-being.

This I cannot prove statistically with my research, but anecdotally it is becoming clear that the urban poor of Cairo (and I saw it among the urban poor of Los Angeles during the decade I spent working there, and among the urban poor of Guatemala and Indonesia whom I worked with for the better part of another decade) have a story they tell about themselves that puts them invariably in the first person, as victims of moods and behavior problems that have become interpreted "as part of their own behavior, rather than a villain to be defeated... to them, therapy [is] part of a continuing adaptation, not a decisive battle" (Carey, page 3). If Carey's interpretation of the Jonathan Adler's psychology studies (presented at the annual meeting of the Society for Personality and Social Psychology) is correct, when people frame their story as "one of victorious battle" ( ' I ended therapy because I could overcome this on my own' says Adler), they tend to do better at overcoming adversity.

So what has happened to the Egyptians? You can read the economist Galil Amin's excellent books "Whatever Happened to the Egyptians" and "Whatever Else Happened to the Egyptians", and get a historical perspective, then add to it Adler's insights (quoted in Carey): "so-called generative adults — those who score highly on tests measuring civic-mindedness, and who are likely to be energetic and involved — tend to see many of the events in their life in the reverse order, as linked by themes of redemption" rather than otherwise good "scenes usually tainted by some dark detail."

In my view what has happened to the urban poor is that the fight has been knocked out of them. Their civic leaders and reformers, they are taught from a young age, were all killed, imprisoned, exiled or humiliated. The true Jihad -- the fight to conquer one's inner demons and emerge victorious as a civic-minded citizen -- has been warped and rewritten as a narrative about doing violence to "outside demons". In this way the poor face only two uncomfortable choices -- wallow in ineffective and self-defeating despair, or join some horrible movement where terror is the only outlet available to make your story be heard. Neither are palatable to the majority, but slipping into self-defeat is much easier, and a gentler way to go down. Most people, particularly in the slums, prefer and take the gentler path, despite everything you see and read in the media.

So how do we put the pluck back into people so that they can take care of themselves and pull themselves out of poverty?

I think that we must truly consider how narrative themes drive people's behavior toward their environmental challenges. I think we must consider that narrative themes, or tropes ARE part of the environment. And we must work to help people reconstruct those narratives so that they can tell stories about themselves that are, in the end, triumphant.

This is why, when I am working with my Zabaleen garbage recycling friends, I introduce them at conferences and to the media as "the heroes of Egypt -- the hopeful giants of the new age of recycling, who can turn one man's garbage into anothers gold". I urge them not to be ashamed to be working in "garbage", and ask that my picture be taken with the pigs in the pig waste, which we will turn into biogas, with the goats who are turning city trash into milk and cheese, with the donkey carts that release no net CO2 into our dangerously warming atmosphere, with the piles of dirty plastic that we are turning into solar hot water collectors.

The story has a happy ending. It is up to us to frame it that way for those who are living it.


Andy said...

T.H., I just got done reading 'From the Death of Environmentalism to the Politics of Possibility,' by Ted Nordhause and Michael Shellenback, in which they talk a great deal about how the environmental movement has failed because it has largely ignored social values. For instance, Americans tell a story about themselves as entrepreneurial, can-do people, and when we tell people that climate change means that we will have to restrict ourselves, we are going against American social values. They point out that climate change is an obvious opportunity for new jobs, products and markets. Changing the narrative we tell about climate change is hard to do. But this is so important, as you point out: "I think that a large part of the problem in development, and a crucial explanatory factor as to why the urban poor are suffering so much, is that they are victims of a debilitating narrative trope." The fundamental question is how to change that debilitating narrative. What I see in your work in Cairo is that you are empowering people so that they feel they can partake in the creation of a better future. There's a great quote by Amy Smith in the Design for the other 90% book:
“deforestation is an issue that concerns many haitians, and it is with great frustration and sorrow that they recognize how limited the viable cooking-fuel options are in much of the country. The infrastructure and resources are not in place to provide them with practical alternatives. This simple technology changes that. They now know how they, as individuals, can help prevent deforestation. By gaining this knowledge, they have acquired the skills they need to change their world.”
I think what we need to do is twofold: on the one hand, we need to drastically ramp up the rate at which we empower the world's poor and create situations in which they can use their own innovation and creativity to make their own lives better; and on the other hand, we need to allow the world' rich to feel that they can do tangible things to both deal with climate change and poverty. This is where social entrepreneurship and corporate social responsibility come into play, and this juncture is the starting point for my thesis.

Esther Montgomery said...


I'm contacting you because you list astrobiology as an interest in your blogger's profile - and because 'Mission to Mars' is in your film list.

I have a new blog called


It's about gardening (and Martians).

Yours sincerely

Esther Montgomery