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Possible Futures: The Emotional Impact Of Stories To Promote Positive Change

  Change is like rain. We need it so things can grow. Too much at once will drown us, not enough a life-threatening drought. It is messy, uncomfortable, and inconvenient but necessary. For anything new to happen we have to build on an existing story that features a character we do not yet know: our "self" in the future. We will cling to the present version of "self" even when we have the information showing that the future will not be good if we stay on the same path.  Most of us have only to think about giving up a favorite food, moving on from an unsatisfying but stable career, or starting a project we have put off for too long to recognize some of the reasons for this, which also happen to be backed by boatloads of research into the topic. These studies can, if nothing else, make us feel a little less crummy about change we might know is important but are still putting off. 
Because change is about more than just the will and the skill, it is really about the story and our ability to connect with its central character: the person we will become if we see it through.
by Jude Treder-Wolff, LCSW, RMT, CGP

The Journal of Consumer Research published research showing that the ability to delay gratification and act in the interests of long-term good is linked to the ability to see and connect with a vision of ourselves in the future. "A powerful determinant of people’s future-oriented preferences, plans, and behavior is the person they expect to be when outcomes are realized. When this later person is more closely connected to the current self in terms of important psychological properties, such as beliefs, values, and goals, the decision maker acts more patiently—that is, in a manner that reflects greater consideration of the later self’s welfare." In other words, if we can imagine the future story as an extension of the one we are already telling, we are more likely to view the change as possible. It has to do with the emotional pull of identity.

  Identity is a tangle of stories we have lived and learned with roots often running below the level of conscious awareness. Our personal story is also linked to a social network and a cultural community that defines a sense of belonging that can be rocked by substantive change. Quit smoking and rip the fabric of a familiar nicotine-intensive social network that will never be the same again. Publish that book that's been percolating for so many years and shatter the limited definition of self that fit into a smaller world. Because the power of story is the combination of emotion, imagination and transformation, when we understand story we learn also about the tensions and creative process of change.
     The University of Massachusetts Medical School looked at storytelling as a way to exploit the emotional power of stories to influence African-American patients with hypertension to take action toward lowering their blood pressure. "Social and cultural barriers have been found to contribute to African American patients being far more likely than white patients to suffer from uncontrolled high blood pressure and resulting complications," writes Mark Shelton in "Storytelling May Help Control Blood Pressure In Some Populations" on the UMass website. The researchers identified "exceptionally eloquent and persuasive" patients with hypertension and recorded them telling their personal stories about what they did to control their blood pressure. Exposure to these stories had a direct positive correlation to lower blood pressure and follow-through with changes in habits to sustain it. 
    Hal Hershfield describes his research using the possible future self to promote behavior change in the article "You Make Better Decisions If You See Your Senior Self" on Harvard Business Review. "There’s a large body of literature showing that emotional responses are heightened when you give people vivid examples: Donors give more to charity when they hear from a victim; pulmonologists smoke less than other doctors because they see dirty lungs all day," he writes. "So I partnered with Daniel Goldstein of Microsoft Research, Jeremy Bailenson of Stanford, and several other Stanford researchers to see if giving people vivid images of their older selves would change their spending and saving preferences. Only those who saw their own future selves were more likely to favor long-term rewards."
    Personal stories told by people we admire and relate to can bolster our sense of belonging as well as important dimensions of our identity while at the same time evoking a strong image of who we might become in the future. The science says that the stronger that creative connection is, the more likely we will be to behave in new ways that eventually bring that future self into the now.
Listen to a TED talk on this topic, "The Psychology Of Your Future Self" by Dan Gilbert

Jude Treder-Wolff, LCSW, RMT, CGP is a trainer, writer/performer and singer/songwriter. Her storytelling show (mostly) TRUE THINGS features true stories - with a twist - told live by people from all walks of life. 


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