“Don’t have a grandson with a dog collar.” “Don’t tax job creators.” Why do we believe – and act on – such incredible stories? (More)

Telling Our Stories, Part II: Credible, Emotional, Stories

This week Morning Feature revisits Chip and Dan Heath’s Made to Stick and their SUCCES checklist, to help us better communicate with voters. Yesterday we discussed their first three points: Simple, Unexpected, and Concrete. Today we consider their final three points: Credible, Emotional, Stories. Saturday we’ll develop a sticky story about inequality and tax fairness for 2012.

On Dog Collared Grandsons …

Yesterday we discussed this DirecTV ad:

When your cable’s on the fritz, you get frustrated. When you get frustrated, your daughter imitates. When your daughter imitates, she gets thrown out of school. When she gets thrown out of school, she meets undesirables. When she meets undesirables, she ties the knot with undesirables. And when she ties the knot with undesirables, you get a grandson with a dog collar. Don’t have a grandson with a dog collar. Get rid of cable and upgrade to DirecTV.

The story is absurd. No one really believes that a moment of frustration over a cable TV glitch will lead, inevitably, to your daughter growing up to marry a video gamer and who dresses her baby in a dog collar. No, we don’t believe that …

… but neither do we disbelieve it. Instead, we practice what Samuel Taylor Coleridge termed “willing suspension of disbelief.” This describes a state somewhere between belief and disbelieve, where we accept a story for the purpose of entertainment, or to illustrate a rhetorical point, even though we recognize the story is not entirely grounded in fact.

… and Job Creators

Like this story, for example:

How is it possible that reducing income tax rates increases tax revenues?

Because when income tax rates are high, many people put their money in tax shelters to avoid paying taxes. People are also less likely to put in extra time at work, hire new employees, or invest in new equipment when they know that most of their additional income will be eaten up in taxes.

When income tax rates are low, people remove their money from tax shelters to invest in the economy, where they can make more money. As a result, more people actually pay taxes, more jobs are created, output increases, incomes rise, and the government collects more money in taxes.

That story is as absurd as the baby with the dog collar. Consider the phrase “tax shelters.” As it turns out, legitimate tax shelters are investments in the economy – such as real estate investment, pension plans, retirement accounts, starting a business, buying municipal bonds, and employer-sponsored insurance and education plans – and the IRS penalizes abusive tax shelters that hide money without productive investment. What’s more, ending the Bush-era tax cuts would mean someone making over $380,000 brings home ‘only’ $600.40 for every $1000 in income rather than the current $650.

To argue that a business owner would not expand and hire new employees because he’ll pay an extra $49.60 per $1000 in additional income … is as ridiculous as arguing that a four-year-old daughter who sees her father slap a table in frustration will, years later as a teenager, slap a tray from a teacher’s hand, be expelled from school, marry a video gamer, and dress her baby in a dog collar. Both stories are absurd.

Why we suspend disbelief:

Yet both of these absurd stories are sticky. As we saw yesterday, the DirecTV ad meets the first three points of the Heath brothers’ checklist: it’s Simple, Unexpected, and Concrete. So is the Don’t Tax Job Creators story. It begins with the parable of the Golden Goose (Simple), argues that tax cuts increase government revenue (Unexpected), and includes several real world, active details (Concrete). But what about the Heath brothers’ other three points?

  • Credible – Make statistics tangible or, even better, use evidence from ordinary life experience that listeners can test for themselves. Highlight cause-and-effect, and use familiar ideas and repetition.
    The Heath brothers suggested tangible statistics and ordinary life experience in Made to Stick. Neither the DirecTV ad nor the Don’t Tax Job Creators stories rely on statistics, but both seem to invoke ordinary life experience. I’ve added cause-and-effect and familiarity based on research in Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow, and both the Dog-Collared Grandson and Don’t Tax Job Creators rely on those elements. Each event in both stories seems to flow logically from the events before. Both stories invoke familiar themes – children mimicking parents and the parable of the golden goose – and neither story is told just once. DirecTV will run that ad hundreds of times, and Republicans tell the Don’t Tax Job Creators story every time they get a chance.

  • Emotional – Individualize “mass” problems with specific examples. Appeal to self-interest, including the larger self-interest of The Person I Want To Be.
    The DirecTV ad doesn’t talk about “parents” or “children.” Instead, it presents a specific father and daughter, and appeals to the father’s self-interest: avoid frustration or you may end up holding a grandson with a dog collar. While the Don’t Tax Job Creators story above is generalized, Republicans often cite specific ‘Job Creators’ as examples. Indeed Mitt Romney claims credit for every new job in any company Bain Capital ever worked with, even jobs that were added after Bain stopped working with the company. The Don’t Tax Job Creators story is also an appeal to the larger self-interest of The Person I Want To Be; you may not be rich now, but you want to be rich and might be someday, so….

  • Story – Stories are “flight simulators” that both rehearse and can inspire action.
    Hearing or telling a story activates the same parts of our brains as experiencing the events, priming us to act. The DirecTV would not have spent money to produce and broadcast that ad unless they thought it would spur viewers to suspend disbelief, act as if it were true, and buy their product. Not all advertising campaigns work, but enough work well enough to make advertising a $150-billion-dollar-a-year industry. Similarly, Republicans hope voters will suspend disbelief in the Don’t Tax Job Creators story, act as if it were true, and vote for candidates who oppose tax increases and support tax cuts for the wealthy.

Both the Dog-Collared Grandson and the Don’t Tax Job Creators stories are absurd. But both hit all six points of the stickiness checklist: Simple, Unexpected, Concrete, Credible, Emotional, Stories. We can lament that or – as we’ll see tomorrow – we progressive Democrats can tell our own sticky stories.

Stories that are true.


Happy Friday!