Back when I was tutoring English, one of my students told me a story about how she escaped punishment.
My student — let’s call her “Susan” — was drinking vodka with some friends at an overnight school event.
Two of the kids got so sick that paramedics were called in. Those two were quickly suspended the following Monday.
But Susan and the others emerged unscathed, because they claimed they hadn’t been drinking. They “got away with it.”
Part of me thought — Oh, well. Kids will be kids, right? How many kids from my high school got drunk at parties but later grew up to be upstanding citizens? (Answer: A LOT.)
Another part of me had a different response: “Thus begins the dangerous slide of moral decay.” (Part of it was because of the nonchalant way that Susan related the events, without any blush of shame.)
But in either case, I moved on. We had work to do, as I began drilling her on parallelism errors in the SAT writing section.
So her story (and the resulting emotions) disappeared from my mind.
Until later that night at dinner, when I shared the tale with my wife over dinner.
As I told the story, some of those earlier feelings of righteous indignation flared up inside me. (It wasn’t fair that some kids were punished and others got away with it. Someone should do something about it … maybe me?)
And then a weird thing happened.
At the time, my toddler was flinging pees off her plate — nothing unusual. (Typically, at that point, my wife and I would calmly explain that food is for playing, not eating.)
But that night a surge of anger flooded my system. The Stern Father had been awakened.
I felt the intense need to scold my daughter — to correct her behavior — establish good morals now before it’s too late — and so pluck her from the path to perdition.
Have you ever been seized by the grip of an emotion taking you places you don’t want to go?
I knew it was ridiculous to discipline my daughter for playing with her food at that age. (At least in the way I felt compelled to discipline her: sternly, angrily.)
I resisted that feeling — I didn’t yell — but it took a lot of effort.
Why did I react so differently that night?
I believe it was because of those emotions of moral outrage that Susan’s story rekindled.
The story triggered emotions which activated a certain mindset in me — that of the Discipliner.
In fact, psychologists have confirmed this link: rehashing a story can trigger specific behaviors.
Psychologist Jonathan Haidt, in his must-read book The Righteous Mind, tells of one such study.
In the study, the scientists wanted to confirm the link between morality and physical cleanliness.
Previous studies had shown that when people felt moral outrage, they had a strong desire to clean themselves. (Bring on the hand sanitizers!)
And the same thing proved to be true again.
As Haidt writes,
“People who are asked to recall their own moral transgressions, or merely to copy by hand an account of someone else’s moral transgression, find themselves thinking about cleanliness more often, and wanting more strongly to cleanse themselves. They are more likely to select hand wipes and other cleaning products when given a choice of consumer products to take home with them after the experiment.” (emphasis added, p. 71).
Even just the act of writing out a story triggered the cleaning behaviors.
Tuck this little fact away the next time you’re selling a cleaning product!
But the broader point is also true, as you know if you’ve ever been ensnared by a Save The Children infomercial and found yourself dialing in a donation:
Stories can activate a frame of mind that leads to certain behaviors.
(Timing matters, too. My feelings of outrage only floored me because I was retelling the story during my daughter’s dinner escapade. So even if
your story doesn’t include a direct pitch, make sure it flows smoothly into a clear Call To Action.)
The next time you get angry (or excited) open your inner eye and examine why. Strong feelings are often connected to vivid stories. The deeper we understand this link, the easier it is to write stories that activate the emotional frame that is best suited to our offer.
Is there a story that, every time you hear it, it triggers an “autopilot” response?
Let me know in the comments below. See ya there.
Stay Tuned For Next Week …
In which I learn from a child genius whose finger is on the bomb.