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boredom

We are the product of the stories we inhabit

By | Citizen Behaviour, Government & Politics

In previous posts, I wrote about Identity, Growth-KPI, and economic policies as examples of macro-forces for behavioural change. They have a profound impact on how people behave in society. Today I want to introduce a fourth macro-force for behavioural change: Stories. I want to explain the central role of stories in how we think about ourself and the world. And I want to argue that stories are perhaps the essential ingredient of a strategy for behavioural change on a massive scale. As always, I hope you enjoy reading Behavioural Design Digest. Don’t hesitate to share your thoughts, suggestions or remarks at tom@sueamsterdam.com.

PS: While you’re here: Last month we had the first post-corona offline Behavioural Design Academy Fundamentals Course. It was great! You can still decide to enrol in the online or offline edition in August, or – if you are an alumnus of the BDA – you can become a certified Behavioural Design Lead by attending our 3 month advanced course that starts in September. 

boredom

We are nothing more than actors in other people’s stories. 

A couple of days ago, as we were enjoying one of the first warm sunny days in July at our family’s summer house, I noticed a couple sitting outside at the nearby bungalow. They were sitting next to each other for more than 3 hours, drinking coffee, smoking cigarettes, staring into the abyss. They must have decided that, since it was summer, the smartest thing they could think of was to rent a bungalow on a bungalow park.

The whole scene struck me. It felt like this couple were actors in a story that went nowhere. And since there was no story left for them to participate in, they were sitting there, side by side. Numb and paralyzed. I imagined that probably 20-30 years ago, a different story must have structured their lives and their relationship. A story filled with dreams and plans. A story of what they wanted to become and the hero journeys they would embark upon to achieve those outcomes.

Jacques Lacan

Who we are is produced mainly by the stories we inhabit

The whole scene reminded me of why Freudian and Lacanian psychoanalysis fascinates me so much. What the French Psychiatrist Jacques Lacan (see image above) highlighted in his re-reading of the work of Freud, was Freuds struggle to understand the essence of the concepts that define humans: Our identity, our desires, our unconsciousness, and our relationship with lust, authority and death.

Lacan argued that what Freud discovered was that there is no such thing as a self. The words I produce are not initiated by a core self that is running the show deep inside our brain. In contrast, Lacan argues that the ‘self’ is instead an emerging property. It emerges out of the words and stories that we inhabit.

You can think of your identity as a web of positions that are assigned to you. Your first position in life is your place as a child to two parents. They teach you over and over again how they expect you to behave. Then, during adolescence, you have to start searching for your own position. You borrow a lot from role models and friends, and in that process a new identity gradually takes shape. Then you find a partner. Your relationship with that partner is very much bounded by the rules that your culture offers for your role: You need to be loyal, faithful, produce a family, create a stable life, raise kids, etc. The moment you utter the words: I am your husband, and you are my wife, your thoughts and behaviours are being shaped by the hidden rules of what it means to be someone’s husband or wife.

Gradually, as you grow older, more and more storylines emerge and force you to play an ever more growing set of roles. Meanwhile, you try to figure out whom you need to be, to be recognized and appreciated by your friends, your team, your boss, your clients, your neighbours?

 

Being human is exhausting.

If you think about it: Being a human is pretty exhausting. We’re acting in a never-ending play that consists of multiple storylines. And this is exhausting for several reasons:

  1. The roles we have to play are often in profound conflict. If we want to develop an interesting character in our professional story, we need to show ambition. If we would like to make progress in the professional story, we need to invest in our skills, our network, and our relationship with our colleagues. We need to hunt for promotions, and we need to put up fights with our competitors. But this often conflicts with another demanding storey: The relationship story. Our relationship story demands that we act according to the rules of the script: be a loving, caring lover, father, and friend at the same time.
  2. We’re fundamentally insecure about what others are thinking of us. So we waste our time and money to set up all kinds of performances to signal the desired image to others. Comedian Will Rogers famously said, “Too many people spend money they haven’t earned to buy things they don’t want to impress people they don’t like.”.
  3. We have the tendencies to lose ourselves in these stories. Successful people are as much a victim of being lost in stories. I have had the privilege to work with many successful entrepreneurs, and they all reach a point where they suddenly realize that the leading role in the “success story” that they bought into, actually sucks. They got addicted to the part, and it brought them success and recognition, but they end up being bored and feeling lonely. If you think about it: The presidency of Donald Trump is nothing more than a never-ending obsessive desperate role-play to be seen as a successful businessman.

 

Why the current story sucks. 

Remember, the value of stories is that they produce our identities. Your identity is the product of the stories you inhabit. As I argued in my previous posts, the most important reason for the growing discontent in society is that people have lost confidence that the economy will produce an exciting future for them. What is there to dream for, if society has reduced you to a consumer of goods? If you’re robbed of the ability to secure a stable life and maintain that same level of living after retirement. How would you feel if you would be acting in a play in which a tiny elite re-writes the script to produce ever more wealth for themselves and burden society with all the costs, while climate catastrophe is looming on the horizon?

Unless you are part of the lucky few for which this storyline creates social status, prosperity and access to exclusive places and very cool friends, more and more people haven’t got that much to strive for, unless avoiding the stress of getting into trouble.

The story is broken.

Stijn Siekelink – a well known Dutch researcher on radicalization – argues that we should think of radicalization as an identity crisis that went wrong. Time and again, radicalized youngsters say that the Jihad Recruiters were the first people who gave them a perspective to be part of something that society wasn’t going to provide them with: status, purpose, pride, and identity. Jihadist recruiters understand perfectly well that their praying on a sense of being a loser. They offer a much more thrilling answer than regular societies.

 

What the new stories should look like. 

Why do we love movies or series? The simple reason is that we love exciting narratives. A well-crafted story has it all: a tension, a hero journey, a goal to strive for, and lots of obstacles that need to be overcome. Every movie in the history of the world follows this recipe. We, humans, crave for stories like these.

No think about your own life: When was the last time you had the feeling you were living the plot of an exciting movie? What was the last time you felt you were part of an epic journey? When did you think that the life you’re living was fueled with a desire to achieve something bigger than yourself?

There are so many major problems to be solved: Humanity can fix hunger, poverty, inequality, climate change, rewilding nature etc… but we’re no longer part of the solution anymore. We can all make individual choices, like driving electric, eating plant-based, travelling less, but these are all choices we make as a consumer. Everything else, we have outsourced to governments and international organizations.

The central thesis of my blogpost is the Freudian-Lacanian psychoanalytic concept that our identities are being produced by the stories we inhabit. If we don’t change the script, we’ll end up as bored and annoyed actors in a sad storyline. A boring narrative of success and social status. Meanwhile, there are so many epic adventures ahead of us to solve the world’s most pressing problems.

While the world is gradually turning into Instagram, we should live it more like Minecraft, a game in which people are encourage to join forces to create beautiful new worlds.

Tom De Bruyne
Co-founder SUE Behavioural Design

You can e-mail me at tom@sueamsterdam.com, or follow my Behavioural Design Mini-courses on LinkedIn, or learn more about behavioural design on our website and blog. Learn the Behavioural Design Method in the Behavioural Design Academy or invite us to facilitate a Behavioural Design Sprint to improve your product, service or marketing with psychological intelligence.

Image Courtesy: Joshua Rawson Harris via Unsplash

Want to learn more?

If you want to learn more about how influence works, you might want to consider our Behavioural Design Academy masterclass. Or organize an in-company program or workshop for your team. In our masterclass we teach the Behavioural Design Method, and the Influence Framework. Two powerful frames for behavioural change.

You can also hire SUE to help you to bring an innovative perspective or your product, service or marketing in a Behavioural Design Sprint.  You can download the brochure here, or subscribe to Behavioural Design Digest at the bottom of this page. This is our weekly newsletter in which we deconstruct how influence works in work, life and society.

Or maybe, you’re just curious about SUE | Behavioural Design. Here’s where you can read our backstory.

sue behavioural design
sue behavioural design
Trump fans wearing MAGA hats

Why our obsession with identity is a problem

By | Citizen Behaviour, Government & Politics

I have spent a lot of time reading lately about identity, and its role in politics as well as in human decision-making. Isn’t it bizarre that the challenges of the COVID-19 crisis and the emerging climate crisis should urge us to overcome our differences and start collaborating on an unprecedented scale? Yet, all we are capable of is quarrelling about who we are?

We need to examen the hidden role of identity in behavioural change. And I believe that overcoming our obsession with our identity is probably one of the biggest challenges of today if we want humanity to deal with the mega-challenges it’s facing.

PS: While you’re here: Last month we had the first post-corona offline Behavioural Design Academy Fundamentals Course. It was great! You can still decide to enrol in the online or offline edition in August, or – if you are an alumnus of the BDA – you can become a certified Behavioural Design Lead by attending our 5-day summer course in August. 

Trump fans wearing MAGA hats

Both the left and the right are sharing the same obsession

‘Don’t think of an elephant’. Never was a book title as revealing as George Lakoff’s famous book on political framing. With this provocative title, he illustrated the point that fighting a frame strengthens it. In other words: If I ask you not to think of an elephant, you cannot help but think about elephants. If I try to argue that immigration is not the problem, I reinforce the frame that the real discussion is indeed about immigration.

Identity has become the dominant frame in public discourse. All over the world, right-wing national populists are trying to win elections with a romantic idea of what it means to be a Real Dutch, A  real Hungarian, a real American, etc. In their world view, the pure soul of a nation is being compromised by uncontrolled immigration, liberal politics, Muslims, gays, radical-left postmodernist academics and [fill in the blanks]. What they’re selling is a return to a ‘pastopia’, an idealised version of the past.

Meanwhile, the left has gradually fallen back into a similar toxic obsession with identity. All the anger and resentment around cancel culture (see picture below), Black Pete, transgender rights, and wokeness, are all about a deep craving for respect for this particular part of their identity.

Whereas the radical right is craving for a monolithic group identity around conservative Christian values, are the left craving for recognition of their niche identities. It’s pretty much the same story, only a different flavour.

cancel culture

Where does this obsession come from?

The Dutch philosopher Bas Heijne, recently published a beautiful essay on identity and liberalism, called “mens/nonmens”, roughly translated as “human/inhuman”. In this essay, he asks himself the question of why liberalism has such much difficulty to deal with ‘nationalpopulism’. I found his answer quite surprising. The problem with liberalism (and moderate politics in general) is that they stopped having a seductive vision about the future. They act as if the current society is the pinnacle of human achievement, and that our only task is to manage it properly. But more and more people understand perfectly well that the deal that their parents had with society isn’t working for them anymore. The essence of this deal was that if you work hard, you will be able to have a house, your kids can get a proper education, and when you finish your career, there’s going to be a nice pension waiting for you to enjoy the last part of your life.

Historian Philip Blom argues that for more and more people, this contract with society is broken. No matter how hard you work today, you can’t make ends meet, while the rich are getting richer. Buying a house means entering a world of lifelong debt, just like trying to get a proper education. It seems that the wealthy have re-written the rules to benefit their interest.

The reason why ‘nationalpopulists’ have such an appeal, even when they are flawed or openly corrupt individuals themselves, is that they do a far better job in harvesting these feelings of anger for being left behind. They offer something precious in return: a utopia from the past, where society was structured amongst clear lines, where life was simple, where you derived part of your pride from your place in that society, and where virtues and values still mean something. Populists like Putin and Orban are romantic nostalgia. They reject – in the words of Philip Blom – a technocratic world that has been stripped away from all of its magic.

The liberal world that people reject is the cold and hypercompetitive world that consists of individual consumers.  A world that keeps reminding you that no matter how much you buy to express your deeper needs and desires, there’s always a group of better people than you: more prosperous, more successful,… No matter what you do, you will still feel insecure and failed.

Bas Heijne observes that identity only comes into play when it’s under threat. When your world is neatly structured, and your future is bright, you don’t need to think about identity. Only when your identity is under threat, you will start shopping for new answers.

Both the radical left and radical right are more than happy to supply answers to this ‘market demand’ for identity.

Why this is problematic, and what to do about it?

Already in the 1930s, the English psychoanalyst Wilfred Bion observed in his famous book “Experiences in Groups” that groups can only overcome their unconscious tendencies for fighting, flighting, and their dependencies on leaders, by forming what he calls “working groups”. If a group succeeds in joining forces to solve a problem, they will be able to overcome the irrational and destructive forces that the group will revert to by default. Put us in groups, and we still are hardwired to act like a band of primates.

This vision about what kind of society we would like to become is the key element that is missing in politics. We need a story about the sort of community we want to create, not in terms of wealth, but also in terms of the quality of life. Wealth – although important, when there’s not enough of it – turns out to be an empty dream. The market has a big appetite for ideas and stories about how we could design a society in which you can live a qualitative life in a qualitative ecosystem.

More and more thinkers come to the same conclusion. Leading economist Mariana Mazzucato argues in her book “the value of everything” that societies need big hairy audacious projects to bundle excitement, energy, capital and innovation towards solving a wicked problem like eradicating poverty or achieving a CO2-neutral economy.

Does this mean we have to get rid of identity politics? Not at all. We need even more of it. People crave more than ever for a sense of identity, belonging and meaning. Liberals or moderates need to start telling a compelling story about how ‘a society worth living in’ should look like and how we’re going to get there by joining forces and becoming a working group. If not, they will leave the market for identity to nostalgics, frustrated Millenials and radicals.

This is what’s at stake.

Tom De Bruyne

You can e-mail me at tom@sueamsterdam.com, or follow my Behavioural Design Mini-courses on LinkedIn, or learn more about behavioural design on our website and blog. Learn the Behavioural Design Method in the Behavioural Design Academy or invite us to facilitate a Behavioural Design Sprint to improve your product, service or marketing with psychological intelligence.

Want to learn more?

If you want to learn more about how influence works, you might want to consider our Behavioural Design Academy masterclass. Or organize an in-company program or workshop for your team. In our masterclass we teach the Behavioural Design Method, and the Influence Framework. Two powerful frames for behavioural change.

You can also hire SUE to help you to bring an innovative perspective or your product, service or marketing in a Behavioural Design Sprint.  You can download the brochure here, or subscribe to Behavioural Design Digest at the bottom of this page. This is our weekly newsletter in which we deconstruct how influence works in work, life and society.

Or maybe, you’re just curious about SUE | Behavioural Design. Here’s where you can read our backstory.

sue behavioural design
sue behavioural design