“Motives that shape autobiographical narratives”

Following on from my previous post that started to look at narrative as the search for meaning, I wanted to focus on one article about the motives behind constructing narrative and think how it might apply the idea of project teams telling stories.

Baumeister and Newman (1994) delve a little deeper into the psychology behind personal stories by trying to determine what it is that makes the telling of stories so compelling. If creating stories is such an innate impulse (Garcia and Rossiter 2010) then it must be fulfilling some sort of need.

The last post looked at it as a way of creating meaning out of experiences and Baumeister and Newman add to that by offering 4 needs that drive the creation of stories. Some of these deal with the need to make sense of experience but to this they add the idea of “interpersonal manipulation” as a means of influencing others.

The four needs

  1. The need for purposiveness
  2. The need for justification and value
  3. The need for efficacy and control
  4. The need for self worth

Purposiveness in stories (1994, p681) is seeing a series of events as leading up to a particular goal as a way of making meaning out of experience; a way of saying that events in the past have been leading up to a particular future goal. For exmaple, I might talk about how being made redundant by T-Mobile in 2000, which at the time seemed like a metaphorical block in the road, was instrumental in moving me on in the next step of my career, firstly staying in the corporate world where I became disillusioned and so leading to working in education again, having left teaching in 1997.

With justification (1994, p683), we see stories framed by a sense of right and wrong, where we justify our actions on the understanding that “what one does is right and good.” The authors illustrate the powerfulness of this aspect of story in arguing our legal system is “based on exchanging, comparing, and corroborating narratives of crucial events” (1994, p685).

We use stories as a way of showing that we have the ability to shape our environments, have control over them rather than be at the mercy of them. When Hull and Katz (2006) talk about writing stories as a way of “creating an agentive self”, they are saying that the story, as well as showing how an individual had an effect on their situation, it reinforced this in the individual’s mind so it became part of their self-narrative. It’s interesting to think of this as a positive feedback loop.

Finally, with self-worth, “people make and tell stories to portray themselves as competent and attractive. Stories about past disasters (like being made redundant?) are defused to limit the damage to self worth. The authors contrast this with the second need by saying the need for justifation is seen terms of individual actions, whereas self-worth concerns affect the whole person.

Can this apply to stories of organisational change?

The first thing to be wary of is that this analysis is about autobiographical, personal stories, not stories about groups or projects but there still might be mileage in drawing comparisons or even just from a better understanding of what it is about stories we find attractive. Even so, I’m going to to limit my comparisons to thinking analogously for the moment.

Secondly, I’d be wary of explicitly talking about these “needs” as part of any support activities as the terms involved sound a bit underhand; “interpersonal manipulation”, “control”, “justification”.

But I think there is value in seeing stories as a way of engaging an audience to see the outcome of a project as having achieved a meaningful purpose and that it is considered “the right thing to have done” both in the case of the steps taken (justification) and the overall reason behind doing the project in the first place (self-worth). These projects are about acheiving change on various levels so they need to have efficacy. When it comes to idea of “manipulation” or influence, one of the hoped-for outcomes of these projects is that they will provide templates for adoption by other organisations and the story might be the route to a better understanding by those third parties of how and why they should proceed.

Also interesting is how the authors talk about stories in relation to memory, how narrative is container for abstract concepts (1994, p676). They conclude.

“Despite the apparent informational superiority of abstract propositions and generalizations, people often prefer naratives.” (1994, p688)

I’ll revisit this idea when I start examining the pedagogical apsects of storytelling.

Baumeister R and Newman L (1994) How Stories Make Sense of Personal Experiences: motives that shape autobiographical narratives, Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 20, pp 676-690

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