“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

Narrative as a way of creating meaning

I finding myself trapped in a circle of definitions at the moment. I want to talk about the nature of digital storytelling, the pedagogical ideas behind its use in eductaion and its possible role in organisational change.

I don’t think I can do any of that without considering “narrative”. Looking back at previous posts, it’s a word I use a lot without really defining it. So, I’m starting to do a series of tagged posts about it, of which this is the first.

I find myself a bit at sea here. I trained as a geographer, a discipline not noted for its approach to literary criticism or psychology but I’m starting to read about narrative along two different paths:

  • The psychological reasons why we find narrative so compelling socially, and
  • How you create an engaging narrative.

To be able to advise on why people should consider Digital Storytelling as an approach, I need to be clear about both of these, as a practitioner and a researcher.

I’ll start dealing with the first of these issues here.

Garcia and Rossiter (2010) say of storytelling that it is…

“…seen as perhaps the oldest means for communicating ideas, sharing meaning and developing community.” (2010, p1092)

…and continue by citing Bruner (1991) who says that narrative “is one of the cultural products utilized by the mind to construct its sense of reality.” (2010, p1092)

As a parent of young children I’m accutely aware of how powerful stories are. When we moved our family from Derbyshire to Newcastle in 2010 part of the getting our kids prepared for the move involved reading a book called “Moving House” which told the story of a family going through a similar experience to us. We certainly hoped that following the events of the fictional characters would help our children make sense of the unprecedented changes we were going through andhelp them to anticipate the eventual outcome.

This is a practical example and it’s nothing new. Fairy tales are ages old and the themes within them help children make sense of the world around them, especially if there’s a specific moral attached to them. Modern films like Toy Story (which are on constant rotation in the DVD player at our house), as well as being about a group of characters and their experiences, are about understanding friendship, jealousy, conflict, resolution, loss and so on. Empathising with the characters in a way helps us to rehearse these ideas in our own lives.

You can relate this idea to ancient myths and parables. These are ancient stories that have lasted as part of our culture, you could argue, because they have something meaningful to say. The story of Narcissus and his metamorphosis into a flower might tell us something about vanity, and has been such an enduring idea that its become part of the English language.

Also important to this is the role of interpretation. Garcia and Rossiter point out that we choose our stories (2010, p1093). They are not simply a way of sharing facts but a selection and ordering of facts that creates meaning.

Stories are therefore subjective readings of experience. Occasionally, narratives and objective reality can seem quite far apart.

There’s an interesting blog post by Chris Mooney about how science seems to be failing to engage large parts of the population, especially in relation to climate change. Why is it that the science seems to be clear about climate change, yet so many people disbelieve the science, or at least don’t engage with it?

Mooney’s post isn’t about narrative. He relates it to a study of personality types that seem to differ between the “average scientist” and the general American population. To paraphrase, according to this study (Weiler at al, 2011), most scientists have preferences for dealing with information that focuses on theories, “needing to know why” etc. In other words, thinking in the abstract.

The general American public, on the other hand have an average personality type that has a preference for dealing with information that focuses on experience and that uses “…personal situations, stories and examples to communicate.”

The argument is that the scientists are trying to communicate in the abstract, objective langauge of science. To communicate more effectively, they should be relating these data to personal experiences and creating a layer of meaning.

In forthcoming posts on this theme I’m going to look at how narrative relates to memory and the motivations for creating stories


Bruner J (1991) The narrative construction of reality, Critical Inquiry, 18:1, pp 1-21

Garcia, P. & Rossiter, M. (2010) Digital Storytelling as Narrative Pedagogy. In D. Gibson & B. Dodge (Eds.), Proceedings of Society for Information Technology & Teacher Education International Conference 2010(pp. 1091-1097). Chesapeake, VA: AACE

Mooney, C (2011) Could Personality Differences Help Explain the Reality Gap on Climate Change?, in Science Progress (blog), available at http://scienceprogress.org/2011/09/could-personality-differences-help-explain-the-realit-gap-on-climate-change/ (Last accessed on 31st January 2012, 20:23)

Weiler , C S, Keller, J & Olex C (2011) Personality type differences between Ph.D. climate researchers and the general public: implications for effective communication, Climate Change, available online at http://www.springerlink.com/content/m805153k11856103/fulltext.html (last accessed 31st January 2012, 20:18)