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Our Internal Stories Drive Our Behavior

We think in stories. And the stories that we tell ourselves about ourselves influence our behavior.

Here’s an example:

Someone knocks on your door. You recognize him as a kid from your neighborhood. He’s selling popcorn as a fundraiser for a club he belongs to at school. The club is trying to go to the state convention. How do you react?

It depends on the story, or persona, you have of yourself when it comes to topics such as school, fundraising, and your relationship to your neighborhood. Here’s one story you might relate to:

  • I’m a very busy person. When I’m at home I want to relax, not get bombarded with people at the door selling things. I don’t like it when people bother me at home with these fundraising schemes. The schools should pay for these trips and not make us buy this overpriced popcorn. This poor kid isn’t to blame, but I’m not going to buy the popcorn because it just perpetuates this behavior. Someone has got to act right on this. I’m the kind of person who does what is right on principle. I’m going to say no nicely, but firmly.

Or maybe you can relate to this story:

  • Oh, isn’t that great that the kids are going to the state convention. I remember when I went on a similar trip when I was in high school. It was really fun. Maybe not all that educational, but definitely fun! I’m the kind of person who encourages students to have lots of experiences outside of our own neighborhood. I am the kind of person who supports the school. I’ll buy some popcorn and help this kid out.

Or maybe you can relate to this story:

  • It kind of annoys me that there are always these kids selling things. But this is part of being a good neighbor. I’m part of the community. I am a good citizen of our neighborhood. I’ll buy the popcorn because that’s what a good community member would do.

Multiple Personalities

We have an idea of who we are and what’s important to us. Essentially we have a “story” operating about ourselves at all times. These self-stories, or personas, exert a powerful influence on our decisions and actions.

We actually have more than one persona. There are different personas for different aspects of life in relation to others. For example, we have a persona as a husband or wife, another persona as a parent, another persona at work, and yet another persona that defines our relationship with the neighborhood we live in.

The Desire to be Consistent

We make decisions based on staying true to our personas. Most of this decision making based on personas happens unconsciously. We strive to be consistent. We want to make decisions that match our idea of who we are. When we make a decision or act in a way that fits one of our personas, the decision or action will feel right. When we make a decision or act in a way that doesn’t fit with one of our personas, we feel uncomfortable.

Once we make one decision consistent with one of the personas, we’ll try to stay consistent with that persona. We’ll be more likely to make a decision or take an action if it’s consistent with that story or persona.

In the next sections we’ll look at how to use this desire for consistency to get people to do stuff.

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