The Material Effects of Stories

How narratives can open up new ways of seeing and doing

I have a long history of naming and renaming things in my life to rewire the way they synapse in my brain. After breakups, I’d change the name of the suspect on my phone, stringing together a series of emojis like millennial hieroglyphics. You can find Dating-App Nick saved as a french fries emoji: airy and unhealthy. Every time he’d text, the message would be reinforced, loud and clear. All of a sudden, I decided the narrative I’d plug into my brain.

The act of rewriting narratives can have effects that are far less trivial than my little emoji baptism—RIP Nick. There’s this experiment that the psychologist Ellen Langer ran that demonstrates the material effects of stories. Her team asked 84 hotel cleaning staff whether or not they exercised; the majority answered ‘no.’ However, after the team explained to the staff that the labor they were doing each day—their bathroom scrubbing, bedmaking, and vacuuming—was actually exercise, the hotel staff started to lose more weight and their blood pressure decreased. The act of mindfully changing the narrative had material effects on their days, their minds, and their bodies.

Narratives like this can be critical in shaping our understanding of something new. As a writer at IDEO.org, I focus on the role of stories in helping bring new solutions into existence—how they can breathe clarity, ease, wonder, and, in the best cases, empowerment into people's lives. Over the past four years, I’ve learned that narrative can foster belonging, flip damaging discourse, and open up new ways of seeing and doing.

Replacing harmful, outdated stories with new ones that unlock possibility.


When Ellen Langer worked with the hotel staff, she didn’t change anything about what they were actually doing; there was just a mindful shift in the story they were telling themselves. She basically said, “Hey, that thing you've been doing. That has been exercise all along.” Something along those lines happened with a three-year program we did with The Gates Foundation. The goal was to identify the barriers that women face in accessing digital financial services across six different contexts where it isn’t seen as their right or role to control money.

The financial sector has historically struggled to serve women in the same ways they are able to cater to men. Many solutions aim to ‘level women up’. The reality is that women have been displaying financial behaviors all along, but these behaviors simply aren’t the ones the sector was looking out for. Despite the societal and service barriers, women go to great lengths to budget and save for their families: matching household income with upcoming needs, stashing money away in case of emergencies, and joining savings groups to build financial and social resilience.These actions are often seen as a crutch, not as savvy workarounds.

We decided to highlight this mismatch, creating a campaign and event for financial sector leaders that spotlighted the unique behaviors that had often gone unacknowledged. The narrative invited the financial sector to ‘design for her power’—to create services and digital tools that build off of the ways in which women take the lead, rather than fall behind. Changing the story around women's behaviors opened up an expanse of creative possibilities and solutions.

Crafting stories that enable informed decision making.


Narratives can coerce. By making a product or service show up as ‘cool’ or aspirational, we can seduce people into wanting or doing certain things without properly informing them (think: a cigarette ad that hints at dating success or a pill that promises a healthy retirement). These kinds of messages skip the brain on the way to the heart, so to speak. When we’re on the receiving end of these, it often feels like we’re being impelled to act. In the best of cases, the stories we tell instill agency rather than a mindless compulsion to follow.

Change in a narrative can have direct material effects on an entire community. Smart Start, a reproductive health outreach program, is a salient example. Culturally, girls in rural Ethiopia feel the need to prove their fertility to secure their marriage. They often express fears that using contraception, especially once they’re married, can cause infertility and be seen as a sign of promiscuity. Smart Start helps dispel some of the myths around contraception by visually linking family planning and financial prosperity (e.g., ​“If you wait X months before your first child, you can afford a home”). What is so powerful about the Smart Start narrative is that it equips people with the tools to shift their behaviors according to their own goals and aspirations. It’s an invitation to plan for their family’s future with more information and understanding than they might’ve had before. After seeing the tradeoffs of spacing births, one in two girls who interact with Smart Start adopt a modern contraceptive method(!).

Co-creating stories that build belonging

Nearly half of all lifetime mental illness cases in the U.S. begin by age 14, yet 79% of the young people who need care don’t access it. It’s either too expensive, not easy to find, or taboo to seek out. Feeling safe enough to walk into a clinic and ask for help is a huge step. Stanford University's Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences wanted to create spaces where youth could access support without judgment. The IDEO.org team worked alongside a group of youth advisors on every detail of the project—from the name to the visual brand to the actual nooks and crannies of the space.

Throughout the process of testing and even acting things with the youth advisors, we learned that young people crave this feeling of being ‘alone, but not alone’ (read: they want the freedom to choose between socializing, being in solitude, or seeking counseling, yet they want to feel a sense of togetherness and belonging). The name, ‘allcove’ is a perfect encapsulation of that. The first syllable of the name (all) communicates inclusivity and togetherness: everyone is welcome here. While the second syllable (cove) is by definition a space surrounded by protection. By engaging young people in the design process and decoupling ourselves from a lot of the ways we talk about mental health today, we were able to create a brand that meets them wherever they are in their own journey.

I’ve found that the “magic” is in the actual exercise of crafting a narrative—not the story or narrative itself. This creative—and sometimes soul-excavating—process is the beginning of a commitment to carve a slightly different reality. If the process is dull, impersonal, or even top-down, the stories won’t get internalized. When stories are untethered, they evaporate. However, if instead, we cultivate a creative process that is inclusive, collectively informed, and virtuous, we begin to see how these stories beget more justice, equity, and beauty.

Illustrations by Joan Encarnacion

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