The whole, complete and detailed story

Posted by Kevin Bishop - January 3, 2012
Filed in Business storytelling, Changing behaviour

Recent research quoted in the fantastic Psyblog has shown the benefits of telling ourselves the whole, complete and detailed story, rather than just select bits from it.

Ruby et al. (2011) (*1) found the benefits of this approach in regards to exercise. They asked a group of people to think about an upcoming exercise session. Each person tried to predict how much they would enjoy their workout. Then after the workout they rated their enjoyment again.

On average people’s predictions were too pessimistic: they actually enjoyed their workouts more than they had guessed. This was true across men and women and across all age ranges. It was true for both moderate and challenging workouts and whether people exercised on their own, in a group or amongst others in the gym.

The reason the researchers put forward was that people focused heavily on the relatively unpleasant start of the exercise session rather than the more enjoyable middle section. They christened this effect ‘forecasting myopia’.

As you can imagine, if people think they will dislike something then they are less likely to want to do it. It can hardly be a motivating factor to think something is far less enjoyable than it actually is.

So how do you overcome it? You tell yourself the whole story.

In a final study Ruby et al. asked people to think about their whole exercise routine, including the warm-up, the main workout and cool-down. It emerged that this method encouraged people to make more positive predictions of how much they would enjoy their exercise. This also had the effect of boosting people’s intention to exercise in the future.

So it seems that telling ourselves the whole, complete and detailed story can both increase our view of how much we will enjoy exercise, and also boost our desire to want to do it. But does this view stack up in other fields? Could this approach help us in making good buying decisions?

Let’s look at some examples outlined in a recent article on Psyblog. See if you can spot the pattern:

  • A camping holiday seems like fun when you abstractly imagine escaping the rat-race and getting back to nature. It doesn’t seem so much fun when you’re stuck in a cold, wet field, desperate for a proper hot meal.
  • A big, expensive DSLR seems like a good idea when you think about the amazing high-res photos you’ll be able to take. But it turns out you can’t be bothered to carry a big, heavy camera around all the time, so in reality it doesn’t get used much.
  • You imagine that buying a wreck of a house and doing it up means you can realise your perfect lifestyle vision. When you move in and start work, all you really want is to get rid of the dust and mess and have a normal life: your vision is forgotten.
  • Unfortunately when we plan our purchases we tend to make the mistake of thinking in the abstract and forgetting about the day-to-day details. The further off in time and space they are, the more abstractly we think about them.

One of the problems of thinking abstractly about our purchases is that we tend to forget about the gritty details. And it’s the details that have the ability to make us either happy or unhappy. We know this because research finds that our happiness is predicted better by the details of our everyday lives than it is by our overall life circumstances (see Kahneman et al. 2004 (*2) and Kanner et al., 1981 (*3)).

To make purchases that will give us the most happiness we need to think as concretely as possible. It might not sound as fun, but thinking about how we’re going to use the item or service on a daily basis is more likely to guide us towards the choice that will make us the happiest. We can buy smart by telling ourselves the whole, complete and detailed story.

In their book Change Anything, Patterson et. al. carry on this theme by putting forward a change strategy they call ‘Tell the whole vivid story’. It is very much along similar lines as the two examples I have given above.

As an example, they tell the story of Michael, an ex-alcoholic;

“When I’m watching TV, and an advertisement will come on showing a group of people enjoying a martini in a piano bar. To this day that commercial can put my thoughts heading in a dangerous direction. My natural inclination is to start thinking “I can do that”. Sure I am a recovering alcoholic, but why not enjoy a social drink with friends? What harm can that be? “But it’s not my story, nor is it the whole story. My story plays out differently. if I join the group at the piano bar, I’ll drink the martini. Then I’ll be back tomorrow. Then I’ll shift to hard liquor. I’ll soon be on a binge, and one day I’ll wake up lying in my own vomit or maybe even in jail. And by the way, that’s not merely what might happen to me. That’s what will happen to me”.

So there are many benefits in telling ourselves the whole, complete and detailed story, rather than just select bits from it. Think about how you could use this in your work or personal life. Are you telling yourself the whole story around doing your expenses, or just focusing on the most unpleasant aspects? Are you thinking about a new role in abstract terms, without really thinking of the day-to-day aspects of the job and whether they are what you want to do? Are you thinking about how a project might roll out, and not telling yourself the ‘whole vivid story’ of the challenges and difficulties you might face?

(*1) Ruby, M; Dunn, E; Perrino, A; Gillis, R; and Viel, S: (2011) The invisible benefits of exercise in Health Psychology, Vol 30(1), Jan 2011, 67-74.
(*2) Kahneman, D; Krueger, A; Schkade, D; Schwarz, N and Stone, A:(2004) A Survey Method for Characterizing Daily Life Experience: The Day Reconstruction Method in Science 3 December 2004: 306 (5702), 1776-1780.
(*3) Kanner, A., Coyne, J., Schaefer, C., and Lazarus, R. (1981): Comparison of two modes of stress measurement: Daily hassles and uplifts versus major life events in Journal of Behavioral Medicine. Volume: 4, Issue: 1

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