How to Spread Change and Inspire Action, According to Neuroscience

How do you spread messages of change? And how do you inspire people to act on them?

That’s a question many people in America are asking right now. We’ve seen calls for an end to discrimination and police brutality everywhere from small town protests to massive marches here in New York to black squares in our social media feeds. We’ve seen people across age brackets, racial identities, and religions ask: How can I get others in my network to understand and care?

For years, I’ve reported on what neuroscience can teach us about messages that break through and inspire action. There are a few proven tips that can help anyone craft a message of change.

Lead with a story

As a species, we’re programmed for stories. Stories are how we pass on knowledge and build connections. Stories—not statistics—are usually what compel us to care about a cause and take action.

That’s because when we hear a compelling story, our brain synthesizes oxytocin—a neurochemical that makes us feel a greater degree of empathy and human connection. In one study, Dr. Paul Zak, a leading neuroscience researcher, found that people who had high oxytocin levels as the result of watching a PSA with a strong narrative chose to donate 261 percent more money than those with baseline oxytocin levels.

When we hear stories of injustice, we’re much more likely to feel a sense of connection and understanding, which can fuel us to help others. If we want to change minds and spread understanding, it’s important to amplify not only the story of George Floyd, but of Breonna Taylor, Philando Castile, Botham Jean, Michael Brown, and the thousands of others who have been killed by the police.

The below video, for instance, does an admirable job of that, telling the story of Breonna Taylor—who was shot in her own home by police—for those who don’t know about it already.

Optimize for memory encoding

Neuro-Insight, a leading neuromarketing firm, has been tracking consumers’ brains while they watch advertising and other video content, using an advanced technology called Steady State Topography.

The firm developed a brain activity metric called memory encoding that corresponds to both long-term memory and decision-making. When activity in the brain that corresponds with memory encoding is high, we’re more likely to remember a message and take action.

Neuro-Insight has found that one of the most effective advertising strategies is to optimize for “branding moments.” These are the moments on screen you really want people to remember, like the website of the NAACP or a call-to-action.

This past winter, Contently cofounder Shane Snow and I tested political ads by Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders, and Joe Biden using Neuro-Insight’s technology to find out which messaging tactics work best. Elizabeth Warren’s advertising, for instance, did an excellent job of optimizing for peak branding moments. She drew viewers in with a compelling story of her life growing up poor in Oklahoma. At key points in the narrative, on-screen messages she wanted people to remember flashed on screen, like her catchphrase “I’ve got a plan for that.”

As organizers, non-profits, and policy groups create more content to inspire change, this simple tactic can make content more impactful and memorable. Take, this Black Lives Matter video that overlays the photos of victims of police violence with their tragic last words.

It’s extremely moving and prompts us to heed the call-to-action: to keep saying their names.

Show real people

In a study of in-feed social video content, Neuro-Insight found that the presence of people in the ad increased emotional intensity by 133 percent.

In our study of political ads, we found that images of real people involved in the political process performed much better than stock footage of people. Researchers believe we’ve evolved to adopt the emotions of others, a phenomenon called emotional contagion. This helps us empathize with others, and can make us feel like we’re all a part of a team. In this case, that is Team Humanity.

Right now, spreading that Team Humanity bond is one of the best things we can do.


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