The Intelligence We Need to Succeed at Influence

In order to influence effectively we need be able to wield narrative. In order to wield narrative effectively, we need information about the audience we want to influence. Collection should be oriented toward the assumed aspects of target audience (TA) identity. “Assumed” refers to the less than conscious, but not unconscious, aspects of identity. The manipulation of those aspects of identity is an effective and long-term method of altering behavior. This is what our adversaries know. This is what our adversaries are doing.

First we need intelligence about context and secondly we need to know how the TA fits into the context. Both identity and reasoning are in large part determined by the context in which they take place.

Thought of topographically, foundational cultural narratives are like the soil that supports and frames the stories that spring forth from it. We humans are largely unconscious of the roots below the surface, but we are well aware of stories above the surface. And even if we are trained and able to do otherwise, we tend to think with and through stories.

We especially like stories about ourselves. Even when not explicitly asked to tell about ourselves, the stories we choose to relate are often stories that demonstrate who we are and what we value. We choose certain stories over other stories because they fortify our self-image.

Understanding the narrative soil is imperative to understanding the identity of the TA, the meaning that contextualizes actions that result from that identity, and the elements that will trigger behavior. Actions that may seem otherwise illogical make perfect sense when the narrative context is clear. That is because autobiographical reasoning often animates behavior.

Part of being socialized and enculturated involves internalizing cultural narratives. Narratives then become cognitive frameworks with which we organize the influx of information to our brains. And those cognitive frames stay in the head unless they are dislodged by another frame. The influx of second-by-second information is either dismissed by the brain as unimportant or, if it is retained, it is placed somewhere in the narrative structure; that “placing” is the assignment of the meaning of the new information in the preexisting narrative context.

How the new information fits into the existing cognitive frame determines the meaning of the new information for what has traditionally been called “the receiver.” I don’t use the term “receiver” because it inaccurately describes the TA. The target audience is not simply the receiver of information. The TA is the maker of meaning.

Many of those who study communications are taught a communication model that has been demonstrated to be inaccurate but many, including IO practitioners, still use it. The old model goes like this:

Sender ————> Message >——————–> Receiver

In this old model, the goal of the sender is to relay the message as intact as possible to the receiver. And we were taught methods to secure or insulate the message from being contorted in the relay process. What we did not understand was the message does not carry the meaning. The meaning happens in the mind of the receiver. An effective message triggers pre-existent meaning in the mind of the audience.

The mind of the “receiver” is not an empty space or blank slate into which information is placed. Unless the sender understands the pre-existing narrative frame in the mind of the TA – the frame through which information will be processed and assigned meaning – the sender forfeits control over how the message is received.

For those who collect intelligence, collecting information is less than half the intelligence needed. We need to understand the meaning of the information. That means understanding its context. For those who need to anticipate and predict behavior, identity analysis is an essential tool. For those who want to influence behavior, Narrative Identity Analysis and Internarrative Identity Analysis© are what you need.

For influence practitioners the question should not be, “What message do we want to send?” The question should be, “What effect do we want to cause?” Knowing how to cause an effect requires knowing how your TA will process information. Knowing how they will process information requires familiarity with the internalized cultural narrative.

Narrative Identity Theory focuses on how humans learn and develop identity, and consequent behavior, through the narratives that we inherit.

But because that inheritance is less than conscious, no amount of polling or accumulation of demographic data is going to yield information about the narrative soil of a TA.

For intelligence about the cultural framework, we need Cultural Anthropologists to tend to the soil and we need Narrative Identity Analysts to listen to stories and identity points, and trace them down to their cultural soil.

When I ask an American audience “What stories do you live by?” most of the answers are variations of the heroic quest of a rugged individual who establishes his identity by breaking away from the pack and pursuing an arduous journey. He is the little guy who persists despite the odds against him, the little guy against the empire, the little guy against Apollo Creed, the little guy who gets knocked down but gets back up again and again. Even the very privileged among us tell this self-story of hardship and overcoming because the cultural narrative we have inherited and internalized (and its attendant identity formation) encourages us to frame our experience this way. The stories we tell of ourselves reflect the cultural narratives we were born into, and they reflect it both in terms of form and content.

In all the times I have asked American audiences “What stories do you live by?” No one has ever said, “I am living a heroic quest as a rugged individual” but that is, in fact, a cultural narrative frame that supports the individual stories they tell. That is how we identify ourselves and that is how we frame experience. But we don’t often talk about the cultural narrative foundation; instead, we tell the stories that come out of it.

The implications of this split between unconscious narratives and conscious stories are multiple, but the one implication I am addressing here is the implication for understanding the subconscious narratives. That is how we learn what the target audience doesn’t know about itself.

Narrative Identity Analysis© involves analyzing the way a person or community (whatever your TA) frames their experience in accordance with a theme (content) of a narrative. It also involves analyzing how the content is organized and how it progresses (structure). These analytics taken together yield the narrative trajectory and better enable an analysts capacity for prediction.

The predictability of behavior is heightened when TA story is supported by their cultural narrative, which it usually is, but not always. Narrative Identity Analysis as applied to individuals is a process of uncovering who people are supposed to be. You need to know what types of identities the target audiences’ culture supports and how completely or incompletely the individual you are targeting is culturally supported. Cultural narratives shape what it is possible to tell. And cultural assumptions determine who is able to do the telling.

Note that there is never just one narrative; there are narrative layers and in order to predict behavior we need to know which layer is operative in a particular circumstance. And that is tricky because narrative conflict is common.

Internarrative Identity Analysis© comes into play in cases of narrative conflict. When narratives are in conflict we need to analyze both the fractures that define the conflict and the bridges that mend it (if there are any). And when the conflict is unresolved we need to know as much about the fissure as we can learn.

Predicting behavior, and going further to provoke behavior, will often involve capitalizing on conflicting narrative identities. Extremist recruitment methods effectively capitalize on those conflicts.

Narrative Identity Analysis focuses on all the elements that hold the narrative identity together. Internarrative Identity Analysis focuses on what keeps them apart – fractures and conflicts. We need both.

To influence the behavior of a TA we either need to cause a shift in the cognitive frame, or we need a method to ensure that the information is stored in a specific place in the existing structure because that is how meaning is assigned/determined. It is the only way to have some measure of control over the meaning assigned to the information.

And that is the imperative because achieving dominant influence requires shaping the environment, not just understanding it.

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Ajit Maan, Ph.D. is Founder and CEO of the award-winning think-and-do-tank, Narrative Strategies LLC, affiliate faculty of the Center for Narrative Conflict Resolution at George Mason University, Professor, Global Security, Future of War, and member of the Brain Trust of the Weaponized Narrative Initiative at Arizona State University. She is also author of seven books including Internarrative Identity: Placing the Self, Counter-Terrorism: Narrative Strategies, Narrative Warfare, and the forthcoming Plato’s Fear.

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