What feelings can do that facts can’t in helping us to create a better world.
Being a human never came with a guarantee for an easy life.
Every day could mean a new sabertooth in the cave, a new pest in the fields, a new enemy at the gates. Our shared mythology has grown with these threats: stories about how to prepare, how to cope, how to feel. In times of adversity we turn to these stories for guidance.
But the threats have evolved. Or maybe we’d say we’ve conquered the simple ones? Either way, think about the twisted, thorny systems that are gnarled in the response to the coronavirus: climate change, disease vectors, free market economics, data privacy, global supply chains.
Can you say you truly understand and can clearly explain any of these? Much less are able to talk about your own connection to these systems?
Some people call these “hyperobjects” — singular objects that actually represent systems so complex that they defy logical human comprehension. Hyperobjects have too many inputs and variables for you to actually fit inside your head. You’re not stupid if someone asks where all your personal data is online and you just ¯\_(ツ)_/¯. You’re a human being!
That’s one of the reasons why talking about any one of these systems is so difficult: you and your conversation partner can have two different facts about climate change and they can both be true but fitting them together and building from there to practical solutions is often impossible. And that’s also why it’s so easy to feel frustrated or sad when these issues arise. You want to fight global warming, but it seems hopeless so you end up doing… nothing?
The major issues of our time require new myths.
Why myths? Because while facts feed logic and reason, stories and parable and allegory deal with emotions.
Don’t get me wrong — facts, logic, and reason are crucially important. It’s just that they aren’t the only things that guide our behavior, but they end up getting most of the attention. What about our hyperobject problem, when you are genuinely unable to use reason to solve a problem? That’s where emotions end up being so very useful.
Because emotions are terrible at specifics and details (where logic excels) but incredibly good at generalizing and scaling. Your emotions steer you toward a decision because it feels right, even when you haven’t had to make that type of decision before. Because instincts and intuition are the sum total of your own perceived experience, rather than a specific set of concrete rules, they can be flexibly applied to new situations.
This type of adaptable cause/effect emotional storytelling is the fodder for all myth. And the human brain actually values this information more over facts and figures. Our brains are programmed to be more captivated by squabbles, whether Mt. Olympian or Kardashian, than by numerals. Myths catch on, are eagerly shared and added to, and they inspire others.
So yes, as we think about how to tackle the big problems of our time we need the info. More research, much more! But we’re not going to be able, as humans, to do anything about that hard-won information if we don’t also invest in myths. New lessons about how to react, what’s important, what you can do. Stories that help us think differently about global problems like inequality and the environment. These are threats that if left unaddressed could actually destroy us, but right now we’re just staring at the sabertooth stalking into our cave and idly thinking “maybe if I leave him alone and keep smelling delicious he’ll mind his own business.”
As someone who works with brands, this need for new myths is both exciting and humbling. Marketing and myth both interact with the same sort of it-feels-right decision making. They both balance between “things are they are” and “things as they ought to be”. When we talk about connecting brands to culture, that’s us searching for the right myths to invoke.
Or the right myths to create.
And that’s the humbling part. When we communicate about brands we either reinforce old ideas or introduce new ones. It’s time we started asking ourselves whether the myths we’re manipulating are going to be helpful for humanity. Because our cave might be very large these days, but the fangs of our predators have gotten bigger too