Image from Flowing Data
The laurel-yanni controversy exists because different people’s brains interpret the same sound differently, and each individual is deaf to the other person’s interpretation. The New York Times made a clever little tool to simulate what each side hears. If only we could create similar simulators in the politico-cultural wars.
Understanding is about simplifying. Our senses – especially vision and hearing – collect massive amounts of massively complex information constantly. Our brain’s job is to process it – that is to say simplify it – to the point that our conscious brain can assess its meaning. The brain uses a bunch of different techniques to do this from pattern matching to focusing on some information while filtering out others.
In the laurel/yanni case, the sound is full of a lot of frequencies that don’t necessarily mean anything. The brain decides to focus on one cluster of frequencies and filter out the rest. If your brain picks the lower frequency cluster, you hear “laurel.” If your brain picks the higher frequency cluster to focus on, you hear “yanni.”
Why do different brains choose different things to focus on? Several explanations are possible. One is that this is likely a kind of “edge” case, where each choice has roughly equal strength. So our population breaks down kind of equally around who hears what.
It is the perfect analogy for our time.
In the case of news and media, our internal narratives are acting analogously to our auditory cortex in the laurel/yanni dust-up. One narrative – we’ll call them “the laurels” – says that that science, compassion, strategic relationships and investing toward the future is the way forward – will interpret the wild gush of information in such a way as to make it appear that we are starting to lag the world in innovation and civil justice and should be very worried about our online interactions and invest in education and infrastructure.
In the other “Yanni” narrative, things are going very badly, and the government has done nothing to help. The complex interconnected world is not a good thing. In this narrative, sending anti-government, anti-globalism people to government is the only path back to the good times.
Our narratives do for reality what our auditory cortex does for the sound clip. If your brain goes one way or the other – you’re likely to be entirely deaf to the other possibilities. The reasons for which narratives we adopt are complex – but they undeniably change the way we perceive and understand the world around us.
Narratives influence how we interpret the meaning of things.
Narratives are often deeply held, influencing how we interpret the meaning of nearly everything – but they are also flexible. People’s beliefs can change. This is why society’s values change over time. It is how both scientific and technical innovation continues. When we rethink, reevaluate and question
So – if you’re trying to persuade someone to your way of thinking – your products, your issues, your politics – you can start with a data point. You can convince someone that the world is round or that your customer service is best.
But if you really want to change how someone thinks, you need to engage them with a new narrative. You need to get them to reconsider not just a particular fact or story, but the underlying beliefs that influence how they interpret that fact or story.
So if you’re Nike, you show the US Women’s Soccer Team and the young girls coming up behind them as badasses – because we are all athletes and we can all be heroes. If you want people to stop littering, you reframe the issue of littering as empowerment.
If you’re a technology company you’re showing people what you do and why it matters. For that matter, if you’re a dog trainer, you’re doing the same thing.
Quick – build more sliders
If we’re to help the Yannis and the Laurels see eye to eye – we’re going to need more ways to make one another’s worldview visible to each other. We’re going to need to find things both sides can hear. We’re going to need to do a lot of work.