A staple of self-help groups like Alcoholics Anonymous is that people who have been through addiction and alcoholism will tell their stories of their journey from how they “hit bottom” to their road to recovery. These stories are meant to inspire change in other members of the community, and they do seem to have that effect.
Why are stories of change inspiring?
This question was explored in a paper in the August, 2017 issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology by Nadav Klein and Ed O’Brien.
These authors argue that people find stories of change inspiring, because these stories highlight the effort that is required to do something good. In contrast, when people just view someone else who is doing something good, the effort is typically invisible. It is the effort to do the right thing that is inspiring.
In one set of studies, people were told stories about people. Some participants read about a person who went from doing something bad (like doing drugs) to doing something good (staying clean). Other participants read about people who went from being in a bad state (like having financial difficulties) to being in a good state (being in good financial state). Finally, other participants read about individuals who were always good or always in a good state.
Participants were asked how inspiring these stories were. They were also asked how much effort they felt the individual had to expend either to go from bad to good or to remain always good. Participants reading stories of change rated them as more inspiring than participants reading about people who were always good. Participants reading stories of change also rated that the individuals had to put out more effort than participants reading stories of people who were always good.
In another study, participant read stories about people who were always physically fit. Some participants read about the effort the individual had to go through to remain physically fit, while others just read that the individual was always fit. Participants found the story more inspiring when it required effort to stay fit than when it didn’t.
Not all stories of change from bad to good are inspiring, though. In particular, people are inspired when they hear stories about people they believe to be inherently good who are expending effort to achieve a positive outcome. There is no reason to believe that someone who is a drug user is a bad person, and so finding out that they put in the effort to get clean is inspiring.
However, other studies examined cases in which people caused harm to others by cheating or selling drugs. In this case, expending effort to stop cheating or to stop selling drugs was not inspiring to others.
That is, inspiration has a moral dimension to it. People want to see people expend effort to reach a better life state. However, the inspiration comes from watching someone who is viewed as an inherently good person remove something perceived as being a flaw or a problem. When the person is viewed as inherently bad (because they are a cheater or a person who sells drugs), then the story of their transformation from bad behavior to good behavior is less inspiring, even if it required effort for them to make this change.
It is not entirely clear why people are not inspired by stories of individuals who make an effort to remove a socially negative behavior. One possibility is that most people think of themselves as good people. As a result, they may not identify with someone who engages in a socially bad behavior, and so they do not find the story inspiring. If so, then people who admit to socially negative behavior might find these stories inspiring—even if most people do not.
Ultimately, the commitment to change a behavior requires a willingness to expend effort to changing that behavior. Finding out about other people who have succeeded at behavior change can be an inspiration both to make that commitment and to follow through on it.
Klein, N. & O'Brien, E. (2017). The power and limits of personal change: When a bad past does (and does not) inspire in the present. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 113(2), 210-229.