More stories of identity

More stories of identity

I find stories of identity in a wide variety of fields, not only in business or political leaders.

Recently, while doing some research for my forthcoming book, I went back to read some of the work of Daniel Kahneman, about how people make decisions. Kahneman is an Israeli psychologist, former Noble Prize laureate, and now professor emeritus at Princeton. In my poking around on the Internet to discover more about Kahneman’s life, I came across a story of identity that he told in his Nobel acceptance speech in 2002.

My long-standing interest in Kahneman stems from his research on how humans make decisions, in particular the concept that we make our decisions based on emotion far more than on reason and logic, and hence the connection to storytelling. In fact, my reading and research of the past 20 years has led me to the conclusion that human beings, even those we consider rational and scientific–firefighters, or emergency room doctors doing triage, for example–use decision making processes that are far more narrative than logical and systematic. Rather than decide based on formal models from their training, people working under extreme pressure will most often look to fit the events in front of them into a story. In deciding what to do next, their minds ask, “Where have I seen a scenario like this one before?”

One of my core beliefs is a concept that I have adapted from the work of Kahneman and others, one that I use quite often with my clients and audiences: In our society, we have come to believe that people are moved to action when something or someone changes what they think. In reality, we are moved to action when someone or something changes the way we feel. Storytelling is powerful because it reaches us on an emotional level and can thus change the way we feel, in ways that logic or argumentation cannot.

Anyway, let’s go back to Kahneman and his own story of identity. In explaining his fascination with the human mind and decision making, he recounts that his early years were colored by his family’s interest in people. In particular, he has vivid recollections of his mother’s stories about the people around her: “I grew up in a world that consisted exclusively of people and words, and most of the words were about people. Nature barely existed, and I never learned to identify flowers or to appreciate animals. But the people my mother liked to talk about with her friends and with my father were fascinating in their complexity. Some people were better than others, but the best were far from perfect and no one was simply bad. Most of her stories were touched by irony, and they all had two sides or more.”

While reading about Kahneman, I came across a story that is representative of a type of story of identity I often find with my clients when we explore their lives, a “why I do what I do” story. Often, these stories are rooted in a childhood or adolescent experience. In Kahenman’s case, an incident from his childhood in Nazi-occupied Paris when he was 7 or 8 years-old stands as a symbol of his ongoing fascination with human behavior and his interest in how our minds work.

I read it on the following link: Click here

“In one experience I remember vividly, there was a rich range of shades. It must have been late 1941 or early 1942. Jews were required to wear the Star of David and to obey a 6 p.m. curfew. I had gone to play with a Christian friend and had stayed too late. I turned my brown sweater inside out to walk the few blocks home. As I was walking down an empty street, I saw a German soldier approaching. He was wearing the black uniform that I had been told to fear more than others – the one worn by specially recruited SS soldiers. As I came closer to him, trying to walk fast, I noticed that he was looking at me intently. Then he beckoned me over, picked me up, and hugged me. I was terrified that he would notice the star inside my sweater. He was speaking to me with great emotion, in German. When he put me down, he opened his wallet, showed me a picture of a boy, and gave me some money. I went home more certain than ever that my mother was right: people were endlessly complicated and interesting.”

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