Building the World We Wish Existed Requires a Literature Review

By Annie Neimand, PhD, Ann Christiano, Yu-Hao Lee, PhD, Center for Public Interest Communications

Illustration by Ailadi.

We’re convinced that peer-reviewed academic research is the most effective tool organizations devoted to social change are not using. There are good reasons why literature reviews aren’t a component of their efforts. Humanitarian organisations rarely have enough resources, and the scope and urgency of the challenges they address overshadows the pragmatism of using academic research to drive strategy. Without librarians and researchers on a team to identify relevant research, ensure it’s quality and find ways to bring it into practice, taking this approach might feel pretty overwhelming.

At the Center for Public Interest Communications, we spend our days thinking about how we can help organizations solve this challenge. Science tells us how the human mind, behaviour and society work, which can help us design communications, and identify more effective stories and emotions that inspire people to take action.

This year, we worked with the UN Refugee Agency’s Innovation Service to identify some specific projects where we could bring together academic research and practice. We focused on projects that could give us some insight that would be of use throughout the organization, and, with hope, the humanitarian sector.

What we learned: We haven’t actually been telling stories

A common refrain among communicators in the sector is the importance of storytelling. Research tells us that storytelling is one of the most powerful tools we have for capturing attention, increasing perspective taking and reducing tendancies to disagree with views different from our own. To gain these benefits, stories must be stories. They have to follow the narrative arc. Stories need a beginning, middle and end, conflict and resolution, characters and setting. If stories do not have these elements, they are simply messages or vignettes. And no one ever stayed up all night to read a message strategy.

When we dove into the stories the organization was telling, we saw some challenges. One was that UNHCR shared stories that they hoped would help people understand how hard it is to be a refugee. One person at the organization told us, “I just want everyone to empathize with the pain of running for your life and leaving everything behind.” Research tells us that people turn away from information that makes them feel bad or require them to do something they don’t want to do. So, in prioritizing sad, challenging stories, the organization may actually be causing people to tune out of the refugee narrative entirely.

We also suspected that the organization was using a single “riches to rags” plot structure over and over, and that because every story followed the same plot, audiences were likely checking out. Furthermore, using the same plot structure creates a dominant narrative that can simplify the refugee experience and fuel assumptions and stereotypes held about refugees.

Our colleagues in the Center for Public Interest Communications (led by Dr. Yu-Hao Lee and Dr. Kelly Chernin) analysed 547 stories published on the UNHCR website between 2015 to 2018 to check these assumptions.

What they observed was fascinating.

  1. Most of the stories shared were not actually stories. They didn’t follow the narrative arc. They didn’t have a beginning, middle and end. There was no conflict and resolution. Of the 547 stories they looked at, 227 mentioned what life was like prior to displacement. Only half (51.2%) mentioned what led the refugees to leave their home country. A little over half of the stories (56.1%) described how the refugees were adapting to a new settlement, including foster families, new communities and countries. Less than half (43.5%) described refugees in a transitional space such as refugee camps or shelters.
  2. UNHCR was most often the hero of the story. In 61% of the stories, they were the source of assistance. Few stories were told in which the refugees took action and solved problems (17.7%). What may be evolving from this approach is a dominant narrative in which refugees are always in need, and require assistance from host countries and relief agencies. Exposure to this narrative repeatedly might leave people with the idea that refugees are more of a burden than an asset to their new communities. This portrayal of refugee stories can also inadvertently lead to inaction. People tend to think big problems require big solutions, since most stories focused on refugees receiving help from large organizations like UNHCR, without an explicit call to action, this may lead the readers to falsely conclude that their action is not needed.
  3. The stories about refugees were more likely to include unpleasant emotions, such as sadness, anxiety and anger, than pleasant ones like pride, awe or parental love. Stories told about aid workers were more likely to have positive emotions.
  4. The stories shared reflected a “riches to rags” plot structure, most often situating refugees as victims in need of help.
  5. Fewer than 1% of the stories included an explicit call to action. Many organizations believe that in telling stories about individuals they are overcoming pseudo-inefficacy. People are less like to help because the negative feelings of not being able to help everyone trump the positive feelings from their actions. While stories of individuals can overcome pseudo-inefficacy, when they make people sad without a way to resolve those feelings, they are likely to disengage. As a result, it is critical that stories provide an opportunity for people to resolve negative emotions with actionable and meaningful calls to action.

What science tells us works

  1. Choose the emotions you activate with care. Stories that move people to action need to be intentional about the emotions they elicit. Anger reduces our ability to take the perspective of others or think about complex solutions. Fear makes us want to fight, freeze or run away. Parental love makes us want to reach out and protect the innocent. Awe increases perspective taking and opens us up to new ideas. And people are more likely to take action out of anticipated pride than guilt. As you think about your strategic goals, choose your stories and emotions with intention.
  2. Include actionable and meaningful calls to action. We need to move beyond “sign our petition, “click here for more information,” and “follow us on social media” to engage communities. Research suggests that people are less likely to act if they feel like they will be a drop in the bucket, are given ambiguous calls to action, or do not know what to do next. Organizations must include explicit calls to action in their stories, whether that is building a story around a particular action as the moral of the story, or by including a call to action at the end.
  3. The most affected are the most effective. Create room for people to tell their own stories. Focus on triumphs, problem-solving, and other ways to show pride.
  4. Stories often frame refugees as victims, burdens or potential threats to a host community. These stories are easily exploited by those who are antagonistic to refugees. To change the narrative people have in their minds, and continually motivate advocates, we have to share counter-narratives — stories that surprise us and break assumptions. To do so, we must work to include the voices of the most affected in the design and telling of their stories.
Early sketch from Ailadi.

Something else we learned: Applying research to practice is hard, and we need more practice

Research tells us what makes stories powerful, and we can use these insights to make the stories we’re telling even more compelling.

But applying research to the work isn’t easy. This year we had the opportunity to work with the Innovation Service to help Peter and Chris from Community Technology Empowerment Network (CTEN) tell their origin story as a way to build understanding of what refugee-led innovation looks like.

We were eager to help them apply the research. We trained them in the science of story building principles, and they wrote their story. They did a fantastic job. But as we worked with them to apply the principles to their work, we realized applying insights from research is a lot harder than we expected. After sending drafts back and forth, and a big lift from the gifted writer Amy Lynn Smith, we recognised that a piece was missing. We needed a better approach to helping people apply science-driven storytelling approaches to the stories they tell.

In 2019, the research team, led by Dr. Lee, will work with UNHCR to experiment with the elements of storytelling identified in the research and assess their effectiveness in real-time. We will work with their staff and the communities they serve to be story spotters — using the science of stories to find and share compelling and persuasive counter-narratives.

We will use this pilot project to not only experiment with storytelling, but how we apply science across UNHCR’s operations. We will share what we learn, so everyone working to protect refugees can apply the insights gained to their work — whether they work explicitly in communications or not. Innovation within an organization requires that everyone see themselves as a strategic communicator.

Research will help you do better work

This year, team members at UNHCR’s Innovation Service challenged us to help identify research-driven insights across a range of issues, including:

As disparate as these topics are, we found relevant research that can help us communicate more effectively.

Are you beginning a new project or initiative? Are you struggling to achieve a strategic goal critical for the protection of refugees? Start in a library. Conduct a literature review. Email academics who are expert in the different pieces of your project. You will find most are open to work with you. Not only can they open a world of new ways of thinking about your challenge, but you can also help them ask better questions.

Academics have a reputation of working in an ivory tower and being disconnected from the real world. Our experience is just the opposite. There are researchers eager to take on topics that can make a difference on pressing social issues.

What’s Next

Over the next year, we will work with UNHCR staff to find and apply more research that helps answer these kinds of important questions. We will share what we learn with the broader humanitarian sector through our Medium publication The Arc. In doing so, we will work toward a new norm in the field, where everyone recognizes the value academic research can bring to the work they do, particularly when it comes to driving belief and behaviour change.

This essay was originally posted in the recently released publication — UNHCR Innovation Service: “Orbit 2018–2019”. The publication is a collection of insights and inspiration, where we explore the most recent innovations in the humanitarian sector, and opportunities to discover the current reading of innovation that is shaping the future of how we respond to complex challenges. From building trust for artificial intelligence, to creating a culture for innovating bureaucratic institutions and using stories to explore the future of displacement — we offer a glance at the current state of innovation in the humanitarian sector. You can download the full publication here. And if you have a story about innovation you want to tell (the good, the bad, and everything in between) — email: