Let’s Change The Story

Group of people
Janet Thorne
Chief Executive at Reach Volunteering

People are better than we think. If we change the story of what it means to be human, we will all benefit

We are surrounded by messages telling us that we are selfish, uncaring and untrustworthy: news stories of benefit cheats and violent crimes, dramas about the darkness of humanity, policies based on the self-interested consumer, to name but a few.

We tend to absorb these messages uncritically, but they mislead us: the evidence is that most people actually care deeply about each other and the world. The problem is not human nature itself, but our mistaken belief about humanity. It stalls us from talking about things that are important to us, and from taking action. It creates a self perpetuating negative loop.

Reach Volunteering owes its very existence to people’s goodness. Thousands of people regularly donate their expertise for no financial reward at all — motivated instead by values such as kindness, solidarity and a sense of purpose. We know that people care and we want to redress the balance. We want to change #ChangeTheStory we tell about what it means to be human so we are running a campaign focusing on the compassionate values that people hold. We want to to draw attention to each other’s compassion, and help build a positive spiral of hope and care.

Join our campaign #ChangeThe Story.

The ‘Bad Us’ story

Like me, my daughters studied Lord of the Flies at school. It’s a story of a group of school boys stranded on an island, where their savage natures prevail. It has a powerful pull on our collective imagination, and people often refer to it when taking about cruelty or disorder. Yet it is just a work of fiction.

There is, in fact, a real life Lord of the flies story: 6 schoolboys from Tonga were shipwrecked on a remote island for 15 months in 1966. By the time they were rescued they had created communal gardens, set up rotas to tend the gardens and fire, and when one boy broke his leg, they cared for him.

This other story — of collaboration in the face of crises — is the one that manifests most regularly in real life. Contrary to popular belief, when disaster strikes, people do not trample each other down. The Disaster Research Centre at the University of Delaware reviewed nearly 700 field studies and found that people tend to remain calm and take positive action: “looting pales in significance to the widespread alturism that leads to free and massive giving and sharing of goods and services”. And it happens everyday. The pandemic created a spontaneous rise in mutual aid. At Reach we saw the numbers of new volunteers surge during this time and they are still signing up at double the rates we saw in 2019. What’s more, we’ve seen them climb again as the cost of living crisis bites.

What’s driving this generosity? Our values, it seems. Research from The Common Cause Foundation shows that an amazing 74% of us hold ‘compassionate’ values, like care for others, belonging and equality, to be the most important. This is robust research, validated for biases.

And yet, despite the facts that we care deeply, the allure of the story of the Bad Us keeps us in thrall. When I tell people about the real Lord of the Flies story, and they often respond with evidence to the contrary — experiments from the 1960s (Milligram’s shock treatment or The Prison Guard experiment), or the Bystander story, in which a whole neighbourhood ignored a woman’s cries for help as she was murdered. No matter that the experiments have been thoroughly discredited, or that the Bystander story debunked, the stories stick.

Common Cause Foundation research found that, although 74% of us hold compassionate (‘intrinsic’) values as most important, 77% of us believe that everyone else holds selfish (‘extrinsic’) values as most important.

We have got our fellow humans very wrong:

Why do we hold on to the ‘Bad Us’ story?

We have a ‘negativity bias’ — our brains tend to focus our attention on threats. From an evolutionary point of view, this has stood us in good stead. It’s better to mistake a stick for a snake, than a snake for a stick.

But there are also plenty of social and cultural forces fuelling the Bad Us story. In the Common Cause Foundation study, people reported that the media, school, university, workplace, cultural institutions and politics were the source of their perception that people are motivated by extrinsic values. There are vested interests in perpetuating this view of humanity: consumer society needs us to focus on wealth, status and self-interest, to fuel it; distrust of fellow citizens makes the cases for centralised power and policies of control. Believing in human goodness is politically subversive!

Of course, people are not all good, all of the time. Wars happen. People can be cruel or selfish. When we believe that our ‘ingroup’ (the group with which we identify) is threatened, we prioritise our security and dehumanise the ‘outgroup’. But remove this threat, and most of us are motivated by compassionate values, most of the time.

Why this misperception matters

The gap between what we think other people value and what they actually value is called the Values Perception Gap. It is really important because it really affects how people feel and act. The Common Cause Foundation found that it makes people feel alienated, and discourages them from acting in a ‘prosocial’ way — for example, volunteering or voting. Global Action Plan found a similar perception gap amongst young people: they had lower emotional well being, were more worried about the future and were less likely to take action. Fear of being out of step with peers stopped them from showing that they cared.

Last year, researchers found that Americans wildly underestimate support for climate positive policies, to such an extent that they named it “false social reality: a near universal perception of public opinion that is the opposite of true public sentiment.”

Whilst supporters of climate policies outnumber opponents two to one, Americans falsely perceive the opposite to be true. This misperception was held by Republicans and Democrats alike, and across all demographics. The impact? People are much less likely to talk about climate change and their support for climate policies, when they think they are alone. This spiral of silence reinforces other people’s misperceptions of both the urgency of the crisis and the appetite to do anything about it. And it affects policy: people are less likely to demand policies they believe to be unpopular and politicians are less likely to offer or enact them.

How we can change the story

Everyday at Reach, we see evidence of people’s care and concern, as they sign up to volunteer the skills they normally get paid for. We want to reveal this network of compassion that exists but is seldom noticed, like scattering water at a spider web.


"What we pay attention to grows"

adrienne maree brown


Happily there is a large and growing movement, or rather movements, recognising people’s intrinsic motivations, agency and appetite for collective action. Common Cause Foundation’s work on values, Jon Alexander’s work on Citizens, Alex Evan’s project A Larger Us, to name but a few.

Culturally, we are not used to talking about compassionate values, so the language does not always come easy, and we tend to feel shy or awkward. But the more we practise, the more fluent we become; and as the philosopher Michael Sandel has argued, values are like muscles — they become stronger with use.

Every day, throughout the UK, people are acting on their values. In the NHS, in schools, community groups and charities, as activists or thoughtful neighbours — people are acting from places of care, solidarity, love and compassion. We need to see this, celebrate it and have faith in its agency, and push back on narratives that demean us as selfish or reduce us to passive consumers.

What we chose to focus on, and what we chose to share, has a huge impact on us and those around us.

What next?

Support our #ChangeTheStory campaign

Watch our short film, share our resources, or adapt them for your own context, and help spread the message.

If you are a volunteer: share your story.

If your organisation involves volunteers: join as a campaign partner and / or join our workshop with Common Cause Foundation on volunteering and values.

Read more

Ella Saltmarche’s short blog Our Kind or listen to her amazing podcast The Long Time Academy.

Rutger Bregman’s book Humankind.

Jon Alexander’s blog Citizen future: Why we need a new story of self and society — or buy his book Citizens.

Reframe your work

Common Cause Foundation’s resources on values.

GAP’s United in Compassion research into young people and the values perception gap.

Ruth Taylor’s wonderful work on deep narratives: Transforming Narrative Waters.

PIRC’s The Narratives We Need.

Or join the Reset Narratives Community where you’ll find almost everything you need!

Take action

Share your hard won expertise with a group or charity that aligns with your values — see opportunities here.

Get inspiration from this list of 52 ways to spread love through acts of kindness.

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