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Leverage people’s beliefs, need for order and context, and connect behaviour, goals or experiences to values that transcend the individual

“People don't buy what you do; they buy why you do it. And what you do simply proves what you believe”

~ Simon Sinek


In 1942, Psychologist Viktor Frankl was deported to a Nazi concentration camp.

He was the only member of his family to survive.

During his time in Auschwitz and other camps, Frankl had a breakthrough observation: the men who had something to live for were most likely to survive starvation, disease and physical and mental abuse.

In 1945, he returned to Vienna and published Man’s Search for Meaning, which laid the foundations for the research on meaning that occurred in the following decades.

While psychologists are not sure exactly where meaning comes from, they agree that we flourish when we have it and suffer when we don’t.

But what is meaning, and how can we leverage it to design behaviour change design interventions?

Researchers George and Park define it as “the extent to which one’s life is experienced as making sense, as being directed and motivated by valued goals, and as mattering in the world.

Let’s look at the three interconnected components of comprehension, purpose and mattering:

Comprehension refers to people’s need for coherence and understanding regarding their own actions and lives. As Cialdini put it:

"A well-known principle of human behaviour says that when we ask someone to do us a favour we will be more successful if we provide a reason. People simply like to have reasons for what they do.”

Our brain is equipped with important mechanisms to help us make sense of our experiences, and feel things in our life are clear and fit together.

One of them is at the core of the human experience, storytelling. 


A study conducted by psychologists Fritz Heider and Marianne Simmel reveals how humans construct their own meanings. Subjects watched a short animated film with shapes moving around a blank background, and then asked them what they saw. The psychologists found that the vast majority saw characters with emotions and agendas, conflict, plot, and resolution. They saw a story. Or rather, they created their own.

In the words of Jonathan Gottschall, “humans are storytelling animals”.

“The storytelling mind is allergic to uncertainty, randomness, and coincidence. It is addicted to meaning. If the storytelling mind cannot find meaningful patterns in the world, it will try to impose them. In short, the storytelling mind is a factory that churns out true stories when it can, but will manufacture lies when it can’t.”

Stories are also how we think about ourselves.

The theory of narrative identity suggests that individuals form an identity by integrating their life experiences into an internalised, evolving story of the self that provides the individual with a sense of unity and purpose in life.

We have been telling stories ever since we can remember. As such we are hard-wired to understand, remember and be influenced and moved by stories better than quantitative data. This has important implications for social marketing.

The Identifiable Victim Effect

The identifiable victim effect describes the likelihood that we feel greater empathy, and an urge to help, in situations where tragedies are about a specific, identifiable individual, compared to situations where the victims are a larger, vaguer group of people.

As described by The Decision Lab, imagine coming across the following two stories when browsing a news website:

Children all deserve basic human needs and a happy healthy life. However, this is not the case for many young children across Africa. Over 26 million children are struggling because of starvation, causing them to be in chronic pain and to be emotionally and physically stunted. Your help is needed to overcome this tragic situation. Make a donation today.

Children all deserve basic human needs and a happy healthy life. However, this is not the case for Jimmy Kimathi. Jimmy is only 12 years old and struggles because of starvation. He has difficulty concentrating in school and doesn’t look like the rest of his classmates because of stunted growth. Jimmy needs your help to overcome his tragic situation. Make a donation today.

According to the identifiable victim effect, we are more likely to be motivated to help Jimmy, a single individual who is starving, than the 26 million children who we read about in the first story. Although the suffering is greater in the first story, our emotions are triggered by Jimmy’s story, causing us to be more likely to offer help.

For example, in a study researchers tested two variations of a brochure for the Save the Children charity organisation. The story-based version outperformed the infographic version by $2.38 to $1.14 in terms of per participant donations. Various statistics on the plight of African children were far less persuasive than the story of Rokia, a seven-year-old from Mali, Africa.

Behaviour change research has also shown that a story can elicit our imagination, empathy and trigger altruistic behaviours, improve students’ performance, and encourage health behaviours.

When stories are combined with narratives that invite our audience to participate (e.g., interactivity, role-playing) they can have a strong immersive power.

Besides making sense of our actions and the world around us, we need purpose: a clear sense of direction in our lives and the ends toward which we are striving. When we have no purpose, we have a sense of aimlessness, and nothing in the future seems important.

In a controlled experiment designed to study the importance of meaning in the context of work, Ariely asked participants to build characters from Lego’s Bionicles series. In both conditions, participants were paid decreasing amounts for each subsequent Bionicle: $3 for the first one, $2.70 for the next one, and so on. But while one group’s creations were stored under the table, to be disassembled at the end of the experiment, the other group’s Bionicles were disassembled as soon as they’d been built. As Ariely put it “This was an endless cycle of them building and we destroying in front of their eyes".The first group made 11 Bionicles, on average, while the second group made only seven before they quit. Even though there wasn’t huge meaning at stake, and even though the first group knew their work would be destroyed at the end of the experiment, seeing the results of their labor for even a short time was enough to dramatically improve performance.

Purpose is fuelled by having worthy high-level or “be goals” (e.g., being a good parent, being honest) that are central to one’s identity and reflective of one’s core values. While we may never fully attain those goals, they will generate and motivate pursuit of more concrete goals below them, which give rise to even more concrete everyday goals. Research suggests that goal pursuit will lead to well-being if those goals are congruent with our core values. 

Several behaviour change solutions are now seeking to simplify the process of defining one’s purpose in life.

For example, the mobile app Purposeful is designed to keep people more connected and focused on what matters most in their lives and at work by connecting that purpose to daily actions.

Purposeful app

However, we do not want to think that our lives are merely important to us; rather we hope that there is some profound and lasting importance to our lives: we want to matter. 

Noble Cause

Mattering refers to people’s need to feel their existence is significant, important, and of value to the world. We need to feel we are part of something bigger than ourselves.

Psychologists George and Park suggest that people adopt several attention allocation and biased information processing strategies to preserve their sense of mattering. These include overestimating the uniqueness of our lives, underestimating the likelihood that our spouse can be just as happy with numerous other potential partners, or directing attention away from information that shows that our actions have limited impact in the world.  

Consider the famous story of a NASA janitor:

During a visit to the NASA space center in 1962, President John F. Kennedy noticed a janitor carrying a broom. He interrupted his tour, walked over to the man and said, "Hi, I'm Jack Kennedy. What are you doing?"

"Well, Mr. President," the janitor responded, "I'm helping put a man on the moon."

To most people, this janitor was just cleaning the building. But in the more epic and larger story unfolding around him, he was helping to make history.

This story shows us how a feeling of mattering resides in our minds. But design, marketing and employee engagement strategies can help close the Action-Impact gap. Companies can better communicate and show the impact employee’s actions and customer’s purchasing choice have on others, and the world.

Can designers inject meaning into experiences that are not inherently meaningful ?

Consider Forest app and Alipay’s gameful program Ant Forest. Both connect mundane actions - stay focused on your work and do transactions respectively- with planting trees in the real world (Alipay Ant Forest users can see satellite images of their trees in real-time.). Over 100 million real trees have been planted by Ant Forest users.

Ant Forest, Alipay

Similarly Charity Miles lets you turn a neighbourhood jog or weekend hike into a fundraiser for good. 

As Frankls put it, meaning is a “primary motivational force in man.” So, what’s the “Why” behind your product, service, or experience? 

Don’t stop at the first answer. Keep asking.

Related Tactics


Provide information and experiences in a structured format that connects events, actions, and outcomes to create meaningful context and enhance users' understanding and engagement.

British Airways “Ticket to Visit Mum” campaign tells the story of one mother and her son, capturing the hearts of everyone living away from home.


Identifiable Victim effect

Focus on one person (the victim) and her/his story, rather than vaguely defined groups to encourage empathy and increase support (e.g., donations)

A study has found that a story-based brochure for Save the Children outperformed the infographic version by $2.38 to $1.14 in terms of per participant donations.


Noble cause

Implicitly or explicitly align  desired behaviors, goals, or achievement with a noble cause or higher purpose, inspiring users to contribute to something greater than themselves.

Forest App has paired a mundane activity (keep focused) with a worthy cause: reforestation.


Further Readings

Meaningfulness as Satisfaction of Autonomy, Competence, Relatedness, and Beneficence: Comparing the Four Satisfactions and Positive Affect as Predictors of Meaning in Life

Journal of Happiness Studies | Frank Martela et al.

Motivation, meaning, and wellness: A self-determination perspective on the creation and internalization of personal meaning and life goals

The human quest for meaning | N. Weinstein et al.

Man’s search for meaning: The case of Legos

Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization | Dan Ariely et al.

Meaning in Life as Comprehension, Purpose, and Mattering: Toward Integration and New Research Questions

Review of General Psychology | George and Park


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