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Heartwired Stories: Relationship Therapy for a Divided America

If America were a couple, it would seem like we are headed for divorce court. It can feel impossible to get a majority of Americans to agree on anything. Recent Pew Research Center polling shows that Americans are intensely divided along partisan lines.

This divide is reflected not just in which political candidates we support, but also across a range of social issues, including our deeply-held attitudes about issues like abortion, gun safety, and climate change.

Is it possible to advance positive and lasting social change in the face of seemingly unmovable audiences and intense political opposition? As research and communications geeks with real-world experience generating change on some of the toughest issues facing our nation, we believe the answer is yes.

This answer lies in telling heartwired stories, which it turns out is like relationship therapy for a divided America.

What are Heartwired Stories?

By now, many change-makers have likely heard a sermon extolling the virtue of storytelling as a tool for social change. Indeed, stories are uniquely powerful in shaping hearts and minds.

However, those stories that have actually succeeded in changing attitudes and influencing behaviors reflect an understanding of how a target audience is heartwired — the mind circuits and connections that tie together their emotions, identity, values, beliefs and lived experiences.

Consider the dramatic changes in Americans’ attitudes regarding the freedom to marry for same-sex couples. By the end of 2008, opponents of marriage for same-sex couples had a string of over 30 victories at the ballot box.

Beginning in 2009, Amy Simon and a team of researchers and advocates undertook extensive qualitative and quantitative research, seeking pathways to reverse the string of losses at the ballot box. As The Atlantic Monthly noted, Simon and colleagues began to see the deep conflict that many voters experienced about the issue:

Simon’s sessions could be wrenching. A participant in one focus group had been screened as a soft opponent of gay marriage, yet she spent half an hour sounding very supportive. She talked enthusiastically about her affection for the gay people in her daily life, including gay coworkers and a lesbian sister-in-law. “Finally, I said to her, ‘When we called you, you said you were undecided or leaning against [gay marriage]. Did we make a mistake?’” Simon recalled. “She looked at me and she stopped, and she said, ‘No, no, no.’ Then she started crying, and she said, ‘I want to be for this. But I’m afraid I’m going to burn in hell.’”

This woman’s identity as a Christian, and her beliefs about salvation and marriage as a religious covenant between a man and a woman, led her to oppose marriage for same-sex couples. However, her lived experience of caring deeply for her lesbian sister-in-law and close gay and lesbian friends provided a powerful motivation to want to do right by them.

The ability to make progress on a tough social issue requires an understanding of just how a target audience is heartwired to think, feel and respond on your issue. This insight enables you to see the range of possibilities for crafting stories that can rewire those circuits and connections among those audiences.

Messaging Sledgehammer

The 2003 ruling from the Massachusetts State Supreme Court, which granted equal marriage rights to same-sex couples for the first time in the U.S., whipped up a frenzy of opposition from cultural conservatives. In 2004 and 2006, voters in 21 states approved ballot measures banning the freedom to marry by wide margins — often by 40 percentage points or more.

It was at this time in 2004 that a group of foundations that fund lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) causes came together to form the Civil Marriage Collaborative. They recognized that legal victories — like the Massachusetts decision — would be short-lived if the movement could not defend them at the ballot box.

Together, these leaders developed the 10/10/10/20 vision — a plan to move the nation to a tipping point on marriage within 20 years by securing marriage equality in 10 states, civil unions in 10 states, some form of legal relationship recognition in 10 states, and at least some pro-equality organizing in the remaining 20 states.

This vision was a critical moment for the movement. It gave funders and advocates an explicit focus on proactive, state-based work. However, they still lacked a critical understanding of people’s attitudes and how to shift them.

After heartbreaking losses in California in 2008 and Maine in 2009 in which voters passed bans against marriage for same-sex couples, the movement began to invest in a new research approach to genuinely understand what was going on inside people’s hearts and heads as they voted on this issue.

A Flawed Mental Template about Gay and Lesbian People

The research allowed us to map the flawed mental templates that our audiences held about gay and lesbian people and same-sex relationships.

As our wise (and frequent) collaborator, Dr. Phyllis Watts, has helped us to understand, a mental template is a set of images and associations that people have with something — or someone — they encounter in the world. It unconsciously impacts their emotional reactions to others.

Among our target audiences, many thought same-sex relationships were based on sex, unlike heterosexual relationships, which people felt were based on love, family, and commitment. Many people in focus groups asked the question: “Why do gay people want to get married anyway?” While the answer might seem obvious, it wasn’t to many in our target audience.

We learned through research that people believed straight people get married for a variety of reasons including love, but also to start a family and meet the expectations of their parents. However, many saw gay people as disconnected from their families. They believed that gay people came out, moved away, and left their families behind, or that their families rejected them. They didn’t think about gay couples starting families of their own. For all of these reasons, it would seem that civil unions would meet any needs of gay couples for legal rights. Therefore, they saw no compelling reason for them to get married.

With a deeper understanding of the audience mindset, state advocates began telling heartwired stories in 2011 and 2012 to shift how voters related to gay people and how they thought about equal marriage rights, and to start to disrupt those problematic flawed mental templates.

Winning the Freedom to Marry: A Tale of Two Ads

To show you heartwired stories in action, here are two ads: from before and after the deep research had been done.

This first ad comes from California in 2008 features a politician and takes a fact-based approach, talking about rights and discrimination.

Sen. Feinstein from Heartwired on Vimeo.

The Gardner Family from Heartwired on Vimeo.

This second ad is from Maine in 2012 after the new message frameworks had been put to work in our communications.

This heartwired story — which features Maine grandparents talking about why they want their lesbian granddaughter to be able to get married legally — situates gay people within their families. The grandparents expressed values about love, commitment, and marriage that mirrored values held by our target audience. It enabled identification with a range of messengers in the ad. It connected emotionally through a shared lived experience of eating a family meal together.

In the Maine ad, we helped shift people’s beliefs in key ways, including their beliefs that gay people were disconnected from family and didn’t truly value marriage. The new stories really helped to shift people’s perception of gay and lesbian people and to answer their genuine question about why they wanted to marry.

In November 2012, after more than 30 losses at the ballot box, voters in 4 states — Maine, Maryland, Minnesota and Washington — all voted for the freedom to marry. Many believe the culture shift on this issue also demonstrated to at least five of the nine Supreme Court justices that public opinion had moved far enough in support of the freedom to marry to issue their landmark decision legalizing equal marriage rights nationwide on June 26, 2015.

Applying the Heartwired Approach to Other Tough Issues

With generous support from the David and Lucile Packard Foundation, we chronicled this approach to research and messaging in a new strategy guide for change-makers called Heartwired: Human Behavior, Strategic Opinion Research and the Audacious Pursuit of Social Change.

The guide includes many examples of how a heartwired understanding has been used to accelerate change on other issues — like making medical aid-in-dying a legal option for terminally ill people or navigating the dynamics of race in an effort to advance the health and success of young men of color.

In these case studies, advocates were able to use research to understand how to tell heartwired stories — narratives that helped to bring people together on issues that have divided Americans. That’s because heartwired stories are like narrative therapy — helping our audiences replace a problem narrative with an alternative story that still aligns with their beliefs, values and identity.

If your issue is stuck and public support has plateaued or is even shrinking, perhaps it’s time to discover how to tell your own heartwired stories.

Download your own free copy of Heartwired at

Robert Pérez is founder and chief exploration officer at Wonder: Strategies for Good

Amy Simon is a founding partner at Goodwin Simon Strategic Research


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